joseph campbell

Be Your Own Hero

If you’ve been a writer for more than five minutes, no doubt you’ve been introduced to Joseph Campbell’s work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (If not, consider this your introduction. You’re welcome.) Campbell combines psychology with mythology to uncover the connections between folk tales told in different cultures across human history.

Through his research, Campbell found a standard set of archetypes in myths told around the world. In short, stories unfold in similar ways, no matter where they originated, because humans find these story structures the most satisfying. Storytellers have used these techniques for millennia.

So we writers often follow the Hero’s Journey for our characters, but what about ourselves? From time to time, we find ourselves mired in doubt and fear; we second guess; we lose our way. It can be difficult to summon the courage to keep typing, and it is sooo much easier to settle down to a Gilmore Girls marathon on Netflix with a bowl of chips and guacamole. (I’m just guessing.)

32964445A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to attend a talk by author, editor, and coach Kendra Levin. She knows a thing or two about helping writers be confident and stay calm. In her new book, The Hero Is You, Kendra suggests that we can embark on the Hero’s Journey by placing ourselves as the hero of our own story. I’ve never thought about myself as the hero of my own story. Have you?

How can I apply this to my writing life? Heroes protect, serve, and sacrifice.

  • Protect: My time, my ideas.
  • Serve: The greater purpose, what I am trying to say to the world through my writing.
  • Sacrifice: Gilmore Girls may have to wait.

It helps to create a realistic framework for how heroes do this.

  • Goals:
    • Track your progress. For me, this could mean meeting a certain word count each day or simply ensuring I work on my writing projects daily.
    • Break your journey into manageable chunks. It’s daunting to look at my WIP and think about how many pages I have yet to write. Having a separate document for each chapter makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something.
    • Reward yourself for each milestone. Maybe I’ll watch the first episode of Gilmore Girls.
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses:
    • Strength: I’m a morning person. Get up early, get words on the page.
    • Weakness: Oh, there is something called Gilmore Girls on Netflix?
  • Allies:
    • Find your tribe. Frodo had Samwise, Luke Skywalker had Han Solo, and Lorelai had Rory. I have a dedicated and intrepid writing group. (They are terrific, and I’m not just saying that in case they read this.)



At the end of her talk, Kendra asked us two questions:

  1. What is one small step you can make in the next week to work toward your goal?
  2. What step could make the biggest impact?

I really didn’t do Kendra’s book justice in this small space. The Hero Is you: Sharpen Your Focus, Conquer Your Demons, and Become the Writer You Were Born to Be delves into the different archetypes of  the Hero’s Journey and how that relates to your writing journey. You’ll find lots of encouragement and camaraderie within the pages. 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 


Magical Helpers

This post is for Natalie.

It takes courage to be a writer. On so many levels. There’s the courage to write the truth, whether fiction or nonfiction. The courage to share your innermost thoughts with others. The courage to face rejection of those thoughts by your family, peers, critics, agents, editors. The courage to know that, however much you revise, it could always be better. The courage to fail, dust yourself off and try again.

Sometimes I don’t think I have any courage left.

But then, just when I decided to polish off an entire chocolate cake all by myself, two writers came to my rescue. One showed me I’m not alone. If she can keep on keepin’ on, then maybe I can too. In honor of her moxie, I can now admit it. Hi, I’m Jackie Cangro and my novel manuscript has been on sub for 7 months, 13 days and 4 hours.

My agent has forwarded me a few comments from editors, which were some of the nicest rejections I’ve ever received, rejections that made me confident that my manuscript is ready for prime time, but still ended with the word NO. And yet my inbox remains so empty I can hear echoes. Hallooo? Is anyone out there?

I realize twice in the past week I have asked friends, “Why is this taking so long?” And because no one has the answer to that, both responses have been the same. “You have to be patient.”  There is a fine line between patience and stupidity, no? And hovering right on that line is resentment.

Here are other bits of advice I’ve received, mostly from my calmer, saner alter ego:

You could always just write for yourself. Ya, there are lots of things I could do for myself, but writing novels ain’t one of them. People write journals for themselves or posterity, not novels.

No news doesn’t mean anything. It just means no news. Or it means that I’m so far down on my agent’s list, she has completely forgotten about me.

Remember what Janet Fitch once told you: In the literary world one can be plucked from obscurity, but there is no such thing as an overnight sensation. Tell that to Stephanie Meyer.

Your writing is just as good as (fill in the blank) if not better. Then why is (fill in the blank’s) book on the shelves (or, excuse me, on the Kindle) and mine isn’t?

The other author that came to my rescue reminded me about Joseph Campbell. Published in Slate recently was an article about  MFA vs. NYC. This idea isn’t new: Campbell had it all figured out long before there even was such a thing called Slate.

In the Hero’s Journey, Campbell singles out the life of the creative (artist or writer) who arrives at university to learn his craft. He finds masters to instruct him in the do’s and don’ts. But then he must develop his own style and break free of his teachers.

Once he leaves the cocoon of the university, he encounters the hard and cold eye of the publisher or gallery owner who demands that he give the world something fresh, yet not too unique that people won’t relate. He sees that he controls his art, but not his life. (He can paint or write or sculpt whatever he wants, but if he doesn’t paint or write or sculpt what they want, he won’t be accepted.) He can have three possible reactions.

The first is that there is no reception at all. No one cares about work he has completed. He can say, To hell with them. I’m going back home and let the weeds grow in the gate.

The second is to ask, “What do they want?” and give it to them. Now, says Campbell, the creative is marketable (“with a platform” as we say in the biz). This is when he says to himself, “When I get enough money, I’m going to stop and do my big thing.” Of course, it may not happen because he has created a body of work that doesn’t allow him to access what he had before. It is lost. (Can you say, golden handcuffs? I knew you could.)

The third is to find an audience that will receive his message and send his work through any means available.

Everyone has his or her own Hero’s Journey – you don’t have to be an artist or a writer. Some of us will follow it and some of us can’t or won’t, but all of us hit the real world at some point and we either fall in step or plot our escape and seek the freedom to do our own Big Thing. This is Campbell’s Call to Adventure: to try to live your life in the face of fear and discouragement. The drama of the Hero’s Journey is to find the magical helpers (in Campbell’s words, or what you might call mentors) who will say, from the outset, “Yes, you can do it,” and “I believe in you.”

I am searching for a few good magical helpers. (Oprah, feel free to apply.) There are so many people, including your own subconscious, who want you to stay in a box. It’s easier for them that way.  And as much as society and the media talk about “living the dream” they tend to reinforce the norm by promoting fear and sensationalism. So much so, I find, that I have trouble relying on my own intuition.

But sometimes I realize I do have some magical helpers out there, offering encouragement and goodwill, and they may not even know it.