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.

On Expectations

As they say, anticipation is half the fun. We get to imagine perfect outcomes for any experience we may dream up, but when the job, book, vacation, or even the restaurant I’ve just tried doesn’t live up to my expectations, disappointment ensues.  Expectations make me focus on the outcome, not the journey, and I wonder what opportunities I have missed out on because I decided on the expected outcome before I  had the experience.  That sounds ridiculous, but its the truth.

I live in Nevada, home to slot machines in each and every grocery store. Gambling exists because of this whole idea of focusing on the outcome - players think if they just “play” one more time they’ll win big, with no attention paid to what’s happening right now which is, “OMG, I’m losing all my money!!” I tend to do this (though not with gambling) because it is often far more fun to think about possibilities rather than “what is” or “what I should be doing right now to make that possibility happen.”

This past week, I was needing some creative inspiration for a quilt, and I came across this video. It was on a site on Design Principles, which I found kind of funny, but  I loved the concrete example of people stepping up to meet expectations.  Check it out – it’s really cool!

What is the lesson here? People step up to meet expectations others have for them.  They don’t just lead to disappointment but to people achieving great things.

Last week I had a fishbowl style Socratic Seminar in two of my Inclusion 10th grade English classes.  An inclusion class just means that there are 5-10 kids in the class that struggle with the subject.  They’re generally kids who have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan ie. they require special ed. services). I co-teach it with a Special Ed teacher, so we can give those kids the support they need. It works really well because it includes kids, rather than excludes them by parking them in the “resource room.”

I have used socratic seminars in honors classes and wasn’t sure how a population of students who tend not to be quite so engaged would do. The seminar entails putting six desks in the middle of the room in a circle. The rest of the desks are set in a larger circle facing in.  Six students start in the middle and begin their discussion on whatever text we have been reading, in this case Elie Wiesel’s Night.  They then proceed to have a discussion.  If somebody wants to go in, they get up, quietly tap on the shoulder of one of the people in the middle, and the students trade spots.

The kids loved it.  I only had one student out of almost 60 (in two classes) who refused to enter the circle. They didn’t want to quit talking. Students who never speak up in class got upset when somebody “tapped them out.” My co-teacher and I were shocked.  These kids put my own book club to shame with the depth of their responses and their reliance on the text to support their opinions.

The kids were prepared. They had done the reading. They had written responses to the reading, and prepared “Big Questions” (questions that don’t have one right answer) to ask about it. I had also told them that I had only ever done this in honors classes, and it was up to them to make it work.  I set the expectation high and they stepped up.

So what’s the lesson here? I need to raise the bar, not only for myself but for my students and even my own children. Not so high that they can’t be met, but high enough that I force both myself and my kids out of the status quo where many of us (myself included) happily schlump along.

Are you a Super Hero?

I participated in my final regular season Forensics/Speech and Debate tournament as head coach this weekend, and last night at the awards, each of the coaches shared something they had learned from participating in this thing we call Speech and Debate.

One shared that he had learned that the effective use of language to manipulate, persuade, or change people’s thinking was a super power. I completely agree. If we think about all of the language we see, hear, and use each day that is shared in the name of persuading us to buy a product, behave in a specific way, or agree/disagree with a belief, it is difficult to disagree.

The coach ended his talk by saying that the responsibility of using this particular super power is huge, and like all super powers it must be used only for good.  We all envisioned Spiderman when he said that and the 100+ high school students cracked up, but he made a great point.

Though he was talking to a room full of speakers, I instantly thought of my writing.  When we write words that others will read, whether through a blog, novel, story, essay, article, or even website content, we have some sort of purpose. Generally those are to inform, persuade, or entertain, but in each case, we somehow influence our readers. That is power.

I’ve been thinking, am I using that power for good?   Are you?

(Image is Royalty Free clipart from Microsoft Office.)

My Next “Epic Adventure”

Whenever I take my Forensics/Speech & Debate team on a trip, the kids somehow manage to go on “epic adventures.” Sometimes I hear about their shenanigans during the event or just after, but most often, I don’t hear about them until much, much later.  They’re good kids, so they never get in trouble (as far as I know at least), they just entertain themselves between competition rounds.

For me, coaching them for the past three years has been one epic adventure after another, but I’m done. Today I boarded the bus at 5:00 am to head across the state of Nevada for the last time as head coach.  Hopefully, we will qualify a handful of kids to the National tournament, so I will still have one more trip, but it (happily) won’t include a midnight bus ride home.

