I write a column called Fandango for The Taos News, which is all about living a satisfying, productive creative life. (Meaning it’s geared toward artists, writers, and creatives of all stripes.)
I just wrote a two-part article about something I’m wildly passionate about – the hero’s journey, and how to use it as a guide for your life.
The columns (below) explain what that is, if you’re wondering, and it’s had such a positive response I’m reposting it here. (You can also read it on The Taos News website in its two separate parts.)
Spoiler alert: I’m launching a new website in January that will feature this topic big time, and am launching an online self-study course about it this spring. I’m super excited, and will share more about that here when it gets closer. Meanwhile, here’s the column:
Part 1: Jumping Off the Cliff
Last time we talked about creative transformation and stepping into the mystic to push your work deeper, grander, or to have greater impact. It’s exciting to think we have that opportunity whenever we’re ready to take it on, but it can also be daunting.
You might feel as if you’re standing on the precipice of something vast and unknowable, like Grand Canyon in the photo, and thinking, okay, here I am. Ready. But what the heck do I do now?
I’ve been feeling this way, on the verge of something bigger, but overwhelmed and confused at the prospect of how to make it happen. I’m guessing many of you have been there, too. Ascents and plateaus, a cycle that will hopefully never end, because what it means is growth. Growth as an artist and growth as a person.
But still – it’s a lot. Especially if you’re not willing to rest on past successes for the remainder of your life. Artists have curiosity at the core, and that compels us forward whether we want to move or not.
I’ve been thinking about all of this and feeling the need for guidance. I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time – I’m only half joking – and especially now, in this time of transition, I’m wanting a steady hand or a wise friend to help me along.
Enter Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. If you’re not familiar with Campbell’s work, he’s an American academic who studied millennia of myth, ritual, and storytelling that he then distilled to an elegant framework that’s useful when looking at so many things. You can apply it to the Star Wars movies or your own creative path, and everything in between.
Once you learn about it you’ll be surprised at how often it fits, and I’ve found great comfort in not only the familiarity of it but the evidence – as I said, millennia’s worth – that regular humans have gone through this journey over and over again and come out the other side stronger and more self-aware.
The hero – that’s you and me – starts out in the ordinary world, traipsing along, doing her thing. Maybe she’s making music and having some success with it. It’s satisfying to transfer her artistic vision into song, and others seem to like it, too. But she feels an uneasiness, like something isn’t quite right, though she can’t define it or even see it clearly. This is the first phase of the journey. (And this journey can happen over and over in one’s life, it need not be a one-shot phenomena.)
So there’s uneasiness, but there’s also a vague excitement. Some kind of change is coming, but she continues traipsing along anyway, hoping for the best, until wham, something big happens. Maybe it’s an external circumstance, or maybe something becomes untenable for her personally, but this is what Campbell cites as the call to adventure. Maybe she loses the day job that had been supporting her art, or she gets a severe case of writer’s block. It’s the first step down the path, and our hero is launched on the journey that will change her life in profound ways.
Because of the unexpected obstacle she starts making change and moving forward, but then there’s what Campbell cites as the refusal of the call. Our hero has second thoughts because she’s afraid of the unknown, and turns back. This moment of doubt often manifests as a return to the familiar: she takes an unsatisfying job to pay the bills, or keeps writing without heart or inspiration and churns out subpar work.
The uneasiness remains, and now it’s getting stronger. She knows her life is shifting, and on the hero’s journey what happens next is she meets a mentor, someone wiser or more experienced who offers advice or tools to help her on her path. It might even be as simple as someone she admires saying, “You could be doing so much more.” (This happened to me recently.) Whatever it is, it gives her enough strength to get out of her own way and keep moving.
This puts our hero firmly on the threshold. She understands that there’s no going back to her old life, so she musters up the courage to cross that threshold into the unknown. Maybe she’ll need to jump off a metaphorical cliff or something else equally dramatic, but the wheels are in motion and there’s only forward movement at this point.
