“Everything was fine until you showed up,” says UNC-Wilmington creative writing professor Philip Gerard when talking about how to start your memoir.
Who is this “you”? It could be a death or a birth, but most times it is a death. And the death doesn’t have to be physical—think about loss of innocence, retirement, moving, natural disaster, disease or estrangement. But once the “you” happens, the memoir has begun and you are starting out on your Hero’s Journey. You’re already a hero—you wouldn’t be a writer otherwise. You are a hero because you’re living your art while the majority of the world thinks that’s no way to make a living. You get up, fight off sloth, face the blank page, face doubt and criticism and do it all over again and again every day without a guaranteed monetary reward. You do it because you can’t life with yourself if you can’t. You break through fear to embrace faith EVERY SINGLE DAY. That’s being a hero, my friend.
I teach the Hero’s Journey within the context of memoir which is basically going from the known world into the unknown world. The safe place to the unsafe. If you want to write a great story, you need to take your characters into their own Hero’s Journey.
After you’ve made your decision to begin your Hero’s Journey, you’ll need to pick up a mentor or two, as well as join in community events and programs that support writers. I didn’t have one specific mentor, but found many great friends through workshops I took. I gained knowledge and confidence while in my graduate school program in English at NC State in Raleigh, North Carolina, a decade ago. What educational opportunities are you participating in that will further your journey?
During your Hero’s Journey who may find that your family is not supporting you or that your friends don’t like the “new you.” This is normal and painful. You might find some “tor-mentors.” These are folks who are very keen on you at first and then swiftly turn on you once you show talent. Yay, I’ve experienced my share of these jokers. You’ll need to let go of your old friends and forge ahead—they might be jealous of your writing passion and they want to weaken your resolve by saying you’re doing something that’s wasting your time. Acknowledge their concern, but ignore them. But if you’re married to these doubters, kindly explain you need time to flourish in your writing, but you will give them time too. Being married to an artist ain’t easy!
Along the way, I published my poetry books and hit several “little deaths” or reversals before the big summit with rejections, health set-backs, client set-backs, lack of focus, lack of support and marginal work that lacked life. But I bounced back and now I mentor other writers on their Hero’s Journey. I’ve also started another Hero’s Journey with my guitar, violin and Irish dancing.
Speaking of Irish dancing, I decided last week to find an Irish ancestor—and I found one who made his own Hero’s Journey because a “you” showed up. Dublin-born John Barnwell, code name “Tuscarora Jack.” I didn’t think I had any Irish in me because I’m half French on my mother’s side and my dad’s side is majority Scottish and English. I traced his mother’s father’s side, the Elliotts, and found out Thomas Elliott came over to America back in 1690 and his family intermarried with John Barnwell’s family. Barnwell came from a very well-to-do Anglo-Irish family that ruled over the native Irish for three hundred years, but in the late 17th century, his father Matthew, an alderman, decided to switch sides and fight for the Irish as a captain! This was a huge deal back then and meant that he gave up his family’s landholdings and titles. Family lands, including Archerstown Estate, were lost when Matthew joined the revolution. He died at 74 years old at the Siege of Derry in 1690, which prompted John to ship out to America after the war because the family fortune was mostly gone. John became a mapmaker, a colonel/Indian-fighter, founding father of Beaufort, South Carolina, and then his granddaughter Mary married William Elliott, Thomas’s grandson, and this family continued being nationally-known leaders in the military, church and in public service. Some Elliotts were even writers, which inspires me to flesh out John’s story.