“Say it, reader. Say the word ‘quest‘ out loud. It is an extraordinary word, isn’t it?
So small and yet so full of wonder, so full of hope.” – Kate DiCamillo
From the outside, quests seem exciting. They’re full of adventure, the unknown, danger, and heroic feats. From the inside, though, they can sometimes feel impossible to complete.
Of course, many times the writer is simply lacking a few essentials elements found on most quests.
Joseph Campbell identified the common stages to The Heroic Quest:
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE (what are you writing for?)
REFUSAL OF THE CALL
MEETING WITH THE MENTOR
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES
THE ROAD BACK
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
If you continue to refuse the call, the other stages won’t really matter. But, if you’ve heeded your call, if you’re trying to find some way to live a life that includes your creativity (for me that’s writing), well, then there are three stages you might want to make sure you have covered.
MEETING WITH THE MENTOR – make a brief list of mentors you have had for your quest to create a writer’s life and note one thing you may have learned – this can be an actual human you’ve interacted with, a book, a workshop/course you took, or some other source of inspiration/wisdom/guidance.
What traits do good mentors have?
What if you don’t have a mentor? You can attend conferences and workshops (like those offered by SCBWI), enroll in an MFA program like the one I went to where there were several gifted mentors. Of course, time and finances might make the latter choice a bit difficult.
Here’s a link to an article on different ways you might find a mentor (including sending out an invitation).
Mentors tend to physically accompany heroes only so far on their quest (though they are usually there in spirit, their lessons recalled in times of struggle, the hero ultimately must accomplish his/her quest alone).
So, chances are, if you’ve had a mentor, he or she might no longer be there on a regular basis. The key is to find way to rely on those things you’ve learned.
Writing them down and keeping them posted nearby is one simple way to do that.
TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES – this contains three crucial elements – ALLIES being the first of those.
“Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” ~ Franz Kafka
The act of writing (and creating any art) IS a solitary one. It requires the writer to turn inward and only he/she can do that. But that doesn’t mean, once the actual writing is over, it has to remain a solitary endeavor.
Having a friend, a colleague, a writing group (someone you trust personally and also creatively) can be very helpful for the quest, as it allows a writer to receive feedback – praise for accomplishments which make the long hard road easier to bear, and insights into possible future paths which might make the way more navigable.
TESTS & ENEMIES are the other two elements from this stage of which you need to be cognizant.
What are some of your most common obstacles? Make a list. Being aware of these can help you when it comes to overcoming them.
What are your top two or three most intimidating or powerful monsters/enemies? Things like self-doubt, fear of failure, a need to be perfect, unable to focus can be enemies to creativity.
APPROACH – how does it feel when you approach your inmost cave (that place where the creating happens)? On a large scale, this is actually having a consistent daily practice, but on a small scale it’s relevant to your specific intentions for an individual project)
What sort of response do you have when you are at the edge?
It’s important to remember what Tolkien wrote: “Not all those who wander are lost.”
The key is having an intention when you’re wandering. For example, when I write today, I’m going to focus on one specific scene, where Xero meets Knee Boots’ mom. I know she starts out concerned. The rest, however, I need to let happen on its own. I need to remind myself if my mind wanders about today’s intention which is for me to be open to whatever happens between Xero and Mrs. Wallace.
Those pesky obstacles and enemies often get in the way for writers.
Below is a writing prompt I developed to combat this very thing. We tried it out at the retreat and poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers all found it surprisingly effective. And fun! I hope you find it useful. I also hope you enjoy the experience. After all, writing is supposed to be fun.
The Writer’s Quest Brainstorming Activity
1. Over the next 90 seconds, choose 3-5 letters from your last name and create the first name of a fictional character (be receptive to whatever comes up first):
2. Over the next 90 seconds, choose 3-5 letters from your first name and create the first name of a 2nd fictional character:
3. Over the next 90 seconds, choose 5-7 letters from your entire name (you can repeat letters already chosen) and create the first name of a 3rd fictional character:
4. Make a brief list of your strengths as a person (but also those specific to you as a writer/creative).
5. Make a list of your biggest obstacles, fears, self-doubts, self-judgments as a writer.
INVITATION (20-30 minutes)
Look at the names you created from your own name above. The name in #1 is your Hero name, #2 is one of your Allies, #3 is the Dragon/Shadow guarding the reward you seek.
You are going to write a dramatic scene in which your Hero sets off on a quest for the Reward (a special jewel-encrusted pen that grants the writer who uses it his/her intention – i.e. what are you writing for).
Your hero and his/her ally must overcome three of the obstacles you identified earlier (for example, if you put not enough time in the day – then perhaps your hero must find the reward before sunset because after sunset the inmost cave moves to a new location).
Note that your hero embodies your best traits/strengths.
The dragon/shadow embodies your biggest obstacle/fear/self-doubt/judgment.
Begin by writing into concrete details (into the place, a character, or an action). You already know the ending to this story – Your Hero Will Get His/Her Reward. It’s just a matter of what has to be overcome and how.
You can also apply this prompt to a writing project (using a protagonist, narrator, or speaker of a poem instead of yourself).
Remember, quests are not usually easy. They’re often filled with challenges, but they can be accomplished with some pluck, determination, and mindfulness.
Keep after it, Y’all!