Mythiness is Next to Truthiness (Or: A Few Words on the Hero)

David Corbett

I’m writing this on July 4th, a good day to reflect on heroes. And as has been noted on this blog on numerous occasions, crime fiction without heroes is like porn without fluffers (or words to that effect).

Note: Recent comments regarding the tediously cerebral quality of newcomer postings has not gone unnoticed. I really did try to make this not too “heady.”

But as even the merest glance at my photograph should make plain — I am, if not the ORIGINAL Egghead from Hell, certainly a worthy inheritor of the mantle.

And, as someone far wiser than me once remarked:

             I am what I am

            And that’s all that I am

                        —Popeye the Sailor Man

 * * * * *

I was not one of those who jumped aboard the whole Joseph Campbell hero’s journey bandwagon, and I resisted the Christopher Vogler adaptation of those theories to writing.

For the uninitiated: Joseph Campbell employed Jungian psychology in a comparative study of the world’s myths, creating a book that became a seminal work in the study of heroic sagas: The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Christopher Vogler adapted Campbell’s work to the writer’s craft in his book: The Writer’s Journey.

Specifically, Vogler took Campbell’s analysis of the hero’s journey:

And adapted it into a twelve-step schema for storytelling.

This schema has been especially influential in Hollywood.

I’ve come around a bit, cottoning to Campbell much more than I used to, and I’ve made peace more or less with Vogler, seeing a great deal that’s commendable in his methodology — though it still makes me itch at times.

First and foremost, I have to admit that Jung has always struck me as a little bit on the ooga-booga side of psychology. If Freud was the Viennese Quack that Nabokov accused him of being, Jung was the misty-eyed myth-monger. (Joyce famously referred to the pair of them as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum.) There was just something airy-fairy about the Jungian world, with a lingering whiff of patchouli, an aftertaste of bark tea. Every time I almost succumbed, a redneck sergeant major in the back of my brain caterwauled: Hey, numbnuts! Pull your head out of your–

My basic complaint with Campbell was I thought he cherry-picked his facts to suit his theory, over-simplifying myths to fit his interpretive scheme. Myths are far more complex, varied, contradictory and unique than such a universalist interpretation can allow. (But then, I almost always regale in the trees; screw the forest.)

A number of Classicists I studied (and respected) agreed. Some even claimed Campbell’s knowledge of Sanskrit was so fatally off he’d woefully misread the texts he was citing.

Now, Aristotle’s been thrown under the bus at times for rigging his argument as well. Much of his Poetics is premised on a reading of one play — Sophocles’ Oedipus the King — and consequently his analysis ill-suits a number of other Greek dramas, not to mention more modern ones. But that’s what happens, I suppose, when philosophers go slumming in the arts.

Vogler was even more problematic than Campbell for me, to the point I nearly threw the book against the wall every time he brought up Theseus. And his attempt to use his theory to analyze The Last of the Mohicans was maddeningly — dare I say laughably — overwrought and unconvincing.

In fact, I’ve seldom found Vogler’s approach as a whole useful in analyzing anything. In pieces, this insight or another, sure, I’ve found him helpful, insightful, even profound. But some of his ideas have to be refashioned or reimagined so totally— or tossed overboard wholesale (shapeshifter my ass) — that trying to adapt them to a modern story in the realist mode seems such a wasteful detour you’re better off not to bother with them at all.

In short, I didn’t think there was anything this method brought to the table that wasn’t addressed equally well if not better — and without the spooks and fairies — by Aristotle, Lajos Egri, Robert McKee, and others in the more standard dramaturgical tradition.

I also found the efforts to use myth to demonstrate the fundamental heroic nature of human experience to be at times simplistic, ham-handed, or just plain silly — cheapening the very concept of what it means to be brave.

It’s no accident that Disney has been the most enthusiastic enabler of the Vogler addiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cartoons — my brother, a DoD psychologist (excuse me: Human Factors Engineer), has often remarked that it’s “frightening” how much of my personality was formed by Rocky and Bullwinkle — but I don’t look to Loony Tunes for heroic inspiration.

Now, I’m a writer, I believe stories are the best thought experiments there are for understanding human experience. I just don’t think tagging an experience to myth automatically elevates it. [“Crap, he told himself suddenly, with what facility you reduce all things to their arty equivalent.” —Robert Stone, Hall of Mirrors] Nor do I believe the best way to understand a story is to compare it to another story.

