Memoir as a Hero’s Journey: Character Arc and Homecoming

by Jerry Waxler

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In the beginning of the memoir Freeways to Flipflops, Sonia Marsh portrays a middle-class life in southern California. On the surface, this family seems ordinary and comfortable. But underneath the glossy exterior, trouble is brewing. Her teenage son is veering out of control, introducing a corrosive force that threatens to destroy their stability.

These problems force Marsh to consider making a huge change, but she isn’t sure what. One day a visiting plumber asks, “Have you thought about moving to Belize?” The question grows into a possibility, and then into a plan.

In the parlance of the Hero’s Journey, the plumber is a messenger, and the family answers the Call to Adventure. They leave the Ordinary World and move to Central America where they enter the World of the Adventure.

In this foreign land, the family encounters discomfort, inconvenience, edgy neighbors, and money problems. They valiantly press forward, finding schools for the kids and trying to make friends. But as fast as they solve one problem, new ones arise. Enemies turn against them, backstabbing and shunning them, and finally sabotaging their boat. This world grows increasingly dangerous and harsh. In the end, they can’t stomach the adventure anymore and retreat home to Los Angeles.

Heroes often return home at the end of the story. Ulysses famously returns to his home in Ithaca after fighting in the Trojan War, and Dorothy returns home at the end of Wizard of Oz. The return home at the end of an adventure is so important there’s a Greek name for it: Nostoi. With the hero back home, the reader can close the book, satisfied that the story has reached closure. “Ah. Loose ends are tied up. The adventure made sense. I can return to my life.”

The fact that the Hero returns to the same geographic location highlights the fact that the most important transformation takes place in the Hero’s character. Before Dorothy is permitted to leave the Land of Oz, she must assertively confront the wizard. Once she finds her own courage, the door opens and she can return. The development of the character from the beginning of the story to the end is called Character Arc, and it expresses our culture’s deep faith in the possibility that we can grow over time.

Freeways to Flipflops provides a perfect example of this inner development. Externally, Sonia’s family needs to figure out where to find the boat that will take them shopping, where to buy cool birthday presents for the kids, and how to make money. Internally, they are trying to grow emotionally, and reclaim their emotional health. As they struggle through the outer events of their adventure, they are forced to view the world in new ways. Resolving their outer hardship forces them to solve their psychological challenges.

Adapting to this harsh environment has the same effect on the family as a wilderness drug rehab has on addicts. Marsh’s son realizes his parents and siblings are allies, and he rallies around the needs of the clan. In doing so, he learns that the entire world does not revolve around his desires. By the end of the book, he reorients his priorities in a more compassionate, socially responsible way. Dad’s character also develops through the course of the journey. Separation from the corporate grind helps him break out of his career stalemate. And even though Mom started this mission in order to help her family, by the end, she has grown too. No longer limited to acting inside the home, she has become an entrepreneur. And as a bonus, Sonia’s family experienced life outside the boundaries of the United States, an international perspective she had hoped to share with them.

The homecoming at the end of Freeways to Flipflops contains an important twist that adds energy and mystery to the story. If the only goal of the family’s move had been to stay in Belize, the whole adventure would have been a flop*. But settling into permanent life in Belize was only one of the family’s goals. A much more urgent goal was to resolve their family problems, and get their son back on track. From that point of view, they succeeded. Like Dorothy who was allowed to return home after she found the courage to confront the wizard, Sonia Marsh’s family was permitted to return home after the family achieved a new degree of maturity.

In the end of the classic Hero’s Journey, the hero brings back insights and wisdom to the community. Sonia Marsh’s memoir has achieved this heroic goal. By telling us her story about life in the Land of the Adventure, she lets us experience and learn from her lessons without leaving our chairs. And the greatest lesson Sonia Marsh offers aspiring memoir writers…? Messy experiences can be translated into tight, integrated, well constructed stories.

*The paradoxical nature of the family’s journey, turning defeat into victory, literally “flipped the flop,” offering a sneaky double-entendre of the title. Aren’t words amazing?

In Part 2 of this essay, I’ll offer examples of the Hero’s Journey model peeking through the seams of memoirs.

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)


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Conflict with Parent Fleshes in Authentic Character

by Jerry Waxler

When we look at the flaws in Andre Agassi’s character, as described in his memoir “Open,” it’s easy to see echoes of the tension between him and his father. From earliest childhood, Agassi’s father was obsessed with turning the boy into a tennis champion. At first his father looked like a tyrant, forcing the boy to hit a million balls a year. What kind of man would treat his son that way? In fact, Agassi goes on to explain his father’s thinking. One reason the book impressed me so much is because Agassi never asked me to hate his father. The memoir showed the characters and let me make up my own mind.

