I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of the hero’s journey as a way to describe my own journey as a writer.
The hero’s journey, as you probably know, is based on Joseph Campbell’s work looking at archetypes in mythology and folklore. Basically, he found many common themes in all stories. The common characters we see over and over. A hero. A mentor. An ally (like a sidekick). A villain, or shadow, etc. And he identified why we see these same things over and over. What they mean to our collective memory and mind—the subconscious reasons we gravitate to them over and over. Many others have modeled their writing on it and have taught other writers of fiction and screenplays to do the same. You see the hero’s journey format used in movies a lot.
If you haven’t, I recommend reading Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey and Robert McKee’s book Story. Or just go straight to the source and read The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.
CALL TO WRITE A NOVEL
The call to adventure to write a novel came a couple of months after 9/11—like many, the terrorist attacks made me think about my own mortality. As I was thinking about how I wanted to spend my time, I was driving down the street and heard a voice talking about when she first moved to Denver. Listening to her, I realized she was a character in a novel and I had had an idea for a mother-daughter story and I felt like she was the mother in the story. So I went home and wrote down what I had heard and accepted her call immediately and decided right then and there I was writing a novel.
In the vernacular of the hero’s journey she was the Herald. Vogler writes that the role of the Herald is to “announce the need for change. Something deep inside us knows when we are ready to change and sends us a messenger.” I love that my messenger was one of the characters in my story.
THE SPECIAL WORLD
There’s something called the “special world,” in the hero’s journey. It’s when Dorothy leaves Kansas. When Luke leaves his Uncle’s farm. In my first novel Orange Mint and Honey, it’s actually the home my character returns to. The character is Shay and her mother was an alcoholic when she was growing up. Now she is sober. The two women have been estranged for years and Shay hits tough times and has to return home. Home is not what she expected though. Her mother Nona is healthy and well. The house is clean and well-tended. The refrigerator is full of healthy food. The biggest thing is the garden. Nona’s garden is a healing space that becomes the special world of my novel.
In the writer’s journey, the special world is the world of publishing. And what almost every writer I know is wishing for.
I’ve had many amazing experiences in the special world. Letters from fans. Meeting writers I’ve always admired. Terry McMillan emailed me out of the blue to say she liked my work and was recommending it! Alicia Keys blogged about Orange Mint and Honey on her website and had her fans read it!
Probably the most special part of the special world was going to Vancouver to be on the set of Sins of the Mother, the Lifetime movie version of Orange Mint and Honey. I got to be an extra. I got to be in a movie scene that was almost word for word as I had written it in my novel. You want to talk about surreal and out of body! And I get to have that forever, and it is a special and wonderful thing and I hope you all get to experience the fun and validation of having someone else read your work and love it. Someone else read your work and let you know that it meant something to them.
Entering the special world really is when you feel like a hero in your own story.
But here’s the thing about the special world: the special world, while full of wonders, is also full of trials.
Vogler: “Heroes don’t always land gently. They may crash in the other world, literally or figuratively. The leap of faith may turn into a crisis of faith as romantic illusions about the special world are shattered by first contact with it. A bruised hero may pick herself up and ask, “Is that all there is?” The passage to the special world may be exhausting, frustrating or disorienting.”
My first novel won two awards, got only good reviews, was #1 on the Denver Post bestseller list, was a Target breakout book and had many other honors. It was made into a Lifetime movie. Sales were okay.
Unfortunately, my second novel Children of the Waters hasn’t done as well. Publishers Weekly didn’t like it much. Though plenty of other publications did, the PW review is the one that sits on Amazon.com. And sales have been slower that I would wish.
I’ve lost friendships—people who I genuinely thought were my friends couldn’t take what looked to them as shining success.
Others have been snippy about me online.
What I’ve learned not only from experience but from other writers is that it doesn’t really get easier. The writing doesn’t get easier. You still have to learn how to write each new book. The business doesn’t get any easier. With success comes raised expectations and with those raised expectations come fears of failing.
And even with a record-breaking movie and award-winning novel under my belt I still have to prove myself.
Vogler says: “The credentials of experience may have to be presented repeatedly at successive rungs of power. When delayed by obstacles heroes do well to get acquainted with their fellow adventurers and learn of their hopes and dreams.
I’m sharing this all with you not to dash your hopes. In fact, I want to encourage you: if I can do it, you can do it. But I want you to know something that Anne Lamott talks about in Bird By Bird. She writes:
“All that I know about the relationship between publication and mental health was summed up in one line of the movie Cool Runnings, which is about the first Jamaican bobsled team. The coach is a 400 pound man who had won a gold in Olympic bobsledding 20 years before but has been a complete loser ever since. The men on his team are desperate to win an Olympic medal, just as half the people in my classes are desperate to get published. But the coach says, ‘If you aren’t enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.’ You may want to tape this to the wall near your desk.”
What Vogler says is: “It’s good for heroes to go into the main event in a state of balance, with confidence tempered by humility and awareness of the danger.”
The next time you get a rejection, think of it this way: “Resistance can be your greatest source of strength. Ironically, what seems to be villains fighting for our death may turn out to be forces ultimately working for our good.”
To be continued.
Join Carleen Brice here on Novel Spaces on November 8 for Part 2 of One Writer's Journey.