My other main complaint with the Campbell/Vogler approach was that, where the method seemed most potentially innovative and rich — adapting the hero’s journey to the psychology of personal trial and transformation — it seemed on fuller reflection to be less capable of offering new insights than merely proliferating terms.

Do I really understand anything more about a person facing a crucible “change or die” experience — an inmate giving up the criminal life, an addict battling his addiction, a neurotic embracing intimacy, a corrupt cop going straight — by likening the ordeal to Jonah in the Whale, St. George and the Dragon, Odysseus in the Underworld? Does this really add psychological, emotional or moral resonance? Or does it instead, ironically, cheapen the experience by denying its unique, temporal and material reality?

Put another way: I’ve never been convinced that going the Campbell/Vogler route produced more compelling results than deep immersion in the realities of a character or a story — not to mention of a person and an episode in her life.

Call it my Aristotelian bias, but for me the dramatic rubber meets the road when you have to deeply consider how the seemingly complex and even contradictory facts before you become intelligible as you probe their core nature and meaning.

If you do that, you’ll arrive at fundamental truths every bit as rich and “timeless” as those of myth — precisely because you’ll be tapping into the same core human truths that myths do. But there’s no shortcut. No cutesy diagram to guide the way. You gotta sweat through the homework, Sparky.

Do some stories possess qualities that suggest a special world, or entering the inner cave, or seizing the sword, or returning with the elixir? No doubt. But a great many do not. And searching for these things in tales that do not obviously possess them creates interpretive convolutions that generate nothing but circular jabber.

Also: The problem with working from myths outward is that it’s an easy trap – you can knowingly or unknowingly begin to resort to the method as a formulaic crutch — and in drama all formulas are false.

Saying we’re all on a journey is somewhat reassuring, but it’s also so vague it could be applied without much of an interpretive stretch to a rock.

Speaking of which: It’s a certain rock from mythology (ironically) that got me thinking about all of this. And the rock in question, of course, belongs to Sisyphus.

This ancient tale returned to modern awareness courtesy of Albert Camus, who like youth itself is wasted on the young. Too many of us read him in college, when the stakes of life have yet to make their most visceral impression. (Death makes life clear. The rest is marginalia.)

Camus’ essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” is deceptively brief. And I would bet that most of us, given our American optimist mindset, think of the core idea of this essay as: Life is “futile and hopeless labor.” The cheeriest insight to be had is: “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”

Oh, the frolicsome, fun-loving French.

How refreshing to re-read the thing and find that such a downbeat interpretation is utterly wrong-headed.

In fact, the essay has a great deal to say about heroism.

Camus finds most interesting that moment when Sisyphus sees the rock roll down the hill again, and he begins to descend to retrieve it: “That is the hour of consciousness.” And if the myth is tragic, it is solely because Sisyphus is conscious.

And yet, for Camus, Sisyphus is far from a tragic figure. Instead, he “is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”

Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. The universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

This ethos animates a great deal of modernity — one hears echoes of it in this from Martha Gelhorn: “It is cowardice or laziness to ask: what can I do about it anyway? Every squeak counts, if only in self-respect.” Or even this, in a backhanded kind of way, from Gelhorn’s short-term husband, that Hemingway mope: “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”

I hear it in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, when Maggie the Cat insists that life must go on even after the dream of life is over.


I hear it in the Zen adage: Death is like the falling of a petal from a rose — nothing more, nothing less. Or this from the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön: To give up fear, we must also surrender hope.

I also catch it in stories I hear from cops. Every crime solved results not in the ultimate triumph of justice, whatever the hell that is, but in going back down the hill to reclaim the rock. 

I hear it in war stories, because there’s no concept in the lexicon more wildly misunderstood than that of victory, and no more insidious lie than a “war to end all wars.”

I hear it in stories of the middle-aged middle-class trying to hold on to their homes, their livelihoods, their dignity amid the impromptu experiment in narcissistic sociopathy sometimes referred to as the economy.

I see it in Louise’s accounts of her past year, and now caring for her much-loved father-in-law as he faces death. I hear it in Alexandra’s offhand mention of the incredibly difficult two-year slog she’s just endured, and Stephen’s and Cornelia’s accounts of dealing with their fathers’ suicides. I hear it in Zoé and Gar’s and many others’ tales of their struggle to keep their careers alive in the face of a crumbling and often disingenuous industry. The mountain is scaled by the inch. And gravity and the rock have their own thing going.

Heroism cannot always be measured by its triumphs, if only because they’re such a long way off — sometimes beyond the horizon line. On occasion the heroic lies in the simple refusal to close the book despite the overwhelming evidence that there’s no big reveal at the end of the story. No magic sword. No elixir. There’s just this. And it is everything.

