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