Message to my younger self: Lifewriting

I cannot nail down the “single most important” realizations of my life, but I can point to moments when a light went on in my head.   And knowing how confused and afraid I was as a child, how uncertain I was that I’d ever be able to find a life of meaning, if I could send a message back to my younger self, some of these moments would be among them.


The entire “Lifewriting” concept was just like this.   I was teaching a “Writer’s Toolbox” for Linda Venus at UCLA about 25 years ago.  Good class, dealing with the psychological and emotional, tactical and strategic tools and attitudes that enable you to leverage your skills and abilities to maximize your odds of success as a writer.  We were half-way through the second day, and a student raised his hand.


“Mr. Barnes,” he said. “You’ve given us all kinds of great tools about flow state management, and fear, and brainstorming and other stuff, but I just don’t think I’m going to be able to use it.”

“Why not?”

“Well,” he said, “my job takes so much of my time, my wife needs me to be more engaged at home, and my kids don’t understand what I’m trying to do…”

(and by the way…when people spend more time describing why they CAN’T do something than brainstorming ways to accomplish it, it is a fair bet that their breaker switch is set to “fail” in that arena.)

I listened to him carefully.  I’ve spoken of this moment hundreds of times, but am still not quite certain what happened. All I know is that I’d once heard a claim that “from time to time life gives you a cubic inch of opportunity.  Either you grab it or its gone forever.”


Well, life gave me one of mine at that moment.   I don’t know where it came from, but I said:


“Well, if you were a character in a story you were writing, and you knew that at the end of that story the character got everything they wanted, what would you have him do next?”


The room went dead quiet.  I could almost see the steam come flooding out of his ears. And then slowly, he began to say: “well…I could take my lunch to work, and eat at my desk instead of going out.   That would get me some time.  And it would save money, which would make my wife happy, and I bet that if I swapped chores with her at home, I could create some more time. And if I helped my kids see how much fun it would be to have a dad who was a published writer, I bet I could enroll them in the process too…”


And I was gobsmacked. Here was a guy who had been nothing but obstacles not ninety seconds earlier, and now he was Mr. Possibility.


I asked the same question of others in the room, and the result was the same: pure creative problem solving.  My mind was buzzing when I got home, and asked Toni (my wife at the time) if she thought something worth investigating had happened, and she agreed.


I spent the next week researching psychology, goal setting, and problem solving trying to get a clue, and finally dipped into Joseph Campbell’s HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES.  Here, I came across a quote that went something like this: “cultural stories are depersonalized personal dreams, and personal dreams are the personalized cultural stories.”  


What?  There was a connection between the stories we watched on the screen, or read in books, and what was going on in our lives?  Seems like child’s play now, but I was stunned.


And the next thought was: why?  And the answer was: what if story was the combined wisdom of the elders of the tribe, describing events.  That’s the way it would have started, you know.  People describing what had happened in the day (“this is how we hunted the zebra”) as a real thing, before anyone twisted the story into something fantastical, or tried to create an origin myth. And those who told stories best held the attention better, which allowed the information to translate most efficiently and effectively, creating better hunters.


In other words, storytelling is a SURVIVAL SKILL. It allows us to organize information in a pattern that we emotionally identify with, and therefore remember and imprint more deeply.


There are many interpretations of the inter-cultural pattern that Campbell extracted from countless stories ancient and modern, and I tweaked it to fit my own purposes.  And the following ten-step pattern emerged, which I”m going to relate to the film made by a Campbellian admirer, George Lucas, STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE.  Note that these are suggested steps–one might extract others.  This is art, not math.


