Suck My Nuts, Joseph Campbell

Since Joseph Campbell first described the Hero’s Journey in his “Hero With a Thousand Faces”, it has seized the popular imagination. Lots of people have based their whole careers on it: Dan Harmon, whose “circle theory” of story crafting has netted him a lot of creative success; George Lucas, who literally rewrote Star Wars after he read Hero with a Thousand Faces; Stanley Kubrik was into Campbell too, and so are the dozens if not hundreds of screenwriters and bloggers peddling books that promise systems guaranteed to help you write your way out of creative block. So clearly the Hero’s Journey works. Harmon and Lucas and Kubrik are all very successful, and some of their stuff is pretty good!  And man, I would love to believe that there is a universal human story which transcends time and culture, which speaks to something deep in our collective unconscious. That would be so convenient. Because if there was really only one story, or at least only one good story, that would mean everybody could just write that and we could solve fiction forever! But…

The monomyth is not, in fact, the only myth. It turns out there are other stories, too. And what’s crazy about it is that those other stories are often the same stories that we impose the Hero’s Journey onto. Check it out: some linguists did a study where they showed the same video to speakers of a bunch of different languages. This is the video they showed them. It’s a pretty normal video. Some stuff happens in it, then it’s over. What’s interesting is what happened when the researchers asked speakers of different languages to describe what they’d just seen. It turns out people had wildly different answers depending on their native tongue. Think about how you would summarize that video. If you’re like most English speakers, you probably tried to come up with a rough narrative chronology of the things that happened. But you could just as easily have ignored the events altogether and described the landscape, the way speakers of some other languages did. Events that some speakers skipped were vitally important to others. What people described had very little to do with what was actually there, and much more to do with who they were. 

Joseph Campbell published The Hero With a Thousand Faces in 1949. At the time, psychoanalysis was a new field, and everybody was just getting acquainted with the works of Freud and Jung. Campbell’s concept of the monomyth is heavily influenced by Jung – just as a lot of modern thinking about stories still is today! But we’ve had more than seventy years of philosophy since Campbell. It’s time to admit that he didn’t discover something that was secretly true about all stories the whole time. Joseph Campbell, a white, American  dude from the 1940s, came up with one possible reading that happens to fit a lot of stories, and a significant number of our most influential writers and filmmakers since then have been following his formula like it’s scripture and not, you know, an interpretation of scripture. I think it’s high time that someone (me) stood up and challenged Campbell’s beloved interpretation – and not just because my book briefly outsold his on Amazon.

Just like with the video in the linguistics experiment, there are other ways to describe the same stories. And if we truly want to advance as a culture, I think it is the responsibility of our storytellers to explore new ways of seeing and telling stories. Because there is one part of the Hero’s Journey that is badly in need of revision: The Hero.

No, I’m not saying we need fewer heroes and more gritty antiheroes. I’m not even saying we need fewer heroes and more “regular dudes.” No, I’m straight up saying we need fewer heroes period (and also fewer dudes, but that’s another essay). To me, the central problem with Campbell’s monomyth is that it focuses on the transformation of a single person.

Think about A New Hope. Think about Iron Man. Think about A Clockwork Orange. All of them center around the trials and transformation of a single individual. Now think about Jeff Bezos. Elon Musk. Donald Fucking Trump. Think about every rich asshole who’s collected an army of simps by selling the bogus idea that they made it entirely on their own. It might seem kind of bonkers to draw a straight line between A New Hope and Donald Trump (though less crazy to connect Iron Man and Elon Musk). But it’s not so much about who these stories center. It’s about what these stories exclude: communities. 

We live in an era where the individual is all but powerless in the face of environmental collapse, corporate plunder, and rampant political corruption. But you know who’s not powerless? All of us, together.  As long as we think of ourselves as individuals, as the “heroes” of our own separate “journeys,” we will remain isolated from each other and incapable of collective action. 

The stories we tell each other, and how we talk about those stories, has a profound effect on our thinking. To that end, I believe it’s time we turn our attention away from the monomyth, and towards better myths – myths that acknowledge our collective power rather than deluding us about our individual strength. But where can we find examples of this new type of collectivist storytelling? Well, let’s go back to Star Wars…

Now, I don’t much care for Star Wars. I was too young to develop an emotional attachment to the original trilogy, but exactly the right age to be disappointed by the prequels. To their credit, most Star Wars fans I know have made no effort to “convert” me (something I sadly cannot say for most Star Trek fans I know), so when a number of my friends suggested that I watch Andor, knowing full well that I don’t give a fuck about space wizards, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

And yeah, Andor slaps. But the interesting part, at least to me, is why it slaps. The main-line Star Wars trilogies are each about a very special boy (or girl) who is so good at the force that the whole galaxy is like “whooooaaaaaaaa.” Andor, on the other hand, is about a guy who accidentally shoots somebody on the way home from the club. Except it’s not even actually about that guy. Yes, his name is the title, but there are some episodes where he basically isn’t on screen at all. That’s because Andor is not about a person. It’s about groups of people.

