Many years ago, I was teaching a “writer’s toolbox” class at UCLA, and we were having a great time with subjects like brainstorming, flow state management, structure, characterization and so on. On the second day a student raised his hand.
“Mr. Barnes,’ he said. “You’ve given us so many wonderful tools, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to use them.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“well, my wife doesn’t support my desire to be a writer. My kids take a LOT of energy at home, and my job just chews up the rest of my time…” I could feel the energy draining out of the room as everyone began to slot their own excuses and obstacles into what the first man had said. I was on the edge of losing them.
There is an expression that “from time to time life gives you a cubic inch of opportunity. You either grab it, or it is gone forever.”
I got one at that moment. “Well,” I said. “If you were a character in a story you were writing, and at the end of that story the character got everything he wanted, what would you have him do next?”
I watched his eyes cross and the steam come out of his ears. And then, slowly, he began to speak. “Well…I could trade chores with my wife, do more of the heavy things that take less time, to make more time for myself. I could enlist my kids by making them think it would be cool to have a dad who is a published writer. I could take my lunch to work with me and eat at my desk…”
I was gobsmacked. Here, just a few seconds earlier, he had given up hope. And now he was generating all of his own answers. I asked the rest of the class the same question, and they started generating positive suggestions so fast they couldn’t write them down.
I drove home that night in a daze. What had happened? Over the next few days I researched obsessively, looking for answers. And about three days later I came across the work of Joseph Campbell. A literature professor and expert on world mythologies, he developed a theory called the “mono-myth”, the notion that there is a single story underlying all world literature.
To the degree that Campbell was correct WHY was he correct? Why is there a common pattern? Whether you listen to African griots, New York Playwrights, Eskimo shamans or Celtic bards…why is there a common core? Well, he also was quoted as saying that world mythology is the extension of our personal stories, and our personal stories are the personifications of our cultural myths. That there is a connection between the external stories we tell, and the internal way we represent our experience and order our memories.
That what he called “the Hero’s Journey” is, in essence a distillation of actual life experience as we grow and change and learn. This pattern has been expressed many ways, and my interpretation is as follows, applied here to the first “Star Wars” movie, “A New Hope”:
- The Hero is confronted with a challenge. (“Come with me, Luke! Learn the ways of the Force!”)
- The Hero rejects the challenge. (“I promised Uncle Owen I’d fix the moisture evaporators”)
- Acceptance of the challenge (“teach me to be a Jedi like my father”)
- The road of Trials (traveling to Mos Eisley cantina, Alderaan, the Death Star, etc.)
- Gathering of allies and powers (Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, R2-D2, etc.)
- Confront Evil–defeated (Obi-Wan dies)
- Dark Night of the Soul (the Death Star attack is failing)
- Leap of Faith (in his own powers, in The Force, in Han Solo)
- Confront Evil–victory (Blowing up the Death Star)
- The Student becomes the teacher (Luke and Han get medals, the group applauds)
I suggest a theory: what if stories are the way that the tribal elders pass the most important life lessons to the children? What if they are saying “this is the way life will be! You will be challenged. You will be frightened, but must accept them anyway if you are to grow. The way will be hard and confusing, so choose your companions and role models carefully, so that you can learn the skills that you will need. And if you are facing a great challenge there WILL be defeat and loss, so you must prepare yourself emotionally IN ADVANCE for this stress. But if you do these things, and keep faith, you will win and grow. Then, when you do, you must help the next person along the path by showing them the way.”
This notion was the origin of the “Lifewriting” system of personal development, and it underlies the “Soulmate Process” which prepares us to find and nurture healthy relationships.
Let’s apply those steps. At some point in your life you will crave a partner. There may well be fear or insecurity associated with this need, but you will date and seek love anyway. You’ll kiss a lot of frogs looking for that prince/princess, but look to those who have had successful healthy lasting relationships to learn the truth of how they work, and who you need to be to find one. Eventually, you will fall in love, and in all likelihood the first time(s) you will have your heart broken. It will feel like the end of the world, but eventually you will pull yourself out of it, and try again…and again. And if you do, and keep learning, and maintain an open heart you will eventually meet The One, and bond. And then…if you live and love with joy you yourself become a role model for those who follow.
That pattern is eternal, and universal. It is the story of almost every human being seeking love, and once you see the pattern you can apply it to ANY task in life, but love is so central that I invite you to apply it there first.
If there is a single most important step, it might be “allies and powers”: to find role models of people who have loved successfully for over twenty years. Ask them of their struggles, and triumphs. Ask their advice. How they met, how they wooed, how they maintain the passion in their relationships.
Keep track of the answers, and you’ll start seeing the patterns. Once you see them, you have an understanding of a basic aspect of life we are rarely directly taught.
And…after you have found the love you seek, be sure to share your new knowledge, would you? The children are watching, and hoping.
Love yourself…and share that love with others