Last week, I tweeted and Facebook’d a cryptic little message that went something like:
Forget writing formulas: which of YOUR life stories are you telling? The "arc," ordeals and lessons are there. USE them.
If you’re a writer…that’s HUGE. And many writers wrote back to say so.
But people who aren’t writers also wrote to thank me. That’s huge, too.
That little idea came to me while I was watching an incredible film calledMythic Journeys, which I put in my Netflix queue thinking it might be akin to Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth or Hero with a Thousand Faces. Those two books have inspired millions of writers and intrepid seekers of truth—including George Lucas, whose Star Wars films were inspired by Joe’s “hero’s journey,” which has become a the story “map” of choice for famous and fledgling fiction and screenplay writers the world over.
Mythic Journeys took Campbell’s ideas even further. And as I watched and listened…my jaw dropped repeatedly. In fact, it dropped so often that I stopped the film, ran to my computer and bought the thing fromAmazon.com—you can get it with some free goodies, too at their official site linked above.
This is a film you need to own. Even if you’re not a writer—maybe especially if you’re not a writer. In fact, I intend to buy it for all of my friends over the next few months as birthday, Christmas or just plain, “I love you this much” presents.
If you decide to watch or buy it, don’t let the weird little stop action stories, narrated by Mark Hamill and Tim Curry, put you off. Once the real people, amaaaaazing people, begin to talk…even the weird little stop action stories will begin to fascinate you.
I cannot begin to summarize all the truly life-changing things this film teaches. I’m going to stick to the things that writers, and those intrepid seekers of truth I’ve mentioned, should ponder and do.
One premise of Mythic Journeys is that “myths” are codified truths turned into stories that explain our worlds—you’ve heard this before. For millennia, they have been told as stories so that we can remember them. Some of those stories are parts of our sacred texts, and they teach our most important cultural and societal norms.
Once upon a time, every tribe had lots of myths. And lots of ceremonies and rituals through which the stories were passed down to the young folks. In fact, the film suggests that there was no “generation gap” for most of our time here on earth, because each stage of your life was explained to you through those stories and rituals by someone who had already reached whatever stage of life you were entering.
You saw your elders as the “bridge” to each new stage of life. They had been there, and if you listened carefully to their stories, the stories could get you safely across all those bridges.
The very wise people in the film are concerned that as our societies become more and more technologically advanced and less and less “cohesive,” we are having a very hard time coming up with new “myths” that tell us who we are and what we’re doing here. We are not always part of a literal or metaphorical “tribe,” or even a family. And there are no common rites of passage—some kids even join gangs looking for for that.
In lieu of myths and elder story keepers, we settle for TV news and reality shows, movies that razzle dazzle…but do not unite and inform us in our journey through life.
And here’s the HUGE part. The film insists that ‘til we find our way back to that ancient approach, there is a solution. And that solution is…to read your own life like a story.
That’s it, right there.
Your life story, carefully examined, can tell you why you’re here. The lessons you’ve learned, either voluntarily or as life dragged you along kicking and screaming through one ordeal or another, are part of what writers call a “character arc.” These events changed you, gradually, and will continue to do that as long as you live.
So once you see your life as a story with lots of lessons that have made you who you are so that you can do some very important thing you were born to do…that’s your myth. It’s ever unfolding, but the patterns are clear. And in those patterns…you’ll find everything you need to know. And each time you battle through one of those lessons, you get another tool that will help you use what you know to make a difference in Earth School.
Now…if you’re a writer, I’m going to offer a little sequence of steps that might turn this into one of the briefest but most profound little “workshops,” ever. If you’re not a writer, but you truly believe that “Know thyself” is a command, not just a bumper sticker…this is for you, too.
First, you have to tell yourself that story. Start from the first thing you remember or the first things someone else has told you about how you were born and some things you did early on, and go from there.
You can write it down, you can babble into your Webcam or the sound recording device of your choice—doesn’t matter. Just get it out there, and don’t worry about figuring it out yet. Speak it. Tell your truth. All at once, over a few days, over a few weeks, over a few months…whatever you have time to do.
As you’re doing this, underline or highlight or otherwise “mark” the episodes or life lessons that really resonate—and the ones that seem to be recurring, too. Those recurring episodes are probably trying to teach you something, and then to test you to see if you learned it. If you didn’t…another lesson, maybe a harsher lesson, probably came next.
Start paying attention to that.
And writers--those episodes? They’re the stories you keep telling when you write “fiction.” BIG, right?
Let me say it again: those life lessons you’ll find as you tell your story are often the real stories behind the stories we write. We are figuring out our own lives by telling ourselves, and others, stories about other lives.
If you know that—and many writers do, instinctively--you will have a storyline that rings true and touches hearts and minds and souls profoundly. And you will not need to pay a guru or buy a book to help you find your “plots” and “arcs” and “acts.” That life lesson has all that—you lived it! So you’ll know what your characters need to do next and next and after that and after that.
You can even write a “logline” to simplify or “crystalize” the meaning of your life lesson that you can use to live by or to write from. Try doing that the way writer Nick Thacker does it. In an email I received last weekend he turned the plot of one of his own books into a two sentence logline/pitch that takes you through the five absolutely necessary components of any plot.
(Situation) When his failing mother is given less than a year to live without expensive treatment, (Character) Captain Bryce Reynolds (Objective) decides to take a high-paying job locating a mysterious and powerful artifact. But can he bring back the artifact and save his mother when (Opponent) an ego-maniacal entrepreneur (Disaster) is hell-bent on finding the artifact as well--and destroying anyone in his way?
When YOU do it, that character is YOU, and the rest is your life’s quest—or one episode of it.
I know, right?
Situation: What situation did I find myself in or problem did I have that forced me to learn this?
Character: The character was…me…
Objective: What did I think I was doing to solve the problem?
Opponent: What obstacle or opponent got in the way?
Disaster: What disaster happened as a result of that interference?
And then take it one step further, and ask:
Lesson: In the end…what did I learn from all that?
If you can do that for YOU…you can do that for your protagonist, writers. And…we are all writers, living the greatest story, ever.
Now…get to work