It’s about the fascist apparatus of the Empire which grinds into action when some pompous bureaucrat insists on filing Andor’s accidental murder through the proper channels. It’s about the coalition of rebels who take advantage of Andor’s fugitive status to enlist him in a sweet heist. It’s about the citizens of his home planet, under military occupation. Individuals within those groups have opportunities for heroism: making a speech that incites an oppressed populace to riot, for example. But none of these people are heroes all the time, and none of them are elevated above the groups they’re a part of. They’re regular people who, because of their connections to the people around them, have a fleeting opportunity to do something incredible, before that opportunity moves on to someone else.

It’s inspiring to watch. Empowering even. Unlike the Hero’s Journey, which makes me think “ah, man, wouldn’t it be nice if I were that cool and powerful?” stories like Andor make me think, “Oh man, I guess you don’t actually have to be that powerful to change shit.” It feels achievable. It points to where our strength truly lies.

These kinds of stories are all over the place, we just don’t think to categorize them that way because we’re too Campbell-pilled to notice. Dungeons and Dragons – and all of the actual play series that have contributed to its recent rise in popularity – is a hugely collaborative form of storytelling, where there can’t be a single hero because that wouldn’t be fair to all of the other humans at the table who also want to be heroes. These stories by their very nature focus on the developing relationships between the characters, rather than one character’s developing relationship with themselves.

But for my money, the genre which best exemplifies this structure is the noble heist film. Ocean’s Eleven, Money Heist, Leverage, and so many others focus not on the journey of a single individual, but on a group of like-minded people coming together to accomplish a shared goal. Yes, most heists include a mastermind who gets a bit more screen time, but the heists themselves, which take up the bulk of the film, are intensely collaborative and provide moments for each character’s unique skills to shine. The loot is often split evenly among the participants, or given to a member of the community in need. And when it’s not, it’s usually because someone tried to fuck over the rest of the group to get a bigger share. Either way, heists are about trust, accountability, and eating the rich. Fuck Joseph Campbell, this is the energy I’m bringing into 2024.

And guess what, knuckleheads? That show Andor I was talking about? It’s got a fucking heist in it. And you know what else? The Dungeons and Dragons movie is also a heist movie. If you put a community of like-minded people together, sooner or later they’re going to hatch an elaborate plan to steal a bunch of shit from a rich guy who deserves it. So yeah, maybe that’s why wealthy screenwriters are so intent on keeping Campbell on top, huh?

Don’t Not Write What You Don’t Know

There are a lot of bullshit truisms that aspiring writers get taught. Some might even call them “myths,” WINK. One of the things I want to do on here is obstinately insist that the exact opposite of these truisms are true, because they are and fuck you.

So, “Write what you know.” Where to even start? Well, let’s start by clarifying what it means to “know” something in this context, because there are a few things it could mean:

  1. Things you learned through research. How cobra venom works, or how much stuff weighs on the moon, for example.
  2. Abstract emotional truths that connect us to all other humans — how bad it feels to get dumped, or how good it feels to shoot a snot rocket out of your nose in the shower.
  3. Stuff that literally happened to you, which you now feel compelled to tell me about it.

I’m fine with the first two. If you wanna learn stuff like a big goober, I’m not gonna stop you. But too many people hear the phrase “write what you know” and immediately think, “Hey! I know stuff! I should write about that stuff!” And no. Stop. Listen to me.

Here’s the problem: most of you are boring as hell. I mean, I’m extremely interesting, and even I have never been in a knife fight, a car chase, or even a spaceship. If what you are interested in writing is fiction, ie ridiculous long-form lies, then limiting yourself to writing about things that have happened to you does two things:

  1. It severely limits the kinds of stories you can tell
  2. It makes you think that everything that happens to you is just soooooo important

Let’s dive into each of these, shall we?

Thinking Small is for Wieners

One of the main things about writing is that it’s really, really hard. (At least it is for me. If it’s easy for you then eat shit I guess, I’m the one writing this post.) If you take a hard thing, and then you add even more barriers to doing it, it won’t be long until you’ve made that thing entirely impossible. If you tell yourself that you can’t write about something until it’s happened to you, that means there’s a lot of shit that you can’t write about. Have you ever negotiated a hostage situation? Pet a giraffe? Hell, statistically roughly half of you don’t even menstruate. By ruling out 99% of the stories you could possibly tell, you’re making it 99% harder to even start writing in the first place, let alone write something you’re excited enough about to keep going.

That said, it’s also really hard to write something if you don’t know where to start. So my advice is to use what you know as a starting point, and then extrapolate from that in order to write about what you actually want to write about.

One of my favorite writers is a sci-fi author named Samuel Delaney. Delaney has this book called Babel-17, and in this book there are a couple of enormous space battles, and the way he handles these space battles has taught me more about writing than pretty much anything else (except for one long-forgotten episode of Penn and Teller’s Fool Us, but that’s a story for another time).

