Would you like to hear my life story?
I’m guessing your immediate reaction to that question was “oh hell no.”
Why? Because life is boring. Even the most exciting people spend a third of their lives sleeping and another third at work. More importantly, there’s no real point (my apologies to everyone who believes we each have a special purpose…). My life story, even if I tried to tell it well, would be a series of semi-interesting vignettes that add up to very little.
But what if I ask: Would you like to hear how I gave up everything I owned, backpacked around America for a year, and changed my life in the process?
Slightly more intriguing, right? It’s a true story, but it’s not my entire life—just one of the more interesting vignettes.
Writing a personal story can be tricky. How do you decide what to tell, and what to leave out? How do you keep your audience enthralled, when the truth isn’t always glamorous or spellbinding?
How do you craft a tale that is as true as it is compelling, as inspiring as it is informative… and never puts readers to sleep?
It’s the greatest challenge of writing a memoir: finding the story within a life story. Yet recently, as we’ve been working with authors to craft their book blueprints, we’ve found ourselves turning again and again to the same tool: the Hero’s Journey. The more I apply this storytelling framework to memoirs, the more value I find in it.
My recommendation to you: don’t write your life story. Write your Hero’s Journey.
Why the Hero’s Journey applies to your memoir
As any student of literature knows, the Hero’s Journey is not at all new—in fact, it’s probably the longest-lived storytelling model our culture has. For as long as we’ve had stories, we’ve had heroes going on journeys, learning lessons,battling their demons, and bringing home the rewards. It’s as simple as that, and yet, almost every story you read or watch is in some way based on this time-honored framework. Something about it just never gets old, not even after hundreds of years (and thousands of stories).
The Hero’s Journey is timeless, because it is an uncannily faithful mirror of the actual human process of self-discovery and achievement. In other words, it works because it’s based on how we learn, grow, and achieve new things. It’s the universal human story—and it’s your story, too.
If you have any questions about how the Hero’s Journey works, take the time to do a little basic research; right now, I’m going to jump forward and look at how to apply this to memoir.
How to plot your personal Hero’s Journey
Almost every story of human discovery and development will fit into this framework. The trick is figuring out how. If you’re not yet sure, try starting at the finish line: the “return” with the “gift of the goddess”—in other words, the wisdom or tools to change someone’s life, including your own.
An example: we recently worked with a client who created a nationally recognized charity that has changed thousands of lives in a meaningful way. That’s the achievement—the happy ending of her story.
How did she get there? That’s what the rest of the story will explain. Everything that goes into her book must get her closer to that goal.
That means we won’t bother detailing her childhood, or even the story of her family. The beginning of her story is not the beginning of her life. So where does it start?
After you determine what the ending will be, then you need to find the beginning. The Hero’s Journey pinpoints this nicely: it’s the moment when you felt a “call to adventure.” This could be a literal phone call that woke you up to something you needed to do, but more often it’s a sneaking feeling that something needs to change. This is how it started for our client: she knew she wanted something more out of life, but had no idea where to find it.
This existential malaise—the tug on the heart strings—is what sends normal people like you and me off onto grand adventures. Sometimes we wake up suddenly, when some piece of our life falls apart and we realize that nothing was as it seemed. Sometimes we are thrust into action by our circumstances. Often, we go looking for adventure all on our own.
Once you understand where the story begins, and where it is headed, the Hero’s Journey is a matter of architecture—simply designing your book blueprint around a compelling plot rhythm.
Once you’ve crossed the “threshold” into self-discovery, you’ve got until about the halfway point of the book to uncover the problems, meet your mentors and gain experience; then, halfway through the book, you face the real problem and battle your demons. This is often the low point of the book: our hero loses hope, but gains wisdom. And then it’s time to make the trek back home, so you can apply your new understanding of the problem, and finally solve it for good. Therefore, the second half of the book is a series of gradual victories and setbacks, until finally you return victorious, changed, and ready to fulfill your true purpose.
I won’t spoil our client’s book for you with all these details, but if you’re wondering how even an ambitious person goes from “something needs to change” to creating real change that affects a huge number of people…talk to me in a year and I’ll tell you where to buy the book. It’s a doozy.
Of course, by next year, I hope you’ll have written your own Hero’s Journey memoir: the story of how you took a risk, ventured outside of your safe zone, learned something important, and brought it back to share with others.
We all have this story in our lives, and some of us have it several times over. What heroic experiences have you lived? What stories can you tell?