The Hero’s Journey and the Writing Process
Jun 01, 2014 11:26PM
● By Leslie Cahill
Most writers are well aware of the profound influence of Hero’s Journey on contemporary literature. From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to To Kill a Mockingbird to Harry Potter, this fundamental three-act structure from American scholar Joseph Campbell is at the heart of nearly any classic tale. The Hero leaves the security of his daily life to respond to the call of adventure, enters unknown territory (figurative or literal) where he encounters myriad helpers and hindrances to his quest, and ultimately returns home forever changed. This format is so entrenched in the modern psyche that many of us do not even recognize its recurrence in the mythology of our culture.
Yet the Hero’s Journey also serves as a poignant metaphor for the creative act itself. The writing process demands that the writer, as Hero, step out of the comfort of ordinary life. It requires that the writer embrace the confusion of the unknown, reconcile the cognitive and emotional dissonance that begets inspiration and breakthrough, and ultimately create a work of art through which the writer is transformed. In embarking upon this roller coaster of a process, there is comfort in turning to the Hero’s Journey archetype. By understanding its resonances, a writer can begin to appreciate the universality of the experience, process and craft. In other words, as Heroes, we are not alone.
Mario Vargas Llosa, in his acceptance speech for the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, described the advent of story in human history as a “crucial moment in our destiny.” It created the opportunity for humankind to move beyond a mode of existence focused exclusively on survival to one in which dreams and ambitions could be pursued. “Ours will always be, fortunately, an unfinished story. That is why we have to continue dreaming, reading and writing; [it is] the most effective way we have found to alleviate our mortal condition, to defeat the corrosion of time, and to transform the impossible into possibility,” Llosa concludes.
The Hero’s Journey yields a view of life in which transformation is predicated on this open ending. Despite the ubiquity of the journey, within each of us it is lived anew. It does not have a fixed or pre-determined outcome; it thrives on uncertainty, and the ability to embrace new and unexpected possibilities. It is, fortunately, an unfinished story.
Leslie Cahill serves on the faculty for the Master of Arts in Writing and Oral Tradition at The Graduate Institute, a multi-disciplinary program that focuses on the Hero’s Journey and its impact on the writing process. Classes begin June 6. For more information, visit Learn.edu/Writing. See ad, page 3.