So, Murderateros: Have you employed the Campbell/Vogler approach? Has it worked for you? Do you think I’m just a contrarian crank? Do you think my Sisyphean view of the hero is needlessly bleak? When you think “hero,” who ghosts up from your memory — especially on Independence Day? Chime in, spout off, tell it.

 * * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: I turn this time to Eva Cassidy, who died much too young. (“What is it with Corbett and dead musicians,” I hear you cry.) This is her cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Tall Trees of Georgia,” a haunting song about another type of heroism — the lonely nobility of an honest heart.


46 thoughts on “Mythiness is Next to Truthiness (Or: A Few Words on the Hero)

  1. Reine

    David, I so pleased you did not get all intellecty on us.

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, oh great and cool one, for taking the demythtification road. You are blessed. ::bells:: You are blessed. ::bells:: You are exceedingly blessed. ::bells::

    I have nightmares composed entirely of Jungian wheels flinging their mythic spinning icons at me. I try to knock them off their axes with a baseball bat. When I start hitting the fly pole. A therapist sitting on The Green Monster starts laughing, "You think this is bullshit, but the ball park is THE metaphor for life! You are in the Love Box. We understand you here! We try to comfort you by knowing you, and you reject our help. DOOM! DOOM! DOOM!"

    Here's a good Jungian story, a spirit-killer if I ever had one. i'm sitting in a small classroom with about twenty students waiting for the professor. She walks in the room saying, "Hello. I am Zelda Zen-Zodiak, and I am a Jungian feminist analyst." She turns to face us and sits on the table. She kicks off her leather sandals. And as she pulls back her long full skirt, she crosses her legs, and exposes herself to us. I look around at my classmates for some sign that they are seeing what I see. They are all staring at her smiling and nodding their heads. Except one guy. I look at him. He passes me a note, "This class is offered during the spring, while she's at the Jungian Institute." We were up and out of there before we saw any more symbols.

  2. Reine

    Oh yeah, my hero of the day is the guy who wrote the note. We became very good friends. Our little joke forever after was, "Seen any good cymbals lately?"

  3. PD Martin

    I think Campbell and Vogler have something to offer in terms of analysis and critiquing story structure – especially for writing students. There are many areas of writing which suggest first you should know, understand and be able to follow 'the rules'…then you can experiment or disregard them! And while Vogler and Campbell don't really set rules, I think it's good for people during their writing journey to read them and take what they can from them. Or do what you've done, David, and throw their books against the wall 🙂

  4. Sarah W

    Sisyphus happy . . . yes, I can see it. Every day, in fact.

    For some reason, this reminds me of the vinegar tasters . . . only one of the three is happy, because he knows that vinegar is *supposed* to taste like that.

    I think a hero is anyone who keeps pushing the $*%&# rock in the face of an avalanche.

    (I also think Fractured Fairy Tales had a lot to teach us about the futility of mythos, though I'm not sure that the effort wasn't counteracted by Mister Peabody)

  5. Rob Browne

    Vogler and company make me itch a bit as well. After years of screenwriting, I got sick of the whole hero myth thing and Hollywood's worship of it. The folks out here are attracted to anything that gives them some sense that they know what the hell they're doing. Which they don't. Any more than I do.

    I do adhere to the three-act dramatic structure paradigm, however, but not in any conscious way.

    For the most part I simply follow the tried and true: get your hero up a tree then throw rocks at him.

    Seems to be working so far.

  6. CarlC

    I really did try to make this not too “heady.”

    Wow, I'm sure glad you did THAT. Much too much so early in the morning.

    Alafair, I think you've got the right approach.

  7. Louise Ure

    Now I really must go reread Camus. I can totally see the dogged optimism in going back down the hill to retrieve the rock. We all do it every day, don't we? Whether it's cleaning something that you know you're going to have to clean again the next day, or fighting that war, or helping that homeless person or just plain going to work every day.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking-ness. That's better than Mythiness any day.

  8. David Corbett

    P.S. I think both Fractured Fairytales and Mr. Peabody both had the same message — don't take this stuff too seriously — and got kids like you and me to peek behind the screen. A good thing. The wizard ain't who he pretends to be.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I think the pitfall with Vogler is that he had to cut a bunch of steps out of Campbell's Journey to make it palatable for Hollywood (when was the last time you saw a film with a "Virgin Birth?"….) and all the steps he cut were in Act Two. If you take a look at Vogler's steps, half of them are in Act !, the other half in Act III, leaving only one to get you through the twice-as-long Act II: Tests, Allies and Enemies.

