Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Secret Message in All Stories – Heather Dyer

According to Joseph Campbell, all stories contain certain elements – or archetypal motifs – in common. He designed a universal story structure or ‘mythic archetype’ that he called The Hero’s Journey.

Typically, the hero (whom Campbell is careful to say can be masculine or feminine) faces various challenges and meets archetypal characters who perform specific roles. The hero confronts a dragon or the equivalent, and either dies or appears to die in order to be resurrected. Only then does he receive a boon, or gift, which he takes back to the known world to benefit humanity.

The mythic archetype fits nicely into the other recognized ‘story structures’ such as the 3-act structure, the 5-act structure, and the 8-point plot arc. Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, recognized the pattern of The Hero's Journey in contemporary literature and film, and interpreted Campbell’s structure for use by Hollywood screenwriters. The Hero’s Journey, says Vogler, represents ‘the pattern that lies behind every story ever told’.

But if all stories adhere to this archetype – more or less – might there be an underlying message contained within this pattern, which remains consistent despite the content or theme of a story?

I am studying the mythic archetype for my doctoral thesis at the moment, and it occurs to me that The Hero’s Journey is in fact a metaphor for the creative process itself.

The Creative Journey

Look at the five-step process of creativity as described by people like Milhay Csikszentmihalyi:

1. a period of preparation, of ‘becoming immersed, consciously or not, in a set of problematic issues’
2. … followed by a period of incubation, during which ‘ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness
3. … which leads to one or more insights
4. … followed by a period of evaluation during which the person ‘must decide whether the insight is valuable and worth pursuing’
5. … and finally, elaboration, which consists of applying the insight or doing the work.

When Vogler studied The Hero's Journey, he said, ‘I came looking for the design principles of storytelling, but on the road I found something more; a set of principles for living’. I conclude that the principle for living is: ‘live creatively’.

In both the creative and mythic journeys, the hero or creative individual must first experience a sort of dissatisfaction with the way things are (often translated into a desire for something specific, which is often not what’s needed!). This desire motivates the hero or creative individual to leave the familiar behind, step off the familiar tracks, and venture into the unknown.

After a series of challenges and trials during which the tensions between opposites increase and the hero or creative individual gathers information and experience, there follows a period of incubation, in which the hero or creative person must defeat his or her own ego, since self-annihilation – or a deconstruction of the old self (or a letting-go of old ideas) is necessary in order to assimilate new knowledge. Once the gift of insight has been received, the creative hero must then bring the story full circle by returning to the known world and applying the new insight to benefit themselves and the world at large.

So, to live creatively like the hero we need to leave our assumptions and certainties behind, go bravely into that state of ‘not-knowing’, tolerate uncertainty and rise above our egoic fears and conditioned thinking in order to acquire new insights and expand our consciousness.

If we don’t do this, we end up enslaved by our conditioned thinking, defensive and insecure, stuck in our ruts, and intolerant of change. We can see this happening in the world around us now, and we have a choice: to grow, or die.

Only by adopting this creative mindset can we become the creative heroes of our own lives and of the world in general – which has been the message implicit in the archetypal structure of our stories all along...

Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow


Penny Dolan said...

What an interesting and encouraging way of seeing the hero's journey. Thank you!

Andrew Preston said...

Fortunately it's not quite as linear and deterministic as Vogler, and say, Jung, put it.

I recall reading something about Freud metaphorically banging his head against a wall...
"....sake, every time I come up with a new theory, I find that some artist, or poet has got there first.."

Rowena House said...

Interesting post. Thank you. Vogler seems to have fallen a bit out of fashion these day, and I do find him too self-assured & all-encompassing at times, but I agree there's lots to be admired in his book: practical advice as well as philosophising.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I've been using the Hero's Journey in my Year 8 English classes for some time and you know what? It works. Once I've spoken to the kids about how adventure stories more or less boil down to... and shown them some trailers for films they know and like, they completely get it and suggest other stories that fit the pattern. Then I give them a template to help them break down their story outlines according to the HJ. I'm currently doing it with an EAL class and one lad has come up with a classic and detailed HJ story outline. A girl in a previous class wrote a 9000 word adventure using it! And these are children...

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks for the comments. Interesting, Sue, about it being useful for creating a story. I usually find I work the other way around, writing willy-nilly then realizing the 'right' storyline adheres to the journey...! Of-course Campbell says it's recursive and doesn't have to be linear, just like the creative process. But I agree, it does seem to fit, doesn't it? It's the pattern of growth - breaking out of our old set ways - it's that simple.