The Arduous Journey

Interesting post from Lisa Cron over at the Writers Unboxed site: “Why the Hero’s Journey is a Tourist Trap.” Cron describes attending a lecture given by a professor of the Lucas/Moyers/Campbell storytelling school: you know, the Heroic Journey, in which the protagonist must consult a wise mentor, embark on a journey to a strange land, endure an escalating series of ordeals, face death, gain resurrection, return with an elixir to the ordinary world, etc. This professor, according to Cron, said that in any story, the protagonist must cross a body of water — even “if that body of water was a gutter he leaps over as he crosses the street.” Cron describes her reaction:

My heart sank. I couldn’t help thinking, “Here’s one of the big reasons so few of the manuscripts I’ve spent my career reading are compelling.”

In fact, it’s often why the manuscripts weren’t stories at all. They were just a bunch of things that happened.

Why? Because they were written plot-first to hit the high points as prescribed by some external story structure model – as if it’s the “structure” itself that creates the story, rather than the other way around.

What is story structure? It’s simply the sequence of external events that occur in a story. Yep, the plot.

But here’s the secret: While all stories have a plot, no story – from a literary novel to a potboiler – is about the plot.

I find myself fairly sympathetic to Cron’s point of view here. Many beginning writers who come into the library looking for guidance will be drawn to a book like Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey — Vogler was a student of Joseph Campbell and claims to translate Campbell’s work into a practical writing guide on mythical structure. It’s not hard to see the appeal of this. One wants to tap into the power of myth, the deep narrative forms that have appealed to humanity throughout history. It’s much easier to venture into the bleakly lit, dubious terrain of novel-writing if you have, say, Orpheus by your side.

On the other hand, Cron’s absolutely right to say that this approach posits myriad dangers for the apprentice writer. One is the false security created by the preordained structure: if you know that your protagonist is going to be resurrected and find an elixir, how do you convincingly create the strangeness and terror of her descent into that strange other world? Another danger is a sort of creakiness, checking off boxes instead of letting events develop organically. As Cron points out, this shifts the focus to external matters, the events of the narrative rather than what she calls story, the psychological and emotional qualities of the narrative.

My own experience of novel writing has been far from heroic. Although I use some mythological elements in my novel, such as a cop called The Oracle, a labyrinth inside a shopping mall, and a librarian named Cassandra, the final shape of the book was the result of a long process of trial and error. All books are “experimental” in this sense. For me this was a process of questioning, trying to discern the novel’s own internal logic, which was not always an easy or straightforward process — it’s not exactly a straightforward book. I fumbled in the dark for a long time, but some of the Heroic Journey stages could probably be roughly applied to the finished novel. This unconscious similarity seems to support Cron’s assertion that we are “wired” for narrative.

I find myself of two minds. Mythology has fascinated me since my mom used to read Greek tales to my brother and me when we were kids. I agree that these tales exert a mysterious hold on us. I would love to find ways to explore and absorb more mythical energy into my work. At the same time, I agree with Cron that something like the Writer’s Journey franchise can do real damage, in that it creates a false map of what producing a novel is actually like — a long and halting itinerary that involves, yes, mentors, ordeals, resurrections, elixirs, and everything. And a ton of revision and work. And pain, and no easy answers.

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