A Crisis Point

This past weekend I went with some friends—Me, Myself, and I—to see Spider-Man: Homecoming. Thoroughly loved it.

There’s a scene in it where the hero, Peter Parker, reaches a crisis. That’s not exactly a spoiler. If you know the hero’s journey model, you know that a hero usually goes through a crisis before the end of the story. I have to quote a line here from the movie in order for the point I wish to make in this post to make sense. So, if you don’t want spoilers of any kind, stop reading at the bold and start back up again at the next bold point.

⭐ SPOILERS!!! ⭐

After Peter messes up so badly that he has to get help from Iron Man, Iron Man decides to take back the suit he had given Spider-Man to use while fighting crime. Peter declares, “I am nothing without this suit.” The sign of someone in crisis.

⭐ END SPOILERS!!! ⭐

In The Writer’s Journey—Christopher Vogler’s look at mythic structure as discussed in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces—Vogler talked about the ordeal or crisis a hero faces. This is part of the hero’s rebirth.

A crisis is defined by Webster’s as “the point in a story or drama at which hostile forces are in the tensest state of opposition.” We also speak of a crisis in an illness: a point, perhaps a high spike of fever, after which the patient either gets worse or begins to recover. The message: Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better. An Ordeal crisis, however frightening to the hero, is sometimes the only way to recovery or victory. (Vogler 161)

I teared up at the scene from Spider-Man that I mentioned earlier, because it hit close to home. For most of my life, I’ve been writing stories and other things. But lately, I haven’t been able to write much at all. Anything I attempted seemed strained. Even writing a blog post has been difficult. Most of my friends are busy with their books. But I got nothin’. Some of this is due to the steadily mounting rejections I’ve received for my fiction books or criticism I’ve received for nonfiction work. But to be honest, it’s mostly due to self-doubt—feeling like a failure. So, I freeze up every time I think of writing anything—even this post, which took twice as long as posts usually take.

“I’m nothing without writing,” I found myself declaring. I had reached a crisis.

I knew I had two choices: (1) to believe that declaration and continue to go on a downward spiral; (2) to get up again and find out what’s really true about myself.

After some soul searching, I got up. Instead of writing, I’ve been doing other things. Like making miniature rooms out of paper and fabric. (Um, I’ve always been a little quirky.) Like taking photographs of flowers. Like crocheting. Like hanging out with friends. Like watching great movies. Like babysitting. Like taking walks and enjoying the wind on my face.

    

I think you already know by now that what I’d believed about being nothing without writing wasn’t true. I’m more than what I do or don’t do. I’m still who I am—me, warts and all. Life will go on, whether I put pen to paper ever again or not.

I’m reminded of the phoenix and how it had to die in order to be reborn. This season of my life has been a kind of death and rebirth. Old as I am, I still needed to be reborn; still needed to see life anew.

Who am I? I’m L. Marie. Daughter. Sister. Friend. And right now, that’s enough.

Is it me, or do you see a face in this tree, like a person saying, “Ooo”?

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998.

Spider-Man: Homecoming movie poster from heyuguys.com. Phoenix image from clker.com. Photos by L. Marie.

Trained to Use the Light

I love the concept of the hero (male or female) and monomyth—the hero’s journey. Joseph Campbell aficionados will recognize his stamp, thanks to his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I tend to gravitate to a work with a clearly defined hero on a mission. And Samurai Jack is a hero on a mission.

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I’m too sexy for my shirt . . .

Who is he? The title character of Samurai Jack, an animated show created by Genndy Tartakovsky, which ran from 2001—2004 on Cartoon Network. Jack has an archenemy: Aku, the spirit of evil who continually sends assassins to murder Jack. Why? Jack has the only weapon in the world that can defeat Aku: a mystical sword. And Jack’s mission is to destroy Aku.

Okay, I see you rolling your eyes, so let me get to the point of this post. One of my favorite episodes of Samurai Jack, and one I saw again recently, is “Samurai Versus Ninja” (#4.1), a 2003 episode written by Bryan Andrews and Brian Larsen. I can’t avoid spoilers, sorry. In the episode in question, a desperate Aku sends a highly skilled ninja to kill Jack. For much of the episode, the ninja remains hidden in the shadows, watching Jack kick butt. To lure Jack into battle, the ninja kidnaps a child. When Jack rescues the child, he explains what he knows about the ninja:

Shinobi. Warrior of the night. Trained to use the darkness of the shadow. I know your arts as well. But I have been trained to use the light. (IMDb)

I love that quote! It makes sense in Jack’s case, since he’s the hero out to help those in need. I love the idea of a warrior trained to use light, rather than darkness. It shows the power of good, rather than the perceived weakness of it.

