Why We Write: The Hero's Journey of the Creative Artist
Updated: Aug 25, 2018
Author's Note: Welcome to the new Contribute Your Verse Blog. I hope you enjoy this first essay, "Why We Write: The Hero's Journey of the Creative Artist". In my life and my writing, I’m often drawn to big philosophical questions, so when I began thinking of themes for this first essay, the first thing that came to mind was a big philosophical question for writers: Why do we write? To answer that, I mixed together some autobiographical stories about my writing life with an exploration of the meaning of the creativity. I also draw a lot from the work of the Joseph Campbell, whose classic book The Hero With a Thousand Faces outlines the mythological path of the Hero’s Journey. This path provides a fascinating model for living a courageous, meaningful life, whether our heroic task is to slay a dragon or to finally finish that novel. You can also find the audio of this essay on Episode 19 of the Contribute Your Verse Podcast.
Since starting the Contribute Your Verse Podcast in January, I’ve been fortunate to sit down with a lot of talented authors, many of whom I’m lucky to count as friends, and share conversations about the writing life. In almost every episode, we inevitably get around to two fascinating biographical questions... When did you start writing? And why?
Many will speak of a childhood love of books, a love that eventually inspired them to dream of writing books themselves. Some will mention that they wrote their first story at the age of six or seven, perhaps featuring their pet gerbil as the main hero of an epic fantasy adventure. Some might credit a great English teacher, whose passion for the written word was infectious and who showed support for their early literary efforts.
But if you dig deeper into a writer’s story, you will usually encounter a time in their life when their relationship to writing transformed. Before, writing was an interesting childhood hobby. A way to pass the time. A way to impress friends and adults. After, writing was in their blood. In their soul. It had become a calling. It has become a passion (but in the full meaning of that word, which invokes both a great love and a great burden, like the passion of Christ). The moment of transformation was often brought on by a profound change, a trauma, a loss of safety. For a time, they had been carried along by gentle winds across a calm sea. And then, a storm. Their ship sank. They were adrift in a raging sea. Then, from somewhere, writing threw them a lifeline. And they grabbed hold.
My story is no different. I don’t remember writing a short story at age seven, but I did have a childhood love of books, stories, and imagination. I was an only child, so I often had to get creative in order to keep myself entertained. Battles between my action figures were often epic in scope, with rich storyline, love interests, and bitter betrayals. I love the story told by George R.R. Martin (author of the A Song of Ice and Fire books upon which the HBO series Game of Thrones is based) about how his earliest fantasy stories were written about his pet turtles. He named them all knights and kings and imagined great wars between them, vying for control over their turtle kingdoms. If there is one thing in this world that I know to be true, it is this: never doubt the creative capacity of children.
At age ten, I fell in love with Star Wars. For a boy with an overactive imagination, Star Wars was everything I could have asked for: spaceships, strange alien worlds, the Force, the Jedi, an evil empire, a princess in danger, a call to adventure. I would learn many years later that Star Wars was in fact modeled on the great mythological stories of the archetypal hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell outlines in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (a favorite book of Star Wars creator George Lucas). My young imagination didn’t need a knowledge of mythology, however, to nevertheless be captivated by the heroics of Luke Skywalker, the spiritual wisdom of Yoda, and the dark tragedy of Darth Vader. My greatest ambition at age ten was to become a Jedi, so I grabbed my lightsaber (purchased at Toys R Us for $19.99) and ventured forth into a galaxy far, far away (in reality, just my backyard) ready to battle the Empire and learn the ways of the Force. I was ready for my great hero’s journey to begin.
Then, at age thirteen, things fell apart. My parents announced that they were getting a divorce. I was old enough to have noticed that my parents had not seemed happy in their marriage for some time, but none of that prepared me for the morning when my father walked out the front door with a duffel bag, never to return. The boat which had been sailing me through life had struck rock. We were taking in water and sinking fast. If I was to keep from drowning, I would need something to cling to. Like it had done for so many others, writing threw me a lifeline.
I don’t want to suggest that good writing is only born out of trauma, as if the key to being a literary success is to have a horrible childhood or a series of traumatic experiences throughout life. For too long, we’ve held on to this cultural model of the tortured artist, whose inner demons both fuel their creativity and bring their personal lives crashing down in ruins. First, this is too narrow a view of creativity and leaves out so many other vital sources of inspiration, like joy, or wonder, or love. Second, it leads to a lot of dead artists, gone too soon because the world glorified their wounds instead of their healing.