Maybe I’m just old, but I don’t think I’ll miss spending a night every month on a school bus listening to teenagers who get the “midnight crazies” due to sheer exhaustion and vast amounts of sugar and energy drinks.  We often arrive home just in time to see the sunrise as we clean the bus and disembark.  These nights lead to an all day Sunday “forensics” hangover without the benefit of even one measly margarita. Yep, I definitely won’t miss that.

I will, however, miss the kids and the rapport I have built with them over the past few years. In many ways, I have gotten to know these students much better than the ones I spend time with in my classroom, and they’re an amazing group of young men and women.

I struggled with this decision because coaching and teaching speech is one of the very best parts of my job, but I’ve also decided that I want to focus on my writing.  Writing is the next chapter of my life, but I cannot begin that chapter until I close the one I’m in.

I like to be busy, and in fact, I’m much more productive if I have a lot going on in my life, but I also know that a full life has no room for anything else. One of my favorite times when I’m writing is when the story just comes; it’s like I’m receiving it as a divine gift from the muses. I’ve learned that in order to receive it, I must be open and “empty” to it. I can’t “fill up” on a story, or time with my kids or husband, if I’m already full and my brain is going a million miles an hour thinking of other obligations.

This has been a difficult lesson for me to learn, and one that I’ve had to learn over, and over, and over.  Someday, maybe I’ll figure it out BEFORE I feel completely overwhelmed.

It’s okay to say “no,” to allow those empty spaces in our lives. We need them, spiritually and emotionally, in order to do our best work and live with purpose in those areas of our lives that our souls unequivocally say “yes” to. I am looking forward to the next “epic adventure” in my life, and I sincerely pray that God doesn’t mock me in anyway by having it include even one teen filled midnight bus ride.

I’m still a WIP

1) My blog – I finally updated the “about me” page and changed the name of my blog. This is the third name, but that’s okay. It needs to grow with me. It’s now titled, “Speaking of Words, Quilts, and Life.” In reviewing the collection of posts I’ve made,  most of my posts somehow address creativity in my life through writing, quilting, or even parenting, so I decided to expand the title. My goal for this blog is to write, consistently, twice and week for an audience, whoever they may be. So far, I feel good about what I’ve done here, and I’m also okay with not having a laser focus on my “content.” If I was trying to monetize this, that might be a problem, but I’m not, so I feel perfectly comfortable writing about my writing, my creative process, my quilting, or even my kids if I feel like it.

2) My novel – My goal for the year was to finish my first draft by April 15. I figured that is a national deadline of sorts, so I’d just join the party. Alas, I didn’t make it. My word count goal was 90,000 words, and I’m happy to say I have met and surpassed that goal by several thousand words, but I’m still not done telling the dang story!  I think I have about six scenes left to write which could be anywhere from 6000-10,000 more words.  At this point, I have the end written and 90% of the middle, I just have to get the two tied together. I’m almost there, and I hope to have a first, really rough draft done in two or three weeks. I’ve decided not to beat myself up over this as I’d rather start my revisions knowing that I have to cut rather than feeling like I have a lot I need to add.  For me, cutting and tightening up language during revision is much easier than writing more.

3) My quilts - this part of my life has become a big zero. I haven’t touched a needle or thread in several months, other than to sew a button on a pair of pants last week, but that doesn’t really count. I wanted to sew this past weekend but ended up cranking out several thousand words on my novel, so my fabric continued its lonely existence. Summer vacation is coming, however. I just need to keep that in mind!

4) WhereTeensWrite – Another of my goals this year is to start a website for teen writers.  I am happy to say that this is in the works.  It will be a community for teen writers to share their writing, get feedback, and take online creative writing classes. I’ve had several students “consulting” with me on it, and we’re all pretty excited though it probably won’t be live for a couple of months.  When it is, you will be able to find it at whereteenswrite.com.  That whole summer vacation thing really needs to happen, so I have some time to dedicate to this project too!

5) This is not a goal, just proof that I’m still a “work in progress.” I’ve been blogging for a year and I just discovered that WordPress has a Handy Blog Scheduling Feature! I’m sure this tool has been available since I started blogging, but somehow it escaped my notice, so I’ll share for those of you who haven’t found it yet either. If, like me, you are busy and sometimes aren’t on the computer to post on your regular schedule, there is a solution.  The next time you finish a post, click the “edit” button next to “Publish Immediately” above the big blue “publish” button.  You can then schedule it to go out whenever you want it to and WordPress does the rest. How nice are they? This has made my life as a woman who works full time, has two teens, and tries to post regularly much easier, and I wish I had discovered it a year ago. Oh well, live and learn.

Image is Royalty Free clipart from Microsoft Office.

