If you’re attempting the brave (and difficult!) feat of writing a true story based on your unique experiences, you’re probably overwhelmed by the options of where and how you could start.
Whether you’re writing a classic memoir, a self-help memoir, a memoir hybrid (such as a memoir/biography), or any other non-fiction which includes your personal story, knowing where to begin – and what goes in the middle – and the end! Is most probably your biggest difficulty.
Perhaps you’ve sat down and written few thousand words in a flurry of inspiration – you had a unique experience and lots of people told you that it would make a great book.
Or perhaps you’re a coach, an expert, or a leader in your field in some way, and you want to share your personal story as a way to TEACH people what you’ve learnt (through grit and pain!).
Whatever your reason for sharing your personal story, what probably stops you in your tracks is reaching that part of the story where you just don’t know where to go next.
What do you include? How do you clearly take the reader on a journey from X to Y and only include what’s relevant in those middle pages?
I know what this is like. You want to do a great job with your incredible story, and you want to make the most of your enthusiasm to get the draft written but it’s like walking through a bush track with no torch, map or guide – you can only hope to get to the top.
When I sat down to write Love & Other U-Turns, I had this high-level concept for what I wanted to convey (ideas of freedom, and possibility, and travel, and adventure) but even as a seasoned writer (I’d been publishing articles and essays for years by then) I had immense difficulty seeing how to turn such a philosophical, personal concept (and my experiences) into a well-formed narrative.
This was really frustrating because each time I’d sit down to write – I’d pour experiences and thoughts and explanations down, without any idea if i was on track to a workable draft. And eventually – I had to throw almost all of that draft away (well, 70 000 words of about 120 000 words) because it didn’t follow a clear story trajectory.
Enter the hero’s journey methodology
When I started to read about the Three Act Story Structure and the stages of the Hero’s Journey, things started to make sense.
It was like I’d been given a lamp and a torch for the writing journey through the fog and the blackness of wading through memories and possible roads (stories I could include or not include) and everything in between.
The Three Act Story Structure is traditionally used by scriptwriters, for everything from short two minute ads to feature films. But when you add the Hero’s Journey – particularly for memoir, which is a personal story – it gives you a really useful container to place and measure your memories.
Why the hero’s journey is so useful for memoir
I love the Hero’s Journey story structure – and I think for memoir, particularly, it works so well because it’s a way of turning any human experience into an archetypal story that will resonate with the widest audience possible. While there’s loads of different specific ways to look at the Hero’s Journey (first coined by Joseph Campbell), and even Maureen Murdock, who expanded upon Campbell’s work with The Heroine’s Journey, I like to keep it simple.
Twelve steps, three stages, key archetypes, and the narrator is always the Hero.
Some people say the Hero’s Journey is too masculine, but I completely disagree. In memoir, particularly, the ‘villain’ archetype is very often the shadow part of the self, so the battle may be internal.
When I sat down to write A Letter From Paris, I didn’t want to go through that agonising first draft confusion where I wouldn’t know if the thousands of words I was writing would be worth the agony (or even useable!), so I wrote myself a guidebook using a comparative memoir that was clearly structured along the lines of the Hero’s Journey: WILD by Cheryl Strayed.
I sat down with Strayed’s beautiful book and studied every chapter and every scene, relating key plot points to certain stages of the 12-stage hero’s journey.
Memoirs that use the Hero’s Journey
Sometimes called the “Quest” structure, memoirs which tell a personal narrative along the twelve stages (and key archetypes) of the hero’s journey are WILD by Cheryl Strayed, UNBOUND by Steph Jagger, Inheritance by Dani Shapiro, Almost French by Sarah Turnbull, Educated by Tara Westover and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’m sure there are many, many more, but these are the ones that I’ve noticed obviously use certain symbols and patterns particular to the 12-stage journey structure. And these are the ones beside me on my bookshelf!
Why is the Hero’s Journey so useful for memoir?
Writing a memoir is in itself a giant quest – you’re embarking on this twelve stage journey just by sitting down to process and articulate something that’s happened and apply it to a wide range of people from all walks and backgrounds. The steps involved in writing a book are akin to the hero’s journey, too, which Christopher Vogler explains so well in his tome, The Writer’s Journey.
But the real reason I find The Hero’s Journey such a wonderful structure for writing your memoir draft – even you’re writing a self-help or a business book or some other type of non-fiction where you need to weave in personal story – is that it gives you a framework with which to tell your story. So you don’t have to keep wandering along writing what comes into your head – you have a clear map to tell you if you’ve hit the right spots.
And it’s an empowering one!
The ultimate ‘goal’ of the hero in the 12-stage journey is wholeness, integration, transformation and completion. It’s a story of latent and then fulfilled potential. If you’ve any interest in self-development or what began with Maslow’s ideas of human potential (and what it takes to fulfil our potential), you’ll understand how this mythic structure is a great way to re-frame our lives and our experiences.
So by analysing your story from the perspective of the hero’s journey – helps you see that no matter what ‘stage’ you’re at, you could be en-route to wholeness. It’s about the symbolism of the event – not the event itself. Same with the person, or the behaviour.
It’s a very empowering frame to come at when you write your book. Particularly with memoir, where you’re often grappling with hard experiences or buried and painful and perhaps traumatic memories, seeing your life from the viewpoint of a mythic and eternal story – helps you also see yourself as an archetypal hero, not a victim.
Above all, be the heroine of your life, not a victim
Why the hero’s journey gives you freedom and simplicity with your story
You could keep going with your writing the way you’re going now. Writing when you feel inspired – taking different tangents and paths from whimsy. But ultimately you need to compose your non-fiction according to a compelling story structure. When I used the hero’s journey structure for A Letter From Paris (after writing my own set of ‘rules’ from how Strayed did it in WILD) I had that first draft down in less than three months. Incredible! This was a story I had needed to write my entire life – to have a sense of completion for something so deep and important in such a short space of time was more than liberating.
It completely changed my viewpoint on what is possible for writers!
This is why I’m so passionate about using the Hero’s Journey in my 90 Day Memoir program and also in my journaling program. It works. It’s empowering. It will save you time and confusion and overwhelm and agony. It will help your story appeal to as wide an audience as possible (it’s based on archetype and collective beliefs and myth and magic, not arbitrary and location-specific details!).
And it’s as ancient as storytelling itself. Why not try to apply your story to the framework of the Hero’s Journey?
Once you learn the 12 key stages of the hero’s journey – you’ll start to see the metaphors and symbolism in stories everywhere!
Download my free guide with a summary of the 12 stages of the hero’s journey and how you can use them in storytelling via the link below!