A free mini-class and resource list for writers who want to #smashpatriarchy
by Heather Jo Flores
We're studying the "tropes vs women" topic in my yearlong Heroine's Journey course, and it's the perfect subject for a free mini-class!
At the beginning of our course, (and also in the free intro course) we talked about the Flores test and the Bechdel test, and students were encouraged to make their own "is it feminist for reals?" test.
Keep those tests in mind as you explore these links.
Wait, what's a trope?
A trope is a formula for shaping a story. It's sort of like that story's "brand identity."
Let's start with this example of a trope we all know, the "epic tale." Read it through our heroine's eyes, would ya?
It's almost funny, right?
Now that you have your ecofeminist thinking cap all charged up, have fun with this labyrinth! Just hop around a bit and see what you find. Notice that “hero’s journey” is listed as but one of many tropes but truly, as I am sure you have noticed, the overarching theme pervades them all.
Now that you’ve gotten acquainted, explore some of these common tropes and ask yourself why they might be harmful to women. And is it possible to use these as tools, without falling into the traps they present?
Finally, add this bit of essential reading/watching, “Tropes vs Women to the top of your list. It's really well done and such an important conversation.
Once you've had a right deep dive in that rabbit hole I just showed you, do some freewriting.
Ask yourself these questions:
Come and share what comes up for you in our free public discussion group, and as always, feel free to write to me directly, anytime.
The Fine Art of Helpful Critique: DO's, DON'Ts, and a Mutually Empowering Technique for Generating Feedback Loops that Help Writers Write Better.
by Heather Jo Flores
A writer who critiques her own work has a fool for a critic.
But a critical fool wielding careless words at a writer can cause more damage than they might realize.
Whichever side of the creative process you find yourself, consider making the effort to learn the fine art of helpful critique. Giving and receiving a helpful critique can be a huge challenge, especially if you’re new at it.
In this article, I’ll discuss the do's and don’ts of exchanging a helpful, actionable critique, and offer a technique that works especially well for empathic, socially-aware, and feminist writers.
Just like other forms of communication, healthy, helpful critique is all about boundaries, and establishing clear guidelines can make a huge difference in how (or if) a feedback loop functions.
Sloppy critique causes conflict. Careful critique causes improvement in both the critic and the artist, and leads to collective synergy plus top-quality creative results.
DO’s and DON'Ts of Creative Critique
These don’t just apply to written work. As you read through the list, imagine applying these ideas to critical dialogue of all kinds.
We’ll start with the DON'Ts.
And now, the DO’s:
Careful process leads to quality product.
A quality critique is equal parts listening, empathy, radical honesty, and contextual assessment. It does not focus on your preference for or aversion to a thing. Instead it asks you to engage in a conversation and create specific, measurable, and actionable suggestions.
Bad critique is usually only the latter: we/they offer a emotion, a reaction, and a string of words based on whether or not we enjoyed or agreed with the work the presentation, based on what's going on for us in that moment, in our bodies, in our lives. It's completely subjective, and usually not a critique at all. What passes for critique in most places is actually just opinion, and it's not the same.
Now, this isn't to say you shouldn't critique a piece from your particular zone of bias and expertise. In fact, you should, But be clear with the writer what that bias and expertise is, and articulate actionable ways the piece can more deeply engage in the conversation you think it should be a part of.
Ready? Here we go!
I created this critique method in grad school, when I was working on my MFA about the Heroine’s Journey, and we used it a bunch. It’s fun and it works really well to bring out the best in both writer and critic alike. It's a combination of two classic techniques, “Empathic” and “Minor-White,” and the other letters stand for Mindful and Actionable. Empathic Minor-White Mindful Actionable=EMMA.
Here are the 12 steps of the EMMA method:
Alrighty! That’s EMMA, I hope it helps!
Next time somebody asks you for feedback on their writing, keep this stuff in mind, and the next time you’re looking for feedback on your own work, share this with your reader. And let me know how it goes.
The 7 most important things ecopreneurs, women writers, feminist marketers, and permaculture professionals need to know.
by Heather Jo Flores
Guess what? Your marketing strategy is a whole system design. As a long time permaculture designer, I should have known it would be!
What follows is a “stuff I seriously wish I would have known when I started” list of essential tips for online entrepreneurs, especially if you’re relatively new at this and have spent any time at all resisting learning about “marketing” because it’s yucky.
Let’s jump right in!
1. Lift other people up, especially people who seem like your closest competitors.
Your work is different than theirs, or at least it should be. And they are probably awesome people, right? I mean, if they’re doing work that intersects with your own passion, calling, and creative expression, then chances are you have a lot in common and could probably even be friends. If you openly and sincerely promote the work of people you admire, the light will shine back on you a thousandfold. This is basic abundance theory, and it works.
Join this group for mutual support.
2. Find your niche.
If you don’t know your market, if you don’t know who your audience is, then how do you know what to offer?
Take the time to figure out exactly who you want to serve and how. Start with asking yourself who you want to have in your life who you want to interact with, on the daily.
Finding your niche is the second most important part of being a successful freelancer. (The first most important is daily practice.)
3. Give, give, give.
Give ridiculously valuable content away for free, like this online course I have for women writers.
Even if you’re thinking, wow this is great writing! I could sell this to a magazine! Yeah, totally, of course! Do that. Send out a query, and if you get the gig, awesome. But if you don’t, or if you just can’t be arsed to hunt around for a publisher right now but you’ve just written something really brilliant, just send it out to everyone!
You can write something else that’s even more brilliant tomorrow. Don’t be miserly with your creativity. It doesn’t run out...unless you hoard it. Then, it withers.
Yep, more abundance theory. And y’all KNOW I am not into the woo-woo stuff! But the fact remains: the more you give, the more you get, and when people can see that you truly love being a part of the abundance cycle, they will get on board. I promise.
4. Content, content, content.
Content is queen. Full stop.
If your voice, your niche, and your offers are unique, original, and authentic, you will succeed. But you have to keep it flowing. No matter what happens with your life, your business, your family, try to make time every day for research and/or writing so that your blog always has fresh, original content.
Sure, you can schedule blog posts months in advance, and indeed you should. But don’t let that make you lazy, because you know as well as I do that the creativity can stagnate.
Take it seriously. This is a job, after all. Generate new creative work as often as possible, even if it seems scattered at first. Even if you feel like a complete imposter! Don’t even worry about it. Just. Keep. Writing. You’ll hit the sweet spot eventually. You’ll find your niche. Unless you give up. Then, you won’t.
5. Speak their language.
Speaking of content, what language are speaking? What lexicon are you using? It matters.
Are you writing in the tongue of your chosen brand archetype?
Are you speaking the language of your target market?
Learn the words that your ideal audience wants to hear, and use them. Keywords, hashtags, prose, sales copy, social media blurbs—it all needs to be within a lexicon you have intentionally chosen. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Common language leads to trust.
You aren’t tricking them by doing this! You are accommodating them, meeting them where they are at, and honing your own message and identity as a creative and unique individual in the world.
6. Shed the shame.
De-stigmatize self-promotion! You are not an imposter. Show off your feathers and, if it helps, think of it as “communicating” instead of “marketing.” This is your art! You're allowed to share it and to make money on it too.
Personally, I think the bias against “self-promo,” which is especially prevalent in women’s communities, is rooted in patriarchy, and in the age-old traditions of telling women to STFU about their ideas.
When I say self-promotion, I’m not talking about smarmy MLM’s or whatever, (though even they can have value sometimes too). I’m talking about women being afraid to promote their own creative work because they think it will turn people off.
And to augment the problem, there are a ton of focus groups on Facebook, for women writers and a zillion other types, that strictly prohibit the posting of anything you wrote, made, or thought of yourself, and I find this just absurd.
What the heck is the point of spending a bunch of time yammering on in some facebook group about everything BUT the work of the women in that group? It makes no sense!
I moderate several large groups on Facebook that actively encourage self-promo in all of my groups. And guess what? It’s never a problem. Nobody is ever spamming or trying to sell Ray-bans! They are networking, actually, and bringing real change to each other’s lives.
if you’re a creative freelancer, people need to know about your work. Or you’re never going to get paid. And you need paid, right? At least once in a while, yes you do.
And if you resist learning the small but specific set of skills you need to succeed as a freelancer, just because those skills are labeled as “marketing,” then you are doing yourself and your potential readers/clients/friends a great disservice.
Because here’s the thing:
People don’t know. Your friends, colleagues, and social media buddies don’t know how brilliant you are. Maybe some of them do, sure. But most of them—the vast majority of them—do not know who you are, what you create, and what you can do for them as a client. And they want to know. They spend money on services like yours, and they want to know about their options.
I can’t count how many times I’ve had somebody I correspond with regularly say, months after I felt like I was over-promoting some course, say to me “OMG you’re offering THAT?!? I had no idea! I want it!!” So, do not underestimate the power of what I like to call "friendship marketing."
But ethical, friendship-based marketing goes far beyond just talking about yourself on social media.
Which brings us to our final item...
7. Build a freelance funnel.
Every freelancer needs a fully-automated freelance marketing funnel, so they can give spend more time writing and being creative, and (almost) no time re-posting, re-blogging, cutting-and-pasting, and all that other tedious stuff it takes to get paid.
If you’re a permaculture person, you can relate the design of your funnel to how you might design your garden, so that most of the elements are automated, self-perpetuating perennials that need very little maintenance, while you focus your energy on whatever new things you want to grow/write/create!
Think of it like this: you can have a cob bench, a solar shower, and an herb spiral at your house, but as we well know, that does not a permaculture make! You have to pull the different components of your site, and your life, into a system that mimics and regenerates the natural world. And your writing career or online entrepreneurial adventure is no different. Design it as a system, and watch it thrive.
You might already know about funnels, or at least you’ve heard of this mysterious “marketing funnel” thing-y. You might even have one already built, and if it’s working perfectly and not taking up too much of your time, then you know I am absolutely right about this.
But one thing you might not already know is that you can set up a wonderfully abundant funnel without spending a lot of money. I started with a free Weebly account, a free Mailchimp account, a handful of Facebook groups, and a $15 domain name. That's really all you need to get started.
And yes, I can help you set up your funnel, define your brand archetype, and find a niche that both feeds you intellectually and puts food on your table. It only takes a couple of sessions together to get your infrastructure set up, and from there you'll be off and running!
Here are some of the options for working with me.
See you real soon
When you first start to use your voice, you're afraid people will turn away from you. They will think you're a monster. They will scorn and persecute you, take away your privileges.
When you first start to speak out, it hurts.
But soon you realize that if you don't use your voice, you will never change a thing. If you stay silent, you will enable the evil.
So you use your voice, because you owe it to the ones who came before. You use it because silence no longer is an option. You use it even though it hurts. And people turn away.