This is where I’m at. The cliff is right there, and I’m both terrified and exhilarated. What I do know is it’s inevitable that I jump, with my work and maybe even my life. What about you, does any of this ring true? Have you successfully completed your own hero’s journey, or are you in the middle of it right now? I’ll talk about the remaining steps in the journey next time, but I’d love to hear from you about it. Drop me a line.
Part II: The Journey of a Lifetime
Last time we talked about the first few steps on the creative hero’s journey, and left off with our hero standing at the threshold, ready to jump off that metaphorical cliff. This seems daunting enough, but there’s a whole lot more to come.
She needs to, of course, jump, which in Joseph Campbell’s language is called crossing the threshold. She’s left the village and is officially on the path into the unknown. She’ll experience a sense of wonder and probably also fear, as the rules are different out there. She’ll have to learn these new ways of operating if she’s going to move forward. This could manifest in so many ways for creatives – you might face higher stakes, deal with new peers, have to learn new skills, and you’ll certainly be expected to be bolder than you were before.
Then are there tests. Tests and more tests, where you’ll make allies, battle foes, and push yourself in ways you didn’t know you were capable of. Maybe you go out for a big prize and lose to someone you admire. Or it could be as deep and internal as having to finally vanquish those negative inner voices that have been holding you back from true greatness. (That may be the toughest test for any of us!)
After you’ve survived a few tests and are feeling stronger, you and your new allies have to get ready to take on the biggest test of all, the one that if you pass, you get the great reward, the treasure, the thing you want more than anything. Again, this can be something tangible but my experience says it’s probably not. More about this in a minute.
Then there’s the great test: the ordeal. You face your greatest fear for a metaphysical High Noon, and overcome it. You – the hero – are the victor, but out of this battle you’re reborn into a higher version of yourself. You are profoundly changed.
You take the reward you just won, and prepare to head back home. Like I said, the reward might be something tangible, but it’s probably something much better, like a huge creative breakthrough. A new life mission. Maybe even a whole new way of living. But you and your allies need to be careful – the road home is long and there’s still a risk you could lose the treasure and come home empty-handed.
On the road back you’ll be tested or threatened again, and you’re now on a sprint to make it back to safety with your treasure. For creatives, here’s where all the naysayers – real and imagined – will kick in and try to stop any progress. Or maybe you’ll sabotage yourself by falling back in with negative people or habits from your past.
If you keep going you’ve got an even bigger test to face, just when you’re almost home. This last test likely involves great personal sacrifice where you must give up something you thought was vital to keep your reward and get home. This could be sacrificing your self-image, your lifestyle, or maybe friends or a social circle you’ve had forever but have now outgrown. Regardless, you act, then conquer, and in that moment are reborn – all the trials you’ve gone through come together and solidify in this new higher version of yourself.
Finally, you return to the village, changed. You bring the treasure that has not only transformed you, but will also transform those of your village and beyond. If the treasure was an artistic breakthrough, this may lead to a phase where you’re doing the best work of your life, work that will not only become part of the artistic pantheon, but will change those who come into contact with it. Or maybe that new mission you discovered takes your creative work and uses it in ways to effect change on a societal level, far beyond galleries and bookstores.
The short version? Greatness awaits, but only after hardship, trials, and a whole lot of soul-searching. As I’ve said before – making art isn’t for sissies. But the world needs you and your art, seemingly more than ever these days. And to that end, I’m making some changes.
Next month I’m launching a website, RightBrainLife.com, where I’ll be talking about all the themes we’ve touched on over the last three years here in Fandango. There will be a blog and lots of reader interaction, and then in the spring I’ll launch online courses about how to manage and grow your creative life, and maybe even step out on your own hero’s journey.
Since I’m doing that as well as keeping up a steady pace with travel and photography, Fandango might appear a bit more sporadically. Please stay in touch, whether with email, Facebook, or Instagram. Keep me posted on what you’re doing and let me know if you think there’s something happening in Taos I should write about. Meanwhile, have a wonderful holiday, and I’ll see you in the bright promise of the new year.
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