    That's not a lot to go on.

    I have to point this out to students who come in all Voglerized all the time. Also, I think the Hero's Journey structure works very well for Hero's Journey stories, but not all stories are Hero's Journeys.

    I love Jung, but he's sparse on feminine archetypes.

  10. David Corbett

    Oops, I posted my PS to Sarah before putting up my group reply. Sorry. Here tis:


    I read your nightmare and thought, in my usual wisecracking mode: Oh, your dream done make everything so clear, baby. You crazy.

    If your dream life is that interesting, why the hell do you bother to wake up?

    As for the message: Yeah, that’s the atheist’s curse. If there really is a god – or a land of milk and myth – we’re pretty much screwed. Oh well.

    As for Zelda Zen-Zodiak: Man, that says it all, doesn’t it? I can smell the patchouli and taste the bark tea from here.

    Phillipa: I think reading myths is as important as reading anything. There’s just a bit of the All Bow to the Master B.S. I can live without. And Vogler in particular misunderstands so many of the myths he’s quoting it’s just, well, laughable. One wearies of hearing him shove words into the mouths of heroes the original audiences would have been stunned to hear them utter. And do we really understand a character who lies, or a character who misunderstands another, by waving the shapeshifter flag? It’s sloppy, it’s lazy, it’s self-indulgent piestic pap. Zelda Zen-Zodiac would approve, I’m sure. As for the structural concerns, there’s nothing there but three-act structure with a lot of new verbiage.

    I think this whole Campbell/Vogler mania is a collective nightmare from which, hopefully, storytelling will soon awaken. We’re fighting two ugly brutal wars, and the stories we see? Vampires, werewolves, zombies, dragons and other assorted nonsense. It’s infantalized the culture in ways that make me want to scream. (Watching a wonderful writer like David Benioff swirl down the drain of GAME OF THRONES is heartbreaking, especially when THE TUDORS and THE BORGIAS are there to watch – you know, real thrones. History. Reality.)

    In fact, I think the offspring of this era of mythiness would have been stillborn if not for the fact it’s been 65 years since the end of World War II, the last war that touched everyone. The writers who emerged from that experience, or who felt its shadow cross their desks, had a greater respect for the facts of life than I see in a great deal of writing these days. I go back to them hungrily. I miss that strength, that power, that sense of purpose despite the loss of faith.

    Sarah: I know it seems a stretch to think of Sisyphus as happy. But I watched both my brother and my wife die from vicious, lingering illnesses. I loved them both with all my heart and saw them wither into horrible distortions of themselves. I don’t wake up believing there’s a pot of gold at the end of my rainbow. But yes, I’m happy. Am I Skippy McChipper? No. But I’ve learned to accept the inevitability of loss and sorrow, to embrace the struggle, accept it, deal with it. I’ve taken to heart what I learned from my wife, even though I no longer get to share it with her: Love.

    Alafair: Well, once again I appear to have sneezed in your daiquiri. Should I get ready to receive word I’ve been voted off the island? (It seems you have Carl’s vote.)

    Rob: God bless you, my son. In particular, thanks for pointing out that this stuff makes people in Hollywood think they know what they’re doing. That false confidence is one of the things I find most annoying. Real storytelling – the real making of myths – requires thrashing about in the unknown. There’s no map. Pretending there is just makes for lousy stories.

    Here’s to rocks large and small.

  11. David Corbett


    I'm not saying everything Camus writes is cha-de-de-cha, but he wears a whole lot better than Sartre. He mixes the uncompromising existentialist refusal to look for transcendent explanations or justifications with a relatively positive humanism. His phrase "the benign indifference of the universe" isn't ironic. He also wrote some wonderful literary essays, especially one on tragedy that explores why there have only been two eras of great tragedy — in Athens (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides) and the Renaissance (from Shakespeare to Racine and Corneille).

    But there I go again, being heady. Silly me.


  12. Sarah W

    David—with you all the way and didn't mean to imply otherwise.

    The idea that Sisyphus is victorious in his toil very much appeals to me.

    (you didn't see the WABAC Machine as a Deus Ex?)

  13. Susan Shea

    Yes – Alexandra's note on the Act 2 of Vogler's wheel, the same problem I encounter when I'm figuring out where Act II ends. David, your class at BP is going to make all of this clear, right? But without diagrams, and with jokes? (Was your post a rehearsal?)

