Crafting Memoir: How to Outline Your Own Hero's Journey | Tammy Letherer | Skillshare

Crafting Memoir: How to Outline Your Own Hero's Journey

Tammy Letherer, Author and Writing Coach

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15 Lessons (30m)
    • 1. Introduction

      2:58
    • 2. Why You Qualify as a Hero

      2:25
    • 3. The Most Common Mistakes Memoir Writers Make

      3:06
    • 4. The Ordinary World

      3:06
    • 5. Call to Adventure

      2:10
    • 6. Refusing the Call

      2:25
    • 7. Meeting the Mentor

      2:03
    • 8. Crossing the First Threshold

      1:17
    • 9. Tests, Allies, and Enemies

      1:24
    • 10. Approach to the Inmost Cave

      2:12
    • 11. The Ordeal

      1:55
    • 12. Seizing the Sword

      1:18
    • 13. The Road Back

      1:30
    • 14. Resurrection

      1:03
    • 15. Return with the Elixir

      1:17

About This Class

How do you write a successful, complete story arc about a life you're still living?

In this 30-minute class, award-winning author and writing coach Tammy Letherer shows you how to apply the stages of the Hero's Journey to the events in your life, giving you the tools you need to build a powerful outline for your memoir. 

No matter how compelling your personal story is, it won't hook the reader unless you know how to structure it with a beginning, middle, and end. You must share how you faced a specific challenge and how that challenge transformed you and shaped a new belief. It’s a tall order! 

Fortunately, humans are hard-wired to respond to the Hero’s Journey, a story form based on Joseph Campbell's monomyth The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Tammy shares how she used this template to become the hero of her own story and how you can do the same.

In this course:

  • You’ll learn the most common mistakes memoir writers make and how to avoid them. 
  • You’ll see why and how you are the hero of your story (and how to own that on the page!)
  • You’ll understand each stage of the Hero’s Journey and, through discovery questions, know which life events belong in your memoir.

Your class project will be to write a rough draft of the beginning chapter of your memoir, or your Ordinary World, ending with your Call to Adventure. Once you clear this first hurdle, you’ll have the knowledge and momentum to keep writing, step by step. 

This class is for anyone who wants to write memoir, whether you are just beginning or have a complete first draft. 

