The Hero Cycle #3 – The Return

I’ve reached the last stage of the hero cycle in this series.  It is known as “The Return.” This is where all the people who watched the potential hero answer his call and embark on his journey welcome him home with open arms and shower him with gifts.  Really. That’s what this stage is all about.

I wrote about the initial stages here and here. The whole idea of the hero cycle is a helpful pattern to know if you are writing any kind of story with a journey or transformation of the main character in that it can help you figure out what comes next.

The final stage, the Return, is made up of three steps: the atonement, the return, and gifts.  The atonement is the most difficult to understand, but it helps if you break the word up into its parts, as in at-one-ment.  Often, the hero goes through the tranformation and becomes a hero, but they are a reluctant hero. They don’t really like this new role and are not comfortable in it. The atonement is where they literally become “at one” with the idea of being a hero. They accept their new role and are finally ready to return to their known world. It completes their transformation into a hero.

Throughout the entire quest, the hero has accepted the call, overcome all obstacles, and now, they are finally ready to live the life that awaits them as a hero.  This doesn’t have to be a life of fame or as a world leader. It could be that the hero has just overcome a significant challenge which changes their status in some way within their family or community, and they’re finally accepting of that change.

Harry Potter provides a great example of this.  He goes through the initial stages of the hero cycle repeatedly, but he doesn’t really reach the atonement stage until the later books of the series when he accepts who and what he is.  This actually allows him to accept the ultimate call to overcome Voldemort for the last time. His final return is after the giant battle and Voldemort’s defeat.  It is at this point that he receives his gift which is, of course, the girl!

While many writers employ all the stages of the cycle in their longer works, it is possible to focus on just one stage of the cycle.  Examples of this would be stories like Kate Chopin’s classic “The Story of an Hour” which focuses on “The Call” or Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” which focuses on the obstacles and challenges.  Both of these are well known examples, but you can probably think of many works which employ either the entire cycle or focus on specific stages of it.

This series has been a very simplified version of the hero cycle, but it hopefully serves as an introduction.  Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about it, and any internet search will turn up numerous resources.   I’d love to hear how this applies to your own works in progress or if it helps you at all in your writing journey.

The Hero Cycle #1 – The Departure

I still haven’t finished my novel’s first draft, but last week I dug myself out of a bit of a plot hole by relying on . . . my education. Shocking, I know, but it’s nice when those English degrees actually come in handy.

I was having a hard time transitioning from the all the rising action to the climax when I started to look at my main character’s entire journey. I realized that she had, in many ways, followed the traditional “hero cycle” or “hero’s journey” as discussed by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work A Hero with a Thousand Faces. I’m not sure how this escaped me to this point, but it had.

The literary theory behind the hero’s journey involves the basic premise that all literature contains “archetypes” or recurring patterns in myths and stories worldwide. The hero’s journey is one of these patterns, and by understanding the journey, we can then understand the story, the hero, and possibly ourselves or our world a little bit better.

So how does all this apply to writing? It applies because it works. As readers we instinctively understand the steps that a hero must take in order to, well, become a hero. If one of those steps is missing, somehow we know it, and as writers including all of the steps of the journey can not only deepen our work, but just make a well-developed story. It can fill in those missing holes.

Though it might sound complicated, the archetype of the hero cycle is not. Simba in The Lion’s King and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars are two heroes who follow it almost to the letter.  If you like the movie The Sandlot, Bennie follows a hero cycle when he dreams of Babe Ruth and faces “the Beast.”

The first stage of the Hero Cycle is called The Departure. It is made up of three stages: The Call, The Threshold, and The Helper.  If you research this, you will find a large variety of stages in the cycle and fancy names.  I’m writing about the eight major stages that make the most sense to me and that I teach to my high school students.

In the Call, the hero is somehow “called” to action. This might be through a dream, somebody literally crying out for help, or as in Luke Skywalker’s situation, his family is killed and he finds a robot with a weird princess message on it. Harry Potter gets called by a letter and then a giant on a flying motor cycle. It can be anything as long as it starts the hero on his journey and in some way changes the status quo that is his life.

The next step is the Threshold. This is where the hero decides he’s either going to accept the call and “go for it,” or if he likes life as it is, he stays put and is not a hero after all. A hero chooses to step through the door, or “threshold,” into his new role. He may not be comfortable with this; he may refuse it outright several times, but ultimately, a true hero will accept the call.  Again, think of Luke, Simba, or Harry Potter. They all embark on journeys to help save themselves or their world, but they aren’t necessarily sold on the whole idea at first.

