Op-Ed

On Writing Resolutions and Goals… and Puppies

For many years here on the Mixed Up Files there is an annual pre-New Years post where MUF bloggers list their writing and reading resolutions. At the end of 2020 I knew exactly what I would put, which is that I wanted to keep a tally of everything I read throughout the year.  I also took some time to privately write down for myself what I had accomplished writing-wise in 2020, and some specific writing goals for 2021. Like many people, and notwithstanding immediate evidence to the contrary, I was hopeful for 2021. Despite all the fear and uncertainty and sickness of 2020, I felt like we had gotten through it and things would surely move forward.

Oops

Well, my public MUF resolution went down the toilet fairly quickly—like, within days—the ones when my kids didn’t go back to school after winter break.

My state of the union from this time last year

In January of 2021, exactly one year ago, I wrote to my editors to check in about the draft of my novel I was working on. This is part of what I wrote:

“It seems like everyone I know who wasn’t sick the last time around is sick now or has been sick in the last 5-6 weeks. Thankfully they seem to be getting through it ok but the hospitals are overwhelmed and even with the vaccine rollout the government is indicating that schools will be closed until the end of March. My kids are in kindergarten, 4th, 6th and 9th grades and to be completely honest I am drowning.

Last week I learned about the solar system for 4th graders, how rivers flow, how to write a beginner’s code in microbit, what an algorithm is to a 5 year old, the solar system for 6th graders, and how King William used the feudal system to consolidate power. I have broken my head on 4th grade math and worked on an essay on Of Mice and Men. I go between feeling like I got this, and my kids will be ok, to feeling like my kids are being emotionally stunted and that I am being graded and must be the dumbest parent in the class, often within the same hour. Their lunch break is at 4 different times spanning 2 hours. Getting them (and myself) outside during daylight is a challenge. My son in 6th grade with ADHD presents special challenges (including to my sanity!) At the same time I really know that we are exceptionally privileged that, among other things, in the three schools my kids are at the online provision is pretty good, how much most of the teachers care and are working their butts off, and that I am able to be home to manage their schooling.

The other good news is that I am still able to find time and mental clarity to work on HONEY if I wake up very early and this method seemed to work the first time around, so this is really all to say that I am working, but pretty slowly.”

 

Metaphorical toilet times… And yet…

Art by Rose Metting; Website by Websydaisy

Things definitely got worse before they started getting better. With particular grimness I remember the six days we spent without heat when my boiler broke while London experienced several snowstorms and an unusual cold snap. Despite that, my draft did get done. When I sat down last week to read my goals from 2021 I was surprised to see that I had been able to meet most of them. I wrote the amount of blog posts for the Mixed Up Files and reviews for the mock book award Sydney Taylor Shmooze I’d hoped to, I wrote a picture book text and short story, I took a romance writing course and started my own romance novel for fun. There are a few things I didn’t do: some because they made sense to delay, some because my focus shifted onto something else that made sense to take its place. There were several disappointments about writing things I’d hoped would work out but didn’t. (At least not yet.) One thing I especially love is my new author website, which looks exactly how I dreamed my author website would one day look.

 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

One doesn’t need to have Maslow’s hierarchy of needs memorized however to know how impossible it is to think forward proactively when your immediate goals are survival. In the months my kids were at home in the winter of 2021 it certainly felt all-consuming and while this was not the same as having food or shelter insecurity— there were many days when the goal was simply to get to the end of the day. During this time I also felt that my goals had negative and positive effects: they stressed me out, amplifying my frustration–how on earth would I accomplish anything? While at the same time spurring me on to try: I really want my book published so the only way to accomplish that is to wake up at 5 am and work on it for two hours before the day starts with the kids. Trust me when I say I never thought I would be the kind of person to do that, but I did.

 

Resources and Advice for Goals-Setting:

In case anyone is interested in the research and advice on goals setting, a google search literally of “goals setting” came up with a plethora of information and tools.