  14. Susan Russo Anderson

    Thanks so much for your thought-provoking blog. I'm not sure I understood it, but, then I never understood Campbell either, no matter how many times I read him (many times)—just picked up a shard here and there, and began slinging it around, in part, to sound like I knew what I was saying. But I think it's important to take whatever sings—a bit from here, a byte from there—and leave the rest, mix it all together in the mind and come up with something unique. These days I'm interested in heroes who can slide into anti-hero mode and come back again, changed.

  15. MJ

    I was an anthropology and Greek/Roman classics major (once) and a fan of Campbell, but as I've gotten over the 40 hump, and written more, 1) any time I try to use this structure consciously, I get too obvious and FAIL (though I am using and enjoying Alex's structure ebook) and 2) Jung scares me, ever since a group once where the group leader was way too into shadows and wounds. Have an allergy? That's your shadow-self and wound. Hungry? No, that's really your shadow-self and wounds. Poor Jung is so desired and abused by certain whackadoos in life….

    With time I turned more Noir – Camus it is, baby.

  16. David Corbett

    Alexandra: I will love you forever for the word Voglerized.

    I agree, Campbell, despite his overly universalist impulses, does get the meat of the matter much more thoroughly than Vogler. And yeah, the short-shrift on Act 2 is well, interesting.

    But I also think the steps he includes in Act 3 are vague to the point I almost get a rash thinking about them. I mean, what the hell is Resurrection? (I know, I know, I was raised Catholic — I don't mean THAT Resurrection.) He has it where one usually finds the Climax, and figuring out what he means is a puzzle I can leave without — especially since, I dunno, I kinda think it's his job to explain it?

    There's a story guru named John Truby who has also adapted Campbell but is a little more specific, especially about Act 2. Here's a link to a diagram of his twenty-two step plot structure:

    Susan. I'll do my best to make this stuff clear in the class I'm giving at Book Passage — and yes, like Samuel Beckett, that other life of the party, I'll make sure to throw in a few jokes to mitigate the bleak despair.

    But I've done a pretty thorough review of the extant tutorials on structure, and from what I can tell, the consensus answer on what absolutely, positively constitutes the end of Act 2 is:

    Nobody knows.

    As we go through the films I've picked, we'll address that. (Finding the end of Act 2 for VERTIGO is an adventure, believe me — but Hitchcock was unconventional in so many ways.)

    In the meantime, here's a pretty good comparative overview of seven story paradigms — including Vogler, Truby, McKee, Syd Field, Linda Seger and Michael Hauge:

    The guy who wrote it (Chris Huntley, at an outfit called Dramatica) argues for his own approach, some of which I like, some of which I can't understand.

  17. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    You're right, David, it's so much less cerebral once you add the cartoon photos and the "ooga boogas." God, it almost doesn't even seem cerebral at all, now that you mention it.

    You've given us a beautiful piece of writing here. And a great examination of story. I am a proponent of the Campbell/Vogler style of story analysis. I loved Campbell before Vogler wrote his book, and Vogler simply made it easier to dig into the process. I was a much better Hollywood development executive than most due to the fact that I always looked at screenplays from a mythological framework. In my experience, seeing a piece of writing through the lens of Campbell tended to be the best tool I had for improving it. Just recently a film director gave me a script to read – he knew it had problems and could be improved – and my feedback for the fixes came right out of the Hero's Journey. The script needed a "departure from the known world" – it needed to enter the "special world," and, by adding this (the entire 2nd Act) the story works.
    I don't nit-pick every element of Vogler's platform – I look at the broad landscape. I wouldn't start WRITING a project with Vogler's map in front of me. But I would review a completed manuscript or screenplay using it as a tool. And that's how I roll.

  18. David Corbett

    Sarah: Yes, the WABC Machina. (I have to admit — I loved Peabody.)

    Alexandra: I actually have a great deal of respect for Jung, more than for Freud by a country mile, and think he had some keen insights. But I think he contributed more to comparative religion and anthropology than psychology. I also realize he can't be blamed for Jungians (or as MJ so insightfully put it, whackadoos) any more than Jesus can be blamed for Christians.

    Susan RA: I think you've nailed it. Take from Campbell or Vogler what you find valuable, leave the rest. That's what any creative person does with anything, and I too enjoy touching base with Campbell from time to time. But he does get lost in the weeds — a scholar's curse — and he usually just makes me want to go back and read the original story, which I've come to believe is the wisest approach.

    MJ: yeah, that's the problem. If you try consciously to use the method, it sticks out like a sore thumb shadow-wound.