But in their place, new people come. The right people. Your soulmates, your compañeras, your comrades, your family. So you use your voice some more, and the abundance blossoms all around you.
And then you run through the streets yelling USE YOUR VOICE! USE YOUR VOICE BEFORE YOU'RE DEAD! like a madwoman. But who cares? You don't. And maybe you are a madwoman. But you aren't silent and you never will be again.
Your voice is the only thing you truly own. It's like a fingerprint, you know? Nobody has one like yours.
Here are 20 reasons why.
by Heather Jo Flores
Twenty reasons why you might be a feminist, even if you insist that you aren't:
Yep, feminists made it possible for you to have these rights and so much more. If you enjoy doing any of these things, or even if you just think women should have the right to do this stuff without risking arrest and execution, then you’re a feminist, and some of the feminists who came before you lost their lives so that you could have these rights.
No, seriously, you’re welcome, wherever we are. We care about you and want you to thrive. It’s ok that you didn’t understand before what feminism is and does. Now you do. See you soon!
There is absolutely zero benefit to trying to have a reasonable relationship with an unreasonable person.
It’s a horrific lesson in the power of entropy, at best.
At worst, an extended interaction with an abusive or narcissistic person can leave you scarred for life. Or dead, hung on your own need for closure, common sense, or any spark of rational behavior.
But it ain’t gonna happen.
And sometimes the best closure you’re going to get is to accept the fact that closure is not going to come. Not from them.
I get it though. Sometimes you can’t prevent somebody from hurting you. The first time. And sometimes you even get sucked into continuing a relationship with a consistently hurtful person.
It’s ok. We’ve all done it, at some point.
We’ve all put up with weird behaviors and ignored reddish flags along the proverbial quest for magnificent love.
Still, the fact remains, and is worth repeating:
There is nothing to be gained from negotiating, collaborating, or even corresponding at all, with an irrational, abusive person, and the sooner a person can embrace this fact, the better equipped she will be to live a happy, drama-free life.
Think about it.
Wouldn’t you rather put that energy into something beautiful, positive, and productive, like spending time with people who see you, listen to you, and respect your boundaries?
But sometimes it can be hard to decide when to cut people out of your life, and these days it seems like everyone’s talking about “narcissism.”
Sigh. Consider the possibility that none of that is your problem. Not at all.
But...what if you love them?
Yeah, it can be tough. And breaking free of an abuse cycle is no small task, that’s for sure. But sometimes you just gotta cut the cord, so how can you tell when that's the case?
You need a litmus test, of sorts.
A way to tell if you’re just having a temporary hard time with someone, and it’s worth it to persevere, or if you’ve gotten sucked into a whirlpool of insipid, narcissistic abuse, and you need to get OUT before the undertow does you in.
So, what exactly are the behaviors of a narcissist, and why are they so hurtful?
If you’ve ever been under an abuser’s spell, you already know how awful it can be, and how hard to break free.
If there’s anything that can help, it’s facts.
Forget about why they are doing these things. You won’t ever figure out why and it doesn’t matter. Focus instead on WHAT they are doing, and recognize if you might be enabling them by continuing to play along. Don’t worry about the explanations and excuses and stories you’re making up in your own head about it.
Focus on actions that actually occurred, words that were actually spoken, and sensations you, personally, felt.
Focus on the time spent feeling bad. That was real. Do the math. How much time was it? One hour? Five hours? How many hours per week, per year? What percentage of your waking life was that? Was it worth it?
Besides doing the math and focusing on the facts, I have found that having a tangible checklist makes a huge difference in how clearly I can see whether or not to end a tricky relationship.
This is what I call my “Aw Hell No! Checklist,” and it describes specific actions that abusive and/or narcissistic people tend to take.
Personally, after surviving more abusive relationships than I care to enumerate, I now have a zero-tolerance policy for people who do any of these things, even once. Twice? They’re out. Life’s too short for that kind of drama!
So, if somebody in your life is acting in these ways, consider cleaning house and making space for somebody who’s capable of an actual friendship. In case you want to do some googling, the clinical terms for these behaviors are gaslighting, bypassing, bullying, manipulation, passive-aggression, violation of consent, and good old-fashioned physical and emotional abuse.
Set the bar wherever it works for you, but take it from me, who grew up with narcissistic parents and spent my entire 20’s and most of my 30’s playing out the exact. Same. abusive. Crap. over. And over. And over….
And then I learned:
It’s not my fault all that bad stuff happened. But it is my responsibility to at least try to say NO, the next time somebody tries to suck me in. And the time after that.
Because why would you want to be around somebody who abuses? Even if you don’t want to call them out--that’s fine.
Ask yourself: how do you want to pass your very short amount of time here in this life?
And trust me, if you stick to this list, you’ll open a whole new niche in your life for authentic, mutual and loving relationships! I’m now two years into a calm, happy relationship with a healthy and kind man, something I never would have believed was possible. And it’s been six years since my last PTSD-induced depressive episode.
Because I learned to say Aw Hell No!
And you can too.
As many of you know, I'm launching a series of online programs around the idea that self-mastery creates a path to personal and collective decolonization.
I am fascinated by the notion of daily practice. I want to cultivate and encourage daily habits that support creative, productive, adventurous, and subversive work. Work that changes the worker, and work that changes the world.
I'm in deep with this stuff, producing content with a fervor I've never experienced in myself, and seeing that reflected in the huge love and solid professional response of my students and peers.
Alrighty then. Let's do this "cultural emergence" thing. Have you heard that term? Looby MacNamara taught it to me.
I've been talking about chrysalis and transformation and metamorphosis, and that connects directly to what a bunch of other thinkers/writers/teachers in the permaculture-sustainability-ecofeminism community are doing/writing/building.
Something is happening to us. We ARE emerging. But more than that, our wings are unfolding and, as individuals shining our lights on each other, together we are beginning to fly.
Today I met another thinker, Elisabeth Howland, who is also writing about emotional permaculture, designing the inner landscape, deepening our connection with nature, as a radical act.
I could continue naming names, shining lights....there are 40 of us putting on the world's first all-women online permaculture design course.
And now, there are 1200 people enrolled in my Emotional Permaculture course. Because this stuff is opening people up!
What am I trying to say?
Thank you for being here! Thank you for trying, for tearing yourself open, for struggling through the fear and the dirt and the clay and the paint. Thank you for making art, telling stories, dancing and fucking up!
Maybe the world is gonna end, who knows?
Maybe we're all gonna die (we are).
But this little subculture we're building, this interconnected community of flawed and fragile humans who are still trying to open it up, be vulnerable, and learn how to love each other? We're awesome. And I'm grateful.
Take Looby's Cultural Emergence Course!
And try my free intro courses too:
Releasing old pain by dealing with grief, caring for your body, making art, and getting dirty.
by Heather Jo Flores
Sometimes it seems like everybody has some version of Post-Traumatic Stress.
If you’re at all aware of the world outside of yourself, if you live in modern society, if you spend any time on social media, chances are you’ve got trauma lodged up all in you.
For many years of my life, I thought I had depression. I would spend days at a time crying, eating, sleeping and hating myself for having no control over the process. I sabotaged relationships and hated my family and the world for what had been done to me. I tried different kinds of therapy but held a general disdain for it. I never tried pharmaceuticals, but I dabbled in many forms of self medication.
And then a few years ago, I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD. Complex PTSD is a disorder that comes about from constant exposure to a long term trauma that often involves repeated abuse and/or abandonment throughout childhood often from a caregiver.
The type of PTSD that is usually discussed occurs after a more specific event and results in different symptoms. Due to the long term trauma Complex PTSD ends up affecting a person’s basic identity. One ends up seeing themselves in a constant negative light.
I realized that I wasn’t suffering because of a chemical imbalance in my brain, I was creating the chemical imbalance through denial, negative thought patterns, and self-abuse (weed, binge-eating, bad boys).
When I finally identified the cause, deeply rooted in a failure to properly grieve several traumatic losses, I was able to begin a healing process. A big part of that process was about learning how to grieve. My grief wasn’t associated with the death of a loved one.
It was associated with the loss of other things:
These things, compounded by my years spent as an environmental activist and the direct trauma that comes from witnessing firsthand the devastation of the planet (and the brutalization of the people trying to stop that devastation) had sent me into a downward spiral of grief, and I had never taken the time to really deal with it.
And so, since I had just started grad school when these realizations occurred, I focused most of my MFA on using art, music and movement to overcome trauma associated with loss. I learned a lot of amazing stuff! I’m doing a ton of writing and teaching on these topics now, but this article is just a teaser.
The main point here is that it helps a TON to learn about the grieving process and look at your patterns. See if you might be stuck somewhere, like I was.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first proposed the five stages of grief in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.” Since then these stages have become widely accepted as a path that we can move through to cope with loss and put it behind us.
The stages of grief are:
Anger, Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Reconstruction, and finally, Acceptance.
I would add another stage to this: Sovereignty. Liberation. A freedom from the pull of the lost relationship.
If you find yourself stuck in one of these places, see if you can keep moving forward. Like climbing a mountain, it won’t be easy and parts of it will suck really bad. But when you reach the summit, you will feel triumphant at having persevered.
There is so much juice in this topic and I could write on it for days! But for now, I’ve assembled a little toolbox of stuff that can be super helpful for navigating the grieving process and reconnecting to whoever you might have been before the trauma messed you up.
How to let go (tools to help you get through the grieving process)
If you can talk yourself into it, see a professional therapist who specializes in grief and trauma. I know I said I have a disdain for therapy, but I eventually found the right therapist to help me work it all out. I only saw her a few times but I don’t know how I could have done it without her. Most cities offer free and low-cost options, and if you do have to spend some money, what could be more worth it than your own healing and happiness?
However, this is not to say I want you to develop a co-dependent relationship on some expensive therapist or life coach. Nor do I want you to end up on a cocktail of pharmaceuticals that are probably causing more harm than good. All I am saying here is that sometimes, somebody who is trained in grief-therapy and/or treating Complex PTSD could really help you snap out of a dark pattern.
And if you do find yourself in a dark hole, please: don’t let Facebook and people who know you personally be your only therapy. They are not qualified. Find a well-recommended professional, and GO talk to them! Or, just treat yourself to a massage and some good vigorous exercise classes. These will seriously help. This brings me to my next point:
Diet and Exercise.
You already know this. Moving your body releases endorphins that help you feel happier. Getting in shape helps you feel better about yourself. Avoiding toxins like corn syrup, sugar and too much cholesterol gives your liver a chance to process the good food you are eating and give you energy instead of making you feel sluggish and depressed. For me, I found that certain types of exercise, namely dance and yoga (and the breathwork that comes with yoga) were especially helpful to my healing process.
Any movement practice helps to not feel stuck and blocked. Horrible events that happen to us leave a residue of sorts behind and exercise can help clear that out. At worse you’ll end up feeling healthier. I really started to change how I felt when I began doing yoga on a regular basis. I was cynical about it at first, but it works and has for thousands of years. I doubt you will find anyone who says they regret starting a yoga practice.
