The Writer and the Hero’s Journey
In working on a book, we almost always come to a moment of crisis and doubt: This is the point where we wonder if we are ever going to complete the work we have started. We fear that the work is no good or that we lack the ability to finish the task. We’re uncertain about where to go next or how to fix a crucial problem. We meet various forms of rejection or criticism—both from others and from within. We may even stop writing and feel that the well has run dry.
When writers come to me at such moments, I try to remind them of certain fundamental truths about the journeys we take with our writing. I repeat a simple premise: We start writing a book to become the person who can finish the book.
The person who starts the book is not the same person who completes it. We must grow and transform ourselves into that person. The process of writing is part of that growth and transformation. We don’t get to determine beforehand the length or difficulty of the process. This is such a crucial point I’ll repeat it: As writers, we don’t get to determine the length or difficulty of the process. We can only refuse or assent to it.
If the project is a worthy one, we will inevitably arrive at a moment where we must face the specter of failure. Otherwise the project is too easy; no discovery or growth is involved. Discovery and growth can come only through struggle, from facing squarely our own limitations and failings and working through them and thus changing who we are.
In dealing with the task of writing, then, I’ve found that it’s useful to contemplate the figure of the hero as it plays itself out in myths and the three-act play. Thus the process of completing a book can be understood as a mythic journey.
In the first act, the hero is surrounded by the familiar and may be expressing some doubts about staying with the familiar. She senses its limitations, its imperfections, and perhaps has become bored or dissatisfied with her existence there. In various ways, her kingdom is not flourishing.
Then comes a message and/or messenger calling her to another task, another land. As I’ve noted earlier, the hero will often balk at or refuse this call: “Find someone else, I’m not the right person” or “I can’t take this on at this time.” She may even find herself saying, contrary to her previous grumblings, “I’m fine where I am, nothing needs to change.” But then something happens: a change of circumstances, a new form of the call, and she accepts.
The psychic upsurge that accommodates this acceptance is the energies of hope and optimism, the enthusiasm that stems from prospects of leaving the old and encountering the new. This is often accompanied by a sense of the justice or nobility, of the righteousness of the call.
So the hero leaves the familiar and enters a new country. To help save or reinvigorate her kingdom, she must bring about a new vision, defeat a great foe, bring back the magic elixir. Events often progress favorably at this point, with perhaps early successes and discoveries of newfound abilities. The moribund ways of the old kingdom have been left behind for new opportunities for growth and discovery.
But then the tide begins to turn. Or seems to. Difficulties start to crop up, setbacks. As failure and defeat seem increasingly a very real possibility, the hero finds herself mired in the crisis of faith that is the second act. As David Mamet has observed, this is the crucial point of the journey, the turning point of the play: The hero may have started out, armed at the beginning with energy and a vision, determined to complete a tremendous journey, to accomplish a great act (in our case, to write a book). But in the second act, the real nature of the task asserts itself and unexpected roadblocks appear.
At this point the hero says, “I’m sorry, but I’m giving up. I know I set out with this great goal, I know I said I would answer the call, but I could not have possibly foreseen how difficult the task would be. No one could have foreseen this. You tell me I should persist, but you don’t understand and appreciate the difficulties I am up against. You don’t see how few resources I possess and how many resources they, my enemies, my naysayers, the forces arrayed against me, possess. There is simply no way I can win. No one is supporting me, I have no allies, I’m all alone.”
Here the hero may also say, “I know I said I would be up to this, that I would succeed. But here I find that my talents and resources are not enough. Perhaps I’m not the person for this job; indeed I doubt anybody might be, but it’s certainly not me. I don’t have the energy or enthusiasm I started out with. I don’t have the will to go on.”
But of course, in order to succeed, the hero doesn’t quit. Instead, she says, like the character in Beckett’s The Unnamable, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
One way of characterizing this crisis of the second act is that the hero misreads what is happening. She believes this crisis of faith, this apparent point of failure, is all there is. In her eyes, the crisis she faces marks the beginning of a third act or final battle in which the protagonist fails, and the forces arrayed against her will triumph.