The third piece of “The Departure” is “The Helper.” This stage provides the hero with some sort of aid which might be supernatural in nature or it might just be an object that the hero believes will help him to survive. For example, Simba has his friends and the monkey also gives him advice. Bennie in The Sandlot has his shoes that help him run faster and jump higher. Athena repeatedly helps Odysseus in The Odyssey. Luke has Obi Wan Kenobi and the force. Harry gets a wand and two true friends.  In essence, every traditional hero has some sort of object or people that help them along the way.

I’ll write more about the next two stages of the hero cycle over the next two weeks. Even if you don’t think you’re writing or even reading about a traditional hero, you might be surprised to find how prevalent this archetypal pattern appears in both contemporary and historical fiction. It really does speak to us, it just makes for a good story, and now I know it can rescue us when we’re stuck.

The hero’s journey image is from the Wikimedia Commons, a freely licensed media file repository.

What’s the story behind this trailer trash?

Last weekend, on yet another road trip across the lovely state of Nevada, we saw one of the more interesting sites I’ve seen in the desert.  It was a fence (maybe), but not just any fence, a fence made out of old single wide trailers and dying RV’s, literal trailer trash.  There is a story behind this fence, though I’m not sure what it is.

If fences are built to either keep unwanted people or animals out, or if they’re built to keep wanted animals or people in, what, exactly, is the purpose of this one?

Or is it not a fence at all? Did somebody just decide to line up their old trailers to keep their trailer trash orderly?  It’s not really surrounding anything, functioning as a fence might, so is it even a fence? I’m not sure.

When we first saw it, my husband and I started laughing and I asked him stop to photograph it.  He kept saying, “What? Stop? Why?” By the time he understood that I wasn’t kidding, we were too far past it to photograph, so we had to stop on our way home.

I’ve been thinking about this fence all week.  Generally a fence is built serve some sort of purpose. If you’d like to read a funny tale about gates and fences, check out the short fable titled “The Vigilant Rabbit” in David Sedaris’ compilation of modern tales, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary.  The entire book is funny and entertaining, but in this particular tale, the gate represents power and the gate keeper’s ability to control the movements of the other forest animals.  The problem occurs when the power hungry rabbit forgets to build the fence around the gate, and the gate does nothing to keep out the riff-raff.  This trailer fence reminded me of the gate in the David Sedaris story, a valiant attempt to serve some sort of purpose but one that doesn’t make it, by a long shot.

Visually, this fence is fascinating too as it sort of meanders across the mountain’s base.  Perhaps its actually a giant sculpture.  I’ve been considering what this would look like in a quilt.  But I’d have to figure out the story behind the fence for that quilt.  I wonder how could I tell it through fabric?

One happy, or possibly annoying, result of writing or any creative endeavor for that matter is continually thinking about stories and possibilities. What is the story here? Any ideas?

Reading About (and not doing any) Writing

I hit the 20,000 word mark on my novel this past week.  This seems like a big milestone to me.  I’m not sure why, but it does.  To celebrate both this milestone and our country’s birthday, I took the last three days off from writing.  Actually, I didn’t have much of a choice.  We were camping on this holiday weekend with no cell service, no electricity, no computer . . . you get the picture.

I did actually bring a clipboard with some paper, but all I managed to write on it was the beginning of a character sketch and a list of stuff I needed to get to restock the camper.

Instead of focusing on writing, I played with my family.  And I read.

I finished Jeannette Walls’ lovely memoir The Glass Castle.  I also spent time in my lounge chair with some of my writing craft books.  As I began writing fiction in earnest at the beginning of this year, I read and read and read craft books, but I finally got to the point that I needed to actually practice what I was reading.  I needed to write my stories.

Now that I’ve made a bit of progress, I’m finding that as I read the craft books I’m thinking about and approaching the information in a more practical way.  I have characters and plots to think about which has given me a different perspective on the information.

The first time I read the writing books, they gave me the confidence and knowledge to start writing fiction.  Now, I feel like they’re giving me the information and confidence to keep going.  In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says “the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts” (22).  Mine is now well under way, and I’ve decided that its okay if its crap.   Writing is hard, I’ve figured out that much.  But I’ve also figured out that I love it, and I’ll stick with it.

I just need to keep going, keep plugging away, even when life is busy and crazy and I decide every single one of my ideas is lame and the whole story sucks.  The only way to get this book done and this story out is one (possibly shitty) word at a time.  The great part is, as the writer, I have the freedom to go back and change it all if I need to.  Perhaps that’s the best part of writing.

Next stop . . .  completed character sketches and 50,000 words.