There are many ways to go about finding the right sort of yoga for you. There’s a lot of yoga online or you can most likely find a local class that you like. Some places even offer trauma informed classes. Yoga can give you a sense of awareness and control of your body that had been lost. Commit to a program and stick it out for at least four months. Think about all the time you have spent feeling bad, and try to strike a balance by spending that much time exercising and preparing healthy food.
As for food, the most important part of that puzzle is to make sure that you get some sort of natural protein in your face within a half hour of waking up. Not a breakfast person? I don’t care. Eat a handful of nuts and get on with your morning. Protein feeds the new neurons that are forming in your brain just after you wake up, and you need those new neurons to form the fresh pathways that you are trying to create with your healing process. No protein, no new pathways. That’s just scientific fact.
Yoga lead me to the practice of pranayama which is loosely translated to mean breath control. It has been the single most important healing technique for me. It has been proven that controlled breathing calms the nervous system. A regular practice of even just conscious deep breathing can reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. There are many other simple breathing techniques that can be used. Find a couple that work for you.
Drugs, sugar, alcohol: these coping mechanisms are only making things worse. They are taxing your liver, hijacking your digestive system, and literally messing with your head. Brain and body chemistry are a big part of this, so be diligent and I promise you, you will see results.
It can be helpful to make a list of different coping mechanisms that you use. Take note of which are healthy and which ones are destructive. For instance, exercise would be a healthy coping mechanism while getting wasted would be a destructive one. Save your healthy coping mechanisms on cards or on a list and pick one to use the next time you need help coping with your emotions or a bad situation.
I’m not saying you have to be stone sober your whole life! Just that, while you’re dealing with the grief, consider keeping a clear head.
We are so wrapped up in sight and sound that it is easy to lose track of our other senses. One of these is our “felt sense.” It’s our gut feeling, our intuition, and our deeper emotional response connected to our tangible feelings. Being in touch with these feelings places you more in your body. Our “destiny” is linked to who we are in our bodies moment to moment. It puts you more in touch with the ever elusive moment of NOW and opens you up to the moments of happenstance that could have easily been missed. Go exploring. Notice what’s around you with all of your senses. Stop and write. Noticing ourselves with all of our senses and immersing ourselves in the moment can counteract the feelings of disconnection that arise from Complex PTSD.
Getting your hands in the soil has been scientifically proven to make you happier. Go out and plant something. If you don’t have a garden, go help a friend. Caring for plants on any level is nourishing. Even growing a few flowers in some pots will give you a positive experience. Focusing on the needs of others, be they people, plants or animals is another great way to overcome grief and loss. Gardening covers all of these bases, and also connects to better nutrition and exercise habits. It is much harder to live a self-actualized life without a relationship to plants. If your life is not how you want it to be there is a high likelihood you are not spending enough time barefoot in the dirt.
Whatever approach you take, I wish you luck on your healing path! Remember that self-care (I prefer to think of it as self-love) is activism. Don’t let anyone tell you different. I was an activist for many years and then my mental health put me out of the game for a long time. Now, after learning all of these techniques, my community work is stronger, more meaningful and more effective than ever. And, it’s emotionally sustainable.
Channel all of that passionate, if dark, energy into something productive. Learn an instrument, take some dance classes. Make pottery. Paint big creepy pictures of that proverbial monster under your bed. Whatever feels right, do it. Don’t let all that power go to waste. And when you have turned those horrific feelings into something beautiful, you will feel better. Even if you fill your room with the worst art and poetry that was ever made, you will still feel better.
My entire Decolonize Yourself Creative Immersion, a 60-class intensive that teaches you how to heal yourself, find your purpose, and manifest your best work, is built around an acronym of the word “CREATE.” Because creating, expressing, and manifesting new things is the very best way to let go of that crusty old trauma. (And it's priced on a sliding scale, starting at only $1 per class!)
The last thing I want to say (for now) is something that took me a long time to accept:
There is no short cut.
Emotional trauma is a lot like physical trauma. It takes time to heal. Inagine if you broke your femur. If you didn’t set the bone right, if you didn’t get help and give it the healing time it deserved, it could cripple you for life. But if you take the time to heal it right, you’ll eventually be right back on your feet, and stronger for the experience. It’s never to late to start healing, and I’m here to tell you: you CAN be happy. Without drugs and without years of expensive therapy.
I made you something....download it below.
If you join my mailing list I’ll send you lots of freebies like this, about healing yourself, emotional permaculture, the Heroine’s Journey, and more.
by Heather Jo Flores
What do you want?
Back in 2015 I spent the entire Spring and Summer touring around the USA for Food Not Lawns. I taught workshops, turned lawns into gardens, and made hundreds of new friends. When I got to Indiana, I took three days off to catch up with my friend Garry, a sort of Uncle From Another Muncle character, who has been my writing mentor for thirty years.
Garry describes me as having been “a very serious child,” and loves to tell the story about how I made a Rubix Cube costume out of a painted cardboard box and won First Place in the Cerritos Mall Halloween Contest. I used to show him the weird little stories I wrote and he always critiqued them with clarity and sincerity, always encouraged me to “just keep writing.”
These days, Garry is a successful screenwriter with a dozen feature films under his belt. He just turned sixty. He has a wife and three grown children, and writes Hollywood movies in his cozy studio on the old family farm in Northwest Indiana. I found it beautiful there, pastoral, as long as you don’t mind the mosquitoes. Cornfields sprawl in every direction. I found zen in the monoculture, peace in the predictability of rural Indiana. It is basically the opposite of the West Coast. There are no hipsters, no gentrification to speak of, and coffee still costs a dollar. I found comfort in that. But of course it was an illusion.
Garry and I stayed up late, cracking obscure literary jokes, carrying on about the hero’s journey, and geeking out on the ancient art of storytelling. I told him about my MFA thesis, about my assertion that a true female heroine wouldn’t use violence to solve her problems, she would use her mind, her wit, her lineage, and her experience. She would negotiate, rather than fight. And she wouldn’t just solve her own problems or quest for her own treasure, she would only find satisfaction in a victory that helped others. We talked about how the proverbial beast, the dragon to be slain, in whatever form manifested, shows up in all great stories ever told, and how that beast is a metaphor for what lies within each of us. We mused over whether perhaps the problem with this profit-driven, destructive culture is that we have been spending too much time trying to slay and control our beasts, but not enough time trying to understand and befriend them.
My last night in Logansport, I went out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant with Garry and his whole family. All of the clientele, including our party, were white, blonde, tall and thin. I, with my raven black hair and short, curvy body, was by far the brownest person in the room. Until I saw that the staff was entirely Latino. When our waiter came to our table, he asked each person in turn, in English, what they would like to order. But when he came to me he said, with a broad smile:
“Que quieras, mija?”
What do you want, my child?
My grandmother used to call me mi’ja. It’s a term of endearment used commonly in Latino families. And it warmed my heart to feel seen here, by this brown-skinned waiter in this Mexican restaurant in Indiana, as one of his family.
Later that night, while Garry and I were having our chat, he brought it up.
“Did you see the metaphor there?” He asked me.
“Aren’t you searching for something?” he asked.
Garry laughed and shook his head. “No, Heather, not the way you are. You think everyone is searching? Most people are sleeping. Most people are just going through their lives without embracing any quest at all. But you, you are on the quest of your life right now. And as a writer, you are your own protagonist. The heroine of your own journey. So, in keeping with the pattern of any good protagonist, tell me: what is your greatest desire? What is your simple, concrete goal?”
Que quieras, mija?
What do I want? I want a home, a focus, and to feel like I am doing meaningful work in a community that appreciates me. It’s an easy sentence to type out but what do those things actually mean? Dare I unpack that?
A place to live, a practice to love, and a way to contribute that makes use of my skills and provides for my needs in return. Seems simple enough. Permaculture, sustainability, community, right livelihood — these terms are familiar to us, but what do they really mean? For me they imply regenerative human ecosystems, habitat, shelter, interaction. Connection. I want to be an animal in the system in which I live. Not exactly like Tarzan and Jane but…close. But more than that, I want to feel like my unique set of skills and experiences is doing the most it can do.
Is this what I would call “home”?
Wherever you go, there you are. Physically. And wherever you find yourself, that’s the path. Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan talked a lot about the “path with a heart.”
Is that the way home, then?
Home is where the heart is, that’s what they say.
Hmm. My heart is in my body, and my body can’t seem to stay in one place for more than a few seasons. Ok, I know that old saying means home is where your family is, where the people you love, live. But for me those people are spread out all over, and to be honest I wouldn’t want to live with most of them anyway.
Perhaps home is where the art is? And again we come back to the body. I use my body to make the art, but where do the ideas come from? My brain, also my body? Or somewhere else? I have never been able to settle on a belief system for that one. All I know is that I don’t know.
Where does the art come from, and where does it go? In my case, everywhere. I have left my art in every house I have ever lived — more than a hundred houses now. My life has taken me to so many places, and I leave a trail of art-crumbs so that my family can find me, in case I get lost in the woods. I leave the art behind, but my body goes with me, and everything I have done goes back to it.
We cannot talk about home without talking about privilege.
In this culture where a basic human shelter is not considered a basic human right, the question of what it means to have a home becomes inextricably connected to the question of what it means to be a human. And for me, my decisions to be childfree, and to eschew the norms of an “average American woman,” have profoundly affected my perceptions of both home and humanity.
Having a safe, secure and stable home is a privilege, but it should be a right. We are born and we exist. We didn’t choose that. And while we are here, we need a place to sleep, to eat, to shit, to make love. We need a place to be, to live, to express and create. And the entire capitalist system is built around forcing humans to work in order to have a place to live. And, according to the particular destiny of vicinity in which we might find ourselves, some people have to work a lot harder for a lot less space to live in than others.
Me, I grew up on the road. Single mom, two kids, and we never stayed in one place more than a year. It wasn’t because we enjoyed traveling. It was because my mom had such a hard time keeping a roof over our heads that, a lot of the time, we didn’t have one. It was just cheaper to sleep in the van. Mom was a hippie, a groupie, a teenage single mother and survivor of severe sexual, verbal and physical abuse. We parked the van, the car, the station wagon (we also went through a lot of cheap used cars) in somebody’s driveway and stayed awhile, then moved on. Sometimes we had an apartment. Later on mom got better at finding cute little houses for cheap rent. She fixed the place up, made curtains for the windows.
By the time I dropped out of high school in tenth grade, I had attended nineteen different schools. As an adult, the longest I have ever lived in one house was about three years, and that only happened twice: once at the Ant Farm (our punk house named after the colony of carpenter ants who lived in the kitchen ceiling) and then again at the Hope Farm (it was an acronym for Holistic Organic Permaculture Education.) Both times, it was a love affair and garden that kept me there so long, and the falling apart of said relationship that forced me to move. The agriculture was the part that made it feel like home, and the sex was the nexus, the vortex, the nucleus of the experience. Biology runs the show.