Instead, this crisis contains a message, both from her psyche and from the world: To reach her goal in the future, the hero must change her view and understanding of the present; she must alter the way she approaches the present. This requires both imagination and a new plan of action. In part, the hero must discover possibilities and potentials in herself and the task that did not seem there just a short while ago in the great moment of crisis.
This may sound easier than such work actually is. It is difficult to turn away from the old solutions or approaches, from the familiar strengths and paths, from what has worked for us before. It takes courage to admit evidence of failure, courage to admit mistakes or wrong turns (e.g., to throw away pages or poems or stories or even whole drafts).
So how does this turn happen? First, the hero must see that she is capable of transformation. She must discover strengths inside herself, attributes or qualities that she has not perceived before, aspects of her psyche she has neglected. She must then work to develop those strengths.
In this process, she starts to open herself to seeing the world around her in a new way. She begins engaging the shadow work that will be one of the final tasks on her way to reaching the third act. She begins to see that where she has perceived only enemies there may actually be potential allies.
In his studies of mythology, Joseph Campbell talks about threshold guardians, forces that seem to bar entrance to the next place the hero needs to go. He explains that in Buddhist temples in Japan, the entryway is often guarded by a figure with a fierce face, the face of a demon. Yet if one takes in the whole figure, one sees that the hand of the terrifying figure is held out slightly with the palm up, with an implied beckoning motion.
In seeing the threshold guardians in a new light and understanding that they might not necessarily be enemies, the hero may be able to turn them into allies or to avail herself of their qualities.
This altered vision of the world helps the hero reassess the enemy or blocking forces and, in doing so, reassess herself. Part of this stems from a realization that the enemy or blocking forces are not as all-powerful as she has previously perceived. In her previous sense of the situation, she has found the enemy to be engaged in triumph after triumph, each triumph making the enemy stronger and more impossible to defeat. But now, in her altered vision, she may see that in each of those triumphs lies the seed for the enemy’s downfall: The enemy possesses a hidden underbelly, a previously overlooked weakness, or the enemy’s strength is built on a house of cards—the structure is real, but it is nowhere as indestructible as it has seemed, and indeed the higher and mightier it towers, the more vulnerable it is.
But how does the hero reach such a vision? In part, she must stop viewing the enemy from the outside; she must stop regarding the enemy as merely a mask of evil and all-powerful. She must apprehend and understand the enemy. But in order to do so, she may also be forced to see that those qualities that, up until now, have, in her mind, made the enemy the enemy, also reside in her. In other words, she has to give up the notion of her own pure innocence, her absolute distinction from her enemy.
Where before she has seen the enemy as the embodiment of evil, she must now see the enemy within herself and know it as a portion of her own psyche.
But writing, you may say, is an internal task, not a journey. It involves internal demons rather than exterior enemies. There’s no villain to defeat; there’s only you and the blank page.
As I’ve said earlier, the hero’s journey is a metaphor. Just because a writer faces mainly internal conflicts does not mean that the allegory of the hero’s journey cannot apply to the task of writing. The metaphor of the journey helps us illuminate the various transformations of the psyche.
If we look back, we can see that the call to writing in general as well as the call to write a specific book often comes from somewhere outside us—from a book or an incident, a conversation or a class, a friend or a teacher. We may have, at first, even rejected that call and waited for a second or even a third call, before we took up the task.
At a certain point, early on in the project, we might have been filled with energy and enthusiasm, a belief that our writing is moving toward success and publication. We found ourselves excited by new discoveries and connections, new sources for material, initial breakthroughs where a whole new dimension to the project was revealed.
But then the crisis occurs. Sometimes it comes from outside—a critique by a fellow writer or fellow writing-group members, a rejection by an agent or a publisher. Sometimes it comes from inside—we lose faith in the book or our abilities; we stop writing or find ourselves letting other activities interfere with the writing; we stop sending the book out or trying to get feedback and lock it in a drawer.