Literary Black Holes – Part 2

I am an avid reader, and have been my entire life.  I read for the escape, the story, the characters.  I am normally something of a speed reader; if a book grabs me, say “goodbye” to Amy.

My children could be hungry and late for practice while I just finish “one more page.” I stay up far too late on work nights, completely engulfed by a great book.  When I do have to put the book aside and function as a responsible member of society,  I find myself thinking about the story.  I can’t seem to escape the vortex of a good story.  I’m literally sucked in.  I power through it, anxious to find out what happens.

Then, I’m sad. The book is over.  I’ve lost a dear friend.

Not all books affect me like this.  Some I can actually read at a normal pace – well, normal for me.  My family still thinks I read books freakishly fast even if it seems to me that I’m taking my time and really trying to savor each word.  The writer in me has been pondering this lately.

What is it about some books that completely take me over so that I ignore everyone and everything in my life, keep the book on a shelf and read it again while others I enjoy but don’t completely lose myself and all sense of responsibility as I read?  I can take them to the used book store without any feelings of loss, and sometimes I don’t even finish them.

Maybe its just genetics.  My sister does the same thing, but as a single mom with younger kids, it’s a little bit more dangerous for her.  She avoids good books until the perfect time; I used to do this too, but my kids are now teenagers who can at least feed themselves, get dressed, and out the door with their shoes on the right feet.

If its not genetics, and authors actually have something to do with this phenomenon, what is it that pulls me in?  Is it the plot?  The characters? The action? The realistic dialogue? I hadn’t ever really thought about these questions until I started writing  (actually doing it and not just thinking about it), and my life as a reader has changed.  I keep stopping and thinking about all the elements, the structure, of the stories.  I’ve slowed down . . . a little, but I still ask, what sucks me in?
The first, not-so-profound answer I came up with is that they’re just great stories.  It’s all of the elements put together in a compelling way that somehow pulls me in.  But that’s not really an answer; it feels like a cop out.  The books are good because they’re, well, good.  As a debate coach, I would hammer a student who used that circular reasoning in a case, so I need a better answer.

I guess, after much thought, it comes down to what I would call writing style, that elusive, indefinable way with words that every writer has.  However they approach their work, whatever it is they do to draw us in is their style.  Sometimes it works for me, sometimes not so much.

It’s much easier, and not quite so intimidating to think that I can pick and choose what I like and what I want to focus on in terms of my own writing style.  I now read, paying attention to why the authors made the choices they did in their story, and then if I want to, I can try that strategy myself or I can chuck it.  Any book I read, whether I get sucked in or not, has become something of a textbook.  What works?  What doesn’t?

This has even brought me back to some old favorites that I have re-read as a writer. When I’m writing dialogue, for example, I find myself randomly pulling old favorites off the shelf and opening up to sections of dialogue to see how that author wrote it.  It’s hugely helpful to have these masters sitting in front of me as I write, helping me develop.  And even if they aren’t “masters,” they’re at least published which, in my book, makes them a master.

The end result of all this reading and writing, my own writing style.  Maybe someday it too will suck some poor, unaware reader into a literary black hole they can’t escape until the last page.   (Wow – writing fantasy is fun too!)

 

Quilt Stories (or Quilters’ Obsessions with Anything Related to Quilts)

After I started quilting, I discovered quilt fiction.  I had no idea until I started reading a few books with a quilt focus, but this is almost a genre unto itself and it actually has been since the mid-1800’s.  Apparently quilters’ obsessions with anything at all having to do with “quilting” has existed for centuries.  The first two quilt stories were published in periodicals in 1844 and 1845.  They were both called “The Patchwork Quilt,” and they both idealize the quilt as a symbol of domesticity.  The second story is by an author who is unidentified other than “Annette.”  It’s a sad little story about a woman who spends her teen years making her masterpiece of a quilt for her wedding.  Sadly, she ends up as a spinster and finishes the quilt for her younger sister who does find a beau to wed.   The quilt in this story represents love, marriage, and security, and the sister who achieves these goals gets the quilt.  These were highly valued for women in the 19th century who existed in the world of the “domestic sphere.”

It is interesting that contemporary quilt fiction also often uses the quilt as a symbol of domesticity, safety, and comfort though in these more modern stories, quilts perhaps don’t represent love and marriage so much anymore as they represent female solidarity and relationships.  In any case, the quilt is still a prevalent symbol in fiction.

