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Myths help us live out lives

Your Life as a Myth Part 3

The following is the third installment of a three-part series on the use of myths and archetypes in memoir writing. In this first post of Your Life as a Myth, I wrote about both archetypal patterns in general and about the martyr archetype. In the second post, I wrote about the orphan and the martyr. These posts are excerpted from Turning Memories Into Memoirs / A Handbook for Writing Lifestories.

In the first installment of Your life as a Myth I wrote about the martyr archetype and in the second installment I wrote about the orphan and the prince-left-at-the-pauper’s-door. Today, I will offer you some practical suggestions for implementing the concept of archetypes into your memoir writing.

Writing from the perspective of personal myth can explain a lot about the stories you are recording. In addition, consciously living archetypes in your own life and turning them into positive forces is a rewarding path for self-growth.

We see myths all around us.

One way to understand the power of myth is to reflect a moment on  what sorts of stories move us. The following are merely suggestions to explore. They are not hard and fast interpretations, but I believe they point in the right direction.

  • A man whose marriage is not satisfactory, whose spouse is demanding and unloving, is smitten with movies that portray loving couples. One might say he is seeking the loving wife archetype. Perhaps he dwells overly long on stories of how awful wives can be. This makes people feel awkward around his when he is this way. He needs to take care of his marriage or quit on it.
  • A woman who is always “fighting city hall” might be said to embody the warrior archetype. She is living a Diana myth (Diana was Roman goddess of the hunt, a warrior). She needs to ask herself if she is fighting the appropriate “enemy.” Perhaps her husband or children or employer are more appropriate foci for effecting change than the public library’s overdue-fine policy. This woman who feels unappreciated my be telling stories about neglect and abandonment.

Archetypes are inclinations—they are not fixed and rigid.

Although archetypes can be compared to animal instincts, they are not as fixed. They are inclinations that we are both born with and molded into, and they are strengthened by many factors.

  • The man with the unloving wife [example above] may have come from an unloving family and is constantly seeking to recreate a more loving family of origin. This may frustrate his wife no end.
  • The woman who is fighting city hall may be reacting to having been unjustly treated

Lifewriting, because it bring us face to face with the various elements that dictate our personal myths, enables us to become more self-aware.

  • Writing from the perspective of personal myth can explain a lot about the stories you and your characters have lived.
  • In addition, consciously living archetypes in your own life and turning them into positive forces is a rewarding path for self-growth.

Our archetypes are not the only elements that create our personal myths. Other’s responses and the characteristics of the culture we live in play significant, complex roles.

Birth order is one factor that contributes to personal myth making.

  • Older children, for instance, tend to be rewarded for being martyrs. Parents need their help to manage the younger ones. Encouraging an oldest child to be a wanderer or a dreamer would get in the way of the routine tasks of maintaining a large family. (An older child whose dominant archetype is the wanderer or dreamer may compromise and assume the role of victim. This fits the parents’ goal but exacts its revenge by casting guilt on them.)
  • A youngest child sometimes has older parents who are financially at ease They may be ready to have more fun as parents than they could with the older children. They encourage “the baby” to take on the archetype of magician or clown. The baby can then be a playful person who is both more fun to be with and less likely to grow up too fast and move away from the parents.
  • People who have risen out of modest backgrounds and achieved much are often rejected by their siblings and former friends who have not achieved as much. This in turn produces a set of responses that are embodied in personal myth.

Memoir writing, because it enables us to become aware of various elements that create our personal myths, empowers us to choose the stories we will live out in our lives. As you write about yourself or other people, be attentive to your active personal myths and interpret your stories in light of them.

Know, too, that some of your lifestories are not yet finished! Insights you gain from exploring the past can be put to good use in your present and your future.

Carl Jung wrote, “People must not dissolve into a whirl of warring possibilities and tendencies imposed upon them by the unconscious, but must become the unity that embraces all possibilities and tendencies.”


1. Take a story or vignette which you are either working on currently or which has given you much difficulty in composing.

2. Find the action of the story (the plot). What is happening in the story? Write a sentence to express that.

3. Now take the characters (you and other people) and rewrite the story using mythic characters (Roman gods, comic book superheros, movie hero stories [Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker] ). Make the scope of the story large. This may feel “spoofy” to you but do it anyway.

4. Do you see some life and death struggle going on. Your adolescent struggle with your mother may be no less that a life and death struggle as you were attempting to be the person you wanted and needed  to become and she was intent on keeping you the person she wanted you to become or remain.

5. Now, using the possibly inflated narrative you have just created, rewrite the memoir vignette so that it reflects something of the [personally] mythic struggle.

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We listen to you speak your story. We ask you a multitude of questions. Then we get to work writing. We come back to you with text and you make lots of corrective comments and we ask you a whole lot of new questions. Then, we go back to writing again.

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