  1. The hero is confronted with a challenge (“come with me, Luke.  Learn the Ways of the Force”
  2. The hero rejects the challenge (usually because of fear or lack of belief it is a worthy path.  “I promised Uncle Owen I’d work on the moisture evaporators”)
  3. The hero is allowed to or forced to accept the challenge (Aunt and Uncle slaughtered.  “Teach me to be a Jedi like my father”)
  4. The hero sets out on the Road of Trials. (Mos Eisley Cantina, Alderaan’s wreckage, the Death Star, etc.)
  5. Along the path he/she meets allies and gains powers (Princess Leia, Chewbacca, Han, etc.  Light Sabers, The Force, being a leader, etc.)
  6. Initial confrontation with evil, leading to defeat (the death of Obi-Wan)
  7. The Dark Night of the Soul (attack on Death Star.   Other ships being destroyed, Rebel base about to be lasered)
  8. The Leap of Faith (always faith in one of three things: self, companions, or Higher Power.  “Trust your feelings, Luke”)
  9. Confront Evil, and succeed.  Death Star blown up.
  10. Student becomes the teacher (or movement to the higher level, return to the village with the elixir, etc.    Han and Luke given medals, which represent acknowledgement of extraordinary behavior to be emulated.  )


Any time you organize events into this pattern, people will recognize it as a story.  To make a GOOD story you have to understand the emotional changes triggered by every step…and then jazz with it.  You don’t just play them all in order like hitting each of the 88 keys of a piano in order with the precise same intensity.   You hit them, repeat them, stagger them, change the tempo, expand and contract, play them backwards or inside out…the more sophisticated the audience, the more you can minimalize your presentation of the steps and they will fill in the gaps for themselves, and in fact enjoy your omission or inversion of a critical step.


I would say that there is no story that reaches any kind of social awareness that I cannot put into some version of this pattern, even if much of the pattern is only “suggested”, in the same way that if you know geometry if you give me three points I can draw the rest of the circle.




The point is that if this pattern grew out of countless billions of human experiences over thousands of years, then if you can identify where you are on the pattern YOU ALREADY KNOW what is coming next!


  1. You have to recognize that something must change.
  2. Deal with the fear and emotional obstructions
  3. Make a commitment to change
  4. Take consistent action
  5. Gather resources and allies to fill the “gap” between your current status and the abilities you will need to solve the problem (and you can figure out what you’ll need by modeling the behaviors and attitudes and strategies of others who have succeeded)
  6. Prepare for failure.  It is INEVITABLE along a path of significant growth.
  7. Prepare for depression and the feeling of defeat. It is INEVITABLE.
  8. Find something to have faith in, something deeper and larger than your ego.
  9. If you take the previous steps, you maximize your change of success. What will you do then?  How will you take that opportunity and launch yourself to the next level?
  10. Share what you have learned with others.  As individuals, humans aren’t much smarter than chimps.   What really sets us apart is our ability to network and pass on complex instructions from one generation to the next. We preserve more information than we lose.   Multiplied over billions of human beings this has made a staggering difference. An culture cut off from this information flow becomes stuck in the past.


This pattern is almost “cheating”, taking the long view when every day your nose is stuck against the grind stone.


What would I have said to my younger self?  Well…as a kid, I wanted three things that all seemed impossible:

  1. To be a successful writer
  2. To be a martial artist
  3. To have a family to love and protect


I’d never met a successful writer, and in fact almost everyone I knew tried to tell me I couldn’t do it.   I was small, weak, shy and fearful. The notion of being a fighter seemed like purest fantasy.  And girls made it very very clear to me that I wasn’t attractive enough, not powerful and confident enough to be attractive to them.  I had no father in the home to show me the way.


Everything I wanted seemed totally out of reach.   But if I had consciously understood this pattern, the way ahead would have been clear.   I’ll go into specifics soon…but if you were to look at your own goals in body, career, and emotions, can you see how to adapt this pattern?  Because if you organize your resources along this pattern, you can get fantastic leverage over yourself.  Your goal setting, discipline, fear management, team-building, prayer and meditation, teaching and learning…all of it, arranged in a syntax that countless elders have used throughout history saying to the youngsters of the tribe:


“This is what your life will be, young man, young woman.”  Come with us, and we will teach you to awaken, and enter the adult world.”


This pattern may be the single most powerful discovery of my life.  And now it is yours.




If you would like support in applying these concepts to your life, please try a month of LIFEWRITING PREMIUM at


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