If my characters keep dying, does that make me a serial killer?

A week ago it happened.  It was happily writing along.  One character was telling a story about a situation to another character.  I thought I knew what happened.  I was writing it after all, but then, when the character finished telling the story, he let it slip that not just one, but TWO other characters had died. I had absolutely no idea this was coming; he just spit it out.

I actually teared up as I was writing it, but I couldn’t change it.  It had to happen that way even though I didn’t realize it until it actually happened.  It worked with every part of the story and added a whole new level of emotional trauma for the main character who had been listening to this depressing saga.  While I hate drama and guilt in my life, they’re good for characters to deal with; it just makes everything a little bit, or even a lot, worse which ultimately makes a story more interesting.

When I started this whole process, I thought that maybe one character would die and only if they absolutely had to.  I don’t like death . . . at all, but apparently, murder is becoming my forte.  Several more of my characters have managed to, well . . . pass on, and I’m not even writing a thriller.  Nope. It’s historical fiction, and I’ve learned through research that staying alive in the 1840′s was hard work. In fact, I seriously question if I could have suvived the Oregon Trail and lived to the ripe old age of 42 which I am now. My great-great-great-grandmother survived it with seven children, the smallest of whom was just one, and I have the utmost respect for her and every other woman who managed the trip.

People, especially kids, died frequently on the trail.  Wagons ran over small children who fell or jumped from them as they bumped across the land, guns accidently went off, men drowned trying to get their cattle across rivers, cholera and other diseases took people by the thousands, and criminals were hung.  I think the worse part of all of this death would be getting back into the wagon and leaving the grave site of a loved one, especially a child, out there in the middle of nowhere.

In almost every diary I’ve read, there is mention of the number of graves sites passed. Many people would count the graves and keep a tally as to how many they saw in a day which I find a little odd.  I guess its a testament to not only the way of life, but also how boring the trip would be.  I whine if I can’t get a good radio station after twenty minutes of a road trip or if one of my electronic devices runs out of battery, so I can imagine that if I had to walk 2000+ miles over a six month period with no radio, tv, or (God forbid) iphone, I’d probably find whatever thing I could to entertain myself as well.

Apparently all this tragedy I have read about in my research sunk into my brain which decided (without consulting me) that a few more characters had to die to make this story real. Thankfully (or maybe not), my brain is a compost pile which takes all the random facts I discover, heats them up, turns them over, and then refurbishes them as parts of my story.  It would just be nice if my brain could prepare me for the tragedy it cooks up when I’m not paying attention. I’d like to have a little time to prepare.

Forgetting Fear

I forgot my fear and went right on out there - a much happier feeling than sitting and watching my sister have all the adventurous fun!

I got back from Sedona yesterday, and my husband commented on the picture of me on Devil’s Bridge that my sister had sent him.  “How in the hell did she get you to go out there?” he asked. He is used to me refusing to even ride a ferris wheel because it will, at some point, stop at the top and sway which strikes sheer terror into my heart. I can ride roller coasters because even though they go up high, I’m not up there long enough to think about it.

Generally, I avoid any rides or situations that put me up high where I can see down below me and think about awful “what ifs,” but in Sedona I forgot to be afraid! It didn’t even occur to me not to go out onto the bridge.

When we began to climb back down from the bridge, a family arrived. The mother was terrified. My sister and I listened to her continually yell “stop” to her husband and son as they ventured across the rocks. You could hear the fear in her voice. It was then that I realized I hadn’t felt even a little afraid.

They say that the opposite of love is fear, and I’m beginning to think that I agree. Fear stops us in our tracks.  If I think of all the things I am afraid of: heights, something happening to my children, not finishing my novel(s), not ever getting published, teaching high school for an indefinite number of years my heart starts to race. In fact, just writing that list made it race a little bit, but if I approach all of those endeavors with love and a positive attitude or if I just forget to be fearful, life instantly becomes much easier. It is no longer a struggle. I can do things like walk out onto a rock bridge and enjoy the view. I can finish and submit my novel without worrying “what if.” I can love and enjoy my life.

If that is the only “souvenir” I take away from this Spring Break, it is a great souvenir. Now I just have to remember to forget.

Sedona Sister Trip

It’s Spring Break in my life, and my sister and I are on our fourth Sister Trip hence the two day lag in my regular posting schedule.  We haven’t taken a trip together in a few years, so we were looking forward to this one.  We met in a destination both of us have wanted to visit for quite some time, Sedona, Arizona.  It’s a beautiful area in the high desert of northern-ish Arizona.  Towers and spires of red rocks cover the area.

