The Hero's Journey — "We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned…"

Originally published May 29, 2016

I’m the nervous sort. Put it down to ADHD – Attention Deficit, Hyperactive –something or other. The more scientific acronym is NEAWINI; Not Enough Alcohol When I Need It. To that issue, my doctor suggested I cut down on sugar, so I am excluding all sweets and only drinking whiskey for dessert.

Where was I, oh yes, I am the nervous sort, always moving my hands, fidgeting, can’t sit still, it’s impossible to pay attention. If you tell me your name, I forget it almost before it fully comes out of your mouth. I am easily distracted and have severe abandonment issues. Yet despite those mild handicaps, I manage to produce novels.

I even gave a speech on it recently at the State Library to some very attentive and patient folks. It went something like this.

Hemingway, when asked what it takes to be a writer, answered – “A lousy childhood.” Well, I’m not so sure I had a lousy childhood, but if that is all it takes to be a novelist, I reserve a collective review of my work to determine how lousy it was.

It takes imagination at least, and a lot of hard work. Writers are like gods – though we never associate the term hard work with them – we have to make rock out of loam, diamonds out of decomposed organisms. With our hands sticking out of the clouds on our worlds, we get to determine who wins and who doesn’t.

Before I was published, I reached out to over 30 agents and publishers before landing one and that was by chance. And persistence. When I was single, I would always go after the very beautiful women. My friends would always tell me that I was out of my league. To which I said, “It’s a numbers game,” and sooner or later I scored and the payoff was monumental.

The same persistence applies to any sort of sales, and yes, writers are in the sales>
Oscar Wilde said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Ø Henry Ford went bankrupt 5 times before making it.


Ø  Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper because he lacked imagination and good ideas, and he went bankrupt before hitting on the Mouse.

Ø  Churchill failed the 6th grade and was 61 when he became Prime Minister.

Ø Colonel Sanders went belly up multiple times before KFC came to him in his 50’s.

Ø Van Gogh sold only 1 painting in his lifetime – to a friend.

Ø Charles Schultz was rejected by Walt Disney.

Ø Stephen King had 30 rejections and threw his manuscript in the can when his wife fished it out and urged him to go on.

Ø This last one makes me feel anything is possible if you put your mind to it – Jack London had 600 rejections.

Persistence pays off. What all these people had in common was what Joe Campbell called “Following your bliss.” Joseph Campbell was an American philosopher, Mythologist, writer and lecturer best known for his work in comparative mythology and religion. His work covers many aspects of human behavior besides mythology.

“Myth,” he writes, “is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human manifestation…”

Studying this man has opened my eyes to a brave new world.

His best quote stands to this day as a bastion of truth over adversity. “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

There is a pattern, he writes, hidden in every story ever told,” and he called it, “The hero’s journey.”

So that we should be able to find this journey he challenges us to “Follow our Bliss.”

Every story had this theme. The hero, for whatever reason, is faced with a challenge he must complete, or die trying. In fiction, the hero never dies. Well, almost never.

The difference between life and fiction is fiction has to make sense. In fiction, the hero takes the challenge so that we have a story. Think of Star Wars, the classic battle between good and evil. Better yet, think of Tolkien’s Trilogy, “The Lord of The Rings.”

Joseph Campbell
Joseph Campbell – 1904-1987

What Campbell found was that we all have within us this challenge. He uses the Dragon. In Frodo’s case – Mount Doom. He climbs mountains, must choose the correct path, and avoid temptation, in order to fulfill his challenge. Frodo taught us that if we persevere, if we fight our way to the end, to stand in front of the dragon, the fiery pit of DOOM, Joseph Campbell assures us that we will find not the dragon, or Sauron, but ourselves.

Frodo taught us that if we persevere, if we fight our way to the end, to stand in front of the dragon, the fiery pit of DOOM, Joseph Campbell assures us that we will find not the dragon, or Sauron, but ourselves.

All Frodo had to do was throw the ring into the fire of Mordor, and he’d be free of his burden, free to go home to the Shire and live his life as before. But it was HIS evil that kept him from doing this, his personal dragon – Sméagol. Sméagol had to die so that Frodo could triumph. So he could have the life that was waiting for him. And be sure it was not the life he left behind.

We face no dragon, no external force, but only ourselves. Sméagol was Frodo’s inner dragon.

Albert Camus in The Stranger, speaks to the absurdity of life. His character suffers from ennui, and mindlessly murders a man on a hot Algerian beach, and faces his consequences. Camus called it, “The nakedness of a man faced with the absurd.”

I would rather have my characters face what I call, “An ordinary man thrust into extraordinary situations.”