Agassi internalizes these demands, and feels enormous internal pressure to live up to his father’s unreasonable expectations. But simply following his father’s dreams starts to tear him apart. He wants to find his own goals. The journey of the memoir is about his self-discovery. The conflict keeps him striving and keeps me turning pages to learn how he would cope with it.

Agassi’s parental pressure turns up in a surprising number of ways. Both of his wives, Brooke Shields and Steffi Graf, were driven by high pressure, star-maker parents. When Agassi’s father meets Graf’s father the two highly competitive men almost come to blows. On the opposite extreme, Agassi’s friend and ghostwriter J.R. Moehringer grew up with no father. Moehringer wrote about this fatherless childhood in his memoir “Tender Bar.” Obviously Agassi has a lot going on in the parent department.

The tension I experienced with my ordinary father

This in-depth look at Agassi’s relationship with his father made me want to run back to take another look at my own. My father, a second generation immigrant, spent all his time tending his drugstore. I felt invisible and to gain his attention spent more and more time working at the drugstore. After I moved away from home, I continued to try to become the kind of boy he would notice.

Now that I have been working on my memoir for several years, I have a number of scenes that portray my involvement with him, and now, to learn more about our relationship I can read my own book. To my surprise, I find many instances when he offered himself to me in kindness and support. Even though I knew the facts, I had overlooked them for all these years. He did notice me. Now, I own that observation whether or not the scenes actually reach a published memoir.

Memoir writers and their parents

One of the most common complaints I hear in a memoir workshop is about the difficulty of writing honest feelings about parents. I encourage writers to push through their reluctance. Writing about them will reveal the relationships in new ways. Even if this material does not appear within the frame of your proposed story, you may find a wealth of material that can help you flesh in your own character, and sharpen your understanding of the conflicts that drive you later in life.

When you review your life, you may encounter things one or both parents wanted you to do. You have your own feelings about how these desires played out. You may have wished you lived up to their dreams, or resented that you followed theirs instead of finding your own. A memoir is a perfect place to explore these introspective topics, and even if you never intend to publish it, your family conflicts may help you discover your own organizing principles. After all, these were the people responsible for molding you. You can learn a great deal about yourself by seeing the conflicts with them unfold on paper.

Writing Prompt
Write scenes with your parents. Write about an argument, a missed dream, a desire for harmony. What did your parents want from you that you couldn’t deliver? Write a scene of rapprochement, or of reproach. Write about the first time you realized they might have inner or outer tension with their own parents, and then write what you know about those tensions. By recognizing the splits and paradoxes in your relationship with your parents, you can flesh in a more compelling portrayal of them as well as yourself.


This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.”

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This celebrity has flaws. How about you?

by Jerry Waxler

Despite Andre Agassi’s fame, his memoir “Open” takes you on a real emotional ride worthy of any excellent story. In this multi-part essay, I look for lessons in the book that can help me learn about the structure of a memoir.

Every protagonist needs emotional flaws

Agassi became the best tennis player in the world, but it was never enough. Even with his money, his fame, and his supermodel wife, his dissatisfaction always left him sour. Talk about ungrateful! This guy was beginning to sound like a real jerk.

While genre fiction typically sets the protagonist against an external villain, in memoirs the enemy often lies within. Agassi’s disaffection with his first wife, the relentless pressure to win, and other internal battles created increasing agitation. He slipped close to the edge of an emotional abyss. His attitude became so bad he didn’t see any harm in a little crystal meth, a self-destructive choice for anyone. But with all the strict regulations in tennis, the move could have devastated his career. Surprisingly, Agassi’s revelation of flawed choices, rather than alienating me, drew me closer to him, letting me care not just about his career, but about a complete person.

Writing Prompt

Write a scene that showed you behaving poorly. Such scenes may be dark, but you don’t need to be stuck there. The power of memoir writing comes from the complete picture, including the whole gamut of your experience. Write a scene in which someone, whether a stranger or a friend reached out to help you. Write another scene that shows your courage, your self-awareness, and your progress. These lows and highs give your reader a real person to relate to, on a more authentic level than if you pretend you have always been perfect.

Write about taboo behavior

Andre Agassi’s behavior crossed a taboo. He took drugs while playing professional sports and then lied about it. Some people will never forgive him, and yet he revealed the behavior anyway. There are other taboo subjects like child abuse or other forms of cruelty that your audience will not be disposed to forgive. One way you could explore the topics is through fiction. Having said that, we live in a time when taboos are breaking down all the time. Brooke Shields’ memoir “Down Came the Rain” is a fascinating example. The social expectation for all mothers to love their babies has created a wall of silence around postpartum depression. Shields leveraged her stardom along with the self-reflective mood of our times to bring this crucial mental health issue into the open.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

The Protagonist of a Memoir Must have a Goal and Obstacles

by Jerry Waxler

A fundamental element in every story is the reader’s identification with the protagonist. This protagonist doesn’t just stand there. He or she wants something and then moves toward it, while readers turn pages, eager to overcome the obstacles. In Andre Agassi’s “Open” the pressure to push against obstacles generates enormous tension that makes the story move like a novel.