The particulars of these crises are unique to the writer and her project. Conversely, there is no one magic solution. And yes, sometimes books are not finished or do not find a publisher. But before we abandon the book and give up our journey, we might try to see if there is a way to continue, to discover a way of proceeding that we did not consider before or did not see.
Particularly in memoir or works of autobiographical fiction, the writer is often working against psychological repression. As I’ve said earlier, when a child experiences severe trauma or abuse, repression can often act as a survival mechanism; it allows the child to continue on after the trauma or abuse without constantly reconnecting to the fear, pain, grief, and rage engendered by such negative experiences. In many instances, it helps keep the child from going insane. The child thereafter constructs a narrative of her life that often puts those experiences at a remove or even erases them.
At a certain point in adulthood, however, that repression begins to break down in two major ways: First, the adult is conducting her life in ways that are guided and shaped by a narrative that is incomplete and fractured, that doesn’t include key experiences and emotions; such a narrative gives the adult a false picture of who that person is and what her life has been. Second, the adult is expending more and more energy to repress those experiences and emotions. A common result of such repression is depression and other psychiatric symptoms. Just as importantly, the repression is connected to various beliefs and behaviors that somehow emulate or reenact those negative experiences; these then result in breakdowns and failures in various aspects of the adult’s life, particularly in her closest relationships or her career. All of this represents the return of the repressed.
What is needed is a new narrative that is created in part through reconnecting to the past in a new way, through breaking through repression and recovering and recontextualizing the child she was and the negative experiences that she has denied for so many years. This is a formidable task, and for many people it may require professional help. But writing too can be instrumental in this process. The return of the repressed often occurs in the writing through indirect means—that is, through gaps in the text or through metaphors or through a sentence or paragraph here and there. Though the writer may at first ignore such signs of the repressed, they often continue to recur. This recurrence—that is, the reappearance of the repressed in the text—is a signal. It tells the writer that she is ready—and strong enough—to reenter the past, to form a new narrative. But for this to happen, the writer must be willing to assent to this call.
Breaking through repression can also involve trauma that stems from racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and other ways individuals from marginalized groups can be wounded and silenced. This can occur to such an extent that the writer may, in her writing, deny not only having experienced such trauma but also even being a member of such a group. In a way, I myself had to break through such repression involving my ethnic and racial identity to write my first memoir; some form of this struggle also took place in my second memoir.
The process of revision, then, can often only be achieved by letting go, a decision not to cling to one’s former image of oneself and one’s writing. Only through this letting go can growth take place. Doing things in the same old way will not get it done.
For the writer, certain internal changes often involve shadow work, attempts to connect with areas of the psyche that the writer has avoided or neglected. Only by investigating these areas can the writer begin drawing out their powers.
This widening and deepening of the psyche helps the writer achieve the complexity and energy needed to move on with the writing or to revise the writing in a radical new way. In short, the writer may be facing a technical problem, but for her to address that problem fully, a psychological transformation must take place.
For example, the writer can’t plunge into the depths of a character if she is hiding from such depths within her own psyche. If the writer is protecting a protagonist with whom she identifies or is holding back because she fears familial restrictions or is afraid of breaking through a psychic restriction, those tendencies must be challenged. Similarly, facing her own fear of losing control can help provide a writer with the freedom to unravel and loosen the narrative, to let the unexpected or untoward or upsetting enter the story, to allow for the happy accident that can lead to a new direction, to create a new more expansive, energetic, and taboo-breaking voice.
There may also be an external component to this crisis of faith. Sometimes at this point, we must look for and call on others for help, for both encouragement and criticism. We may face our version of an irreconcilable conflict: By nature some of us are used to going it alone; we came to writing in part because of our solitary natures. Seek help from others? That would be personal blasphemy. But blasphemy may be exactly what is needed.