Transcripts

1. Introduction: One of my favorite writing quotes is from Sue Monk Kidd. She writes in The Secret Life of Bees that stories have to be told or they die, and if they die, we forget who we are and why we're here. Hi, I'm Tammy Letherer. I'm an author, blogger and writing coach. I write novels and blogs and articles for places like the Huffington Post, Grok Nation. She Does The City, but my latest book is a memoir called The Buddha At My Table. So I'm really excited to help you learn how to craft your own memoir using something called the Hero's Journey. I wanted to share a little bit about how I decided to become a writing coach when I went through this process of writing my own memoir. I remember the day that I finished my first manuscript, I was writing at the local Starbucks, and I had just typed the words 'the end' and I was walking back home and felt such a sense of accomplishment, and I knew then that I really wanted to help other people have that same feeling. I think it can be particularly challenging when you set out to write your own life story to know where to start, to know what the arc of the story is, to make it a compelling narrative. So many people I talked to who want to write their own stories faced that problem. There is a way to solve that. There is a template that exists, that has existed for quite a long time, it's very successful in crafting a story and it's called the Hero's Journey. What I'd like to cover in this class includes why you qualify as the Hero of your own Journey. Some of the most common mistakes memoir writers make, and how you can break down each stage of the Hero's Journey and apply these stages to different life experiences that you've had. This class is for anyone who wants to share their story in the form of a memoir. So whether you're just starting and are not sure where to start, maybe you're not sure what your story is, what the arc of your story is, this class can really help you outline a very powerful narrative. Or maybe you have a first manuscript or a first draft and you know there's something missing but you're not sure what it is. This class can be really helpful for you in identifying those holes in your story. For the class project, you're going to be writing a one-page synopsis of your ordinary world stage, and that's the first stage of the Hero's Journey that we'll be diving into. Once you have this ordinary world established and you know you're starting off point, it's going to make the rest of the writing just come back much more easily because oftentimes it's that first step. It's that where do I start? How do I dive into this that stops us. So by starting with a very simple form of an ordinary world stage, you're going to have the motivation and the direction and the clarity to keep going and finish this book. The first step is always the hardest so let's take it together. 2. Why You Qualify as a Hero: First I want to talk about why you qualify as a hero. You do have a story to tell. I know that's very cliche, something people say all the time, that everyone has a story, but it is true. The problem is getting people to want to read your story, and in order to achieve that, you need to present it in the most compelling way. This template is really going to help you do that. The beauty of the Hero's Journey is that it is going to prove, clarify, and elevate your story. What I mean by prove, is that you are going to discover within this template that you have lived a Hero's Journey, that you do have experiences that qualify for each stage of the journey. That's part of the fun of this process, when you sit down to write a memoir, is that you actually will learn a lot about your own life story, and you'll see and recognize things in your story that are very meaningful that you may be glossing over. Let me tell you how I discovered the Hero's Journey for myself and how I learned to apply it to my own memoir writing. I had been working for many years on my memoir and had finished my first draft. I thought it was finished, and I sent it to a coach to get some feedback thinking that I was preparing it for the publisher. The feedback that I got was that the story ended before it was really finished, and that I needed to go into the last few stages of the Hero's Journey. Now this was all new to me, and all I knew at the time was that I was very discouraged because I thought the book was finished, I did not want to go back and rewrite in any major way. As I learned more about the Hero's Journey and how to apply it to my own story, I saw that I was in fact, stopping my book at the most difficult time. That's a common thing, because as writers, when we're churning up these events from our own lives, there's usually a reason we're writing the story, there's usually a painful event underneath this. We can really want to avoid that. As I was looking at my own manuscript, I realized that I was avoiding getting into the real meat of it, and the Hero's Journey was what helped me see that I still needed to take several steps to complete my story. For me, it was wonderful to learn these stages, to see how powerful they can be, and then go back and apply them to my own book. That's what I want to teach you. 3. The Most Common Mistakes Memoir Writers Make: Let's talk about the most common mistakes that memoir writers make. First, it's important to realize what makes a good story and what a memoir is, and what a memoir isn't. So a lot of times people think a memoir is just a listing or telling of different events in their life in a chronological order, sort of factually based and they really overlook the power of storytelling. So I like to point out that a memoir is not the same as an autobiography. A memoir is much closer to the art form of a novel. Say for example, there is room to have a complete story to tell of satisfying narrative, it doesn't have to be a regurgitation of the facts of your life, it doesn't have to even be told chronologically. What makes a hero's journey so powerful is that it is not just a situation where this happened and then another thing in my life happened and then, oh yeah this other thing happened that I met that person and oh the end. Sometimes we want to do that when we're writing our stories because we take our lives for granted. That's not what a memoir is, that's not what the hero's journey is. In the hero's journey, there's a specific path, the hero who is you, sets out into a strange unknown world because something has pushed you to do it, something has caused you to leave the safety of your ordinary world. So you're setting out on this adventure and maybe an adventure that you never chose for yourself and that you're afraid of and you don't want to take. But along the way, you're going to meet people who help you or people who try to make it hard for you. You're going to be tested, you're going to have challenges and eventually you're going to have to face your deepest fear and through that fear, you're going to be transformed and you're going to have a treasure, you're going to have some sort of