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Clash of the titans: Jack versus the Ninja

I wrote a post before about how annoyed I get when heroes are portrayed as weaker than, and certainly less interesting than, villains. I realize I’m in the minority on that. After all, I keep reading about or hearing about actors who covet the villain roles in movies and on television because the roles are “juicier.” But I resonate with Jack’s methodology.

When darkness is total, light needs to be powerful enough to pierce through it. A weak light can’t do anything for you, except show you the cliff you’re about to fall from. But a strong light can show you the cliff’s edge before you reach it.

You know what? I get the fact that the world is messed up and times are hard. I get the fact that people suffer. I could tell you a story or two of suffering. But I’ve been trained to use the light as well—to use hope and encouragement even when I’m in the most need of both.

So yeah, I cheered when Jack handed the ninja his butt served on a platter. (Not literally. But it’s a more interesting way of saying “Jack beat the ninja.”) Jack fought against an extremely difficult opponent—a fight without shortcuts. He got knocked down, but got back up each time.

As I consider that fight, I can’t help thinking about Gandalf and Saruman from The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf was the “servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor.” If that’s not a description of someone trained to use the light, I don’t know what is. Saruman the White, the head of the White Council, was supposedly on the side of good. But his actions proved otherwise. He delved too “deep in the enemy’s council” and lost his effectiveness as a warrior of the light. When Gandalf and Saruman fought in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf lost at first. But ultimately, Saruman was the biggest loser.

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Grumpy old men? Nope. Gandalf and Saruman chillin’

In times when darkness seems to win, we could use all the light warriors we can get. Warriors who know the struggle and the costs of the battle. Warriors who can say, “This is how you win it” without compromising or changing sides. I can’t help thinking of people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, or others today who have suffered greatly, yet maintain their humor and verve—like Maria, that sassy Brick House Chick many of us know and love.

How about you? What are you trained to use? How has that helped you fight the good fight?

Samurai Jack images from images1.wikia.nocookie.net and sharetv.com.

A Common Thread

needle-and-threadWhen I read this post at John Scalzi’s blog where Guy Gavriel Kay discussed the overarching theme of his novels, my mind started racing. (If you’re not sure who Guy Gavriel Kay is, click here. For John Scalzi, click here.)

Anyway, if you don’t feel like reading that post, Guy Gavriel Kay mentioned that he was asked why all of his books have the theme of exile. If you’ve read his books (I read Tigana), you might be nodding at this point and saying, “Yeah, I see that.”

I love the notion of having an overarching theme, a thread connecting all of my novels. It kind of reminds me of the dog that pops up in the illustrations of Chris Van Allsburg’s picture books—a fun extra readers know will be there. But on a deeper level, having something that links all of my novels is a way of sharing a passion of mine.

Now, you might be thinking, if I’m working on four novels (a duology and two stand alones), how on earth could I have a linking theme? Okay, I’ll tell you.

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of the journey as teacher—the hero’s journey—and often gravitate toward books of that ilk: Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien; The Odyssey by Homer; Beowulf; Sabriel by Garth Nix; The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett; Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson; The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis; The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald. (And by hero, I mean male or female.) Once that realization dawned during my third semester of grad school, I knew I had settled on a topic for my critical thesis, as well as a structure for the young adult fantasy novel I was struggling with at the time.

With a journey story, the emphasis is on movement. No stagnant pool here, but a flowing river with rapids and turns. As Joseph Campbell stated in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand. (Campbell 51)

A compelling journey story involves struggles beyond the daily “I ran into traffic” grind. Consider the journeys you find most memorable: rescue missions, mountain-climbing adventures, immigration stories, migrations (of animals too, if you watched the documentary Winged Migration). With journeys, character strengths and weaknesses come into focus.

Blake Snyder, author of the popular screenwriting tips book, Save the Cat, uses the term golden fleece in his discussion of hero’s journey stories. If you’re up on Greek mythology, you know that the quest undertaken by Jason and the Argonauts involved the search for the golden fleece. According to Snyder:

The theme of every Golden Fleece movie is internal growth. . . . It’s not the mileage we’re racking up that makes a good Golden Fleece, it’s the way the hero changes as he goes. (Snyder 28)

Reading these stories, some larger than life, makes us want to test our own limits, don’t they? The most powerful journey stories can inspire us to be better people—to do what we can to effect change in our world.

What journey stories inspire you? If you’ve read all or most of an author’s books, what theme, if any, have you noticed as a common thread?

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press/Bollingen Series XVII, 1949. Print.

Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat! Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions/Sheridan Books, 2005. Print.