In this process, the writer may also be called to change his relationship with those he sees as thwarting forces. For instance, what if he looks at those who have criticized his work or who have refused it as threshold guardians? Like the warrior guardians of Japanese temples, they may, if he looks or listens more closely, be offering him a key to the next door or passage, a password that will help him cross the border.
In Campbell’s description of threshold guardians, as in the earlier example of C. K. Williams from Garrett Hongo’s Volcano, it’s obvious that teachers often function as such figures: We may at first see them as fiercely opposing, as criticizing our work and ambitions, only to realize later that they were trying to prepare us for the difficulties ahead, for the real nature of the journey. Those who were thwarted or scared off by these threshold guardians were never meant to complete the journey; those who persisted and learned from the teacher eventually moved on.
Sometimes we must learn from a teacher we may not particularly like, or we may need to acquire a new technique. Picasso could draw easily at twelve; it took Cézanne till he was forty to consciously learn what came to Picasso naturally. But then Cézanne’s talent took off.
What is required then is openness, flexibility, a willingness to entertain something new. For writers, the crisis of the second act means we must be willing to revise both ourselves and our writing, and perhaps even our relationship with the outside world. The crisis doesn’t mean that we can’t complete the journey; it instead is a signal telling us what the journey requires. We can only listen to what it is telling us or refuse to listen.
It is helpful to know that others have experienced what you are experiencing, that even the greatest of writers must suffer and persist through their doubts. It comes with the territory and the task; there’s no getting around it. All you can do is plow your way through.
One mistake lies in thinking you must know exactly where you are going or exactly what the final destination is. The trick is to keep moving, as much inside yourself, as outside. Here’s the way the Sufi poet Rumi put it, recognizing that the greatest and most difficult distances we travel are generally internal:
Keep walking though there’s no place to get to.
Don’t try to see through the distances.
That’s not for human beings. Move within,
but don’t move the way fear makes you move.
(trans. Coleman Barks)
But of course, faith is not always easy, especially when disaster seems all about you and defeat impending, when your mistakes echo in your ear along with a loud sense of your own limitations.
It is at that point that perhaps it’s useful to remember: This is where your journey has led you; you could be nowhere else but here. This is what you signed up for.
No hero’s journey, no great feat, can be accomplished without the crisis of the second act, without facing what seems at first utter failure or the seeming end. But eventually, the hero discovers that despite dwelling in a dark hour, this is not the time to give up. Yes, you may have made mistakes, but now you can learn from them. Yes, you may have misjudged the situation, but now you can reassess. Yes, you may feel alone, but now is the time when the people who can help you are at hand if you are able to readjust your vision, if you decide to reach out. Yes, you may be tired or depressed, but perhaps that fatigue or depression is what you need to spur a search for a new vision. It is preparation for the work to come.
As Rumi instructs: Don’t let fear stop or guide you. All you can do is continue to have faith, continue to change yourself. Ask yourself what the next step is and make that step. Keep walking. Keep writing.*
* As with a single book, a writer’s career is also a journey. As one progresses as a writer, the books often don’t come any easier. Early success, like the first stages of the hero’s journey, can give way to thorny difficulties and the specter of failure, the crises of midcareer and middle age. Each book may present its own three-act play, but one’s career can also unfold in three acts.
Here the writer must struggle against a vision of the journey that entails a series of mounting successes as the true and natural progression—something that is rarely, if ever, the case. The transformations one undergoes in a lifetime of writing inevitably involve many highs and lows, moments of faith and doubt, successes, yes, perhaps, but also seeming failures and genuine failures.
It’s important, then, to look at one’s immediate circumstances in terms of the long run and the strange vicissitudes of the psyche’s growth. This change in the temporal perspective is crucial here. Things look different when you know you are not in the third act of the villain’s or the enemy’s triumph but instead in the middle of your own second act. The third act is yet to begin.
Of course, getting through the crisis of the second act is much more difficult than my brief descriptions above imply. It’s easy to understand such things conceptually; it’s much more difficult to live through them, to undergo real change. Real—not cosmetic or facile—change. Deep change.