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 file.com]

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.

The Hero’s Journey (Is to Find Key Lime Pie)

Last Bite

The final day, the final pie, the final (sob!) bite.
Crusty shot by Jessie Rosen

Many writers have drawn on an ancient structure of storytelling, where a hero is on a quest for something bigger than him or herself, travels to wondrous places, encounters titanic obstacles and challenges, wins a decisive victory and returns to share the bounty. Joseph Campbell explored this narrative pattern, the monomyth, in Hero with a Thousand Faces, upon which the Star Wars movies were based. But neither Campbell nor George Lucas ever told you that the quested object was actually Key Lime pie.

They didn’t tell you, because they wanted it all to themselves.

I know that because I have just returned from the Florida Keys, where for five days I had Key Lime pie with every meal. You might think that would have exhausted any further investigation into Key Lime pie for the rest of my days. Your thought would be wrong.

It took strength, courage and discernment for a group of five writers (and one relentlessly hungry trip leader) to take on the solemn responsibility of approaching each piece of pie on its own merits, and the debates were many and heated. Meringue or whipped cream? Tart or sweet? Graham cracker crust or ginger snaps? And what about the subtleties: high meringue or low? Add a sliver of coconut? A tot of coffee? Swords—or at least forks—are drawn over lesser matters.

The Place of Pie in Personal Evolution

Those “they” that say all the things they say, say travel is broadening. They weren’t talking about spiritual insights and personal evolution; they were talking about belly-patting pleasures. Our group paddled on gleaming waters, gaped at remote national parks, pulled colorful fish from the deep sea and much more, but really, journeys are all about the food. The Keys will ply you with the freshest of fish, the richest of sauces, the most fritterish of conchs. But the key that both closes the door on the meal and opens the palate all over again is the Key Lime pie.

One of the writerly stalwarts on this hero’s journey was photojournalist Seattle Dredge (and could there ever be a better novelist’s character name for an intrepid female detective?). At first I found it curious that she took photographs of every dish at every meal. Sure, food porn shots have been a popular pursuit for photographers for a while, but every dish? But then I started to get into it, and was actually worried once or twice that she might overlook one of the meals (and more worried yet that a slice of pie might escape the lens). But no, every piece of pie was locked into digital history.

I hope that some grinning mountaineer has put a piece of Key Lime pie on top of Everest, where it will wait for yet one more hero to surmount the great mount, taste its icy tartness, and bring the rest back to those waiting below, handing monomyth and meringue forward into the future.

PS

While I was in the Keys, I was given The Ultimate Key Lime Pie Cookbook. The book suggests there are 150,000 pie combinations. Now that is a hero’s journey.