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life as a myth

Your Life as a Myth Part 1

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In your life as a myth, we discuss myths as the stories we create to express how we perceive the world and life. How we live our lives is determined by the myths we live by, but our lives also reveal our myths to ourselves and to the world. What are your myths? Look at […]

The following is the first 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 write about both archetypal patterns in general and about the martyr archetype. In the second post, I write about the orphan and the martyr. In the third post, I write about general considerations of using myths and archetypes. These posts are excerpted from Turning Memories Into Memoirs / A Handbook for Writing Lifestories.


Myths are the stories we create to express how we perceive the world and life. How we live our lives is determined by the myths we live by, but our lives also reveal our myths to ourselves and to the world.

What are your myths? Look at your life, at your feelings, at your responses to others. That is where your myths reside! That is where your life as a myth can be found.

No life can be understood separately from its myths. A myth is not a fantastical made-up story nor, as the word is commonly used, is it a synonym for “lie” or erroneous belief (“three myths about losing weight!”).

Dominant psychic forces, according to the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, play a powerful role in our lives. He called these strong instincts (or patterns of thought) archetypes. Just as migratory birds have an instinct to fly north and south at appropriate times, we also are said to have a form of character instinct—archetype—that governs many of our actions and reactions. These archetypes determine the contents of the personal myths by which we live our lives.

You might say, if you view your life as a myth, that myths are stories and archetypes are characters in those stories.

Throughout our lives, these archetypes interact with us—positively, negatively and sometimes alternately one way and then the other way. As we write memoirs about ourselves or other people, we will notice the archetypes at play and how individuals were able to work with them on or had to struggle against them.

Three archetypal patterns in the Your Life as Myth series

The archetypes I will explore in this Your Life as a Myth series—the martyr, the orphan, and the prince-left-at-the-pauper’s-door—are only a few of the countless examples I could have chosen to help you to understand the role they play in the unfolding or our personal myths. There are many more archetypes and, if you find you are interested in learning more about this topic, read some of the many books available on the subject.

People who are “giving” types can be said to be “martyrs.”

They are the ones who always volunteer to take on extra tasks. As such, they are instrumental in the life of a community or organization and get much of its work done. Martin Luther King, Salvador Allende, and Mother Theresa are well-known and praiseworthy examples of the martyr archetype.

Society often clearly benefits from the sacrifices of martyrs who, pushed to their limits, are moved to give even their own lives for the higher good of the community at large.

On the negative side of this archetype is the martyr’s need to be rewarded for his sacrifices by either gratitude or depen- dency. If others do not appreciate their devotion, some martyrs (in the undeveloped stages) grow resentful or are deeply hurt. Martyrs don’t always understand that their giving may be crippling or intrusive to others who may need to experience life’s trials themselves in order to attain their autonomy.

The martyr may also use giving as an evasion of personal growth in other areas (e.g., “I’d love to take the Turning Memories Into Memoirs® workshop but my wife is not feeling well. I can’t possibly impose on someone to stay with her the few days I’ll be gone.” The person who says she wants to write her lifestories but always allows herself to be interrupted by her family’s demands is an example of the martyr. She uses giving to her husband and children as a way of avoiding her own important personal work.).

The life challenge of martyrs may be to find alternatives to giving to achieve personal fulfillment. Sometimes it is as hard for martyrs not to give as it is for selfish people to give!

As you write this person into a memoir, the challenge is to differentiate between the positive and negative aspects of this archetype when it is encountered in a memoir character. The writer needs to explore how successful the character was in combining the need to give, with the need to pursue other areas of self-growth and with others’ needs to be autonomous.

In the next part of Your Life as a Myth, I will write about the orphan and the pauper archetypes.


Fantasy can reveal what myths are operative for us.

1. Finish the following sentence as though you are telling a fairy tale: “Once there was a (man or boy) (woman or girl) who——.” (Use your own gender for the fantasy character.) Make up a story, even a far out one, that comes readily to mind about him or her. Give your imagination free rein! Write for as long as you want. Do not read the rest of this exercise until you have done this.

2. Examples of fantasy starts: “Once there was a man who did his best in his life. He wasn’t the smartest or richest guy in the world, but he met each challenge as best he could.” “Once there was a little girl who loved to curl up in Mommy’s lap. She was so cozy there she wanted never to get up. One day, Mommy’s lap was smaller. It got smaller and smaller every day!”

3. Reread your story. In the place of “man” or “girl,” insert your own name. What does this story now say about you? (Yes, it really is about some part of you!) In what sense does the story reveal a myth in your life? How does acknowledging this myth help you to understand what you have lived and how you feel about it? How can you use this understanding to achieve more depth in your lifestories? more awareness in your life?

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