I’ve been rewatching the Star Wars movies lately, and thinking again about Joseph Campbell. (If the name is unfamiliar to you, friend, you could start in worse places than Bill Moyer’s interview). One way to sum up Campbell’s thesis on mythology and the “Hero’s Journey” is this: Every story is about change. There’s an initial state, and then a bunch of stuff happens, resulting a new normal. The character’s internal and external world are transformed; he returns “home” – to order, equilibrium – with a new way of seeing.
Even stories where nothing happens, where the characters repeat the same mistakes and never learn, are about change. They are about the dangers of not changing. They warn us: Don’t turn into him, or her, or them.
But in order to create a story, a writer must first go on a similar journey, through the process of writing. She must go off into the world of memory and imagination via the portal of the unwritten page. She enters the deep wood or the twilit desert or the galaxy far far away, sees images visible only to her, and comes back to her desk, transformed. Writing is a vision quest.
Upon returning the writer becomes the guide, the One Who Has Seen, the shaman, and helps us the audience through our own vision quest. We pass through our own gate – the vellum-bound cover or the popcorn-smelling lobby – and step into the wilderness of the bookpage or the dark cave of the movie theater. And what do we see once we’re there? Images of a character going on their vision quest. Images of characters entering an unfamiliar world (which we have just done), experiencing a lot of new and strange things (which we are doing), and then returning home, transformed (which we are about to do).
We see ourselves in what the writer has seen; it is concentric, fractal, holographic. Three mirrors, reflecting each other.