But I do believe that writing, and creativity in general, can often come to us when the meaning of our lives are in doubt. This is because creativity is fundamentally a tool for making meaning. For the growing child, family often provides the primary source of stability, safety, and, above all, meaning. When the family is fractured, through death, sickness, divorce, or economic instability, the solid ground upon which a child is standing suddenly turns to quicksand. Questions, whose answers once seemed so obvious, now pull downwards into the dark: Who am I? Am I loved? Will I be safe? When the answers are no longer provided by a stable family or culture, human beings have to create the answers themselves. They must decide, like a hero setting forth on a dangerous adventure, to choose their own path, to write their own fate. It is at this point that a creative act, something as simple as writing your thoughts down on a page, can become a saving grace, a place for healing, an altar call for salvation.
So it was shortly after my parent’s divorce that my writing journey began in earnest. Like many teenagers do, I had also fallen deeply in love with music. The year was 2001, and although the radio airways and music video charts were filled with the vapid pop of Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys, my ears were tuned to the past, searching for something deeper. With every guitar solo, Jimi Hendrix set my mind afire, just like he set flame to that Fender Stratocaster at Monterey, a sacrificial offering to the gods of rock n’ roll. Jim Morrison taught me my first lessons in poetry, as I listened to “The End” over and over again, trying to peel back the layers of his psychedelic imagery. I discovered the distorted guitar crunch of early 90’s grunge and found singers that echoed the anger and loss that I felt. I had no knowledge (yet) of Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, or Pablo Neruda, but my pantheon of great poets included Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and Billy Corgan. These songwriters were my first creative heroes.
Naturally, I dreamed of becoming a rockstar. And who doesn’t, to be honest? Musicians, particularly singers, are treated like modern day idols, our democratic culture’s idea of royalty. Actually, great songwriters are more like the shamans of our time - warrior poets who know how to traverse the spirit world of emotion and memory, who build bridges to that other world with every verse and chorus. Who hasn’t been transported to some other place within yourself, to some memory long lost, by the power of a song? Every great singer-songwriter is part of an ancient tradition, stretching back to bards and griots, and I wanted to be one of their company. I wanted to channel all these painful, turbulent emotions through microphone and guitar amp, just like my heroes. I bought myself a guitar and a notebook for lyrics. I was all set.
There was just one, small, tiny problem.
I had no musical talent or training whatsoever. None. I was a horrible singer. I was helpless at the guitar, even after months of trying. My rockstar fantasies were dissolving before my eyes. But I still had the notebook for lyrics. As I was listening to music one night, following the singer’s words in the lyrics book that often came with CDs in those days, a realization slowly came over me. If one were to take away the instruments and signing, the lyrics of a song were basically… poetry. Not only that, but the words of these modern day bards were much more relatable and interesting that the poetry being taught in school. I might not ever be a great singer or musician, I realized, but maybe… just maybe… I could be a poet.
And so began my writing career. My first poems were honestly just knock-offs of Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins songs. I would take the basic theme of a song I liked, maybe steal a few key words, and then write my own version. Perhaps I was technically committing plagiarism, but it was through this early imitation that I began to get a sense of how a song or poem could be structured, how to convey an idea or feeling through a character, a story, or a metaphor. It was my own personal school of creativity, alone in my room, filling up one black-and-white composition notebook after another.
Soon, I was writing poems, short stories, and keeping a daily journal. Those black-and-white composition notebooks (which I still write in to this day), became my best friend, my therapist, my rock, the thing I could trust when all else was falling apart.
Those same notebooks would serve me well through college, through my first loves and heartbreaks, through my eager, stumbling steps into career and adulthood. I began to have some success in the writing world. I got poems published, I released books, I won some poetry slams. But still, at the heart of my writing life, were those notebooks and the joy I felt when I opened them each morning to a fresh page, pen in hand. They would become my lifeline again, sixteen years after my parents divorce, when I went through a crushing divorce of my own. It was profoundly destabilizing, to say the least. One day, I had a wife, the the woman I loved. Together we had a home, a future. The next day, she decided to leave. The house went on the market. The future was in ruins. The earth opened up and I fell into the darkness.
