Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Your Hero's Journeys

[This is the talk I gave at Speech Day for the prize giving ceremony at Princess Helena College on Saturday 27 June 2015. Because I wrote the speech as notes on index cards, it is not verbatim.]

Ladies and gentlemen, girls. It is a huge honour to be here on this very special day of your Prize Giving Ceremony. It is also a bit daunting to be asked to give inspirational advice in fifteen or twenty minutes. So when I started to write this talk a few days ago I posted a thread on my Facebook page. I asked my Facebook friends a question: If you could go back in time and give your teenaged self ONE BIT OF ADVICE what would it be?

My writer friend Robert Muchamore said:
5 11 24 30 31 36 will win you 200 million pounds in the first ever euro millions...

My writer friend Sarah Naughton said: Don’t go on Jim’ll Fix It

My writer friend Anthony McGowan’s advice to his teenage self was: You should have snogged Carmel Byrne when you had the chance.

But most of my friends essentially said Find out who you are and be true to that, or Follow your dreams!

I think my advice to my teenaged self would be: Go for it and enjoy the ride!

In my life I have had many passions, but the most abiding is my love of stories, especially books, TV and movies. At this cycle of my life, I am a storyteller so I’m going to share some wisdom gleaned from writing my books and from Going to the Movies.

About 50 years ago, a famous anthropologist named Joseph Campbell made a study of world mythologies and discovered that they all have stories about a Hero who goes on a journey, and the steps of that Journey are essentially the same. He called his ground-breaking book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The reason the story beats are so powerful and compelling is that they are the steps we take in our own lives, over and over, big and small.

1. Hero’s Ordinary World
The first step of the Hero’s Journey is when we find the hero in their ordinary world. Think of Luke Skywalker from the 1977 film Star Wars, watching a double sunset on the desert planet of Tatooine, dreaming of fighting the evil Empire. Or think of Katniss from The Hunger Games, supporting her little sister and dysfunctional mother in District 12. My journey to becoming a writer started about 20 years ago, in 1995. I was living in London, on my second marriage, with a son from my first. I was teaching Latin and art at a small primary school after having done a degree in Classics from Cambridge.

2. Herald - The Call to Adventure
In Star Wars, Luke’s ‘call to adventure’ is a holographic message from Princess Leia.
For Katniss, it is the moment when her younger sister is called to participate in deadly games from which only one teen will emerge victorious. Katniss impulsively volunteers to take her younger sister’s place.

Sometimes in our ‘ordinary lives’ the Call to Adventure is something the screenwriter Blake Snyder calls the Whiff of Death. It is the moment when we realise we are stagnating. I loved teaching but it was exhausting. I remember thinking, I can’t keep this up forever. An idea popped into my head, You’ve always toyed with the idea of being a writer. Maybe now is the time to try!

3. Refusal of the Call
In many (but not all) mythic journeys, the hero often gets ‘cold feet’ at this point as she is called out of her comfort zone. In Star Wars, Luke protests that he has too much homework and has to help Uncle Owen on the farm. Katniss didn’t hesitate because she acted on impulse. In our own lives we often hesitate because we doubt if we have what it takes to achieve our dreams.

4. The Mentor
Step four of the Hero’s Journey is the Mentor. This is someone who encourages the hero to ‘go for it!’ The Mentor is often a wizard, teacher or librarian who can give the hero the knowledge they need. Obi Wan is a good mentor. At the beginning of The Hunger Games, Haymitch is a bad one; he tells Katniss and Peeta ‘You’re going to die.’ He becomes a better mentor over the course of the story and near the end he can tell Katniss You can do this, and mean it. 

My mentors were my parents. They were five thousand miles away, but their belief in me gave me the confidence I needed to embark on a career as a writer in my 30s. Your new Headmistress, Mrs Sue W-W, has just told us how she was hugely encouraged when her coach had told her You can’t do better than a personal best.

When I asked my Facebook friends to post advice, I got several very moving replies. Marcus White, who directed some episodes of the Roman Mysteries TV series based on my books, wrote this: “I was an outsider as a teenager for lots of reasons. I felt confused and lacked confidence. I did have a secret ambition, however, to work in Television. When I eventually found the courage to confide in family or friends I was told that this was just a pipe dream. And that people like me could never achieve this. I was lucky that I had a much older friend, my godmother, to talk to and share my dreams. Advice - you need a champion in your life.”

At that stage of Marcus’s life his family and friends were opponents, but he found a Mentor in his godmother.

One fun thing about the mentor is that they often give the hero a Talisman. This is a physical object designed to help and encourage the hero. The talisman is often magic and sometimes glows, like Luke’s lightsaber, Dorothy’s ruby slippers or Frodo’s ring, (the most famous talisman in 20th century literature.) But the Talisman is not always magic. Think of Katniss’s mockingjay pin. 

The Talisman often looks back as well as ahead. Katniss’s pin reminds her of her home in District 12, but it will become a good luck charm and later a symbol of a whole freedom movement. Luke’s lightsaber belonged to his father and is the weapon of the Jedi Knight. Paddington’s hat belonged to his Uncle Pastuzo, and before that to the Explorer, who once told Paddington’s family If ever you come to London you will be assured a warm welcome. That hat will save Paddington's life at one point and lead him to his ultimate destiny.