So, what do I mean when I say I want a home? Do I mean that I want to find a house and get a mortgage? No. Hell no. That is not at all what I am talking about. When I say I want to find a place that feels like home, I mean I want a tribe, a connection that feels like I can finally, for the first time since I was born, stop running. I want to belong. To be loved. To grow food and share it. To express my ideas and opinions and have them feel useful, valued, accessible. A farm and some dogs. A field of seeds and a grove of trees. A group of friends who laugh together and trust each other without question.
Forget all the reasons I shouldn’t want these things or why I think I don’t deserve them. Forget how untouchable they may seem at this moment. I want them and I don’t have to justify that to anyone. All I have to do is find them.
The Destiny of Vicinity
Sometimes I talk about “the destiny of vicinity.” Whatever I find myself around, that’s what influences me. That’s my quest, my personal yellowbrick road. That’s what I do, whom I meet, who I love and fuck and live with. And those relationships influence my thoughts, my feelings, my choices. No man is an island, and women? Even less so. How about you? Are you at “home”? Or just in a house somewhere? What is the compass you use to navigate your life? How has the placement of your physical body affected your path through the world? Have you mastered the fine art of being in the right place at the right time?
We all follow a path through life that unfolds according to where we find ourselves living, working, studying. Often these locations were not choices made by ourselves, but rather are connected to our families, employers and opportunities. I am fascinated by the way a person’s life is ultimately connected to where they find themselves. This connects to community work, partnership, and so much more.
Comfort vs. Free Will
People always say to me “I envy you, you have so much freedom. I feel trapped in my life and you just seem to go and do whatever you want.”
But freedom can become a prison of its own, and what a lot of people don’t realize is that my ecdemomania is largely fueled by economic and social imperative. It costs a lot of money to stay in one place. And it really helps if you fit in, or you might find yourself in danger. I don’t have a lot of money, and I certainly do not fit in. And so what many people seem to see as me making “choices,” I see more as me making the best use of the limited options I have available.
And so, back to the destiny of vicinity.
If I refuse to accept the options that fell into my lap by accident, then where do I place myself in order for the things that I want to become available to me?
Where do I go?
Do I continue the path of happenstance, feel my way, clue by clue, through the world?
Do I accept my destiny as a vagabond, a life spent entirely on the move, and just keep running? Trust that this ability to run is the pattern that was given to me, my super power that will guide me through?
Or do I hover and wait and focus and pray?
I am determined to figure it out, one day, one step, one mile at a time.
I wrote this piece at the tail end of ten years of perpetual wandering with no partner, no stable home or job to speak of. I had just spent several months in an adobe house in the hot springs town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and was about to hit the road yet again, still searching for my true place in the world.
But then something shifted. It was as if, through writing this, through allowing myself to explore the layers of my predicament, I broke free from the pattern. Shortly after, I stumbled into what can only be described as the healthiest and happiest relationship of my life, moved to Spain, and settled into an abundant, effortless creative practice that seems to hold none of the daily turmoil that used to follow me around. What comes next remains to be seen, but for now, I have finally, at forty-six years old, come home.
So now it’s your turn:
Que quieras mija?
On traditional storycraft, patriarchal conditioning, and how a woman might approach slaying the beast from a different perspective.
by Heather Jo Flores
“The mystery of human destiny is not that we are fated, but that we have the freedom to fulfill or not fulfill our fate: realization of our fated destiny depends on us. While inhuman beings like the cockroach realize the entire cycle without going astray, because they make no choices.”
— Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H. p. 129
“It may be that the human race is not ready for freedom. The air of liberty may be too rarefied for us to breathe…The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.”
— Steven Pressfield, The War of Art, p. 37
Humans love stories. No matter who you are, where you live, or what your life is all about, chances are you love to witness the transformation of a dynamic, willful protagonist. And the stories we tell, from Beowulf to Zootopia, have shaped human culture since that first cavewoman explained how she discovered fire.
But how have these stories also corrupted our culture? And how have they reinforced harmful, oppressive paradigms that now, as we face widespread social, economic, and ecological chaos, need to change?
Is it possible that, by changing the way we tell stories, and by changing who’s stories we tell, we could change the destructive trajectory of our species? I believe the answer is yes, and such is my obsession with the Heroine’s Journey.
Think about it. How have the stories that you’ve read, seen, heard, and remembered affected your relationship to the world, the paths your have chosen, the trajectory of your life?
I know that repeated early readings of Alice in Wonderland, The Selfish Giant, and the Wizard of Oz shaped many of the perspectives of my early adulthood. It sounds so silly now, typing this, but I can see that this magical explorer archetypal journey on which I find myself today is still connected to those fantastic stories I adored when I was a kid.
When I was thirteen, I found a copy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong in a thrift store and it shaped my approach to sexuality.
Later, I sat in a park in San Francisco, eavesdropping on a story about real people, fighting for the trees. I quit my job, moved to Oregon, and spent the next five years on the front lines of the Northwest Forest movement of the 1990’s.
And when I read a story by a Japanese rice farmer who stopped tilling his fields and changed the way millions of people think about agriculture, I found my calling as a permaculture activist.
And so on.
Of course it’s not just books and oral storytelling I’m talking about. It’s the movies, the news, the internet. All around us, every day: story.
Now I spend my time using story to help people overcome fear, anxiety, lack of self-worth, and creative blocks. By telling them my stories and the stories of others, and by encouraging them to tell their own, together we discover how quickly and joyfully the telling of a few stories can unleash a flood of creative potential.
And I believe this approach can be taken with changing culture on a larger scale. I believe that, by telling stories self-empowered, fiercely compassionate feminist heroes who embark on deliciously harrowing, ardently transformative journeys but do NOT use violence to solve their problems, we can create a new cult of humanity that values this type of heroism over the old Slay Every Dragon and Steal the Princess Without Her Consent paradigm.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
My primary inquiry:
How can we create a truly feminist hero(ine) who doesn’t use violence to solve her problems? And, if we do create a timeless body of popular works that center nonviolent women instead of violent men, how will that influence human culture over the generations to come?
This is not to say there aren’t already lots of feminist hero(ine)s! We’ll get to that…
The Hero’s Journey
Most of us have heard of the hero’s journey, and many of us have used the formula for our work. From storytellers to salespeople, the classic archetype of the hero, as he travels from catalyst to climax and conclusion, is a metaphor for the transformation that most people want to achieve. We all want to improve our lives, to become better people, to succeed.
But what about the Heroine’s Journey?
Here I present an analysis of the classic formula, through a feminist lens. My intention is not to negate the archetype, but rather to enhance it and to offer an alternative for myself and others to use as we forge our stories and, by extension, our lives.
My purpose is to present some questions, many of which do not have concrete answers. I ask the reader to be okay with this, to let the questions just be questions, and to allow this atmosphere of inquiry to shape the journey.
(p.s. this article is long and not a little bit academic. To learn this stuff in a more tactile fashion, try the free intro course!)
Let us begin.
For as long as I can remember, I have identified as a writer, but for many years I eschewed formal training. I proudly displayed my autodidactism like a trophy, believing that if I read enough books and saw enough films that I could someday write them. This was partially true, and I wrote my entire book, Food Not Lawns, without having ever taking a single writing course. Later, when I was ready to write novels and screenplays, I realized that I needed to learn more about putting a story together. I had a mountain of ideas, but I needed was a structure that would help me pull them together. So I enrolled in a screenwriting workshop.
The first thing we learned in the workshop was the hero’s journey, sometimes called “three-act structure.” We discussed Shakespeare, Greek tragedies, and blockbuster films, and analyzed them to discover common patterns. First we looked for the pattern used in Greek mythology, as follows:
Prologue: The set up;
Agon: A contest offers opportunity;
Peripitia: A reversal of circumstances provides unforeseen challenge;
Pathos: An emotional appeal to the audience;
Sparagmos: A tearing asunder;
Epiphany: A sudden vision saves the day (and usually, the world.)
Most ancient stories adhere to this format, and modern tales are usually built on a similar but expanded framework.
The most widely-regarded expert on this was Joseph Campbell, who devoted his life to studying and articulating what he dubbed the “monomyth.” In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell analyzes hundreds of stories and presents a consistent formula.
Campbell describes seventeen specific steps that heroes take, broken down into three distinct stages. The first stage, “separation and departure,” includes the Prologue and Agon stages of the Greek structure listed above, but with a deepened experience for the hero that includes denying his destiny and being forced to pursue it anyway. The second stage, entitled “trials and histories of initiation,” includes Peripitia, Pathos, and Sparagmos, and requires the hero to find a mentor, endure a series of trials, and annihilate himself in order to cross many difficult thresholds towards his destiny. The final act, “the return and reintegration with society,” includes an Epiphany and requires the hero to find his way home and reconcile his new self with the past.
Back in the screenwriting workshop, we learned that Campbell’s formula has been used consistently by novelists and screenwriters since it was originally published in 1949. In The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field (considered the Godfather of screenwriting) presents a detailed formula, similar to Campbell’s but designed to fit into a 100-page screenplay. This formula is now commonly referred to as “high-concept,” or the “blockbuster formula.”
Here it is, as I understand it:
Act One (The set-up)
Status Quo: Our Hero exists in a state of discontent.
Dramatic Question: Our Hero questions his existence and intones a desire for transformation, identifying a single concrete goal.
Catalyst: The opportunity for transformation presents itself, perhaps in the shape (literally or metaphorically) of a beast that needs to be slain.
Denial: Our Hero denies the opportunity, out of fear and a general weakness of character.
Forced Acceptance: The beast somehow forces the hero to embark on the perilous journey.
Act Two (the approach)
Into the Special World: The hero crosses the first threshold, finds a mentor and perhaps a love interest and a supportive buddy or three. The world appears different than ever before.
Road of Trials: Struggles, triumphs, wounds and discoveries. Love blossoms and the hero begins to change.
First Culmination: An unforeseen challenge presents itself and the hero seems doomed to lose but decides to persevere.
False Victory: A major battle is fought, the beast is defeated, and our hero celebrates but we, the audience, know it isn’t really over because the story/film/book is only half-finished.
Unraveling: Our hero begins to unravel. Love falls apart.
Bad Guys Regroup: The beast is reborn and discovers the hero’s deepest weakness.
All is Lost: The beast returns and opens a can of whoop-ass. The world is torn asunder and our hero is defeated.
All is Even Further Lost: The mentor dies, the team jumps ship, and our hero has reached the Final Hour.
Act Three (the Return)
Strength from Within: Through a great internal transformation, our hero, all on his own, finds the wit, strength and courage to outsmart that pesky beast, once and for all.