I didn’t write much in those first few weeks. Although it is true that suffering can be a great catalyst for creativity, this pain was too much. There weren’t any clever metaphors for the hurt I was feeling. It just hurt. But slowly, I found the strength to pick up the pen again. All I wrote in those early months were journal entries. I did not know how to turn this pain into poetry, not yet. Each morning, I would fill page after page with all the chaos in my heart, trying to straighten it all out in lines of ink. I wrote my regrets, my fears, my anger, my anguish. I wrote about nearly breaking down in the grocery store because learning to shop for one was too profoundly sad. I wrote letters to my wife I would never send, begging to understand how the person I loved most and the person who was the source of all this pain.. could in fact be the same person.
It would be eight months before I wrote another poem. It would be called “Let It Fly”, exploring a dilemma that every divorced person eventually faces: What do I do with my wedding ring? When I was finally ready to let it go, I drove out to Sullivan’s Island, a beautiful stretch of beach here in Charleston, South Carolina. I stood on the shore for a long time, holding the ring in my hand. I prayed. I begged for the strength to forgive her. I begged for the strength to forgive myself. Then I threw my wedding ring into the ocean as hard as I could.
When I completed the final draft of that poem, I began to have faith for the first time that I would actually survive this ordeal. By putting all my suffering into the form of lines, stanzas, metaphors, and allusions, I began the process of making meaning out of this tragedy. I had created some order out of the swirling chaos of my life. That poem became the first solid ground I had to stand on in eight months. Once again, when I was shipwrecked at sea, writing threw me a lifeline. Writing gave me the chance to find meaning again.
I believe the highest function of creativity is to enable human beings to make meaning out of existence. It flows from the same wellspring as mythology and the great religions of the world. When the earliest humans looked in wonder at the world around them - at the kingdoms of animals and plants, at the mountains and the seas, at the moon and the stars, at their own bodies and the mysterious workings of their own heart - they attempted to translate this wonder as best they could into stories and songs and dance and poetry. So was born all the great myths of the earth, transforming the human imagination into gods and heroes and drama by which we still measure our lives today.
The human race is not done creating myths, however, for the simple reason that the transformation of chaos into meaning must occur every generation and within the heart of every person. When Joseph Campbell compiled his great overview of world mythology, The Masks of God series, he covered the great ancient myths of all cultures in Volumes 1-3, but reserved the fourth and final volume to an exploration of modern day artists and the insights they bring to the fundamental questions of the human condition. In this view, there is an unbroken line from the ancient storytellers who captivated villages with tales of the gods to a high school kid in the 21st century scribbling his thoughts onto the pages of a $2 black-and-white composition notebook. It is the same eternal quest for meaning, forever finding new forms, new masks, new rhythms, new ways to dance. But again and again, it is the same song, the same great hymn echoing through time, and when we add our voices to the chorus, we remember what it means to be alive.
The great hero stories are there to teach us that we all have a dragon to slay, a cross to bear, a kingdom to save. The human spirit seems most fulfilled when it accomplishes something that is both profoundly joyous and profoundly difficult. It may be writing a great novel. It may be simply getting out of bed today. Whatever the time or place, a hero is one who ventures forth into the dangerous unknown and brings back to their world a treasure of some kind. The heroes of fantasy bring back gold, glory, and a magic sword. Peace is restored to the land. A noble King or Queen sits once more upon the throne. These may sound like cliches to our modern ears, but each are ancient symbols, pointing us towards our own potential and responsibility. The task of every person is to walk bravely into their personal unknown, into the depths of their suffering and joy, and bring back what is good and true. Heroes, of all shapes and sizes, across all cultures and generations, bring meaning back into existence.
This is the beautiful struggle of every creative artist. When we step out on stage, when we strike the opening chords of a song, when we write the first words of a story, we take our first steps down the heroic path. We are the makers of meaning. We create lifelines that might save someone who is drowning. We find beautiful order in the midst of chaos, even if it is just the chaos of our own lives.
This is what we do every time we sit down to write. This is what we do each morning, when we open the pages of our notebook, with pen in hand, ready to start the adventure all over again.
This is our dragon to slay. This is our cross to bear. This is why we write.
- Matthew Foley