understanding or inspiration that you've come away with that makes it all worthwhile. One of the challenges I find with people I work with, is that they hesitate to go beyond just the facts, people seem to be constrained by, but this is the way it happened, I can't change it in any way. Well, there are ways that we can relate the events of our lives. In the most dramatic matter, we can choose which events to put in that highlight what I call truth with a capital T. So you can tell the truth in terms of facts, but that doesn't always get to the truth of your experience which is a bigger, more artistic statement. So the hero's journey can help you look at the events of your life and choose just those things that illuminate your personal truth. So this is a different approach than saying just the facts or this is the way it happened. A memoir is closer to an art form and that you can look at these events in your life, you can choose the things that really show how you learn the message that you want to convey. So that's the kind of story that you want to tell, that's the kind of story you already have happening in your life. The trick is just to identify it and put it on the page. 4. The Ordinary World: The first step in your journey is called the ordinary world. Now, this is the place that you are before you get your call to adventure, which we'll talk about next. When you're thinking about your ordinary world, you want to think about an ordinary day in your life. Who are you? What do you do for a living? What does your day look like? Where are you going? Who are you surrounded by? Oftentimes, the ordinary world stage will have the feel of boredom or the sense that something needs to change. The point of the ordinary world is to establish who you are before your adventure is going to begin. It may be a mundane snapshot of who you are, but the reader gets the sense that something is about to happen to pull you out of your ordinary world and starts you on the path to this adventure. The real purpose of the ordinary world is to set up a contrast to what's about to come. If we don't understand what your life looks like before your adventure begins, then we're not as invested once it does begin. When you're thinking about how to create your ordinary world, ask yourself these basic questions. Who, what, where, when, why. When I'm talking to people about the ordinary world, I find it helpful to think in terms of movies because usually that's a common ground, it's very visual, it's something that everybody can picture. I like to give the example that, when a movie opens, it starts with an establishing shot. It has an opening scene, gives us a vibe for what's about to come. We get to know the character before anything exciting happens. So you want to do that same thing in your book. You want to have the opening. Show us who you are as a person and what might be missing in your life before the event happens that starts you on your journey. To give an example of how the ordinary journey plays out, I want to look at the movie The Lion King, because I think this is probably a story most people are familiar with. Thinking about the ordinary journey in connection with Simba, when the story begins, Simba is a lion pop living in the pride lands with his pride, and he is the prince. He's a son of Mufasa, and his only job is to have fun, learn how to be a prince. He's protected, he's with the family, he's in a loving environment. That's the opening. Of course, we get the sense that that's not going to stay that way, that things are going to change. But that is the opening of the movie. That's Simba's ordinary world. In that example of The Lion King, we get the sense that something is about to happen and that Simba is going to be called into an adventure. Think about that in terms of your own life, right before you got your call to adventure, which is the step that we'll move on to next. What were you doing? What was happening in your life right before your adventure began? That's your ordinary world. Next, we'll talk about stage two of the hero's journey, which is the call to adventure. 5. Call to Adventure: Stage two of the hero's journey is called the Call to Adventure. This is where you as the hero are presented with a problem or a challenge, something that you have to solve. Now, a lot of times you may have lived a story that is rather dramatic and you have a very clear call to adventure. This could come in the form of getting a phone call literally from a doctor with a diagnosis, you could get a phone call that there's been a death in the family, you could get a phone call that you've won the lottery, something that has happened to shake you out of your ordinary world. This is the call to adventure. So when you think about your own life experiences and determining what your call to adventure is, think about the moment when you knew you could no longer remain comfortable as the person you were, living the life that you are living. You want it to be a strong call to action. So in our example of the Lion King, Simba receives his call to adventure when his father Mufasa is killed by a stampede. Simba can no longer remain, the carefree innocent pop living with the pride and enjoying his days, he is now forced to step up into the role his father has vacated. That is his call to adventure. So the call to adventure is a very important part of your story but I want to emphasize that these stages don't always have to be written in the exact order. You can shuffle these around and they still are powerful. They can still have the same impact. As an example, my call to action in my own life experience and in my memoir was the day that my husband called me to sit at the table, and had some news to tell me that really shook up my life, changed my entire world. Now that's actually where I start my book. I start my book with my call to adventure. You can choose to do that. But it's helpful to write the stages out in the order they occur, so that you know that you have all of these stages and then you can decide how you want to order them. Next, we're going to talk about Stage three of the hero's journey, which is called refusal to the call. 6. Refusing the Call: The third stage of the hero's journey is called refusal of the call. This is the part where you as the hero decide, "Hell, no. I do not want to go on this journey. This is not a life lesson I want to have. Don't want to be in a situation." You do everything you can to try to avoid it. This can look like big actions. You could decide to leave somebody, you could decide to move away, you could decide to get a second opinion if you've gotten some diagnosis that you don't want to hear, or it can be something subtle. You can just have internal doubts that come up. You can have fears that come up around why you don't want this to happen. It can be whatever is going on with you when you find out that you have to take this challenge on. You have to go on this journey, and you just don't want to. That's what the refusal really is about. We all have it because we don't