    The sad truth about life is that it has to be lived, whether you figure it out or not. The sad truth of stories is that you have to discover them, not just follow the map. I's hard. That's why really good stories are so rare.

  19. David Corbett


    I said I TRIED to make it less cerebral. But I yam what I yam.

    It may well be that Vogler's a better curative than a prophylactic. (Sorry, couldn't help myself.) But I still look to specificity of setting, conflict and emotional depth as the keys to a good story. To my mind, the SPECIAL WORLD is nothing but the consequence of the INCITING INCIDENT — i.e., things have changed. In WIZARD OF OZ or LORD OF THE RINGS or similar journey sagas, sure, makes sense. But shoehorning that concept into every damn story strikes me as putting the theory ahead of the story.

    In CHINATOWN, Jake Gittes remains in Los Angeles the whole time, though thematically he enters "Chinatown" the minute the phony Mrs. Mulray enters his office. Which one is the Special World? Does it even help us understand anything by asking that question? (BTW: CHINATOWN is the most revered-but-misunderstood movie in storytelling analysis. McKee, Field, the guy at Dramatica, all bow to the script — and fundamentally misunderstand it.)

    Take MIDNIGHT COWBOY: You could argue that New York is Joe Buck's Special World. But does that tell you anything you don't already know by saying it's, well, New York?

    Does calling the mob life a special world really enhance our understanding of what it means to be undercover in DONNIE BRASCO?

    Is there a special world in MYSTIC RIVER other than Boston? Is there a special world in GOD'S POCKET other than Philadelphia? Do Thelma and Louise enter a special world or do they just go on a trip?

    In DO THEY KNOW I'M RUNNING?, my hero travels to El Salvador, then up through Guatemala and Mexico — and each locale has lessons to impart, and are inhabited by strange people and inexplicable customs. I didn't once think "special world" when I wrote it. I thought: El Salvador. Guatemala. Mexico.

    But I'm a realist to the bone. I think the real world is fascinating, and my ideas come from there. I realize this puts me seriously out of step with contemporary storytelling. I can handle it.

    And I still say the whole shapeshifter malarkey is a hopeless canard. But I love what Vogler has to say about the Mentor.


  20. Jenni

    Wow, David, nice analysis. In all the writing workshops I've been to, Vogler and Joseph Campbell tend to be pushed heavily. I've read the books, understand the ideas, but I decided a long time ago that when I write, I will follow my own storyline, and if it happens to fall within that sort of framework, fine, but if not, I'm not going to force it. I read a lot of classics growing up, and they just don't always fit the Vogler/Campbell plot lines.

    I've also been fed up with Hollywood for a long time because just about everything turned out in Hollywood these days seems to be so formulaic and predictable, or a re-make, or so much plot there's no character, or it's just one big, long military-recruitment advertisement.

    So, no, I don't think you're being contrarian. I want stories with depth, I want to see characters grow and learn something, I want intelligent plots, and I am sick of plots that promote violence as the only solution to all our problems.

    My favorite heroes (call me an aging hippie) still tend to be people who fought/fight for civil and human rights – Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Morris Dees (Southern Poverty Law Center), the ACLU, Mary Dyer (the only Quaker woman to be put to death for practicing her religion in New England), Humanist heroes like Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, and more recently, Carl Sagan and Rachel Corrie. But I agree with you about the everyday heroes trying to overcome the burdens life throws at them. I would include as my heroes my local food bank volunteers and people working to make a difference in the lives of people who may not have a lot of options.

  21. Jenni

    I like Thrones too! And vampires, etc. There is a lot to be said for the myth framework when it's actually done well. 🙂

  22. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I think the Special World of Chinatown is Hollis Mulwray's world – you see Jake enter it when he follows Hollis out into the desert outside LA, and into the reservoirs. It's the whole history of LA water right there, and it definitely plays as a mythic journey. I never get tired of that sequence.

    Jake keeps going farther into Hollis's world, too – to the extent of falling in love with his wife, taking on her twisted family history, and being destroyed by it, just as Hollis was.

  23. David Corbett

    Jenni: I think Mary Dyer's story — the whole history of Quaker response to Puritan theocracy in Massachusetts — remains timely and fascinating. Are you writing a story about it?

    And I agree, I love stories about fighting the good fight. And here again — did Martin Luther King enter a special world, or just begin his ministry? There was a moral and social justice journey for sure, and a fascinating one. And when he decided to march for justice, he entered a realm of fear and uncertainty totally different than the world he'd known before. But it was the same south he'd grown up in, and to whcih he returned after divinity school. I don't think the Hero's Journey adds anything to the analysis you don't get by just understanding what happened. In fact, I think it takes the focu away from where it belongs: him.

