Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Magic Ring of Myth: The Stories We Tell and Why We Tell Them

“Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.”

~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Last weekend, I sat and watched Leap Year which had been newly released to DVD. Okay, so I didn’t just watch it once. I replayed it probably half a dozen times or more. As I studied Amy Adams’ and Matthew Goode’s unlikely courtship on the screen, I tried to figure out why I loved this story so much. Especially since critics had panned the film. The movie had a shelf-life of, what, three days on the big screen? Finally, it struck me late Sunday evening why I’d fallen in love with Leap Year. Something about the romantic comedy tapped into one of my Ur-Stories. These are those myths that are at the core of each story we read, listen to, watch . . . or write. They help us understand the random events of our lives.

I’d first heard of the Ur-Story last summer when mystery writer S. J. Rozan spoke on the topic at Seton Hill University. She addressed the stories that fiction writers
tell. Not just the mystery, romance, fantasy, horror, or science fiction dramas you see played out between the pages of so many genre books these days, but the deeper myths that lie at the core of those stories. “Life is what it is; fiction tries to tell you what it’s about,” she said. “The Ur-Stories behind crime fiction, the myths on which it’s based, are two epic battles: between chaos and order, and between good and evil. . . . The stories that interest me, though--the pieces I lift out and present to you--are the ones where order is a mask for evil, where for good to prevail the world has to explode into chaos and not everyone finds a happy ending. That’s like life, and amazingly, it echoes the process itself; the writer’s job is to make order--fiction--out of life, which is chaos.”

t did Leap Year tell me about my own Ur-Stories? I still didn’t know. So I pulled out my copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces to figure it out. How could I be so wrong about Leap Year? I loved this movie. It’s the modern-day self-actualized Cinderella who goes on a quest to an enchanted land to propose to her Prince Charming only to find she’s been mis-cast. She’s really more a Beauty who heals the Beast she finds along the way. And, well, Prince Charming doesn’t really love her. He loves the idea of her as Cinderella. Okay, these are archetypes I enjoy. Cinderella. Beauty and the Beast. But so what?

That’s when I stumbled across Campbell’s discussion on the monomyth and the role these myths play today. He says, “In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us has his private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dreams. The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.” So this myth at the core of Leap Year spoke to me. It resonated with the private, secret myths I clutch close to myself as I journey through life. I explore these same messages of transformational love and healing, and enjoy using archetypes like Beauty and the Beast, the tortured dangerous hero, the feisty empowered heroine in my own writing. No big surprise then that I’d discovered such an affinity for Leap Year.

Does everyone do this? Seek out stories that affirm their core beliefs? Or is it just me? I started to look around at the people who surround me. Yes, they did it, too. It’s why I write romance novels and why my best friend reads fantasy. It’s why my eleven-year-old is drawn to the lyrics of Owl City’s Fireflies and my scientist father-in-law loves Asimov and old science fiction movies. We’re drawn to these myths like magnets to an invisible electro-magnetic field. You don’t have to look far to see the evidence. It’s there in the books we read, the music we listen to, the DVDs we watch, the fairy tales we tell our children, and the stories that we as writers write. So why are these myths so important? And how did they get there?

Myths capture our imagination. And without even trying, we seek them out. Myths help us order our world, manage chaos, and draw meaning from what appears to be random occurrences. We find kernels of truth in the myths that populate our lives. But what’s their ultimate purpose? Joseph Campbell says these myths help us cross difficult thresholds, allowing us to transform the way we think, both consciously and subconsciously. They help us arc and overcome the barriers in our own lives that hold us back that keep us mired in the muck. They’re the stories that remind us of our past and inform our future. They keep us from remaining static. They spur change. “It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward [to] counterac[t] those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back,” he says.

So where does that leave writers? Do we try to shape the myths at the core of our stories to get across a particular message? I’m not sure we can because our privately held myths have shaped us. Our stories rise from this magical spring of myth, whether we like it or not. We can’t help it. The words that spill out of our mouths when we speak and from our fingertips when we craft our stories are already part of our personal mythology. It’s individual truth made universal in our characters and novel themes. Writers are what Campbell calls the “artist-scientist: that curiously disinterested almost diabolic human phenomenon, beyond the normal bounds of social judgment, dedicated to the morals not of this time but of his art. He is the hero of the way of thought--single hearted, courageous, and full of faith that the truth, as he finds it, shall make us free.”

As writers and scholars of humanity, we need to understand the role of myth. How our past has shaped us. How myth draws an audience to a certain underlying story within a specific genre. If we can identify the story behind the story in our own work, we will better understand what rings true for our characters and their struggles. We can even begin to help our agents and editors know how to market our books. We’ll begin to piece together why Jane Q. Public loves a Regency-set marriage of convenience story while she stays far away from the roller coaster ride of modern-day suspense. But more than that, as writer-readers, when we begin to analyze what our literature says about our generation, we can tune our ears to the heart cry to which we’ve grown deaf. By reading popular fiction (mystery, thriller, suspense, romance, YA, science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels) and the lyrics of our modern-day poets, singer/songwriters, we can become adept at translating life chaos into orderly, saleable fiction.

So how does this help me understand why I loved Leap Year while no one else liked it? I understand the myths that have shaped me and I’m able to track my own personal journey as a writer. I see my overriding Ur-Story. My characters always experience a life-transforming love that makes them want to risk it all. They choose to leave behind their controlled comfort zone in order to grow and change. And because they risk it all, they always find their happy ending.