We both love to hike and went on one short hike to Bell Rock before we even checked into the hotel.  If you walk around to the back side of the rock, you can get almost up to the top. We got about half way up before stopping, sitting for a while, and then heading down. It was lovely but pretty crowded with people.

Bell Rock

The area is covered with “vortexes,” and Bell Rock is one of the stronger vortexes.  So far, I’ve been to three vortexes that I’m aware of. According to our hiking trails guidebook, a vortex is described as “subtle energy . . . it is very real, and those with a stronger sensitivity to intuition, energy and emotion are able to feel it” (Andres, Denis, Sedona’s Top Ten Hikes, 10).  Entire books are devoted to the Sedona vortexes, and I was pretty excited to “feel” them, but apparently I’m not too sensitive to intuition, energy or emotion because I didn’t feel much different in the vortexes than I do anywhere else.  The hikes, however, have all been beautiful.

On Thursday, we hiked to “Devil’s Bridge.” Generally, I am not a fan of walking near tall scary cliffs as I don’t like heights, but perhaps the energy in the area helped with this fear because I traipsed out onto the bridge without giving it a second thought.

Megan on Devil's Bridge

Today, we hiked to Cathedral Rock, another vortex site. We hiked up around the left side of it, went off the trail a ways, and sat quietly meditating for a bit. Despite the heat of the sun, the rocks stay incredibly cool.

Cathedral Rock

On our way down from Cathedral Rock we came across Buddha Beach on Oak Creek where people have built cairns all over. I love rocks and cairns so the entire beach made me happy.

Buddha Beach

On the flight to Phoenix, I was reading Kurt Vonnegut’s novel The Siren’s of Titan and read the following passage which is a description of Miss Fenstermaker, who teaches in the school on Mars.  “Her office was crammed with ungraded school papers, some of them dating back five years. She was far behind in her work – so far behind that she had declared a moratorium on school work until she could catch up on her grading. Some of the stacks of papers had tumbled, forming glaciers that sent fingers under desk, into the hallway, and into her private lavatory.  There was an open, two-drawer filing cabinet filled with her rock collection” (145). It made me laugh out loud as I can so relate to the poor Miss Fenstermaker.

Tomorrow is our last day here before heading back to the real world and responsibilities. Like Miss Fenstermaker, I have stacks of papers waiting for me on Monday morning, and my suitcase is full of rocks that I’ve picked up on my hikes.  But my spirit is definitely feeling refreshed and relaxed.  If only I could, like her, declare a moratium on school work, life would be perfect!

Writing in a Coffee Shop

pic from microsoft word clip art

One of my goals for this spring break was to take my laptop to a coffee shop and write.  Just about every time I enter into a coffee shop, I see people with laptops.  Clearly, there is a portion of the population who find them productive places to work, and I wanted to see if it worked for me, if pushing myself out of my quiet writing comfort zone worked or if I found it horribly distracting.

When I told my husband my plan, he responded by telling me about his good friend who works in coffee shops just so he can check out all the good looking moms who go in during the work day to meet with their friends though my devoted hubby swears he’s never carted his laptop into Starbucks to work.  Hmmmm.

My concerns with writing in a public place were that I’d see people that I know since I live and teach in a small town.  I worried that I’d spend my entire allotted writing time catching up with someone.  I was also concerned that it might be too noisy or that I’d spend my entire time watching everyone else since I am an avid people watcher.  My last concern was that I’d feel self-conscious and silly trying to write in public and that would squash my creativity.

I hoped that the change in venue would jumpstart the writing goals I had set for this week off of work, so Saturday afternoon, I packed up my clipboard filled with paper, my favorite writing pen, my favorite writing book for when I’m stuck, and my laptop.  I wanted all bases covered.  I chose a smaller shop for my experiment, and I went all the way to town, forgoing the small shop in my community, in which I was sure to see friends or students.

When I first walked in, I knew the first person I saw, the cashier.  Uh oh. She greeted me by name and began to chat, so I decided to sit on a couch out of sight of the front counter though knowing her did come in handy when she called out, “Amy, these your keys on the counter?” They were.

I ensconced myself in the rear corner of the shop on a comfy couch, and I didn’t feel self-conscious at all.  I began by writing by hand which I often do, but quickly switched to my laptop.  The words flowed. A few people came in and out of the shop, but it was relatively quiet other than the employees chatting.  I ended up writing over 1800 words and liking what I wrote. For me, this is a successful writing session.

I’m not sure that writing in a public place is something I would want to do every day or even every month, but to jumpstart my writing, it worked.

Apparently, my muses like the occasional latte too.  They definitely came to visit.