Wednesday, June 1, 2011

HJ4W-1 The Ordinary World

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

The hero's journey, which at one level is the transition, both physically and psychologically, from dependence to independence, begins in the ordinary world.

Because it is the stuff of our common experience, it's easy to gloss over the ordinary world. And because the interesting things only happen when the hero undertakes the journey, it's easy, both in our own experience and as storytellers, to give the ordinary world short shrift.

At the most basic level, the ordinary world provides the context for and counterpoint to the hero's journey. Memories of the ordinary, simple pleasure of the Shire sustain Frodo and Sam while suffering the rigors of their journey, and fear of what might happen to their home if they fail keeps them going.

The ordinary world is also the locus--perhaps threatened, or lost when the story begins--of safety and security. This is a critical element in the hero's journey because leaving the ordinary world means crossing from the known to the unknown, the tame to the wild, the safe to the unsafe, the light to the dark.

The hero's journey for writers begins in the ordinary world of readers, where we are dependent on others for the stories in which we delight. Whether our love grows or cools as we find more to read, over time we notice our dependence and toy with the notion we might someday become authors too.

In the ordinary world of readers, we are largely ignorant of the publishing world and the often perverse ways in which it works. There are two practical consequences of this ignorance.

The first is that we enjoy the luxury of criticism. We can declare books good or bad with impunity on the strength of the fact that as readers our opinion is the only one which matters.

The second is that we grossly underestimate the effort required to produce a book. For example, there are plenty of people who look at picture books and think it would be trivial to knock out a few hundred simple words and send it off to the illustrator (completely missing the fact that a picture book has to work for both the children and the adults reading to the children). Looking at a book, we have no idea how many agonizing revisions stood between the draft and the finished product.

What I find fascinating is that even those of us who have finished a novel find ourselves starting again from the "ordinary world" when we undertake a new project: completing the last one brought us to a safe place which we'll have to leave if we want to write another book.

Image: Simon Howden /

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