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The Writer’s Journey

My son pulled a book from the bookstore shelf the other day that he thought might be good for my writing students: The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.

It is written for screenwriters (which I’m not – at least not so far), so I’d never noticed it before. But I was immediately drawn to the hedge labyrinth on the cover for its symmetry and symbolism, recalling my days at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine and my early search for my writer’s voice. It all began with the exploration of myth.

I hadn’t thought of it in a while. I had long ago learned how to create a story without a distinct, preordained template, but as I paged through the book, I saw that it turned on the theme of some of my earliest writings: The Hero’s Journey.

I’m probably showing my age here, but I remember distinctly when the freedom and daring to write a long, plotted novel came to me. It was while watching Bill Moyers’ fantastic conversations with Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”, on PBS.

In that series of insightful interviews, Campbell embellished on the classic structure of the heroic “monomyth“: the hero’s call to adventure that takes him out of the ordinary world; his descent into darkness, enduring terrible trials and ordeals; and his eventual return, usually older or almost certainly wiser.

It was such a strong and obvious journey – one I knew I could follow. And I did. My first novel was based on it; and in some ways perhaps all that has followed has fit some version of that mold.

It brought to mind a saying that there are only three basic plots, but infinite variations. I looked it up online and found infinite variations on the saying itself, and exponential granularity in the distinct central themes of those supposedly limited plots.

It made me think of a fractal, which is a geometrical structure that expresses itself with ever increasing complexity, creating endless and fascinating variations. They are everywhere in nature: in microscopic strands of DNA, in the unfurling of a fern, in the staggering structure of a giant redwood tree, in the jagged contours of the Himalayas.

Can it be that our play with words is part of that same unfolding magnificence? Are we simply following the natural path set out for us, but taking our own route? Each step and story leads us farther on our own writer’s journey, which can be heroic indeed.

I have no doubt that there’s much to be learned from Christopher Vogler’s “The Writers Journey”. Though I haven’t read it yet, it’s been added to my towering, ever more precarious pile.

About Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

2 comments on “The Writer’s Journey

  1. Moses Haygood
    January 29, 2011

    Judith,

    You hit on a very interesting topic, multitudes from a single source. A PBS documentary on Jason and the Argonauts made a similar point, stating that James T. Kirk and his crew were merely the most recent incarnation of Jason’s voyage. From my “basic” understanding of Campbell’s work, fiction comes from a few fundamental source myths and like your fractal reference, writers continue to uncoil their own version of these fundamental stories. It is a journey I find myself on both in my work and in life.

    Please continue your labors in this forum, in print and in the classroom. They all are appreciated by your many fans and students and at times give credence to my morning coffee. Mug in hand, I can stare out the window without guilt because your insights have sparked inspiration within the limited gland between my eyes.

    Moses

  2. Judith
    January 30, 2011

    Hi, Moses. Welcome to The Writers Circle. I’m glad you’ve found us. I took a look at your own blog. What a fascinating journey you’ve had! I hope you find your way through blogging and more. Thanks for coming out of the shadows and joining us.

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