We quilters are an interesting group.  We are not only obsessed with building fabric stashes and stitching, but when we take a break from sewing, many of us pick up books novels about our favorite pastime.  There are an amazing number of novels and stories all about quilts which I find fascinating.  There is even an index of quilt fiction on the web though it looks like it hasn’t been updated since 2002.  You can find it here.   In a general search of “quilt fiction” on Amazon, I hit 572 books.  That’s a lot for a pretty specific topic like quilts!  In a quick preview of these novels, it appears they can be broken into several sub-genres of quilt fiction (though this is based on a quick review, not any study):  contemporary fiction, historical, Christian, and murder mysteries.  The last two crack me up – they are so very different but both of them frequently use a quilt as a relevant symbol in the story.

My novel will definitely land in the first two categories; though I realize that contemporary and historical might not mesh, in my case they do.  We’ll see how it actually turns out.  In any case, they are the categories I am the most familiar with and the ones I enjoy reading, so it seems that’s what I’m drawn to write.  It’s also fun to combine two of my favorite pastimes: quilting and words (reading or writing) in this story.

I have no idea if publishers consider quilt fiction as a genre unto itself, but I do, and judging from the searches on Amazon and the shelves of fiction books available for sale in my favorite quilt shops, quilters do too.  If anyone who happens to read this blog is interested in reviews on quilt fiction, let me know, and I can add that as a monthly or weekly feature.

Starting in the Middle

I’ve been surprised over the past few weeks how this project is coming together, kind of piecemeal, not all orderly like I approach most of my life.  I am a list maker, an outliner, a planner.  My kids tease me that “Mom, it’s okay not to ‘have a plan’ for the day,” assuring me that it’ll be “alright.”  Really, it’s that bad sometimes.

When I started this novel adventure, I approached it how I usually approach a writing project.  I gathered all my resources; I researched, read, and took notes; I outlined and plotted; I developed characters.  And then, I thought I would start at the beginning.  That’s where I’ve always started every paper, essay, my Master’s thesis etc. – the beginning.  It seems like the logical place to start.  Apparently not.

Either I’m starting to let go and listen to my creative self a little bit better, or I just approach fiction a little differently, or at least a long fiction project, than I do non-fiction projects.  The short stories I have written I have started at the beginning and worked through until the end, but for my novel, I have random scenes written throughout.  I work on whatever I feel like.  If inspiration hits, I write that part.  It’s been so fun – who knew?

The other day I was reading a stack of 9th grade papers.  My students wrote them as a culmination of a fun end of the year Writer’s Workshop unit in which we studied “using punctuation in interesting ways to create voice.”  “How do authors use dashes, ellipses, fragments etc?  What do they achieve when they use them?” were the questions we asked as we read quite a few mentor texts, and they wrote practice pieces.  They could write their final piece on any topic; they enjoyed this assignment.  How do I know?  The final papers were super fun to read; they got it, the whole idea that language is fun and they can play with it to achieve an emotion or a mood in their writing.  As I was reading, twice I read lines that made me think of my story.  I had to stop right there, grab a piece of paper and write segments of scenes.  When I got home that night, I expanded them, and I still like them.

My muse is a funny thing.  I have no idea when inspiration will strike or what it will inspire.  However, I think my planning (or over-planning according to my kids) has been helpful because now when inspiration does strike, I have a good idea of where that piece will fit in the larger picture, but it’s certainly not exact.  I’m trying really hard to just go with it.  To let go, to allow this process to teach me whatever I need to know about how I work and the best way for me to work.   This is new territory for me, to work organically and not in a completely linear fashion.  But, overall, I think I like starting in the middle.  Now, if I could just think of a really great first line, life would be great.

April Fool Story Freak

Happy April fool’s day everyone.  Yesterday I ran into a friend at Wal-mart who said that she was going to a wedding today!  Really?!  Who gets married on April fool’s day?  That seems like just asking for trouble.  Maybe I’m too superstitious but April 1 is NOT a date I would pick for my wedding!  There must be an interesting story there because getting married on April fools day must have been the only option.  I’ve always had an internal commentator on life, but now the commentator is telling “back stories” so by the time I left Wal-mart this wedding couple whom I have never met had become a tragic pair who could only marry on April 1 due to dire circumstances – not a great story but now I can’t stop this story thing from happening – ack!

Since I decided to commit to writing, I’ve turned into this freaky narration story person.  Everything I hear, read, or even see is becoming a potential story which my over active brain instantly begins narrating in a weird third person way.

Does this happen to everyone who writes?

At first I wondered if this is normal, but then I realized what’s normal?  And do I want to be normal anyway? I think not.  Maybe this is a sign I’m truly internalizing this whole idea of being a writer. I like that thought – no fooling!  So, I’ll just keep writing (and continually narrating back stories about life to myself).