  • Here is one good example of why and how to set goals.
  • And this is a great post from MUF contributor Jenn Brisendine about creating “goal statements.”
  • I especially found the life vision exercise of the rocking chair an interesting way to think about long term goals: “Picture yourself in retirement, thinking back on your life from your rocking chair. What accomplishments will you be most proud of? What will you most regret? These are your most important answers to the question, ‘Why is goal setting important?’”
  • Also obvious yet profound is the idea that goals with measurable means of success give us meaning and purpose which is a key to happiness—or more importantly, satisfaction.While for many years when I had little kids, and especially when I moved countries, I paused my lifelong hobby of knitting and crocheting, I think it’s no coincidence that in 2021 I finished knitting the cardigan I’d started during the first lockdown, made half of a new one, completed a crocheting project, and also completed two needlepoint projects. I learned to touch type! (and I’m slowly trying to get fast enough to really use it when I’m writing. )

2022 goals in the poo bags… And yet?

All that being said, bang on trend for once I started the first week of 2022 with a(nother) bout of Covid—then I spent a week recovering—and then this week my family got a puppy. Which is to say… all my intentions to look back at 2021 and make goals for 2022 have been consumed by life, especially said puppy. But if the past two years have taught me anything it is playing both a short game and a medium-long game. By which I mean, being aware of deadlines and goals (eg doing some last-minute revisions on my debut middle grade novel Honey and Me, coming out with Scholastic this fall 🙏) that must be met and take priority over everything else; and having the clear-eyed discipline to make them happen if at all possible (while being aware and accepting that at certain times things just won’t be possible) even if it’s slightly slower than hoped for (see above re Winter 2021.) And also being aware of more medium-term goals (say, those for the year, or the next few months), that can go in your back pocket while you’re dealing with the short term goals—they’re not necessarily visible but you can feel them on your butt. You might take them out later than you’d hoped, but by the end of the year it’s amazing to see how much that pocket has emptied—and things have moved forward.

How about you?

I’m curious how anyone reading this might use goals or wish to use them. Do you find them helpful? How small do you make them? How measurable? Do you write them down? Do you give yourself deadlines or timeframes? Do you give yourself visual cues? How often do you check in on your progress? How often do you stop to set new goals? (Which is to remind everyone—myself especially—that goals don’t just have to be set at the beginning of the year.) How far down the road do you set goals for yourself? Any tips or things that worked especially well for you? Please share in the comments!

Wishing everyone a wonderfully productive 2022 in which pursuing your goals enables you to thrive.

Back to School in the Olden Days

Last year, my younger daughter was assigned to interview an older relative about what school was like back when they were in first grade. In an ordinary year, this assignment must have been an interesting way for the kids to discover and appreciate all the differences in school culture and technology that have built up over the past few decades.

My daughter chose to interview her older sister.

“I remember back when I was in first grade, six years ago, we went to school in a building that wasn’t our own house. Some kids got dropped off by their parents, and others got there in a big yellow bus.”

“That’s crazy!”

“And we didn’t use iPads, like, at all.”

“How could you see the teacher?”

“The teacher wasn’t on a screen. The teacher was in the room.”

“No way!”

“In gym, we got to play games and run around, and sometimes we went outside.”

“With the iPad?”

“There was no iPad.”

“Now you’re just making stuff up.”

“I’m not! And when we ate our lunch in the cafeteria, we sat at huge tables with all the other kids in our class.”

“That’s impossible! Also, what’s a cafeteria?”

“It’s like a restaurant, but just for the school.”

“With curbside service? Or was it a drive-through?”

“Neither. It was like one of those old-timey restaurants where you could eat indoors. Like you see sometimes on TV.”

“But you had to stay six feet apart from everyone and wear a mask, right?”

“There. Were. No. Masks.”

“What-what? School in the olden days sounds dangerous! You’re lucky you survived.”

* * *

Some kids went to school in person for at least part of last year, but many students this fall haven’t been inside a school building since mid-March of 2020. Some can barely remember what in-person learning was like.

These are challenging times for sure.

Stay strong, teachers.

The Myth of the Monomyth

Is there any hope for rehabilitating the Hero's Journey for our 21st Century world?

The Myth of the Monomyth by Greg R. Fishbone asks, "Is there any hope for rehabilitating the Hero's Journey for our 21st Century world?"

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Mythoversal Newsletter.