    And I guess I stepped on a few toes by punking Thrones. No offense meant. I tried to get with it, and my sweet thing really does like it, but I just got a whole lot more out of watching Jeremy Irons play Rodrigo Borgia.

    Reine: No, I understood your dream (I think). In fact, I understood it well enough (I think) to conclude you're totally bat shit. I mean that in the nicest possible way.

    Oh Freud and Jung in comic form. How grand is that? Did you read the Logicomix graphic novel about Russell, North and Gödel wrestling with completeness and consistency? Très cool.

    But maybe it's too early in the day to discuss mathematical logic. We should ask Carl.

  24. Reine

    "In DO THEY KNOW I'M RUNNING?, my hero travels to El Salvador, then up through Guatemala and Mexico — and each locale has lessons to impart, and are inhabited by strange people and inexplicable customs. I didn't once think "special world" when I wrote it. I thought: El Salvador. Guatemala. Mexico."

    David, that is the concept I'd been struggling with, and only really saw why until last night while watching the film version of Charlie St. Cloud. Charlie and Sam don't survive for me in the Pacific northwest. Their story comes as much their living in Marblehead as from them.

  25. Reine

    Ohhhhhh . . . . BAT shit. well, that's different. Of course you meant it in the, ". . . nicest possible way." Who wouldn't?

    No, haven't read the comic of Russell, North and Gödel, but I did have to read the one on Chomsky to make it through his lectures. Apologies to all who worship in the math god of linguistics and philosophy. He is nice guy.

  26. David Corbett

    Alexandra: I think that's an interesting take, but then "special world" comes to mean "the unfamiliar," in which case, again, I just don't see what analytical advantage it offers. It's just another way to say something we already know, but slather it with pseudo-mythical significance. I agree with you that Mulray's world is fascinating — I'm not sure Jake sees it that way — but it results purely from the setting and the fact Jake has to go new places to find out what he needs to find out.

    Also, the core truth Jake discovers isn't in Mulray's world. It's in Chinatown. That's why, if I were to use "special world" with that story, it wouldn't be a physical realm, but a thematic realm — the place where you never know what's going on. Which, for Jake, is just about everywhere once the phony Mrs. Mulray shows up.

    I think "special world" has become something of a code word for "interesting setting." And sure, any story benefits if its setting is new, unusual or otherwise interesting. But I think the Los Angeles of Chinatown is fascinating without comparing it to Mordor or Oz or the land beyond the looking glass.

    Reine: I don't know the Charlie St. Cloud reference, sorry.

  27. David Corbett


    I'm actually somewhat fond of "batshit." It conjures for me Judy Holliday and Carole Lombard. (And I should by now realize that teasing online suffers from the inability to hear vocal inflections and gauge facial expressions. Sorry if I offended. I REALLY did not mean to.)

    Chomsky. Oh God, let's not go there.

  28. Jenni

    No, I wish I'd had the idea to write about Mary Dyer. One of my friends, Elizabeth Brinton, wrote My American Eden: Mary Dyer, Martyr for Freedom, a historical novel about Mary Dyer from a servant's point of view. It's been used in high school history classes, and I read it a few years ago and found it fascinating – couldn't put it down. The story has stuck with me. She was actually brought to the gallows not once, but twice, and still refused to give up her beliefs. Not that I'm a huge fan of martyrdom or religious extremism, but I thought her actions forced a positive change in the law. Her civil disobedience and the governor's acts of tyranny eventually led to the separation of church and state clause in the U.S. Constitution, and even today is a great argument for keeping America from becoming a "Christian nation" or a theocracy.

    Thinking of special worlds – I agree about MLK – I think looking at his journey as an entry into a special world is pushing it a bit, but Martin Dees going to Hayden, Idaho to prosecute a case against the neo-Nazis – I think it could be argued that Idaho is a "special world" all on its own!

  29. Reine

    Charlie St. Cloud, the film:

    The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, the book by Ben Sherwood:

    A review by John Zorabedian that has something to say about Marblehead as character and the setting change between book and film:

    What Ben Sherwood, the book's author, has to say about it:

  30. Reine

    David, I was fucking teasing. I didn't take your batshit badly. I'm almost immune to people REALLY thinking I'm batshit. It saves me. I think you're batshit, too.