Battle Royale: The final battle is fought and won.
Return: The hero claims his prize, proving that he is a better man than when he started.
Denouement: This final scene can take many forms, but these days it is usually an alluring twist to keep us, the paying customer, waiting at the edge of our seats for the next installment of our hero’s epic adventure.
Of course there are plenty of films and novels that do not follow this formula, but I challenge you to find any bestsellers that deviate from it by more than a few steps. When I learned the blockbuster formula, I became obsessed with it. I had finally found a template into which I could insert my story ideas, with the implied promise that, if I could follow the path, it would lead me to commercial success.
This idea of commercial success (without veering off into a wholly different essay altogether) is indeed important. Yes, we should write what we know, what we feel and care about, but should we not also eat? If a writer can make money with her work, then she can afford a room of her own. But I digress…
When I sat down to write my first novel, Naked Lady Soup, about a troubled yet successful artist who leaves her Bohemian life behind to search for a higher purpose, I knew right away that I would have to alter the hero’s journey to fit her story.
First of all, I wanted her to solve her problems without using violence, and the blockbuster formula is generally filled with battle scenes. Doing the best I could, I wrote the novel quickly, and finished it, but something in the text just wasn’t working. My protagonist’s quest was to find a way to love herself, and she didn’t have any external dragons to slay. Her beasts were within, and she had to connect with, rather than eradicate them. When I gave the manuscript to people for critique, they came back with comments like, “there needs to be more sex, more violence.” I found that disturbing, and realized that the hero’s journey formula might have been the problem. So I started to seek alternatives, looking for examples of work that followed a different pattern.
Theater of the Oppressed
The first thing I came across that offered a strong critique of the hero’s journey was Theater of the Oppressed, founded by Brazilian director Augusto Boal in 1971. Boal believed that the hero’s journey formula perpetuates an authoritarian regime by presenting an opportunity for empathic catharsis that is so satisfying that the spectator is content to do just that: spectate. Boal felt that watching a hero complete his journey replaces the need to embark on our own, and that the separation between performer and audience reinforces the chasm between oppressor and oppressed. When I consider the massive volume of formulaic, unchallenging titles available on bookshelves, the internet and broadcast television, and the countless hours the average American watches and reads this crap, lost in happy catharsis, I can easily agree that this seems to be an effective system for maintaining a dominant paradigm and discouraging real life heroism.
Boal’s method, which is now used in communities around the world, creates theatrical performances that invite spectators to actively participate in the outcome. In Games for Actors and non Actors, he writes, “Artists are witnesses of their times: they should not impose on their public their own view of society, their own understanding of human beings, or their own way to make decisions. . .they should help others to stimulate inside themselves the artists that lie within.”(172)
I was inspired by Boal’s work, but there was still a big problem: theater, as was Boal’s focus, has the benefit of having direct contact with the audience, which presents opportunities for interaction that are not available to most writers and filmmakers. I couldn’t quite figure out how to apply Boal’s ideas to my own work.
Remember the choose-your-own-adventure books? I used to love those when I was a kid, and I wonder how much of my self-directed nature was shaped by the experience of participating in rather than just ingesting stories. But we can’t expect the whole of literature to become a world of choose-your-own-adventure books, and I don’t feel compelled to write them. As I continued my search for an approach to storycraft that is as compelling and entertaining as the hero’s journey, and yet subversive and non-violent, I realized that there was a massive question swirling in my mind:
What About the Women?
In most of the myths, tales, stories, and epochs that have shaped our culture and continue to entertain us today, women have been consistently pigeonholed into those tired old roles: virgin, mother, wife, whore and hag. In almost every case, she is either a villain, a damsel in distress, or some other sort of obstacle for the hero to save, defeat, and overcome in order to acquire his grand prize (which is often a woman, objectified and/or used as bait.) Sometimes women can be found in buddy/helper roles, but they are almost never in equal partnership with the hero. Upon an initial inquiry, I found several modern female heroes who seemed to carry the feminist torch, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, Lara Croft, and Katniss of the Hunger Games Trilogy. However, all of these heroines solved problems with violence as their primary tool, and what I was looking for was an example that involves a heroine that strives to understand, rather than destroy, the enemy.
Recent commercially successful examples might include Bridget Jones’ Diary and Eat Pray Love. Unfortunately, these tales are generally lumped together as “chick flicks,” marginalized as being just a bunch of whiny women complaining about their lives. This is eternally frustrating, but I refuse to play the victim. The 2003 reprint of Erica Jong’s 1973 bestseller, Fear of Flying, includes an interview with the author. In it, Jong says, “I think our culture says that women who wonder about their own fulfillment aren’t doing what women should do — which is take care of everyone else. . .But how can women become important writers if they are thought to be unfeminine when they look into the female mind?” (459) She makes a compelling point, and I share her frustration.
The rest of this article will be devoted to my quest to define a heroine’s journey. I will start by presenting a few feminist critiques the hero’s journey, and will then share some stories that have had the most profound effect on my life and my writing. Finally I will offer my own take on the journey, an armature on which to hang a new kind of story.
Charting the Path
Let’s go back to Joseph Campbell and his ideas about men and women. In Hero with a Thousand Faces, we find very little on the role of women in mythology, but this paragraph seems to sum up Campbell’s perspective:
woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know. . .she can never be greater than himself, though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending. She lures, she guides, she bids him to burst his fetters. And if he can match her import, the two, the knower and the known, will be released from every limitation. Woman is the guide to the sublime acme of sensuous adventure. By deficient eyes she is reduced to inferior states; by the evil eye of ignorance she is spellbound to banality and ugliness. But she is redeemed by the eyes of understanding. The hero who can take her as she is, without undue commotion, but with the kindness and assurance she requires, is potentially the king, the incarnate god, of her created world. (97)
There are a lot of serious assertions in that passage, and I could easily dedicate the rest of this essay to tearing them apart, but for now I would like to focus on the overarching message that, according to Campbell, a woman is simultaneously a prize on a pedestal and an obstacle to be overcome, after which she should stand behind the man, and if he can meet her mountain of needs, they can rule the world. It is difficult to respond to this without a lot of emotion, and I struggled to find a way to write about it that would prevent this essay from going off the deep end into a familiar feminist rant. Fortunately, I found a handful of well-written feminist critiques of Campbell’s hero, many of which came from the comic book world, where women are vilified, objectified, and mutilated in extreme measures.
On Fangirl, a blog dedicated to supporting strong female protagonists, a writer credited only as “Lex,” posted an article entitled The Heroine’s Journey: How Campbell’s Model Doesn’t Fit, in which she does an excellent job of articulating exactly what is wrong with Campbell’s perspective. She points out that, “Campbell’s framework for the Hero’s Journey is inextricably bound up in the values, conventions, and perspectives of the sources upon which it draws… most of the historical myths he studied arose in profoundly sexist eras of human history.”
Lex points out that a feminist journey would have to consider the types of choices that women have to make, such as whether or not to have children, how to balance work and home, and how to include friends and family in her quest. But she also notes the importance of avoiding the assumption that all heroines are dealing with traditional female problems. She states that a feminist narrative should not restrict or limit its heroine to any sort of predictable stereotypes, feminine or masculine, and asserts that the goal is not to write stories about a “hero with boobs.”
This makes a lot of sense to me, and begs the question: what are the specific differences between the hero’s journey and the heroine’s journey? Perhaps the hero follows a linear trajectory, whereas the heroine tends toward a more cyclical unfolding? Perhaps the classic hero on his quest is, by definition, a masculine pursuit, if for no other reason than that he has the privilege to go a-questing, whereas a woman might be more likely to find herself financially, emotionally and physically trapped in a perpetual status quo.
For me, the most important piece of this puzzle is the question of whether our heroine even wants to slay the beast. Might she be more inclined to try and befriend it, to reach a mutual understanding? This is not about men versus women. It is about a bigger, much less dualistic picture, one that strives to accept, rather than make an enemy of, the unknown.
It is important to mention that the goal here is not to vilify Joseph Campbell. He was a product of his times and his work is a precious resource for understanding the fine art of storycraft, and if he was here today I am sure he would appreciate the deepening dialogue around this issue. But our purpose is to push beyond his work, and to support a new generation of stories from the next level of understanding.
In the late 1980’s, while researching her book, The Heroine’s Journey, Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, Maureen Murdoch interviewed Campbell. Murdoch asked about women’s role in the monomyth, and was told that women don’t need to make the journey, because “In the whole mythological tradition, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to. When a woman realizes what her wonderful character is, she’s not going to get messed up with the notion of being psuedo-male.” (2) Murdoch was deeply unsatisfied with this answer. She felt that Campbell was saying that a woman has no quest of her own. She retorts: “Women do have a quest at this time in our culture. It is the quest to fully embrace their feminine nature, learning how to value themselves as women and to heal the deep wound of the feminine.” (3)
I can see where she is going with this, and it makes sense, but what if we, for the moment, give Campbell the benefit of the doubt? Perhaps he and Murdoch were just trying to say the same thing, but in different languages. Could it be that a woman’s journey is about finding one’s own “wonderful character,” and accepting it, in spite of whatever flaws and monstrosities it might contain? Campbell brushes up against this, early in Hero with a Thousand Faces, in one of the few passages where he deviates from the male pronoun and refers to the hero as a “we.” He writes, “and where we had thought to find an abomination, we find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” (18)
Murdoch arrives at a similar conclusion, in her own way, by focusing on internal transformation as the core of the heroine’s journey. She presents an alternative pattern of heroic quest, traveling in a cyclical rather than linear pattern. She emphasizes that the pattern cycles back around, again and again, with the knowledge that we can easily slip back into old ways of thinking and must remain steadfast in our commitment to change. I will summarize her version of the journey in the next few paragraphs.
The heroine begins in a state of illusion. She has rejected the feminine in her search for identity, and strives for success as defined by the patriarchy. Murdoch writes, “anything less than doing ‘important work in the world’ has no intrinsic value. . .as a woman focuses on. . .the inner journey, she receives little recognition and less applause from the outer world.”(6) In order to be seen as successful in a man’s world, the heroine eschews traditional female roles and qualities, and fights like a man to get to the top, where she might find herself in a position of power, especially when she relates it to the oppressed roles she has rejected.
However, “in her desire to dispel the negative associations with the feminine, our heroine has created an imbalance within herself which has left her scarred and broken. She has learned to get things done logically and efficiently but has sacrificed her health, dreams, and intuition.”(7)
This manifests as physical and/or mental illness and the mechanisms by which our heroine has achieved her success are no longer effective.
Now comes the descent, manifesting perhaps as depression, dysfunction or downright psychosis. But if she perseveres, then the true journey begins. She ventures into uncharted territory and perhaps finds a renewed passion for nature, art, and relationships with other women. She experiences a transformation of her old self into something wholly unforeseen, and discovers a re-identification with the goddess archetype. This, however, could lead to extremes, coming out as anger, bitterness and a general loathing towards all things masculine, that which has betrayed her.