The Status Quo

I grew up on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and imprinted on the Hero’s Journey as the definitive storytelling template, but my enthusiasm has been tempered lately by mythologists and folklorists who absolutely loathe this theory.

The monomyth has been called sexist, racist, colonialist, and harmful to the expression and appreciation of world cultures. But why? And is there any hope for rehabilitating the monomyth as a tool for creating and understanding stories in the context of our 21st Century world?

The Catalyst

I was six when I saw the original Star Wars movie, and I was hooked. From then on, I measured all other stories using Star Wars as my personal yardstick.

Acceptance and Action

I began to notice that a wide variety of stories would often start with a Luke Skywalker character called to an adventure by a Ben Kenobi character. The Luke Skywalker character would often undertake a quest to save a Princess Leia Organa character from a Darth Vader character, often with help from a Han Solo character and one or two C3P0 and R2D2 characters. I filled notebooks with every example I could find and engaged friends with my evolving theory that Star Wars could explain the story structure underlying a huge portion of the movies and books we all enjoyed.

Encounter with the Guru

What I’d independently reconstructed was the monomyth theory of Joseph Campbell, building upon the archetypal figures of Carl Jung, as adapted and applied by George Lucas and other filmmakers who sought to emulate his success.

Star Wars beats mapped onto Hero's Journey beats

Trials and Tribulations

Campbell summarized the monomyth as:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Campbell’s theory was that this story template resonated with the human psyche, and had been present in the storytelling of diverse world cultures from humanity’s earliest days.

Friends and Foes

The monomyth theory was presented in The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Campbell’s 1949 book on comparative mythology. In the 1980s, with the success of the monomyth-fueled Star Wars original trilogy, PBS aired a discussion between Campbell and Bill Moyers in a program called The Power of Myth, which brought the monomyth to an even greater level of notoriety. Since then, Christopher Vogler, Blake Snyder, and others have refined the monomyth and extended it to the novel-writing and screenwriting process.

The Edge of the Abyss

At a workshop during the 2021 Arisia conference in January, I joined fellow panelists in a discussion of the more troubling aspects of Campbell’s work. These fell into four main categories:

First, while there are many myths that generally fit into the model proposed by Campbell, there are as many or more that do not, including such foundational stories as the myths of Gilgamesh and Beowulf. Therefore, the monomyth should always be presented with a caveat that it is not as universal as Campbell claimed it to be.

Second, the Heroine’s Journey is not accounted for. The Hero’s Journey has been called a masculine myth, based on traditional stories of male protagonists, generating new stories that best fit male protagonists, and appealing more strongly to male audiences. Other templates are required for more feminine storytelling. These include 45 Master Characters, a writing guide by Victoria Lynn Schmidt based on the theories of Campbellian psychotherapist Maureen Murdoch.

Third, the monomyth has been described as a hammer in search of a nail. Some stories and characters can be mangled into the stations and archetypes of a Hero’s Journey only at the cost of better understanding the essential distinctions that make them unique and special. An overreliance on monomyth-inspired movies has made it harder for audiences and critics to appreciate the stories that don’t fit into that mold, increasing and perpetuating the dominance of the monomyth to the detriment of other forms of storytelling.

And fourth, the adaptation of non-European mythologies to a Eurocentric lens has been seen as a form of cultural appropriation or cultural colonization. The Hero’s Journey is based on those Jungian archetypes closest to the surface in the collective consciousness of Western cultures, while other world cultures may emphasize different archetypes. When we remove a story from the culture that created it and view that story through a Eurocentric lens, or even through a lens that falsely purports to be “universal,” we shortchange the story’s culture of origin.

The Way Through

So is there any hope for rehabilitating the monomyth as a tool for writers in our 21st Century world?

I’d like to think so, but only by first recognizing that the monomyth is just one tool of many in a storyteller’s toolbox. The monomyth can be used to build and analyze story structures, but how much better could it be if we were using the entire toolbox, and looking at our stories through all available lenses?

Return to the Normal World

I still use the Hero’s Journey in my writing, but with an awareness of its problems and limitations. But perhaps the real Hero’s Journey requires throwing away all of our preconceived maps entirely and following each story wherever it leads.