want to necessarily phase change, especially if it's difficult, especially if it's change we haven't asked for and looked for or wanted. It's a very natural human reaction to have this refusal stage. That's an important thing to make sure you include in your memoir after you've received your call to adventure, to just write a little bit about why you don't want to do it. What fears does it bring up for you? What is the worst-case scenario? What are the plans that you make to get out of doing it? Is there anyone you want to turn to who can get you out of this situation? What links will you go to, to avoid the situation? Here are some of the questions you can ask yourself to help pin down what your refusal is. What are you most afraid of when you are called on this adventure that you're faced with? What scares you the most about it? If you can go back to that moment and really set yourself in it again and think about all of the fears that came up, what was the worst one? What made you want to just go back to bed and hide under the covers? Then what did you do to deal with it? That can help you pin down your refusal. In our example of the Lion King, when Simba finds out that his father is dead, he doesn't want to deal with it. He wants to leave the pride and runaway and just escape his responsibilities. That's his form of refusing his call. Next, we're going to talk about meeting the mentor. 7. Meeting the Mentor: So the next stage is called meeting the mentor. I just want to remind you that these stages can be mixed around and shuffled and can still have all of their power. So if you meet your mentor earlier in your story or later, that's absolutely fine. So the mentor is someone who is obviously with you on the journey, who will provide advice, who will show you the rules of this new special world that you found yourself in. So if you're facing a new challenge, let's say for example, you are in a health crisis or you've had an accident of some kind, a mentor might be one of your doctors. So the mentor is someone who travels with you along this journey and is there to help you. But ultimately, the mentor cannot face your darkest moment with you. That's something you'll have to do alone. So a mentor can be someone who goes partially along the path with you, but ultimately, not the whole way. You can also have more than one mentor. So if we look at the example of the Lion King, Simba meets to Timon and Pumbaa, who of course, teach him about Hakuna Matata and having no worries but he's also visited by the ghost of his father, Mufasa, and so that's another mentor for him. He delivers some advice for him. That causes him to take the next step on his journey, which is crossing the first threshold. So we'll get to that in just a moment. But first I want to give you your writing prompt questions for discovering your own mentor in your story. So think about who gave you the most help along the journey. Think about your darkest time. You may not have approached it yet because we haven't gotten there. But up until now as you face your call to adventure and you've started on this path, who is someone who helped you face the unknown? Someone with maybe special knowledge or special advice to keep you going. Often times, this is someone who is with you as you approach the next step, which is crossing the threshold. 8. Crossing the First Threshold: Now you're ready to cross the threshold. This is the stage where you actually commit to your journey. This is a big step. This is where you can't turn back. You may still have fears and doubts about this journey, you may still be fighting it, have resistance, but at this point, you have to take a step forward and you cannot avoid it. Again, when we look at the example from The Lion King, after Simba is visited by the ghost of his father Mufasa, he needs to make the decision to go back to the Pride Lands. Once he does that, he is fully invested in his adventure and he can't turn back. In your own story, think about that moment when you knew you were never going to be the same person again. Whatever had been happening, whatever call to adventure that you had had up to this point, there's just no turning back. Here's your writing prompt question for this particular stage. What was your moment of no return? What exactly happened to make you believe that you were never going to be the same person again, that you absolutely had to move forward? The next stage of your journey will be preparing for what's called test, allies, and enemies. 9. Tests, Allies, and Enemies: This can be a very big section because a lot of things can fall under this heading of tests, allies, and enemies. It's a law, oftentimes, the longest part of the book or the middle of the book. This segment of your book can be problematic. I hear many times from writers who get bogged down. This tends to be the middle of the book. It can feel a little bit vague, because so many things may fit under that heading of test, allies, and enemies. Again, when we look at the Lion King. In this segment of his journey, simba meets his friend Nala from childhood. He finds out that scar has taken over the pride back in his homeland. Nala begs him to come back and fight scar. These are all things that happen as he's approaching his ordeal. For your writing prompt, to focus on your test, allies, and enemies. Think about, other people who helped you along your journey? This may include other people you consider mentors. It may include some people who were not so helpful. People who gotten your way, who through roadblocks up. People who didn't want to see you succeed. This could be situations that challenged you. Think about, did anybody try to sabotage you? And were there any events that stood in your way? And now this brings us to the approach to the inmost cave. 10. Approach to the Inmost Cave: The approach to the inmost cave is where you as the hero start to come to the most dangerous place of your journey. Things start to get tougher, challenges get more difficult, your fear start to get bigger. So whatever it is you consider to be your biggest fear is starting to feel inevitable. Oftentimes, people I talk to really struggle with this stage because they don't see the difference between the test allies and enemies, and the approach to the inmost cave. It can be difficult to distinguish between these two stages; test allies and enemies, and approach to the inmost cave because they can seem to overlap a bit. I like to think about the approach to the inmost cave as, you as the hero are now coming closer to something that you really fear. You're going to be heading into your ordeal soon, which is literally facing a life or death situation or one that feels that way to you. When we think about approaching the inmost cave, you're starting an inner journey here. While test allies and enemies may have been a series of events that brought you up against external forces, as you start to move into the approach to the inmost cave, you're going within and you're having to face some of your inner demons. Things are getting tougher, challenges are getting harder, you're starting to feel more fear, you're starting to see that something on the horizon is looming and is going to be very difficult to face. For this particular stage, a helpful writing prompt is to think about the idea of a treasure. If you're facing a challenge and your path has taking you this far, there's usually something on the other side of that that you're hoping to gain. You can think of the cave as being the place where you know you have to enter in order to find that treasure. Write about, what do you think that treasure is? What are you seeking? What do you hope to gain from this adventure? You can also continue to write about your deepest fears, because as you approach the ordeal you're going to have to face those, and that's the next stage. 