Our heroine’s mission at this stage is to heal old wounds — from her childhood, her mother and father, old lovers, past regrets. Her task is to bring herself into the present moment and find a healthy integration of masculine and feminine qualities, to overcome the illusion of duality and begin to achieve a balanced perspective. “The heroine must become a spiritual warrior. This demands that she learn the delicate art of balance and have the patience for the slow, subtle integration of the feminine and masculine aspects of herself.” (11)
Until finally, “when a woman reduces the emphasis on the outer heroic quest for self-definition, she is free to explain her images and her voice.” (10) She begins to discover a true success on her own terms. In her conclusion, Murdoch writes, “Today’s heroine must utilize the sword of discernment to cut away the ego bonds that hold her to the past and to find out what serves her soul’s purpose. She must release resentment toward the mother, put aside blame and idolization of the father, and find the courage to face her own darkness.” (184–5)
Psychology vs. Storycraft
For the most part, I agree with Murdoch’s perspectives, and I can see many parallels in my own life and personal journey. However, I want to differentiate between taking a personal journey and writing stories with a feminist protagonist. Campbell and Murdoch were therapists, psychologists focused on helping people transform their minds and their lives. I am a writer, and while I place immense value on personal journey and transformation, my goal for this essay is to develop a suitable framework on which to build a story that can help to extract, rather than embed, the patriarchal splinter in our collective subconscious.
To write a story, we need our protagonist to do something. In order to create a narrative that engages the audience and holds their attention, our heroine must carry her body through the adventure at hand. It’s a physical quest as much as an emotional one. And so, if we go with the idea that a feminist quest moves through the above psychological stages (or something similar) how can we build an action-based narrative?
Another writer, Catherine Bailey Kyle, tackles the subject from a different angle. Rather than focusing on the narrative structure, she emphasizes the components of a feminist story. In her essay, Her Story, Too, Final Fantasy X, Revolutionary Girl Utena, and the Feminist Hero’s Journey. Kyle defines and discusses the problems with “misogyny in geek culture,” and states that, “patriarchy is a many-headed hydra.” (132) Indeed.
Kyle goes on to reference Murdoch’s book, plus fifty other sources. From this she compiles a list of criteria for a feminist hero. She does not require that the hero be female or female-identified, but rather presents a list of elements that should be included in a story, in order for it to become a work that empowers, rather than objectifies women. In Kyle’s opinion, the narrative in question should achieve at least four of the following:
The above list is compatible with both Boal’s and Murdoch’s ideas, and adds an excellent framework for building characters that break out of the patriarchal pigeonhole.
Now I would like to present a few of my favorite examples of women whose stories represent narrative examples that embrace some or all of the above theories. None of these heroines are a perfect representation of a balanced, embodied feminist, but each of them has qualities that I admire and would strive to include in a heroine of my own crafting. At this point, it seems important to state that I am not trying to oversimplify the issue.
This topic could fill a lifetime of study, but my purpose here is just to open some doors to the heroine’s world. There are infinite layers of cultural and sociopolitical implications to consider, so many that a writer could easily talk herself out of writing anything at all, for fear of screwing it up. This essay is meant to serve as a gateway, connecting just a few points on a multidimensional plane, in hopes of inspiring the writerly reader to attempt a different type of narrative.
I am enamored with a story from the King Arthur tradition, about a willful woman who falls under a curse and frees herself by finding a lover who doesn’t try to control her. In my research I encountered many versions of the story, accompanied by a massive body of scholarly work. Here is a short version, in my own words:
One day, King Arthur was caught off guard by his enemy Sir Gromer, who snuck up on him from behind. Just as the man was about to strike him down, Arthur suggested that to kill him in this way wasn’t exactly chivalrous. Sir Gromer thought about it for a second and then said, “ok, you’re right. How about I make you a deal? I will give you one year to solve a riddle, and if you can’t come up with the answer, then I shall ride into court and cut off your head in front of everyone.”
Arthur accepted the deal, thinking, “how hard could this riddle be? Surely I already know the answer!”
But then Sir Gromer said, “What do women want, above all else?”
Arthur was at a complete loss. For the next year, he rode from village to village, asking everyone he met. As the year came to a close, he sent out a last, desperate call, offering great rewards to anyone who could provide the answer. At the last minute, Lady Ragnell, a hideous hag known for her unruly ways, came snorting into court. She weighed four hundred pounds, with matted, greasy hair and two large, moldy tusks growing out of her face. Her skin was lumpy and she smelled like a rotting swamp. Everyone stared as she lurched toward the King, saying “Sire! I have the answer you seek!”
“Wonderful!” cried the King.
“Eh, not so fast,” said the Lady Ragnell, “you must pay a price.”
“Name it,” said the King.
“In exchange for my help, I shall marry the handsomest, most honorable man in court, your nephew Sir Gawain.” The court went into an uproar, for Gawain was dearly loved by all of Camelot and many women already had a mind to marry him.
But Gawain stepped forward, saying, “if it shall save my King, I shall marry the Lady.”
The next morning, when Sir Gromer rode into court, Arthur was ready with the answer. Hoping to save his nephew from the gruesome fate of marrying the hag Ragnell, he first offered all of the other answers he had collected throughout the year, reading them one at a time. But none of them was the true answer, and so finally Arthur offered what the hag had told him:
“What women want, above all else, is sovereignty, the freedom to make their own choices.”
“Blast!” yelled Sir Gromer, and off he rode, foiled.
Next came a glorious wedding celebration for Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnell. The bride blushed in forty yards of white lace, for it took that much to cover her massive form. The groom stayed by her side, acting as if he were madly in love. This hag was to be his wife, after all, and the knight had resolved to make the best of it. When the time came to go to bed, the Lady draped herself against the pillows, beckoning to her new husband. “How about a little kiss?” she said.
Drawing himself up with all of the courage for which he was known, Sir Gawain replied to his wife, “Nay, I shall do more than kiss,” and began to climb into the bed. Suddenly, she was transformed into a beautiful woman. Alarmed, Gawain insisted the Lady explain herself.
“I am under a terrible curse,” she told him, “and by choosing to love me regardless of my looks, you have freed me of half of that curse. But now you must make a decision: either I can be this beautiful woman in your bed, at night and when we are alone, and I will still appear as a hag in court and to all the world, or I can be your beautiful wife to all the world but when we are alone together I will be the hag. What shall it be?”
Gawain was stumped. He thought about it for a long time and then finally he said, “Lady, Wife, I cannot be the one who makes this decision. The choice is completely yours.” And with that, he freed her of the second half of her curse. She explained that the curse had come onto her many years before, when she had refused to obey the orders given by her father and brother. They had insisted that she would never find a husband who would give her the freedom to think for herself. And they had cursed her to wear the guise of a hideous beast until she could prove them wrong.
Lady Ragnell’s ultimate prize, sovereignty, lines up with Maureen Murdoch’s heroine, who is also questing for the right to make her own choices, on her own terms. In so many ways, this old tale reeks of patriarchal domination: Lady Ragnell was originally cursed by a man, her brother, for refusing to do what she’s told. She is then redeemed by a man, her husband, who frees her of the curse. One man revokes her sovereignty, and another gives it back. Of course this provokes me! Why do we need their permission to run our own lives? Alas! This is still the world we live in, and that is why we need to create new stories, so that perhaps one day a woman’s sovereignty will be the status quo, rather than the prize.
Another thing that interests me about Lady Ragnell’s story is the representation of her transformation in physical terms. As an oppressed person, she is hideous, trapped inside a horrific body with which she doesn’t identify. Granted her freedom, she transforms into the beautiful person that she feels to be inside. This physical transformation is often concrete in real-life journeys such as my own — in my quest to find sovereignty and wholeness, I lost the forty pounds of extra fat I had carried for a decade. This reminds us that any journey is a physical endeavor. The path must be walked upon with our two feet, connected to our bodies and our minds.
Many of the sources that I read for this essay discussed Eve’s role as a scapegoat for the problems of humanity, and identified the legend of her original sin as a crutch for the patriarchal attitudes that persist in life and literature today. But must we continue to blame the hapless Eve? Can we just let her off the hook and focus on a different side of the story? Throughout my life I have been particularly fascinated with the legend of Lilith. Lilith appears in dozens of ancient texts, and the versions of her story vary widely. In some versions, she was always a demon, in others, she began as a goddess.
Here’s my synopsis of the common threads:
Lilith and God were friends. Perhaps he created her, perhaps they created the universe together, or perhaps it created them. At some point, God ordered Lilith to go to Eden and live as Adam’s subservient wife. She went there, tried it out, and didn’t like it, not one bit. Adam was bullish and abusive and Lilith called out to God and went up to heaven to tell him she wasn’t havin’ it. He ordered her to return to Eden and she refused. She went to live in a cave by herself. God sent three angels to tell her she absolutely must return to Eden. Lilith told those three angels to get lost. God was so angry he turned Lilith into a demon, cursed to fly through the skies at night, fornicating with monsters and raining wet dreams upon innocent little boys for all eternity.
Not at all like the hero’s journey, Lilith’s is a story of co-creation, subservience, refusal, rejection, escape, blame, demonization, and monstrosity. She, like Eve, became the scapegoat for the rotten things that happen to humankind, but unlike Eve, Lilith reveled in her role. To her, this was a better fate than God’s chosen role for her, and to me, her virtue as a heroine is found in her affinity for her own monstrosity. She chose to be a monster rather than a slave.
Jong’s Fear of Flying changed the face of modern literature, granting permission to women to write about their desires and their sexuality with a candor previously unheard of in mainstream literature. It sold over seven million copies in a dozen languages and continues to be one of the most commercially successful novels featuring a non-violent female protagonist. Raised to be a good girl, the protagonist Isadora goes in search of “the zipless fuck,” with the idea that being more casual about sex will lead her to a feeling of liberation. I have spent much of my life bewitched by a similar illusion, and at this point the notion feels akin to Murdoch’s ideas about rejecting the feminine. If we fuck like men, we can achieve what men achieve, no? No. It didn’t work for me and it doesn’t work for Isadora. She does, however, learn to be more honest with herself, and discovers a shameless connection with her true purpose.
Towards the end of the book, Isadora says to her extramarital lover, Adrian: “all my writing is an attempt to get love, anyway. I know it’s crazy. I know it’s doomed to disappointment. But there it is: I want everyone to love me.”
And Adrian says, “you lose.”
As the book resolves (which it really doesn’t — we expect her to find herself, strike out on her own, eschew the men and perhaps become a lesbian) she goes back to her husband and this is realistic, especially considering that it all took place in the late 1960’s. Of this, she writes, “it is damned clever how men had made life so intolerable for single women that most would gladly embrace even bad marriages instead. . .Though I’ve no doubt that being single is just as lonely for a man, it doesn’t have the extra wallop of being downright dangerous, and it doesn’t automatically imply poverty and the unquestioned status of a social pariah.”