My Talisman was a battered paperback copy of The Last of the Wine, the book that had changed my life by sparking my lifelong study of Classics. It would also be an inspiration for my first book. 

5. Crossing the Threshold
In life, as in any Hero’s Journey, the Mentor can only go so far. After a certain point, the hero is on her own. That point often comes when the hero Crosses a Threshold. In movies, Crossing the Threshold is one of the most visually exciting moments. Think of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Luke leaving Mos Eisley. Neo melting into a mirror. We can even visit the first big threshold Harry Potter crosses at platform 9 3/4s at King's Cross Station. In her address to us a few minutes ago, Sue W-W talked about the moment she first crossed the threshold of Princess Helena College… 

Paddington has to leave darkest Peru and go on the lifeboat across a great ocean… ALL BY HIMSELF. The best movies have several crossings of the threshold. There are at least a dozen in Paddington, including the moment when he actually steps over the threshold of the Brown’s house. The camera shows us his little paws as he hesitates for a moment, standing outside in the rain, before stepping over. A Chinese philosopher famously said, ‘The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.’ Sometimes just one step takes you over the threshold. Think of the moment when Katniss steps onto the train.

Your hero will often encounter Threshold Guardians at this point. They are there to make sure you are equipped and worthy of the journey. Threshold guardians are the people who interview you for your university place, gatekeepers, We all know threshold guardians from security at airports, because crossing a border is like crossing a threshold. You leave one world for another.

6. Allies, Opponents, Tests and Training
The hero must learn the rules of the new world and how it operates. And she must prepare herself for a Test or Battle. For this reason, the Opponent is often one of the most important people our hero will meet in the new world. We learn much better after a struggle. Sometimes, our opponents are internal ones, like self-doubt. There is often a Training sequence which is usually shown by a Montage with upbeat music, because it is often long and tedious, and storytellers have to condense it for storytelling purposes. IN YOUR LIVES THERE ARE NO MONTAGES. You have to practice your sport, learn your declensions, master your art. 

My allies were script doctor John Truby who recorded a story structure course on twelve cassette tapes and gave me a structure on which I could build plot. Other teachers and allies, though I never met them, were Joseph Campbell who said ‘Follow your Bliss’ and Christopher Vogler, a screenwriter who made Campbell's dry book accessible. I had to learn other aspects of the craft of writing, including how to touch type. 

The tests and training part of a story it is a slog, but is very important in preparing the hero for the ultimate test or battle.

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave - The Battle
There have been many tests and battles but there is often a big battle that comes before a breakthrough. The hero often descends into the underworld, a maze or a cave to fight the ultimate opponent. Or they may go to the top of a building or a mountaintop. There is often a DRAT, a Desperate Race Against Time or a Ticking Clock. Anyone who has sat an exam can identify with that. I’d been learning the techniques of writing for five years but my sister gave me a good idea and I knew I had to get it on paper in the last two weeks of the summer holiday.

8. Supreme Ordeal or Visit to Death
There comes a moment after all the work, training, sweat and tears when you have to leave your desire on the altar. You have to be willing to give it up. You have wanted nothing else for days, weeks, months, years… But you must also hold your dreams lightly, trusting that God or the Universe knows what’s best. Luke Skywalker pushes away the electronic controls to use The Force for his one chance at blowing away the Death Star. If he fails, he dies. Katniss and Peeta are prepared to eat poisonous berries which will kill them. As a Christian, I offered up my first book and desire to be a published author to God, praying that His ‘will be done’

9. The Reward
Sometimes the hero gets exactly what she dreamed of.  Luke destroys the Death Star. Katniss wins the Hunger Games, and saves her friend Peeta. Paddington finds a home. I got a publishing deal. 

But sometimes the answer is NO. Sometimes the hero doesn’t get the prize but she gets something more valuable: knowledge. I once had a student who later wanted to read Classics at Oxford. He was rejected twice but is now a member of a famous pop band. Not only is he rich and famous, but more importantly he has enriched the world by blessing others through his creativity. Where would he be if Oxford had accepted him? Sometimes APPARENT DEFEAT is the best possible outcome.

10. The cycle begins again.
The hero has got her desire. In a movie she grasps the prize, she rides into the sunset or kisses her lover. In real life we are never satisfied and we want something else. 

By the way, although we are always the hero of our own story sometimes we are not always called to be a leader. Sometimes was are called to be someone else’s ally, teacher, mentor or even opponent. I think I am being called to be a Mentor. Think how powerful Malala has been in her journey as an opponent. 

The prizes I am about to give out are like Talismans given to you by your Mentors.

Take them with you into the new world you’re about to enter. (I’m not going to call it the Real World because you’re already in the real world.) The world you’re about to enter is just one of many you will enter throughout your lives.

These prizes look back at your past achievements but they hint at the untapped possibilities for you in the future. Most of all they will remind you that here at Princess Helena College you have friends, teachers, allies and mentors who believe in you and LOVE you. They – and I – wish you joy and fulfilment on your Hero's Journeys.

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