11. The Ordeal: Here we are at the toughest stage, the ordeal. Remember, I was giving you the example earlier about writing my own book and how I thought I had finished my manuscript when in fact, I learned that I had stopped right before the ordeal. Because let's face it. We don't want to face this again, we don't want to live through it, we don't want to have to re-experience these things. That's part of the challenge of writing a memoir. I find that oftentimes, writers will skip over this stage. They may think they've nailed it, but they really haven't. Again, when we go back to this question, what is your deepest fear? When you first receive the call to adventure, and you had that refusal to the call, and you thought, "No, this cannot be happening. I do not want this." What were some of those fears? You want to plant the seeds in that particular part of the book, so that as you approach your ordeal, it's inevitable. You're going to face some of those fears. This is the stage that's really about death, metaphorical, or perhaps, you really do feel you're facing death. It has to be that important. It has to feel that do or die. It has to shake you. This is really the part where the old you dies in some way, and you are reborn or you're about to be reborn into a new person. This is the crux of your transformation. In The Lion King, Simba faces his ordeal, the moment he has to fight his Uncle Scar. Your writing prompt questions for this section are to ask yourself, what was the lowest moment in your story? What was the point that you felt you just couldn't go on? What was the greatest fear that you had to face? Once you get through that moment, then you're ready to seize the sword. That's the next stage. 12. Seizing the Sword: In this stage, seizing the sword, this is where you finally get to take possession of your reward or your treasure. This can be in the form of a lesson that you've learned. It can be something physical or tangible. It can be simply a belief in yourself that you never had before. It could be discovering a part of yourself that you never knew existed. This is the point in the story where you think to yourself, I am not going to die. This is not going to get the best of me. Sometimes in memoir, seizing the sword can be simply a realization of what you need to do to get back to a new ordinary world. It can be subtle sometimes. Again in our Lion King example, Simba goes through this stage of seizing the sword when he returns to the pride land and retakes the throne. That's his treasure. The questions you should ask yourself for this particular stage include how and why did you decide that you could prevail? What was the exact moment when you knew that you could rise to this challenge? Where did that strength come from? Once you have those answers, you're ready to embark on the road back which is the next stage. 13. The Road Back: The road back is the hero's return to a new ordinary world. The difference though is that the hero, you, as the protagonist of your story, is now a different person. You've made it through the ordeal. You've been transformed somehow, and you need to create a new ordinary world. This is the road back. Oftentimes, this stage is still problematic because you're not out of the woods yet. You still are going to be tested. You're going to be tested so that you have an opportunity to show the new skills that you've learned. One thing I wanted to add about the road back is that this particular stage is not always easy. You have survived your ordeal, your dark night of the soul, whatever your deepest fear was, you faced it. Now, you're starting to create a new world, but the road is not always going to be easy. Simba on his road back has to deal with this idea of stepping into his father's place, which isn't necessarily easy, but it's necessary on his journey. Your writing prompt question for this particular stage is, what insights did you gain that help you create a new normal? Now that you've embarked on the road back and you are starting to create a new ordinary world or new normal, you still have to face what we call the resurrection. That's the next stage. 14. Resurrection: The resurrection is one last test before your journey's done. Often times this is almost a replay of the ordeal. You may face something very similar to what you went through in the ordeal. Even if it's not a similar experience externally, it may bring up the same feelings that you had to face in the ordeal. The resurrection is a chance for you to take whatever you've learned, and apply this new learning, this new transformed version of you, to a final test. In the Lion King, the resurrection stage comes when Simba fights Scar, and spoiler alert, Scar dies, and Simba returns to the pride lands as the king. For your writing prompt for the resurrection stage, ask yourself what happened to challenge this new version of yourself? Was there a second challenge similar to the ordeal that you had to face? That brings us to the last stage of the hero's journey, which is called return with the elixir. 15. Return with the Elixir: In our final stage of the hero's journey, Return with the Elixir, you are returning to a new ordinary world with some treasure or inspiration or lesson that you've learned. Oftentimes, this treasure is something that you may consider to be bigger than you. It may have the power to heal, so it's something that changed your life and that often is something you want to share with others. This can become the message of your book. In our example of the Lion King, the final stage of Simba's journey is when he becomes king and has a son of his own. This brings us to your writing prompt for this stage. Your writing prompts for this stage will include the questions, what did your journey teach you? What message would you like to share with others? Finally, why are you writing this book? Now because you've gone through these 12 stages of your journey, you should be able to answer that question. Thanks very much for taking this class with me. I hope you've enjoyed it. For your class project, continue to work on expanding your ordinary world, try to get a one-page summary, and please post it so that we can all comment on it. I'm Tammy [inaudible]. Thanks for joining me and happy writing.