Identify the Protagonist’s “True Goal”

Andre Agassi obviously wanted to succeed at tennis. Or at least that was what his father wanted him to do. Even while Agassi was winning matches, inside himself, he felt lost. Over the course of the book, he discovered another set of goals. These were not the ones his father had imposed on him – fame and wealth through tennis – but the ones that came from his own heart. Until he discovered his passion for helping kids, his path was murky. In fact, this is one reason why the book felt so profoundly satisfying. His search was not simply to achieve his goal. First he had to find it.

Writing Prompt
To find the essence of your own story, identify the desires that drove you. This can be even more intriguing when you explore the way your goals changed over the years. List or describe the things you wanted when you were twenty. Make another list for what you wanted ten or twenty years later. Compare the lists. What changed? Write a paragraph or a page describing the evolution of your desires.

This celebrity’s inner obstacles were just as interesting as his outer ones

As a tennis player, each serve and volley was crucial. Agassi compared tennis to boxing, but much lonelier since tennis players never even touch each other. The image was apt as I could imagine him grunting, sweating, and struggling to fight off the blows from his opponent and land some of his own. Agassi describes many critical wins and losses, providing fascinating external drama.

But the heart of his story took place inside him. Even as he was becoming famous, he continued to feel confused and rebellious, creating a reputation as a bad boy. Hired to act in a television commercial, the director told him to say “Image is Everything.” Even though the motto was intended to sell cameras, his critics and fans jumped on the phrase, twisting the words that came out of his own mouth into a confession that he was in fact shallow and self-involved. Now, he had to fend off insinuations that he had no inner life. The media and fans made him their own creature, someone they could shape, since he obviously was having trouble shaping himself.

This pressure between his inner struggle to define himself and the outer pressure of the media to define him creates one of the most insightful portrayals of the celebrity culture I have ever seen. It is also evidence that a passionate memoir writer can delve into the facts of life and go deeper and deeper until he discovers authentic, unique, interesting dramatic tension.

Writing Prompt
Your own obstacles will be an important component of your story. Some of the outer ones will be easy to spot. You didn’t have enough money, or you lost a parent. Write one or more scenes, portraying how you overcome external obstacles.

In addition, to describing the things outside yourself, look within and describe inner problems. Perhaps you violated your own principles, or tried to please the wrong people, or perhaps there were things you only realized you wanted after the failure of your first round of desires. Write a scene that shows a moral or psychological dilemma. What emotions or beliefs got in your way? Continue to the next development. How did you overcome the obstacle?

This is part 2 of an article about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.”  In Part 1, I pointed out that a memoir can be great even if it’s by a celebrity. In the next part of my search for the techniques that make the memoir work, I will look at the emotional flaws in the character, and conflicts with other characters.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

When is a memoir by a celebrity not a celebrity memoir?

By Jerry Waxler

Andre Agassi was one of the greatest tennis players of all time, and he was married to supermodel Brooke Shields. So it would be natural to expect his memoir, “Open,” to be just another celebrity memoir, taking a free ride on his household name. But the book was not a vapid look at the privileged life of a star. Instead the tennis player and his ghost-writer J.R. Moehringer, author of the memoir “Tender Bar,” converted a lifetime into a good story, filled with emotional insight.

The memoir had much in common with a good novel. It developed characters, built suspense and guided me through the protagonist’s emotional experience. The author found the prize all aspiring memoirists seek. Like a quest for the holy grail, he located the organizing principle that allowed him to collect his experiences into a readable whole.

Each of us must describe our own unique path, but after reading more than a hundred memoirs, I find that memoirs are driven by fundamental principles. Like any story, memoirs require  dramatic tension and story arc. But many people, especially those who fear their lives are not important enough to write about, make the mistake of thinking that all the action takes place on the outside, with flashy characters and big scenes.

I find that memorable memoirs use the external events as a shell. The heart of the story takes place on a more interior level. When I read a memoir, I want to gain a deeper understanding of what drove the protagonist through those events. What inner flaws made the journey more difficult and how did the author overcome those inner obstacles?  “Open” is a world-class example of the author’s inner journey, making the book not only a good read but also an instructive one, offering valuable insights into what makes a memoir tick.

This is the first part of a multi-part review of Andre Agassi’s “Open.” In the next entry I will pick apart the elements and suggest ways “Open” can help you write your own memoir.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.