Back in the 1940s there was an anthropologist called Joseph Campbell. After studying the myths of cultures all over the world he came up with the following brilliantly simple insight: the stories were all the same! Well, maybe not quite the same, but they all followed the same basic narrative structure. He called this the ‘monomyth‘ and it has been invaluable to writers and film makers ever since. But it isn’t just useful for writing stories, it can be useful for getting stuff done too. Stories tell us how to achieve things.
Before I launch into a discussion of the ‘Heroes Journey,’ as Campbell called it, I should point out that all of the work on using it as a personal development tool has been done by my friend Erica Sosna. If you are interested in this, go to one of the seminars that Erica runs on it.
So what is this narrative structure and how can it help me achieve things, I hear you ask? Well, let’s start with Luke Skywalker. Everyone uses Star Wars as ‘the’ example of the Heroes Journey – largely because George Lucas used Hero with a Thousand Faces to write the script. He even hired Joseph Campbell as a script editor, so I am not going to start being original now. Here’s how the Heroes Journey works…
Getting the call to adventure – Luke meets Ben Kenobi who tells him that he’s a Jedi and should, you know, do something about it.
Rejecting the call – He says, ‘nah, no thanks, I have to farm robots’ (or whatever it is that he does).
Accepting the call – But then when he goes home, his aunt and uncle have been burnt to a crisp so he really doesn’t have a choice but to go and save the galaxy. Everything’s going really well for him (apart from the toasted aunt and uncle). He gets the tools he needs (light sabre), some collaborators (Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca) and a mentor (Ben Kenobi) to teach him skills and show him the way and off he goes.
Belly of the Whale – Then things start to get a bit tricky. It’s not as easy to save the galaxy as he first thought. His teacher has been killed. He feels alone and isolated and not yet good enough to save the galaxy alone. He realises that the hottie he has been snogging is his sister…
Great ordeal – Finally the ‘crescendo’ comes. He has to use his superior Jedi skills to explode the Death Star. Which of course he does.
Triumphant return home – where everyone is really pleased with him. Though not ‘home’ home because that was burnt to a frazzle.
I’ve started to think of each project that I embark on as a story in its own right – to use the Heroes Journey as an analytical tool I’m finding that thinking about it like this makes me really consider whether all of the elements required for a ‘triumphant return home’ are in place. I hear the call to adventure very often and I rarely refuse it – hence why I always have such a lot of projects on. Alas for me, I generally proceed directly from the ‘call to adventure’ to the ‘belly of the whale’ – at which point I generally give up.
In an effort to stop doing this, I’m trying to think before I start whether or not everything I need is in place. Do I have a clear idea of how I am going to save the galaxy/build a roof garden? Do I have all of the tools that I need? Do I have collaborators who can turn up at exactly the right moment and save me from potentially life-threatening situations? Do I have a mentor or mentors who can help me and show me the way when I get lost? With some of my projects – e.g. scything – all of these things are in place, but with others – e.g. coppicing – they aren’t. I’m trying really hard not to move too fast on these projects and work on building up these elements.
The Heroes Journey is, for me, a really interesting tool for permaculture design. It begs further questions: What tools and skills do I need to succeed? Who are the right collaborators? Who is the right mentor and how do I find them and persuade them to help me? How can I stop myself from getting disheartened when I am in the belly of the whale? How do I find the courage to face ‘the great ordeal’? It asks you to think about your own personal development as well as the skills you have and the equipment you need.
I’m particularly interested in the mentor aspect. They are the hardest part of the whole thing to put in place. a cool project will easily attract willing collaborators, but finding someone who can teach and guide you is more difficult. I consider myself a bit of an expert on finding mentors and I have found that…
Sometimes they turn up… I consider Hedvig my mentor in Permaculture Design. She’s actually officially my mentor for teaching permaculture, but before this I had always considered her a wise and knowledgeable owl and the person to talk to when Permacultural confusion began to reign. I didn’t go out looking for a design mentor, but I found one anyway.
Sometimes you have to go and find them… I purposefully went and helped out at Blackbark because I wanted to share in their knowledge.
I’ve often found that volunteering my time to help on a project is a great way to find mentors. It helps that I do a lot of projects that involve ‘alternative’ communities (from anarchists to scythers) and sharing skills and helping each other is often deeply ingrained in these communities. People will often teach you a skill because they want more people to know about it and because (up to a certain point) it feels good to be asked. When it comes to working outside of these communities – such as trying to get into freelance journalism – I’m a bit stuck. I feel ‘outside’ at the moment. How do I find collaborators (e.g. a writing partner, friendly editors)? How do I find a mentor who is willing to give their time to help me develop? If I was an established journalist, I probably wouldn’t want to be the writing partner of someone who is just developing because I would feel like I was putting more into the relationship than I was getting out. These are some things that I need to think about in my design for this project.
So, narrative as a Permacultural tool. What do you think?