I too believe that most women will choose comfort over free will, because being a lone heroine out in the world is terrifying to the point of exhaustion. I appreciate how Jong ended Fear of Flying; no big epiphany, just some baby steps and a few more ounces of self-respect. The book was widely criticized for being overtly sexual, labeled as indecent and pornographic, but what comes through in the text is not so much about getting laid for the fun (or sensationalism) of it, but more so about the inseparable connection between a woman’s sexuality and her creative process.
Jong speaks directly to this in a 1972 article entitled The Artist as Housewife/the Housewife as Artist:1 “Women artists cannot escape exploring their own sexuality, because the connection between sex and inspiration is intimate. . .If sex and creativity are often seen by dictators as subversive activities, it’s because they lead to the knowledge that you own your own body (and with it your own voice) and that’s the most revolutionary insight of all.”
Indeed, my own sexuality, connected to the rest of my relationship with my body, has consistently and profoundly affected my creative work. This is not to say that our heroine need be promiscuous, but rather to state that promiscuity of the body, especially as an act of free will, seems to bring about a promiscuity of the mind, and vice-versa. And further, could the demonization of the promiscuous woman be connected to a patriarchal tendency to limit the creativity of the masses?
In Hour of the Star, Lispector tells the story of Macabea, a homely virgin typist who has no family, no talent, no friends, and no aspirations. She is too stupid to know how miserable she is. The true protagonist of this story is, however, the narrator, who is so disturbed by Macabea’s story that he cannot tell it without interrupting himself, interposing his own gratitude for not being her. He says, “this tale could only come from a man because a woman would weep her heart out.” and “I have only escaped from a similar fate because I am a writer.” Of the invisible, ugly women that Macabea represents, he states, “they aren’t even aware of the fact that they are superfluous and that nobody cares a damn about their existence. Few of them ever complain and as far as I know they never protest, for there is no one to listen.” (14)
Halfway through the tale, Macabea meets a suitor. On their second date, she says to him, “I’m sure I can sing that music. La-la-la.” He responds, “You look like a deaf mute trying to sing. Your voice is like a broken reed.” She says, “That’s because I am singing for the first time in my life. “ (51)
She is just starting to realize her self, her sexuality, and her desires, and standing up to him is the most willful action she takes until the very end of the story, when a coworker convinces her to visit a fortune-teller. Macabea decides that she wants to know something about herself, about her life and her path. The fortune-teller says that a beautiful man in a fancy yellow convertible will come and change everything for Macabea. Elated, she pays the woman and dashes out into the street, excited to finally embrace her life. A man in a yellow convertible whips around the corner and runs her down, and a few minutes later, Macabea dies in the gutter.
The final passage reads:
At heart, Macabea was little better than a music box sadly out of tune.
I ask you:
— What is the weight of light?
And now — now it only remains for me to light a cigarette and go home. Dear God, only now am I remembering that people die. Does that include me?
Don’t forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes.
Hour of the Star was Lispector’s final work, published just a few months before she died of cancer in 1977. Since then it has become her most widely-known text, but before that, the work that made her famous in Brazil, not so much as an author, but more as a mystic and metaphysical guru, was The Passion According to G.H., published in 1964.
A protagonist that is almost the complete opposite of Macabea, G.H. is a privileged woman who lives in a penthouse in Rio de Janeiro. She haphazardly kills a cockroach in her apartment and then, through a massive existential transformation provoked by the killing, decides she must eat the dead roach in order to reconcile her spiritual debts. This conclusion is not arrived it casually; it takes her most of the day, staring at the dying beast, thinking to herself about all things human and humane.
I could fill these pages with powerful quotes from the text, but this is the one that drives it home: “In the presence of the living cockroach, the worst discovery was that the world was not human, and that we are not human…the inhuman is our better part, is the thing.” (61)
G.H. finishes her story terrified that she will continue to live with the arrogance and hubris that had clouded her awareness before the encounter with the cockroach. She is afraid she will lose the power of the epiphany. She wants to hold on to the feeling of enlightenment but she knows that life will intervene. She knows that the world makes it much easier to be ignorant of the self than to be aware. She says, “my unreachable nowness is my paradise lost.” (143)
And finally, she releases the struggle, hopes for the best, steps out into the street and back into her life, and lets it go. The final line of the text: “Life is itself for me, and I don’t understand what I’m saying. And therefore, I adore.” (168)
Completely apart from a classic hero’s journey, Lispector’s version of heroic quest offers no catharsis whatsoever, but instead provides us with something else: a reflection and an opportunity. Her entire body of work features female protagonists who are unaware of their own strength, juxtaposed against a world that does not see them as heroic in any way. And through their obscurity, through the banal, the ugly, through self-reflection and tiny unseen actions, and through the subtle happenings of everyday life, they discover something that is perhaps far more valuable than heroism: self-worth.
This notion of self-discovery taking precedent over self-annihilation is at the heart of my quest to define a heroine’s journey. In Hour of the Star, Lispector writes, “Who hasn’t asked oneself, am I a monster or is this what it means to be human?”
The beast is a part of us, and our fear of it might be what drives us as a species to vilify and destroy nature. Is it possible that, by facing our fear of monstrosity, by embracing it within ourselves, we can arrive at a place of unity, rather than opposition to that which is wild, that which we cannot control or understand?
In the fourth installment of her published diary, Anais Nin discusses the problem of male-centered storytelling, and asserts that there is no such thing as objectivity. She writes, “[Man] thinks God did it all alone, and he thinks he did it all alone. And behind every achievement of man lies a woman, and I am sure God was helped too but never acknowledged it. . .It is man’s separateness, his so-called objectivity, which has made him lose contact, and then his reason.”
Nin felt that a more authentic story would have to embrace the inescapable interdependence of humanity. She speaks of objectivity as a fatal illusion, as as the driving force behind the oppression of women and also of nature. She believes that “man created art out of fear of exploring woman,” and that “woman stuttered about herself out of fear of what she had to say. She covered herself with taboos and veils.”
As she continues her treatise against man’s (and God’s) charade of objectivity, she connects it to the problem of vilifying nature and the unknown. She writes, “Man invented a woman to suit his needs. He disposed of her by identifying her with nature and then paraded his contemptuous domination of nature. But woman is not nature only. She is the mermaid with her fish-tail dipped in the unconscious. Her creation will be to make articulate this obscure world which dominates man, which he denies being dominated by, but which asserts its domination in destructive proofs of its presence, madness.”
At first, her perspective seems to scream of a dualistic attitude: men versus women. But to me, Nin’s primary message is that there is no such thing as a solo transformation. We simply cannot do it alone. We need help, partnership, community, therapy, love, support and feedback. We need nature and wilderness and mystery. And we need each other.
Again, this isn’t about a war between the sexes. There is a fine line between analyzing traditional masculine and feminine roles and characteristics, and generalizing opinions about men, women and genders between. I have been aware of this throughout this inquiry, and have attempted to focus on the former, rather than the latter. As I was finishing my research for this essay, I came upon an excellent book that supplied a missing link in this regard. The Female Hero in American and British Literature, by Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope, presents an in depth study of stories that rivals Campbell’s work, yet focuses on strong female protagonists. Pearson and Pope emphasize how the stereotypical hero archetype hurts the entire society by reinforcing a duality and separation between men and women. They criticize the literary paradigm that “the woman who elects a life of courage, strength and initiative on her own behalf is an exception, a deviant, and doomed to destruction.”(7)
But while this book examines the hero’s journey from a feminist perspective, it focuses on the importance of not making this a gender issue. They write, “The assumption that the male is subject and hero and the female is object and heroine injects patriarchal sex-role assumptions into the discussion of the archetypal hero’s journey; this confuses the issue and obscures the true archetypal elements of the pattern.” (4)
Pearson and Pope stress the importance of representing the heroism of not just women, but also others who have been historically marginalized because of race, class, etc. They write, “distinctions between male and female, mind and body, spirit and flesh, self and Other, are artificial dualities that distort her perceptions of the world.” and assert that, “as a result of her journey inward the hero overcomes alienation and rejoins herself with the world. This hard-won ability to celebrate the self and all experience — without escaping or repressing knowledge, pain, oppression, or evil — enables the hero to love, and find a community with other people.” (226)
Pearson and Pope also stress the importance of representing the heroism of marginalized people in mainstream literature, so that mainstream folk will be more able to believe that heroism is common and achievable in their own lives, and will see that a true hero “masters the world by understanding it, not by dominating, controlling, or owning the world or other people.” (5)
For me, the main point to consider here is whether the archetypal hero has marginalized the essential feminine nature in all of us, and whether the quest to slay the beast (repeated endlessly in stories since the beginning of time) has obscured the intrinsic living value of the monstrosity that exists in all of us. Again, the problem is with the dualistic thinking. When we accept that we cannot divorce ourselves, nor can we separate our connection to all of humanity and all of nature, we can embark on a different kind of quest, and we can do it together.
Before we move into my own formula for writing a heroine’s journey, I’d like to mention the concept of ecofeminism. Much of my life’s work has been as an eco-activist, and the community of women in which I worked strongly identified as ecofeminists. Since then, the study of ecofeminism — what it means, where it’s going, and who’s an authority on the topic — has expanded far beyond the scope of this essay, but I do feel it is important to bring some thoughts into the discussion because it connects directly to the problems with dualistic thinking presented above.
For now I will just say this: An ecology is an interdependent system, made up of species and habitats, edges and middles, peaks and valleys. In an ecology there is no such thing as complete equality, but rather a constant cycle of coexistent give and take, life and death, above and below. Each element, be it flora, fauna or feldspar, retains its individuality while remaining eternally connected to the whole. The patriarchal attitudes that have oppressed women throughout the ages have also oppressed nature. As a humanity, we tend to attempt to control that which is wild, that which we don’t understand. It could be a woman, it could be a wilderness, it could be a beast, or it could be that shadowy side of ourselves that society tells us must be kept hidden.
So how can our heroine portray the values of an ecofeminist? By integrating. And this integration comes through an escape from the duality. To me, this implies cultivating awareness and compassion, versus anger and vilification. It means finding context and intent through a balanced physical, mental and emotional interaction with our environment. It means letting the wilderness (and the beasts within it) be wild, uncontrolled, and misunderstood. And it means studying ourselves and our cultural and biological surroundings, and tuning into the constant changes within. Our heroine does not have to know the answers, she only has to embrace the questions.