In the end, Frodo found what all heroes find, that it is not the dragon, the Mordor that fights us and keeps us from our life that is meant for us, but our own feelings of insecurity, doubt, failing. And once we overcome those feelings, once we allow our Sméagol to fall into his own fearful self, then and only then can we find the Bliss.

“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

How To Create Realistic Characters

Hot and sexy characters win out

How does life differ from fiction, you may find yourself asking yourself. The most common answer I’ve heard at least is that fiction has to make sense, life does not. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of novel writing are the characters and what do you do with them.

We can gain insight into our characters by looking within ourselves.

As the Greek gods are doing in the photograph, we must look within ourselves to find something we can believe in.

Not only must we find the character, but we also have to build him, create his life much like God created Adam out of clay, for indeed we are playing at god when we write. And as we play at god, we should make sense of the lives we create. I mean they can’t just start begetting people. They are not to be taken on faith, because faith has no place in fiction. They must be drawn from within our own souls.

Hemingway said, “…Whatever success I have had has been through writing what I know about.” And then when we do that, we can make them real.

Truth is the most important part of writing. For, as Mark Twain once said, “If you always tell the truth, you never have to remember anything.” How true. For example, in literature at least you shouldn’t have your killer do some good deed like save a tiny bird from a cat, and have him in the next chapter, mutilate a young woman and enjoy it. You could have him love and cherish his pet birdie, only to cook it alive in the next chapter. That would be cool.

James Campbell
LONDON – APRIL 20: James Patterson, the best selling author in the world, attends The London Book Fair 2009 at Earls Court on April 20, 2009 in London, England. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

Building an outline often helps. Starting from the bones, and adding flesh. James Patterson works religiously with this method. There is a man I admire greatly. I actually know him on a personal level. I once took his online course in the Master Class series, “James Patterson Teaches Writing,” and I felt a personal connection. He actually talked to me, though like on TV he couldn’t see me, but I could see him. 

That’s the truth.

If Writing Were Like Eating Pies, We'd All Be Doing It!

Writing is like eating pies; sometimes it’s all you can think of.

“So you like pies, do you?”

When asked what it takes to be a good writer, Ernest Hemingway said, “A lousy childhood.”

He is also quoted in a great book, The Green Hills of Africa, p. 22, as saying this:

“All modern American Literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called, Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.

“But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

He’s being modest of course. Hemingway fits right in there between “before,” and “since.” I personally can think of two authors who fit into the “since” category. One is Cormac McCarthy, and the other is Kurt Vonnegut. American, mind you – and since I am telling this story, no others count.

So before anyone can write a book, a short story, or a sentence, they have to read, read, read. A good place to start is with any book I have written. Since they pale in comparison to any of the authors I’ve just mentioned, I won’t look too bad. But seriously. Start with Huck Finn. Twain is Shakespeare simplified. Reading should not feel like you are reading, and that is what Twain does.

After Twain, Ernest is right. There is a void in American lit. And then came, A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s third novel about a soldier and his love of a nurse he meets while being treated in a hospital during WWI. Hemingway’s art is in his dialogue. He has a style of writing so different from anybody before or since. If you were to write like him today, it would be difficult to get published. It’s tough enough, and today’s editor, trained in today’s educational system, would not know what to do with it.

Kurt Vonnegut, with The Sirens of Titan, writes in his own genre. He talks of his early years when publishers wanted to place him in the science fiction genre. But they were wrong. While a lot of his storylines were of a fantastic theme, he wrote about the human tragedy. But he did it in a philosophically humorous way. And with a sardonic twist which always leaves us smiling. And if we read it again and maybe once more, we may get it.

Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road, is written with a reality and truthfulness that makes us think. I guess you can call it “literature.”

The Road pulls us into the mind of a man tortured in a post-apocalyptic world with the task of keeping his son alive in hopes of finding a place where good might still trump the evil that has taken over the few humans left alive, where life, as it was, might still be. A place where mankind hasn’t been stripped of civilization – that outer shell that binds us to what Spinoza referred to when he suggested that God has determined the universe down to the last detail.

McCarthy’s protagonist holds the belief that God still exists regardless of the lack of civilization. He is put to the test – down to his last breath. It is one of the few books that literally left me crying. Not because of its philosophy, but because of McCarthy’s ability to put it into words.

Images from The Road

What tells of a good author is what McCarthy did in this book. He did all this, told a story and never once does he explain what caused the apocalyptic event that ended life as we know it. And you know, I don’t remember asking that question either. He told his story through his frank and simple prose. 

That answers the question; “What does it take to be a writer?”