Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Writing What’s Real: A Hero’s Journey, with Darcy Lipp-Acord

by Darcy Lipp-Acord

Writers weave connections.  One of my most important connections goes back to my years as a high school English teacher, when I first began studying epic and mythic literature in earnest. That’s when I first read the work of Joseph Campbell, and naturally made connections between his construct of the Hero’s Journey and the literature I was teaching my students. Later in life, the heroic arc Campbell speaks about became, for me, an apt metaphor for the writing life, as well.  As writers, we all prepare for the journey; we all experience the moment of actual departure; we all encounter detours; and we all, finally, must face our dragons. 

Rarely in epic literature does the hero, or heroine, depart abruptly: quests, after all, require planning and preparation.  Odysseus, and the rest of the Hellenic force, has to secure and supply ships before departing for Troy; even his homeward odyssey, for which he is most famous, requires preparation. Likewise, serious writing requires forethought. In my twenties, I mistakenly imagined long hours spent squirreled away with my pen and my notebook, words flowing freely. Wrong.  I soon found out that I needed to carve writing time from an already-busy schedule; I needed to find a quiet place; and I needed the support of, at least, my husband. Although we may not know exactly where our quest will lead – or sometimes, what the object of our quest even is -- we should at least give thought to when and where we will write, who we can trust as comrades, and what support we will need to sustain the journey.

Planning is not writing, however. Any adventurer will confirm that it is one thing to stock the hold, secure a crew, plan a route; it is quite another to board the ship and leave shore.  I love to plan, and can get so caught up in this stage that I don’t move forward. The “being stuck” between thinking about writing and actually putting words on a page can look like any of these scenarios: picking up all the clutter in the house before you sit down to write; getting out next year’s calendar to pencil in research trips; checking and re-checking your social media accounts. None of these activities are necessarily bad – and can, indeed, be valuable pieces of the first stage of the journey -- but sooner or later, one must actually leave Hobbiton. Once you have a basic plan for how you will write, you have enough to start. You’ll never be completely prepared, just sufficiently so. For me, a journal helps, particularly when there have been too many weeks of too few words: just putting ink to page stirs the writing spirit, and once again I set off.

My connection between the act of writing and a hero’s journey is nowhere as evident as in the next stage: the detours, road blocks, and obstacles that threaten to end a quest.  My book, Circling Back Home: A Plainswoman’s Journey took me over ten years to write and publish. Odysseus takes ten years to return home from Troy. Eragon spends five years learning to be a Dragon Rider before he can finally confront Galbatorix. We all have our own experience with the detours. Not all our writerly road blocks are as fascinating or as terrorizing as the navigation of Scylla & Charybdis or an encounter with Urgals. Our detours mostly look like real-life: earning a living, raising a family, healing from sickness. In epic literature, however, the detours form the meat of the story; they are what make an epic, well, epic. Our own detours may keep us from finishing the novel for a while, but they also give us depth as writers. The only type of detour that is considered deadly is the self-inflicted one: Frodo’s paralyzing fear and greed; the Greek fleet’s languishing on the Island of the Lotus Eaters; Odysseus’ near-tragic end at Polyphemus’ hands.

And in confronting these more deadly, self-inflicted road blocks to our creativity, we must face our dragons. Our dragons are precisely our tragic flaws: the self-sabatoging behaviors that threaten to derail the quest. When Odysseus escapes from Polyphemus’ cave – by blinding the Cyclops and sneaking out of the cave on the bellies of the monster’s sheep – his ego would not let him simply sail away, grateful to not be eaten. Instead, Odysseus taunts the Cyclops, and makes sure that his name becomes known. Polyphemus is able to pinpoint the location of Odysseus’ voice; he hurls a giant boulder and sinks one of the ships, killing all aboard. It is simple luck that Odysseus’ own ship is not hit; but it is his ego that is responsible for the killing of his men. There are many creatures in The Odyssey, but there are no dragons; at least, not physical ones.

In Western literature, dragons are portrayed as horrific beasts to be slaughtered and exterminated (with Eragon’s Saphira being one exception). In Eastern literature, dragons represent power and wisdom.   What if a more accurate idea of our dragons combines elements of both traditions?  When we don’t know our dragons, or when we deny that they lurk in the caves of our subconscious, their fire is a danger to us: like any power suppressed, its eventual explosion can burn, maim, even kill.  But a power that’s known, that’s been reckoned with, can be managed, can even help and support us in our quest.

At this critical point in the hero’s journey, the hero must face and either conquer, or submit to, his tragic flaw. At this point in the writer’s journey, we must face the truth of who we are and why we are writing. When I started my book, I thought I was writing to commemorate a lifestyle. My dragon, my controlling nature, wanted me to only write the good, to sugar-coat my experiences so as not to offend or to make myself look weak.  Perhaps the countless rejection letters came because the writing I had been doing was false, superficial. Truth was scary, like a big, slimy dragon. But even a dragon has beauty – in its iridescent skin, its glowing eyes, its majesty. Instead of facing and confronting my dragon, I “friended” it – finally acknowledging that the flaws I was trying to hide were the truthful details that made my story real. I was not only writing to capture the truth about a lifestyle, but also to honor a people and a place that I had previously dishonored.

A hero who confronts his dragon, who friends it and learns from it, returns home a changed person. When Odysseus finally reaches the shores of Ithaca, he possesses humility enough to endure shame and ridicule, in order to finally emerge victorious. A writer who faces her dragon, who writes the truth no matter how ugly/beautiful/embarrassing/powerful it is, completes a higher purpose. She writes now to serve something outside herself, and her writing, when done in this spirit, assumes a new restraint, maturity, and wisdom.

She has completed a heroic journey, and circles back home, changed. But, as any hero knows, there are always more adventures ahead, more dragons to friend, more stories to tell.  

Darcy Lipp-Acord, a native of South Dakota, is the granddaughter of German-Russian immigrants. She grew up on a farm worked by three generations of her family, and currently lives on a ranch with her husband, Shawn, and their six children near the Montana-Wyoming border.

Her first book, Circling Back Home: A Plainswoman’s Journey was published in 2013 by South Dakota State Historical Society Press. It was a finalist in the 2014 WILLA Literary Awards and a nominee in the 2014 Will Rogers Medallion Awards. Written over 10 years, Lipp-Acord’s essays compose a picture of endurance and grace as the author addresses her history and finds her way home. 


  1. I really love how you compared the writing process to an epic journey! There are a lot of similarities. And I have the same issue of liking to plan more than I like to actually get to work writing. :) I have a dragon I need to deal with- and possibly slay- and its name is Laziness.

    1. I think that particular dragon stalks a lot of us, Chere!

    2. I also think that what we blithely call Laziness can be a different dragon in disguise -- for many of us, it is actually Fear -- of the work of telling our truth, of failing, of perhaps writing something that may offend others. Very few of us are actually lazy; but sometimes it's easier to say that about ourselves than to really look at the dragon.


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