On Wednesday my Creative Nonfiction students have to turn in a rough draft of their Big, True Story. I went into today’s class determined to make a last-ditch effort to get them to think about narrative arc.
Not that it’s the only way, or the best way, but I like to look at stories through the hero’s journey. Well, I like to, but — I admit — the hero’s journey doesn’t always work for me. I’ve looked at a model called the heroine’s journey, too, but there’s always something slightly “off.” It has to do with not taking it quite so literally. You can’t cut a story out with a pattern. It has to come from a very deep place inside of you.
Today — partly because of a conversation I’m having with a friend via email, partly because of a big break-through in my story during my foil-star time in the morning, and partly as a function of having a 35-minute drive to work, plus as a result of my plan to talk about graphic stories in class today — I came up with a graphic model of the hero’s journey. I don’t think I’m talented enough to represent it here — graphically — but if you email me at firstname.lastname@example.org I can send you a PDF of it.
I gave each stage of the journey one box, sometimes a circle (for mentor and for inmost cave), sometimes a quick series of smaller boxes (ordeal, seizing the sword, and road back). As often happens when I attempt to teach something visually, I got a big lightning-flash bolt of insight.
I’ve known for a long time that the inmost cave is not just “the darkest moment,” “lowest point,” “belly of the whale,” but also that it’s the place where you rest and get strong enough to carry on. You HAVE to do that in order to face the ordeal, seize the sword, and make the good but often difficult choice to follow the road back.
I didn’t realize, however, that those three steps are PART of the inmost cave. Duh! The road back is the threshold step, the step OUT of the cave. Until you face the ordeal and seize the sword, you can’t get out of the cave.
One student talked with me after class about how she can’t use the hero’s journey, how it will not work. This young woman has a particularly dark story to tell. The reason it doesn’t feel like a journey is that she’s still curled up in the cave in a fetal position. She hasn’t decided yet if there’s a going to be an end to this story. In her position, a lot of people would retrace their steps and take the back way out of the cave. They would take up knitting or watch a lot of TV or do good works. They would not face this.
I told her she had my permission to write whatever she needs to write for this rough draft. I’ll read it. It might be that it’s beautifully lyric and formless. That could be fine. But it might be that she needs someone to hold her hand while she walks out of the cave.