Wednesday, June 22, 2011

HJ4W-4 Meeting with the Mentor

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

Several weeks ago we talked about how the hero's journey begins with the Call to Adventure. For our protagonists, this is the inciting incident--the point at which the Ordinary World changes and life as usual can't continue. In other words, it is when the story starts.

For writers, this is the moment when we get serious about our writing and actually put pen to paper. But as much as writing is a solitary endeavor, we can't get very far down the path without some external validation. While it's gratifying if friends and family respond well to our early attempts, we generally don't make real progress until we Meet the Mentor.

The mentor or guide is critical to the hero's journey. First, as someone who has been down the road (or one like it) before, they are living proof it can be done and that we (the protagonist and the writer) aren't crazy for trying. Second, the mentor helps the hero stop floundering and sets them on the proper path.

More formally (following Kim Hudson*), the mentor prepares the hero for the task, nudges them forward, and sometimes keeps them alive.

Keeping Them Alive

The hero needs a mentor because they lack perspective, particularly when it comes to self-assessment. The hero sets off, after they decide not to Refuse the Call, overconfident, perhaps wildly optimistic. A setback may send them to the other emotional extreme.

Think about how crushing it was the first time someone rejected your first not-ready-for-prime-time manuscript. It shook your entire sense of identity and self-worth as a writer.

Structurally, leaving the Ordinary World means leaving safety and comfort. The hero often realizes they are beyond accustomed help when they get knocked down, either literally or figuratively. The mentor is generally the one who picks them up and provides a temporary refuge while the hero recovers and prepares.  

Preparing for the Task

Preparation and training are the most obvious ways a mentor helps the hero. Because of their knowledge and experience, the mentor guides the hero to focus on the skills and aspects of character that will matter most during the journey and its attendant trials.

For writers, the preparation is largely a matter of craft and, if you're fortunate, art. Much of what we think of as, "the rules," is actually guidance to steer us away from rookie mistakes. At a higher level, it often takes a mentor to show us the art behind the craft, like how much narrative business--waking up and looking in the mirror and going down to breakfast and so on--we should skip because it covers up the parts that matter and interferes with the real story.

Nudging Forward

Mentors, because they are in a position to give the hero a more honest appraisal, provide perspective. They help the hero recognize and correct weaknesses.  But the greatest gift they give the hero is telling them that they're ready to go.

Mentors for Writers

In our stories, it's far more effective if mentors are characters. As writers who live in a complex, over-scheduled, information-rich world, we can find mentors in forums, blogs, books, conference, classes, critique groups, and writing friends, as well as among teachers and professionals. Whether our mentors are actual or virtual, their structural role in the journey is to give us perspective at a time when we have none.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

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