The Hero’s Journey (for the One True Salad)

Yeah, I added the fig leaf to the salad

Yeah, I added the fig leaf to the salad
[image courtesy of drowninsanity on morgue]

Story-structure geeks (and I’m a mere dabbler) are well aware of Joseph Campbell’s work with the monomyth, or the Hero’s Journey, where a story’s protagonist protagonizes in a most protagonistic way. To boldly summarize (where a zillion summaries have gone before), it’s the process of challenge and life change—and in the myths, these challenges are epic—where a vision, however cloudy, is followed to its consequence.

That consequence is usually the conquering of fear, the gaining of courage, insight, resourcefulness, resiliency, and a deeper understanding of self. And because that’s pretty heavy, you might also get a nice new pair of shoes out of the deal. Lots of heavyweights (even Homeric ones) have employed the monomyth gambit: witness Odysseus (or Ulysses), in Homer’s The Odyssey, Huck Finn in his eponymous tale, ring-bearer Frodo, Luke Skywalker’s skywalking, and in contemporary times, Cheryl Strayed in Wild.

The Narrative Wings in the Monomyth House
There are a whole lotta narrative wings in the monomyth’s house; there’s the Calling, Answering the Calling, Finding Guardians, The Challenge, Answering the Challenge, Returning Home and the presence of many archetypes, like Shadows, Shapeshifters and Tricksters. Obviously, it’s a lot like growing up with siblings.

No story has to venture into all of the wings, and no story has to stuff itself to bursting with every archetype, but the structure itself, the journey, is a critical storytelling component, in all its chills and captivations.

“Road” stories are a variant of this, like Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant (and scary and sad), The Road. I borrowed the frame itself for my first novel, All Roads Are Circles, where the protagonist is a callow just-out-of-high-school lad hitchhiking across Canada, caught in a series of picaresque escapades. His quest: to lose his virginity.

I know, I know, cheap monomyth, but it is a quest, after all.

Serving the Salad
And why is there salad at the head of this blogging meal? Because we traditionally serve salads first here. But really, because yesterday, part of our Big Island Hawaiian house-sit, we drove to Hilo across the Saddle Road from Hawi. What that means is that you drive in the saddle between the substantial humps of two volcanos: Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Because Mauna Kea is a seamount, it’s actually the tallest mountain on earth, bigger than Everest. (Though it’s a mere 13,796 feet above the ground.) Its cousin across the meadow, Mauna Loa, is considered to be the largest volcano on Earth by volume. So, they ain’t punks.

And, your hands around my dithering throat, what’s the quest, you ask? Well, the Green Papaya Salad at Tina’s Gourmet Garden Café in beautiful bayside Hilo. How on God’s heavenly body can that be an example of the hero’s journey? Easy: One of these volcanos, though snoring, is still active—we could have been engulfed in fiery lava! We also got lost on a road exchange—we became slightly tense! We were vaguely running out of gas on the way home—we became vaguely anxious! All surely monomythical in their challenge.

As for the salad, we’d had it recommended to us by a friend back home: “You have to try the Green Papaya Salad at Tina’s.” So, we had the Vision, we had the Challenge, we had the Return. And we had the Salad. It was worth the quest.

All salad silliness aside, the Hero’s Journey remains a solid structure for building—and building in some variants—around, if your story is seeking such. Try it! (Oh, lots of good stuff on story structure over at Shawn Coyne’s Storygrid site.)

Bottom o’ the Page Plea
Oh, and if any of you have read my Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See, I’d love an Amazon review, no matter if you thought reading it was like changing diapers. The more reviews (and diaper changes) the better.

Mark Twain Needled Me (But We’re Still Friends)

Ignore the lack of muscles—
it's Mark Twain!

I read with interest (as well as gawked at) this Boston Phoenix piece (by way of Shelf Awareness) on a new book, The Word Made Flesh, about literary tattoos and their beaming bearers.

Besides it being provocative that some fangirl is willing to inscribe Kafka’s face and passages from his writings on her arm, I’m personally touched in that I have a lit tattoo myself, seen here in all its just post-poking bloody glory. Mr. Clemens has rested on my arm for a few years now, and he’s doing well, though he would like a fresh cigar.

I haven’t read the book, so I’m unsure of all the motivations behind needling your flesh with icons of the literary pantheon, but for me, it was an easy choice. I think Twain is the greatest American writer, for the astonishing breadth, depth and quality of his work: he wrote novels, short stories, essays, travelogues, speeches, poems and even a miserable play or two. He wrote straight journalism and crooked journalism, parody and commentary. He wrote stinging satire and fiery polemics, but also sentimental sketches.

Twain the Irascible Kitten Lover
He failed at many business enterprises, and always came back from his failures to try again. He was moody, irascible and delightful. And he liked kittens. I wrote about the power of his greatest work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in an short essay that won a small writing contest some years back. I return to his writings again and again for the insights into people and their follies, the crisp, ever-quotable turns of phrase, and the out-and-out hilarity of his characters. He was a genius.

So, I stuck him on my arm. At first, I thought maybe I should put Rodney Dangerfield there, but I went with Mr. Clemens in the end.