At last, we arrive at the final threshold. There are a lot of ideas in this essay, and again my purpose is not to denigrate the value of traditional storycraft, but simply to present some thoughts and questions that can help to build a narrative pattern that embraces a feminist perspective. In the final act of Fear of Flying, Erica Jong writes, “Life has no plot. It is far more interesting than anything you can say about it because language, by its very nature, orders things and life really has no order. Even those writers who respect the beautiful anarchy of life and try to get it all into their books, wind up making it seem much more ordered than it ever was and do not, finally, tell the truth.”(184)
Alas, it is simultaneously wonderful and unfortunate that there will never be a single formula through which we can craft every story. On the best of days, all any writer can hope for is to get fresh words on the page. But for what it’s worth, here I present my own structural framework. This pattern has been influenced by the stories and sources in this essay as much as my lived experience, which has followed its own subversive path to bring me to this place, here and now.
Maureen Murdoch’s assertion that it is common for feminists to tell themselves that they need to eschew traditional feminine qualities, such as nurturing, emotions, and intuition, makes a lot of sense to me. I can see in my own life how much I built an illusion of success in a masculine context, and how that created an imbalance. Our heroine has done the same. She thinks she knows what she wants, and she thinks she has made choices based on free will. Perhaps she has eschewed love, marriage and family. Or maybe she has chosen a partner who only loves a certain side of her, and has obscured her deeper self, in fear of being abandoned. And so the heroine finds herself within the status quo of this illusion; perhaps she is successful on some levels, but she has become separated from herself, and something is clearly missing. This is the starting point for her journey and she experiences a physical and emotional awakening that makes her realize that the illusion is not real.
In Murdoch’s version of the journey, she discusses betrayal, and indeed this is a powerful force that could manifest in many ways. When the realization sets in that our heroine has been living an illusion, that she has been lying to herself, a string of reactions can occur. This could show up as physical and/or mental illness. Her body will surely respond to the deeper truth that her mind knows. Perhaps she betrays herself by sabotaging jobs, relationships and her personal health. Perhaps she takes irrational risks and has a traumatic accident. Maybe she has a baby she doesn’t really want, or goes to college to become an expert on something about which she isn’t passionate. Or maybe she does everything right, plays the good girl, and something else (a man, a friend, the universe) betrays her.
In all cases, this is a blessing in disguise. The betrayal is the catalyst that sets the journey in motion and forces her to step away from the illusion and onto a path towards truth. And that’s why I chose to call this stage Curiosity. Because sometimes what seems like a betrayal is really just a powerful, pressing question. Sometimes what seems like the worst thing that ever happened is really just a deep hunger for change, pushing itself to the surface. Curiosity, that driving force that ruined Pandora and set the whole of beautiful, sinful humanity in motion, is the greatest the instigator of discovery. And so it goes for our heroine. She feels betrayed, and that makes her curious. How will she survive without those old illusions? What does she need to learn? What is really worth doing, and why?
And so the trials begin. Our heroine hits the road and begins to define new ways of knowing herself and others. And it hurts. At this point the resistance sets in. She tells herself, “What was I thinking? I have to go back to that job/man/life. I was happy then. This is too hard. I don’t deserve this. I’m not capable of this. It’s not important.”
In his delightful book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield portrays resistance as the wickedest beast of all. He writes, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” (1) Pressfield defines resistance in a hundred different ways, articulating how clever we are at avoiding our real work in the world. We clean the house, we fall in love, we have children and travel and go to school. We get our hearts broken and get sick and fall apart. We live and live and live and so much of what we put onto our own plates is just resistance to what we really want to be doing. Pressfield writes, “Resistance feeds on fear. . .Fear that we will succeed. That we can access the powers we secretly know we possess. That we can become the person we sense in our hearts we truly are. . . because, if it’s true, then we become estranged from all we know. We pass through a membrane, we become monsters and monstrous.” (142)
And there it is again: monstrosity. And again I assert that coming to terms with this monstrosity, accepting that it is part of being human, part of our internal Ecology, is part and parcel to the path of a heroine.
Here the heroine begins to reverse the circumstances, on her own terms. She fights the beasts of resistance, taming them and turning them into her allies. She learns that you can’t go back, ever, and that her journey is important. Now she is ready to start acquiring skills that will help her succeed. She might feel angry and betrayed by having embraced so many masculine qualities, and might be tempted to eschew those, but she realizes that this, too, is just more resistance. This is the stage where our heroine must reconnect with her body, seek therapy and support, and find the strength to face her fears. Her goal is not just to survive, but to thrive.
In 2011, I went through an extended period of depression. In a terrifyingly rational pattern, I began to make plans for suicide. I sold all of my stuff, recorded my songs, finished the stories I had started writing. I wrote to my mentor, telling him how grateful I had been for his support over the years. He read between the lines and wrote back immediately, and I will never forget what he said. “Don’t let them win.” And I realized that suicide was just that. It is the ultimate form of resistance. And I chose to persevere.
This brings up an important point. When I was trying to figure out how to finish my novel, Naked Lady Soup, I was tempted to kill off my protagonist. When I ran the idea by a writing colleague, she exclaimed, “Why does she have to die? Can’t she just get laid and enjoy it? Can’t she just make mistakes and live through them?” In an interview about Fear of Flying, Jong addresses this, saying, “ I found myself fantasizing that Isadora’s answer to her dilemma would be suicide. I think I was influenced by the cultural archetype in which women die for sexual passion. But then I realized that I had to transform that archetype. I thought it was important to grant women the possibility of passion without draconian punishment.” (457)
Agreed. In the Female Hero, Pearson and Pope write, “the difference between the female and male heroic pattern usually results from the cultural assumption that strong women are deviant and should be punished.” (10) And so, let’s not punish our heroine, nor shall we have her punish herself. Let’s just challenge her and give the space to find and define success.
Now that our heroine has reached the top of the mountain, the time has come for her to deal with the pain of having arrived. She has made it this far, but she doesn’t know if she has the strength to make it back. She knows the trip home will present new beasts, new forms of resistance.The despair of having lost her old self makes her feel more vulnerable than ever, and her new self is still in its infancy. The time has come for her to engage in an intentional process of grief, moving through the stages of letting go. When you are grieving you are completely open to the universe. You feel you have nothing to lose. Our heroine must learn that there is beauty and power in vulnerability. She must grieve her childhood, her lost loves, and her betrayal of herself. She has gone through her life being tough on the outside and secretly soft on the inside, and now she must reverse that; she must become soft on the outside, willing to let the world in, and remain strong and secure on the inside. This is akin to the self-annihilation or the classic hero, but our heroine knows that what comes next is rebirth. And she knows that birth is painful, but she knows she will survive.
Now our heroine brings her treasure back home without any resentment for those who may not appreciate it. She presents herself without fear, or perhaps she feels fear, but she sees it now as a compass, and walks towards it. In yoga philosophy there is a saying “be grateful to everyone.” This means that even those who have betrayed us have been our teachers, and that, when we judge others as being unworthy of our gratitude, we lose our grasp on transformation. Connected to this stage of the journey is our heroine’s deep commitment to self-care. She is grateful for her experience and so she trusts it. She is grateful for her spirit and so she spares no expense in nurturing it. She is grateful for her body and so she cuts no corners in caring for it. She recognizes that her body is the primary tool with which she can forge her path, and takes ownership of it like never before. Now she might take renewed action in service to her family and community, not because that is the role that has been assigned to her, but because she sees the ways in which she is inextricably connected to them, and is grateful.
And finally, our heroine receives her grand reward: the freedom to choose for herself, and the ability to determine whether her choices are authentically her own. But this freedom presents a significant challenge: Can she retain her sovereignty without reverting to bitterness and anger at the oppressors of her past? Can she remain balanced and compassionate? Can she at last free herself of the victim role? In The Female Hero, Pearson and Pope discuss the power of freeing oneself from the victim mentality. They write, “When women discover that their femaleness is not a wound, the kingdom — or society — is miraculously transformed.” (14) Further, they make this important point: “a woman’s experience in a sexist society makes her less likely to envision heroism in traditional elitist terms. Unacknowledged as a cultural leader, she does not presume to kill dragons for others, [they are] actually and potentially her equals, and she encourages them to undertake their own journeys.” (15) Yes, there is such a thing as real victimization. Abusers abuse, and people suffer. But simply being born female is not a curse, and seeing it as such eliminates the potential for transformation.
And so, our heroine completes her journey without resentment, does not seek revenge. And she steers clear of the moral high ground, knowing that there is no such thing as becoming perfect. Like G.H., enlightened for the moment with the taste of the cockroach still in her mouth, our heroine knows that the next adventure will require a return to the beginning. There will be new illusions to dispel, new betrayals to reconcile, new beasts to embody. She can do it.
Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and non-Actors. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2. ed. Princeton (N. J.): Princeton University Press, 1968. Print.
Field, Syd. The Screenwriter’s Workbook. New York: Dell, 1984. Print.
Jong, Erica. Fear of Flying. 2nd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2008. Print. Jong, Erica. Here Comes and Other Poems. Signet/New American Library. New York, NY 1975. Print.
Kyle, Catherine Bailey. “Her Story, Too; Final Fantasy X, revolutionary Girl Utena, and the Feminist Hero’s Journey.” Chapter Ten of Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular Culture. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014. Print.
Murdoch, Maureen. The Heroine’s Journey, Woman’s Quest for Wholeness. Boston & London: Shambhala, 1990. Print.
Lex. The Heroine’s Journey; Why Campbell’s Model Doesn’t Fit. http://fangirlblog.com/2012/04/the-heroines-journey-how-campbells-model-doesnt-fit Web.
Lispector, Clarice. The Hour of the Star. Manchester: Carcanet, 1986. Print.
Lispector, Clarice, and Ronald W. Sousa. The Passion According to G.H. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. Print.
Pearson, Carol and Pope, Katherine. The Female Hero in American and British Literature. New York & London: R.R. Bowker and Company, 1981. Print.
Nin, Anais. The Diary of Anais Nin [vol. 4]: 1944–1947]. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. Print. Pressfield, Steven. The War of Art. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2002.
Print.Ross, Elisabeth, and David Kessler. On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five stages of Loss. New York: Scribner, 2005. Print.
Zuckerman, Albert. Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1994. Print.
Are you a smart, independent woman who wants to grow your own food, heal the Earth, and make a living as a freelance writer, artist, or ecopreneur?
Then you’re in luck, because that’s my jam!
What's a heroine's journey and why does it matter?
Looking for the writing I do about permaculture and gardening?
How to Write a Heroine's Journey
Free Intro Course!
Learn how to subvert patriarchy with your stories.
Free mini-course helps you learn how to mimic nature to be more resilient, more productive, and happier.
For anyone who wants to spend more time doing what you love and less time wondering where in the heck all the time went!
Combine permaculture principles with online market research to find the perfect, paying audience for your work.
This online course taught by 40 women from around the world will give you the classic 72-hour permaculture design certification PLUS an advanced certificate in Social Systems Design.
Psst! All writers need this information.
Me sing for you?
Check your inbox and see you soon.