BY MADONNA HAMEL
All week we’ve been seconded in a street-facing room in a library in Swift Current in the middle of summer. There are nine of us, the average age being fourteen. At fourteen my family moved from Prince George, with it’s three pulp mills and endless crusty winters to Kelowna with it’s luscious fruit and sandy beaches. I should have been happy, but I’d left the known world behind, with my new high school friends at a college where native and white kids mingled and art teachers encouraged wild expression and no matter how many times I entered my fluffy happy depictions of a piney woods to Bishop O’Grady’s Christmas card contest, it was always a native design depicting shape-shifting totems in metiuclous detail that clinched the prize.
It may have helped to know I was embarking on a hero’s journey, but I’d not yet been introduced to Joseph Campbell, the man who revealed to me that we are all on some kind of voyage into the unknown, with assitance from elders or travelers who knew the signposts and the dangers and were willing to help if only we asked. I still thought, in those days, I had to go it alone.
So today, on our fourth day of writing, I am about to tell this group of young authors what they probably already know: they are heroes. They know this, I believe because not one of them has dropped the pen and wandered off into the street or the hot summer day where most of their friends are probably playing, or sleeping in. They seem to have no problem writing for 5, 10, 15, 25 minutes at a stretch!
Most adults don’t do well staying put that long, let alone creating stories. I am thrilled. I am running to keep one step ahead of them. I am wishing I was like them when I was their age.
They write about tough stuff, about events in the hero’s life that took courage and staying power to overcome. They often say: Ok, I’ll read. But it’s pretty dark. Or: I’m warning you, it’s weird. And we all say: Go ahead. And, yes, some of us say: Wow, You’re right that is pretty dark. Or we say: hmmm, listen to this! And, emoldened by the others’ revelations we share our own twisted tale. Or maybe we pass. Or ask: why? Why did she kill him?
I say ‘we’, but the truth is it’s all them. They do all the work, I just do what I can to provide ideas, tricks, exercises, games to keep the pen moving. And I constantly remind them: there is no wrong answer, nor bad story, nor perfect plot. Maybe you’re not always clear, or maybe it feels unfinished, but it’s not wrong. It’s not a competition either, because how can you tell her story better? How can you tell him he shouldn’t say that? Who knows your story, your journey better than you? This is about owning your story. Which means, also, being responsible for it. You got your hero into this mess, you better get him out. You took your reader down this road, you better cut the path clear enough for her to get to the ‘big finish’. You don’t have to make it so boring you could walk it blindfolded, but you do have to give her some clues as to where to turn next. You don’t want your reader to throw the book at the wall.
But here’s the great part: if you have a pulse you have a story. Because scholars like Joseph Campbell have studied hundreds of stories from every culture and found a theme that runs through it. Whether you are Black Elk or Scout Finch or Katniss Everdee or Sidharta or Christ or Ebenezer Scrooge or The Grinch or John-boy Walton or Martin Luther King Jr or your great grandmother or your uncle you have gone through the trials and tribuklations of the hero’s journey. You may not have gone willingly, you may have taken a wrong turn, you may have been injured and ended up in hospital, but you have undoubtedly and inevitably been given a lesson, and if you learned it, you’re ready for another go.
That’s what I want them to know. I want them to know that the hero’s journey is a circle, like a clock. We start at high noon, or in the case of the band I once traveled with, we start at midnight. We begin at home and leave status quo for the big bad world. We may have a map, we may have been booted out, but from here on in who knows what comes next. At one o’clock the hero receives a message. And at 1 o’clock the journey begins; we get our call to ‘adventure’ and we make our way to 2 o’clock where an assistant waits. Hopefully you trust the assistant because they are going to usher you to the next hour. The hour where we leave the known world and dip under into the unknown, the new territory. This is the departure zone. At 4 o’clock you encounter plenty of trials, tribulations, struggles, confrontations, decisions etc. You can choose to pass or continue and move closer to the treasure awaiting up in 7 o’clock. You move through crises, extract gifts, recognition, honour, respect, and a whole whack of lessons that, when you end up back at home, at the beginning where you can sit back and assess your lessons, realize your new skills, and bask in the fact you survived, renewed.
We are winding down, which means they are wound up, my room full of heroes. They’ve killed most all of their characters, in ways more gruesome than I could ever imagine. They are having fun sinking nails into flesh, tearing eyes out of sockets, kniving fathers, drowning an entire population. I haven’t decided if this is a ‘ggod’ thing, or a ‘bad’ thing. But it’s definitely a thing. Murder and mayhem fill books and movies and video games, like they never did when I was their age. But so does an awareness of race, gender, and class. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes and colours and gender. And my job is to remind them over and over to just “keep writing”.