  31. Jake Nantz

    Corbett – Having taught the fine-line differences between Existentialism, Nihilism, and Absurdism using four works: Hamlet, Waiting for Godot, R & G are Dead, and Camus's The Stranger, I love the idea of Camus depicting Sisyphus as not just heroic, but happy. It makes me look at Meursault and wonder if he wasn't so much indifferent as enjoying himself at the trial. Interesting.

  32. Erin

    Um i'm thinking maybe im not smart enough for MURDERATI!!! I did not understand a damn thing you said David!! Well I got the part at the end when you asked who we think of when we "ghost up" the word hero or something like that… I think of parents my mom especially who have and take of kids with special needs.

  33. Judy Wirzberger

    David, the only true way for me to read your post is to wait and wait. Like a chocolate chip cookie, straight from the oven, it is too, to be enjoyed, too hot, too soft, too undeveloped, too lacking in substance, until it sits for a moment on the brain and is fully realized. I don't pretend to comprehend everything you state, but who wants to read Dick and Jane, except for the joy of analyzing what an innocent, simplistic life they led.

    Your post boils my brain, thoughts bubble to the surface and then explosions as I read the comments and the comments to the comments and the comments to those. The chips melt in my mouth, the cookie presses against my palate, delicious words excite my senses.

    Your vocabulary dances from the keyboard and wraps thoughts in rice paper, to be opened ever so slowly. Amazing.

    What the fuck is your IQ? How did your parents keep up with you? You are the Batshittiest. How marvelous to find your honed intelligence with Popeye humor. Which is great, but also a with degree of sensitivity seldom found associating with intelligence and humor.

  34. David Corbett

    Jake: I'd love to take your class. (I'm sure you've heard it said that WAITING FOR GODOT is the play where nothing happens — twice. And that Camus wrote THE STRANGER after reading THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. I hear there's a new translation of THE STRANGER, or at least it's more recent than the one we used in high school, and it corrects some egregiously bungled scenes. I wonder if Merseult's demeanor during trial doesn't come across a bit differently — though I'm not sure he's an apt stand-in for Mr. Sisyphus.

    Judy: Very kind words, thank you. Yes, you should never read me straight from the oven.

    Erin: No, you're not alone. I'd say, from the tenor of a few responses, it's me who's misplaced here on Murderati, not you. My apologies.

  35. Lynn in Texas


    Yeah, what Judy said!

    BTW, my husband & I have been huge fans of Eva's music for over a decade. Wasn't she fantastic?!

  36. David Corbett

    P.S. Erin, your parents and others who take care of kids with special needs or illnesses, yeah, I call that heroic. Not in the slay the dragon way. In make sure this kid knows she's loved way.

  37. David Corbett

    Lynn: My girlfriend turned me on to Eva Cassidy, and she learned of her from musician friends in the DC area who played with her — and revered her. She was not just a great musician, apparently she was also a wonderful human being. I was dumbstruck when I first heard this song. And not even my sweetie had seen this YouTube vid before I showed it to her.

  38. Reine

    Oh crap, David. Don't go. I love all the Rati Bloggers. Don't we have room for differences here? Or do all of you have to be cutouts?

  39. Erin

    You have nothing to be sorry for!! I like reading your posts and learning new words… 🙂

  40. JT Ellison

    David, darling, any comments about the rising levels at Murderati are meant in sheer unadulterated head shaking I wish I could see the world that way respect. Don't you dare dumb it down. Personally, you make me think, and I am in awe of your intellect, and ability to synthesize it into writing. That's why you're one of my authors. It's comforting to me to know there are smart people in my hemisphere.

    You and I started this conversation in Santa Fe. I love Campbell, but Vogler derailed me as a writer. I'd never read either, never thought about the mythic structure, helll, I didn't know one existed. I was just writing books that appealed to me as a reader. I get Campbell. But trying to write to a structure-I can't do it. It literally tok me a year to be able to just let the words flow again without worrying about acts and dark passages and heralds and thresholds and mentors. Bah. Just thinking about those lean writing months makes me unhappy.

    Phillipa is right-each author must do what's right for him or her. But forcing everyone into the same well means a bunch are going to drown in the bottom.

    If you know the new translation of Camus, could you pass it along?

  41. David Corbett


    Thanks for the vote of confidence. The newer (1988) translation of The Stranger is by Matthew Ward. The earlier one was by Stuart Gilbert.

    For the NY Times Book Review essay where I learned of the Ward translation and the problems with the Gilbert, go here:

    And yes, I think the major threshold in becoming a writer is learning there is a certain way you work best, and accepting it.

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