Does knowing this make me a better writer? I think so. Not everyone cares to reflect on life, to grow, or change--in real life or fiction. Change is hard. But I choose to be one of the heroes Campbell mentioned who believes that knowing the truth will set others (and me) free. So I will listen. I will hear the mythos of our generation as it echoes through our popular fiction because I care to know where we’ve been and where we’re headed. And as Mary Chapin Carpenter’s lyrics say so well, yes, each of our hearts does know the way. “It’s worth it all learning at last . . . The future begins with the past . . . We’ve traveled so far to be here.” Will you open your ears? What does your Ur-Story say to you? I think it matters. How about you?

We’ve Traveled So Far
by Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Age of Miracles

I found myself wondering today
Why do some go and some stay
Do each of our hearts know their way
Through valleys of sorrow and tears
Across oceans of longing and years
And the sound of it all in my ears

I traveled
I traveled so far
I traveled so far to be here

It’s worth it all learning at last
The future begins with the past
Step out of the shadow it casts
And let the sun shine on your shoes
Kick ‘em off in the rain if you choose
There’s nothing like nothing to lose

We traveled
We traveled so far
We traveled
We traveled
We traveled so farWe traveled so far to be here


  1. Candy, what a wonderful, thoughtful analysis! You've given me a lot to think about. I'm not sure what my Ur-Story is. But I've found that all of my writing has something to do with wanting to believe. Like Mulder. Maybe that makes The X-Files my Ur-Story! LOL . . .

  2. Oh, Candy, you've found my weak spot! I too want to know why we latch onto certain stories... And what those stories are really saying.

    Love Campbell. And love, love, love Rozan! Her Ur-stories always seem to echo the ones rattling around in my heart so I love to read her books. Lucky you, you heard her speak!

    And as a sidenote to Yvonne, the longer I'm so blessed as to be allowed to critique and be critiqued by the Rockville 8, the more clearly I think I see my own Ur-stories... And interestingly, I think I'm beginning to see what yours (meaning the whole R8 gang) might be. It's like getting to know someone through reading love letters. Wow!

  3. Yvonne ~ I love that! . . . wanting to believe . . . Ha! The X-File Ur-Story. And, of course, I'd have to have you explain to me what the Ur-Story in X-Files was, because I didn't watch it so many years ago. :)But I'll be looking for it now.

  4. Nicole ~ Exactly! I thought the same thing. I do think that sometimes it is a little easier to identify the Ur-Story in another person's writing than our own. But I do think, also, once you become sensitized to them, you become better at seeing the story behind the story, no matter where you look. And what a lovely concept that finding that message is like reading love letters. :)

  5. Candy,
    I don't know!!! I don't know what my Ur-story is!!! But now I know I have to find it. And then figure out everyone elses!
    What I find fascinating, too, is how these archetypes then interact w/ one another. Would Beauty and the Beast resonate so much with me if Beauty had been Snow White? Probably not. As you pointed out with Leap Year - she was a heroine miscast in her roll - and then she had to decide which roll was she actually miscast in, which story was the wrong one for her?
    As writers, we need to provide these characters with stories that force growth and acknowledge the tragedy of a character refusing to embrace her archetype (like the housewarming scene in the co-op).
    Here's to figuring it out on the page!

  6. Marjanna ~ And, yes, how much fun will it be to figure it out on paper? Loads, I imagine. :) You're right, there are certain myths that just resonate deeply with me--Snow White is not one of them for me, either.

    Our characters must be forced to face those life-changing (or defining) moments at points along the way. It's the stuff of fiction that keeps our readers glued to the page wondering what's going to happen next. :) Growth and change are necessary in our fictional characters. Fun topics to think about.

  7. I think Snow White is a hard sell in the modern age because she is essentially a passive figure and the post-60s generations of women have been taught they should be activist Belles/Beauties. Even Cinderella had more input into fate than SW, I'd say. I suspose one could argue Sleeping Beauty as being the most passive - hey, sleeping here - but there is something powerful about awakening to new awareness and many fiction stories touch on that core mythos.

    I *think* my Ur-story has something to do with partnerships and equality. Not necessarily a 50-50 split, but the exploration of an intimate relationship in which the essential couple begins and continues a conversation of negotiation, acceptance, encouragement, and growth in all the aspects of their lives. I'm not sure what fairy tale I get that from (but I'd make a case for Beauty and the Beast - they each need the other at some level. It's not all about the Beast needing to change - just think about the song the teakettle sings about giving and bending).

    I suspect after a few more stories under my belt, I'll have a better idea of what mythos turn me on (grin).

    Thanks for the post, Candy. Truly thought-provoking!

  8. Candy - such a wonderful post. I have so much to figure out about my own stories. So much to little time...

  9. Keely ~ Yes, I imagine you'll figure it out as you go. Snow White isn't one of those stories that appeals to me, either. However, I bet there's someone out there who identifies with the myth behind that fairy tale. Anyone who has a strong maternal mythos, maybe . . . :)

  10. Mary ~ I know. But it's a fun thing to have percolating at the back of your brain while you're going about your everyday chores. Self-story discovery is fun (and a little scary, too). I say that anyone who truly knows me well will be able to read my whole psychology just by reading my stories. Maybe I'm being sensitive, but I don't think so. Oh well. :)