The thing about the space battles in Babel-17 is that Babel-17 is not a book about space battles. It’s a book about how horny Samuel Delaney is for linguistics. He spent so much time researching words that he didn’t have time to learn about gravity propulsion technology or the doppler effect or whatever other hard sci fi bullshit all the other space opera boys can’t wait to tell you about. But he still wants the space battles to be exciting, because they’re fucking space battles. So what does he do? He hand-waves the whole problem away by talking about power tools. This is the commander of a pirate fleet setting up for a big conflict:

Tarik’s voice over the speaker: “Carpenters gather to face thirty-two degrees off galactic center. Hacksaws at the K-ward gate. Ripsaws make ready at the R-ward gate. Crosscut blades ready at T-ward gate… Power tools commence operations. Hand tools mark out for finishing work.”

Samuel Delaney, Babel-17

This spicy hot word salad gives me almost no idea what these ships look like, or what kind of weapons they have, or what their jobs are. That’s because Samuel Delaney doesn’t fucking care. What he cares about is that the pirate fleet is organized (like a collection of tools), dangerous (also like a collection of tools), and in space (like a collection of space tools.) Samuel Delaney knew more about tools than he did about space stuff (as do most of us!), so he used tools as a starting point to get us to understand the situation without having to know a whole lot about it.

“But Cory,” you’re probably thinking, “That’s science fiction. Writers have to extrapolate because nobody has experienced space battles!” And first of all, that kind of proves my point: do we really want a world where nobody writes about sweet space battles because nobody has experienced any? But second of all, this applies to real world shit too.

Take for example Lionel Shriver’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which is a book about being the mother of a school shooter. School shootings are definitely real, as much as certain lobbyists like to pretend otherwise, but Lionel never experienced one, and she certainly wasn’t the mother of a school shooter. And yet, somehow, the book is really good! Shriver took a real-life tragedy, something all of us are aware of but very few have actually experienced, and she did the hard work of putting herself inside the mind of one of the central participants of the drama. She used what she knew about human nature to — get this — imagine what it would be like to be a different human person with different experiences. You can do that! It’s allowed!

I’m sure Lionel Shriver also did a lot of research into school shootings and their aftermath, too. I’m not saying you should write about somebody else’s traumatic experiences, or somebody else’s culture, without learning everything you can about those cultures and experiences first. But there are certain very important things no amount of research can teach you — namely, what it actually feels like to be a different person in a different situation.

You can do your due diligence to make sure you don’t get anything factually wrong, and you can try really hard not to step on a rake and say something offensive, but at a certain point you hit the end of your research and you have to take a risk. You have to bet it all on your powers of imagination. Sometimes it’ll suck — it won’t sound true, or even cool, and you’ll feel kind of embarrassed. But it’s either that, or remain forever trapped inside the confines of your own limited backstory. Which would be a shame, because…

Nobody Cares About Your Sad Dick

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had this idea that I needed to make my life as interesting as possible so that I would have something to write about. I traveled, and I did lots of drugs (sorry, mom), and one time I may or may not have tried to break into the post office, but no matter what weird shit I did, I was still a middle-class white kid doing things that I thought would make me interesting.

I never experienced racism, sexism, or homophobia. I was never a victim of abuse. I never worried about making rent. My parents loved me, and were shockingly nice to each other, too. And the fucked-up part is, as an aspiring writer, I felt like that was a bad thing. “How am I supposed to be a writer,” I thought to myself, “if I’ve never had anything dramatic happen to me? Truly, I am cursed by this privileged life.” Yeah, I know.

One useful aspect of this mindset was that when bad shit happened to me, I was able to put a positive spin on it. “This sucks,” I would think to myself, “but hey, the worse it sucks, the better it will be when I eventually write about it.” The problem, though, was that I ended up turning my life into a narrative, rather than, you know, a life. I found myself living in front of an audience, thinking about how I would word my description of an experience even as I was experiencing it. My suffering felt important, and real, and necessary. It was an exhausting way to live.

The thing about most of your experiences, even the ones that sucked, is that they’re way more important to you than they are to anybody else. Although your ability as a writer may make you able to convey common experiences in an entertaining and illuminating manner, events do not become more important simply by virtue of having happened to you, a writer. Some of your life experiences, properly told, might make great anecdotes, short stories, or performances at a storytelling event. But as far as supporting a whole book’s worth of words? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s a lot more dubious. If I had a nickel for every random white guy who’s told me he’s working on a memoir, I’d have more money than all of them are ever going to make off of all those memoirs combined.

This is how you end up with Jonathan Franzen types endlessly writing books about mopey professors who desperately want to fuck their students. It’s how you end up with college sophomores writing about their mushroom trips like they’re the fucking moon landing (not fake version). It’s how you can convince yourself, if you’re not careful, that you’re the main character of reality, and that your experiences are somehow more real than everybody else’s.

I promise you, your experiences are not unique. And that’s good! It means you have something in common with pretty much anyone you might want to write about — a space pirate, Jonathan Franzen, the mother of a school shooter, etc. Writing is mosaic-making — rearranging fragments of the stuff in your head to make a pretty picture. Regurgitating exactly what’s happened to you is like making a mosaic out of one big rock you found at the beach. Take the stuff in your head and crush it up, recombine it, mix it with stuff you got from other people. The smaller you make the pieces, the smoother you can make the curves; the more realistic you can make your final image.

So don’t write what you know. Write with what you know, and hopefully, by the end, you’ll know something new.