The Heroine’s Journey

On Tuesday I was talking with a friend of mine who is a doula and a writer, among other things (I’m linking to her, because you never know! One of you might need a doula). She has recently been training to teach Birthing From Within classes.

At this point you’re probably saying to yourself, “Did I click the wrong link and end up at someone’s baby blog? What does childbirth preparation have to do with writing?” Read and learn, darlings!

There are lots of different kinds of birthing classes, with varying philosophies behind them. The philosophy behind this one (or the part my friend thought would interest me) is that giving birth is a kind of Hero’s Journey, as surely as Frodo going to the Crack of Doom, and that an understanding of its stages would be tremendously helpful to mothers-to-be.

You’ve heard of the Hero’s Journey (or monomyth), surely. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces laid it out clearly, though the idea goes back to Jung and the idea of archetypes. It became very popular when Bill Moyers did a documentary about Campbell, revealing that he was good friends with George Lucas, who had deliberately structured Star Wars as a hero story. The “men’s movement” of the 90s – which was all about men getting in touch with their feelings and learning to forgive their fathers via drum circles (or some such) – was also rooted in Campbell’s ideas.

In other words, I knew about it, but it was all very masculine to my mind. Hearing my friend describe childbirth in those terms was… well, it was surprising and exactly RIGHT. You are called to perform this task that is surely to big for you to handle. There is no turning back. You undergo an ordeal (and must surrender to it, or it hurts even more). There are times you really think you might die – or that death would be a wondrous relief. You come back with a great gift. The ordinary world looks completely different to you afterwards.

And you can’t stop telling your story. Ye gods, I remember that. I could not shut up about it: the great flood, the wild broncos bucking, my husband an island in the stormy sea. I was desperate to hear other women’s stories. We were like veterans. Nobody could understand (or wanted to hear the gory details) but us.

I’m working on the plot outline for my second book. You don’t have to scratch the internet very hard to find a dozen sites with the Hero’s Journey laid out tidily for authors (esp. screenwriters). Just plug in your ideas, and presto! You’ve got an instantly compelling story!

It was interesting to read the steps of the journey, certainly, and a little relief to see that I  had already instinctively created some things that corresponded.  And I’m sure it’s possible to make a story that way, from the prototype up, but it  could end up being The Phantom Menace as easily as Star Wars. The steps are not for my story, but for myself.

Because this, too, came clear in talking to my friend: the journey is compelling as a story because it’s a journey we all take. Being a writer is not so different from giving birth, after all. What’s interesting is not how my written work conforms (or doesn’t) to some preexisting template, but how I am learning to walk the path myself, to be the hero of my own life. I went through an ordeal indeed with Seraphina; I’m still on the Return part of that journey, but already called to begin another. How do I do this? How am I changed? What have I learned?

I’m trying to plan, of course, with this plot outline, but there are unanticipated monsters ahead, and unanticipated help. And in the end, there is nothing for it but to set my feet upon the path and go.


2 Comments on “The Heroine’s Journey”

  1. aksnuernberg says:

    Campbell et al. might have gotten some of the individual stages right, but even though I am working as a screenwriter and use the Hero’s Journey quite often, I am still convinced that it has a strong male bias with its overemphasized individualism and underlying machismo. It was female writers like you who taught me that.

    • Well, see, I agree with you that there’s a lot of male bias particularly in how it gets used in pop culture, which is why equating it with childbirth kind of blew my mind. But I had been there and felt that. After I had my baby, I felt MIGHTY, like I could do anything, like a hero, but I defy anyone to label it “machismo”. And the hero can have help: Sam practically dragged Frodo to Mordor. I had midwives and my husband to help me, but if I’d needed it, I could have had a C-section. It doesn’t make the journey any less life-changing.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is there is no gender bias in the experience itself: men and women both rise to the occasion, whatever it may be, undergo ordeals (with or without help), and emerge transformed and wiser. That’s IT, in essence. The bias is in the labels people have put on the experience, and labels can be changed.


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