The following is the second installment of a three part series on the use of myths and archetypes in memoir writing. In the first part of Your Life as a Myth, I wrote about both archetypal patterns in general and about the martyr archetype. In today’s post, I write about the orphan and the prince-left-at-the-pauper’s-door. Both frequently make appearances in a memoir. These posts are excerpted from Turning Memories Into Memoirs / A Handbook for Writing Lifestories.
What is the orphan archetype?
People who do not develop or maintain personal ties can be said to be pursuing the orphan archetype. Artists are an example of the positive side of this archetype. Because many artists feel detached from roots, family, etc., they are free to tell the truth as they see it, to risk much in the pursuit of their art. On the negative side, the orphan throws everything out too easily and starts again from scratch time after time—that start-up phase is exhilarating but the long term effect is exhausting. While orphan artists make use of their rootlessness to create, other orphans may be oppressed by their ten- dency to abandon what they have accomplished before they can benefit from the results.
Orphans often feel besieged by life, alone against the superior forces of the universe. In retaliation, they may react to life with cynicism and bitterness. Orphans love to tell you they are self-made—and will neglect to mention any help they received along the way.
The person who always tells you how he did everything for himself in life, how no one ever gave him anything, is an example of the orphan.
When writing about a person who fits the orphan archetype, the lifewriter should certainly appreciate the struggle this person has waged. But she must also assess whether the orphan has been blind to the support available to him or the gifts life has offered him. Would a more objective account of his lifestory give credit elsewhere for his success or identify his cynical doomed-to-failure attitude as key to another one of his failures? The lifewriter should ask where the memoir subject found or made community and how he overcame the orphan’s pervasive sense of aloneness and abandonment. Since orphans often remake the facts to support their self-made views of themselves, writers must verify from other sources the hardship stories orphans tell.
What is the prince-left-at-the-pauper’s-door archetype?
The prince-left-at-the-pauper’s-door is imbued with a sense of his innate worth. They may happen to be poor at the moment but they are “princes” (or “princesses”) and have a right to special (“royal”) status in life. Princes-left-at-the-pau- per’s-door aspire to be more and to have more than might seem reasonable to others and they often have the strength and courage to match their struggle to achieve. An example is the poor immigrant who arrives in a new country penniless and sees no reason why he should not rise “from rags to riches.” Another example is a poor child who aspires to a fine educa- tion despite inferior local schools and lack of family support.
Of course, there is a negative side to the prince-left-at-the- pauper’s-door archetype, too. Cinderella waits for Prince Charming to save her from the unpleasant drudgeries and responsibilities of her life.These people may look disdainfully on the other “paupers” among whom they live (“I’m too good for these peons!”) and so cut themselves off from participation in the community available to them. The prince-left-at- the-pauper’s-door may be as lonely as the orphan. Inevitably, too, the high achievers, whether disdainful of others or not, will attract the resentment of the many they leave behind.
The lifewriter must look carefully at these princes-left-at- the-pauper’s-door to distinguish which parts of their struggle were necessary and inevitable to attain their goals and which were needlessly injurious to them and others (forsaking rela- tionships as not good enough, for instance).
In the next article, we will look at some practical applications for this knowledge of myth and archetype as it applies to memoir writing.
Fantasy can reveal what myths are operative for us.
■ Pick a feeling you have about your life or about someone yo are writing about. Embody that feeling in a fantasy character. It can be superman or a TV character or a cartoon one for that matter. Or, you can simply make a name up like—Big Guy or Complaining Woman. Now tell a story of something that character has starred in.
■ Let your imagination run freely.
■ Reread your story. Did you learn anything interesting about yourself in this mythic venture?
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