Creatively Agnostic

song in my head — “SGL” by Now, Now

The great American professor, Joseph Campbell, spent his life taking an anthropological look at the impact and importance of human storytelling. His idea of the monomyth—how patterns and themes and archetypes repeat in the myths, legends, and religions of a myriad of people groups throughout history—was most clearly articulated in his seminal 1949 work entitled The Hero With a Thousand Faces. From this vibrant and vital research, a methodology developed known as The Hero's Journey. It's an idea that has permeated screenwriting and storytelling ever since.

However, a critical thing about Campbell's work that is often left out in the execution of The Hero's Journey as a practical storytelling method is that Campbell never intended for his work to be used in such a way. His is a descriptive conception, something that explains observed patterns in things that already exist, not some prescriptive advice on how to write stories. Because of this misconception, when used purely in a story creation way, without the greater context of what the work means, some (and often many) of the beats in The Hero's Journey don't make modern story sense.

Bumping up against this then tends to elicit two types of responses. It causes some creators and teachers to double down on the importance of sticking to The Hero's Journey, forcing square story pegs into round holes or shifting some of Campbell's literal examples into metaphorical ideas to justify their zealotry. I've been guilty of this from time to time myself.

Other observers go in the opposite direction, dismissing outright the usefulness of The Hero's Journey in story creation, citing inconsistencies in pieces as a reason to ignore the sum of the whole. They throw the baby out with the bathwater if you will.

To me, either approach is ill-adviced.

As you'll come to find out in the pages of this blog, I love thinking about story structure as a whole, and notably The Hero's Journey. Campbell and his work have fascinated me since I first came upon it in film school. But I will be the first to point out that it is not a perfect storytelling system or prescription. It's a helpful tool in what Stephen King would call the writer's toolbox, not a writing gospel.

When creators become overly for or against a particular system or way of doing things, they can lose sight of the importance of imagination, flexibility, and fluidity—necessary and worthy traits for an artist to have! But as human beings, the more dangerous result of this rigid mindset may be that we close ourselves off to the possibility of fresh perspectives, new voices, and important ideas.

Apple wants you only to use Apple, thus forcing everything to become proprietary. That works for them (and others), but it doesn't have to be your way, especially when creating art. It's helpful to study and to study hard, to develop favorites methods and hone your craft. But it’s often just as beneficial to be creatively agnostic.

— G

The End

song in my head — “Duality” by Bayside

I opened things up with beginnings. Now let’s be devious and skip to the end.

There's a fundamental idea prevalent in modern storytelling which coincidently finds its origins in ancient forms of storytelling. Hollywood, in particular, loves this structure, and I'm sure you've experienced it, even if you think you haven't.

It’s called The Hero's Journey.

In short, if you've seen Star Wars, you've seen The Hero's Journey.

There are many steps on this path of the proverbial hero, and they go by many names. I’ll expound on them all at one point or another of this there is no doubt. However, today I want to focus on the last step: Returning With the Elixir. In other words: The End. The journey is complete. The hero has succeeded.

But what does it mean for the hero to return? And what exactly has she returned with?

It’s no big secret that storytelling in its many traditions has often been used as a proxy for real life, that the journeys and growths of fictional characters mirror our own lived experiences, and that by investing in their telling, we can come to understand ourselves better. In other words, if you’re breathing, you are the hero. You are on a quest, as uneventful an adventure it may sometimes seem. This life is your story.

Writers and creators hopefully understand this better than most, especially in regards to our craft. We set out on a quest from our Ordinary World into a New World, the world of our imagination, embarking with little or no idea as to where we are headed. We face dragons and obstacles and Resistance; we make friends with the fictions in our heads, and we fall in love; we reach the Point of No Return or The Dark Night of The Soul, and we press on anyway; we face death and are reborn. And when it’s all said and done, we return with a finished tale (the elixir.)

Now, if your someone who views your work solely as a product (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that), then the physical (or digital) output of your finished tale is most likely your elixir. It's the completed thing, the thing you’re ready to share.

But if you feel as I do that a story can be more, then perhaps the elixir itself is something more, something less tangible. Something magical and medicinal, as the name suggests. Something that helps and inspires others. Something that ultimately saves us all.

In the story (and in life), the hero doesn't always "return" precisely to the place or the community in which they began. But they do come back. They do find their tribe. They do deliver the goods.

For heroes as for writers, you don't always have to go home again. But you do have to return.

Because the world needs what you're bringing with you.

— G