“Your life is your story. Write well. Edit often,” wrote Susan Statham, capturing the essence of self-improvement and the conscious practice of crafting a life. And as Joan Didion memorably put it, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Indeed, our stories may be a critical component in living, but as Gabriel García Márquez reflected, “life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”
While Winston Churchill famously said that history would be kind to him because he intended to write it, many of us perform this same narrative editing, casting our actions and exploits in a better light than perhaps they deserve. As George R.R. Martin put it,
“Nobody is a villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.”
But what if we weren’t the primary narrator? What if we read our story without the biased perspectives that we’re so adept at adding?
Would it still be a story worth reading?
Would we like the main character?
And most importantly, would we be happy with the end?
What is a Good Story Anyways?
“It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back.” – Joseph Campbell
There’s no universal answer to what makes a compelling story. As a wise-beyond-her-years fourteen year-old Sylvia Plath once told her mother,
“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.”
Yet the stories that stand the test of time contain many similarities. From Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno to Lucas’s Star Wars and Rowling’s Harry Potter, many of our common hero stories follow the same framework.
Legendary mythologist Joseph Campbell points this out in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. After reading hundreds of stories, he developed “the hero’s journey,” a 17-stage outline showing how heroes depart from their status quo, answer the call for adventure, and overcome crisis and temptation on their way to transformation.
Discussed in a recent Mission: Daily podcast, Chad Grills and Ian Faison, point out that while the hero’s journey offers a common framework, it also presents a call for originality. While there may be a common theme, there’s endless variations.
So instead of considering what makes a compelling story, perhaps it’s better to consider what stage our story is currently in. And whether we’re seizing the opportunity for that originality.
Have You Answered the Call?
“The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.” – Joseph Campbell
Imagine Star Wars if Luke decided to stay on Tatooine. Maybe move to Mos Eisley and pay for a flat by picking up shifts as a dishwasher at Chalman’s Cantina. Or how would The 4-Hour Workweek have turned out if Tim Ferriss elected to play it safe in the supplement industry?
Great stories start with an initiation. A call to adventure. Something that breaks the main character out of their current status quo and challenges them to take a risk for something better.
And most people who never take this call – never break free from their own complacency – assume it’s because they never received it. They’re waiting for a half-giant to kick down the door and tell them they’re a wizard.
But the call for adventure doesn’t need to occur when your younger sister is selected for the Hunger Games. It could be taking the opportunity to learn about something new. Or find a new job. Or deciding to start a family.
It could be recognizing the need to step in and help someone. Or become involved in a cause. Or just start asking yourself some questions on meaning and fulfillment.
Growth is what makes life compelling. It’s what makes it fulfilling. And all growth comes from that decision to step outside the bounds of our current limits and start an adventure for something better.
So stop waiting for Morpheus to call and tell you that you’re the one. As Thomas Edison put it, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Look for the calls that are already in front of you. Because once you start looking, you’ll start seeing them.
And in Campbell’s wise words, “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
Are You Following Your Own Path?
“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.” – Joseph Campbell
We’re all under constant pressure to follow the proven path. The majority of advice consists of people telling others what worked for them, and assuming that everyone should merely mimic their methods.
But excellence comes from self-expression. And stories that follow an obvious script offer few risks – few dramatic questions – that keep us turning the pages.
Parker Palmer, a former ad man turned founder for the Center of Courage and Renewal, also followed a beaten path in pursuit of riches over fulfillment. Until one day he awoke to a haunting realization,
“The life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me.”
We take the well-trod path because it’s safe. We know it will be more predictable and less risky than the alternative of trudging through the forest and clearing our own way.
But often the greatest risk is in taking no risk at all. And in Campbell’s words,
“Regrets are illuminations come too late.”
The alternative is to be true to our own interests. Choose presence over the distractions of productivity and let your passion guide your steps, regardless of the obstacles this places in your path.
Campbell, a man who considered our greatest transgression to be “the sin of inadvertence, of not being alert, not quite awake,” saw the solution to be: “follow your bliss.” As he told legendary interviewer Bill Moyers in a conversation at Skywalker Ranch and later transcribed in The Power of Myth,
“If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”
Great stories and great characters share an authentic connection. They believe in their path because it’s their own and their journey is driven by their own sense of bliss.
Are you following your bliss down your own path? Or are you sacrificing that authenticity for the seemingly safe, well-trod path. Only one of those leads to a story worth reading. And as Campbell put it, “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.”
Where Are You Going to Stop?
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” – Joseph Campbell
The hero’s journey is fraught with challenge. Frequent temptations threaten to pull us from our quest. And there are often setbacks and delays, losses and heartbreak. The difference between a great story and a dissatisfying ending doesn’t lie in whether we overcome these challenges and temptations on our first attempt, but in how we respond to each setback.
Do we choose to stop? Or do we keep going? As Orson Welles wisely said,
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
As we answer the call for adventure and elect to make our own path, we need to accept the progress as well as the stumbles. We need to acknowledge those challenges and temptations that will periodically get the better of us.
We often place a great deal of emphasis on that first step. But the most important step that we can take is not the first step, but the next one.
Because in those unavoidable times when we struggle and fall, it’s the decision to take that next step which keeps our story going. The next step keeps us from accepting the person we are at that moment and keeps us from allowing our story to end with that failure.
The next step keeps us growing. It keeps us on our path. And it prevents failure from defining our end.
As Churchill put it, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” When do you plan to stop? How do you want your journey to end? And which one will give you an ending you’ll be happy with?
Make Yours a Story Worth Reading
“We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.” – Joseph Campbell
Today is but one sentence on one page of the book that will eventually become your life. A sentence that adds onto yesterday’s which builds from last week’s and frames the ones that are yet unwritten.
One sentence. But what is a story if not but a collection of those sentences. And quoting Annie Dillard, “how we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.”
Today is your story. And mine. Let’s choose to make them stories worth reading.