Personal mythmaking and storytelling

The whole notion of ‘personal mythmaking’ sounds ludicrously grandiose – maybe even dangerously so! And yet, both in informal creative workshops and in more challenging individual therapy situations, I have always found it to be one of the most effective and transformative methods for creating both perspective and change. When used carefully, and well, personal storytelling techniques can both inform and guide people (or groups, or organisations) who want to make changes in their lives, or who want to gain insight into both the path that they’re already on, and the path they want to follow in the future. Because what could connect those two – the past and the future – better than a good, well-plotted, carefully characterised story? What could make better sense of what might on the surface appear to be a muddled, unpleasantly entangled life?

The creation of personal myths and the use of personal storytelling techniques can help us cut through the apparent tangle of plotlines and characterisations in our lives, and discover what is true and meaningful to us. Because in a sense, we are the stories that we tell. Through the perspective that is gained by writing, developing and revising our stories, new understanding of the past can be gained, and new possibilities for the future are opened up.

There are a variety of structures that can be used for personal mythmaking and storytelling. One of them (though it’s not necessarily the best for women – more of which at a later date) is mythologist Joseph Campbell’s analysis of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ (in The Hero With a Thousand Faces) which he argued underlies all of the most enduring and compelling myths around the world. I’m quite sceptical about some of Campbell’s views (and he paid far too much attention to Freud when talking about psychology) but nevertheless his analysis of mythical structures is very insightful.

Campbell described the Hero’s Journey as ‘a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation – initiation – return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth. 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.’

Here is a simplified outline of the different stages of the Journey (for ‘hero’ please read ‘hero or heroine’; for ‘he’, ‘his’ or ‘him’ please read ‘he/she’, ‘his/her’ and ‘him/her’!).

Call to adventure: A summons which beckons the hero/heroine to leave an outmoded condition and journey into new ways of being.

Refusal of the call: At first, the hero shrugs off the summons because it comes at an inconvenient time, or because the hero doesn’t feel worthy.

Meeting with the monster/guardian of the threshold: The hero sets of from home and tries to cross the threshold of adventure to enter new realms and ways of being (ultimately, these are inner, visionary realms). What initially keeps him from stepping into this new realm is the challenge represented by ‘guardian of the threshold’: the classic mythical guardian monster. In most lives, guardians can be represented by family, friends, responsibilities, or the expectations of others; by schedules, fixed habits, personal attitudes cast in concrete, the attitudes or dominance of others, or the part of the self that won’t release its hold on what is known and safe long enough to allow boundaries to dissolve.

Descent to the underworld: Once he has found his way past the guardian, the hero is swallowed by the unknown – he enters the ‘belly of the whale’: the ‘underworld’. Entering this place permits him to dissolve his identity in order to be rewoven into a stronger and brighter form. In the process of journeying through this new world he ‘dies’ and is ‘reborn’: in other words, a metamorphosis occurs. (There are some beautiful existing myths that focus on this part of the Journey: the ancient Sumerian myth of the Descent of the goddess Innana, for example.)

The road of trials exists in the unknown landscape of the otherworld: the hero meets with incredible tests, extraordinary adventures. There are meetings with magical helpers and supernatural allies, and with foes and monsters of all kinds. The hero is hurled into challenges for which he has little preparation, and yet in his own way, he finds the resources to survive.

Finding the treasure or gift for which the hero is questing: an expansion of consciousness; an insight or understanding; a new state of being.

Magic flight back across the threshold with the boon intact, so the hero can restore the world, or come into his inheritance.

Final transformation: Finally, on his return, the hero is recognised by the world, and enters into his transformation.

I believe that negotiating the Hero’s Journey for oneself is best accomplished with the help of a guide who can work with you to challenge and encourage. It isn’t always easy to see for yourself what is preventing you from defeating the guardian – or even seeing who or what the guardian is for you – and stepping across the threshold. And it’s very easy to evade difficult questions, especially if doing exactly that is the root of a current problem. But if you don’t have that luxury, here are some questions you can ask yourself to guide you through the Journey. Remember: the focus is on problem-solving, and on constructing a credible narrative for your own life or current situation.

Questions for personal mythmaking:

  • Where are you now on your own journey?
  • Have you heard the call? Have you refused it and if so, why?
  • Have you accepted the call but met with guardian monsters that refused to let you pass the threshold to your own deeper capacities and possible new life? Who or what are the monsters?
  • Did you outwit the monsters and get across? If not, how will you do so?
  • Did you find your way through the underworld, or are you trapped in the belly of the whale through despair, depression, laziness? If you’re trapped, how will you untrap yourself?
  • Do you find yourself in the midst of the road of trials, and if so, do you experience it as full of adventures – or as just one crisis after another?
  • Have unusual helpers or allies shown up? Who are they, and what do they represent?
  • Are you finding a gift/ insight/ project that may bring healthy solutions to your problems or a focus to your life?
  • Have you crossed the magic threshold and come back into ordinary life with a sense of accomplishment and transformation?
  • What now?

Campbell sums up the potency of the Hero’s Journey for individuals as follows: ‘Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the centre of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.’

The structure of the Hero’s Journey is only one aspect of the personal mythmaking and storytelling toolbox; there are others (including the critical concepts of imagery and metaphor) that I’ll write about in future blogs.