I’m just a writer, trying to undo the 9-to-5 rhythms that tethered my body and mind to desk and duty for years. Most of us can recognize the “career path” or “job market.” We make it ordinary by showing up every day with our rituals of Starbucks or bagels in the break room.
We taxi kids throughout each grade as if they are in prep-school for the ordinary world.
And one day I walked away. I resigned the position I loved, but one that had fatigued time from my bones and imagination from my days. Under ordinary circumstances, though, I would have stayed employed forever. I would have sprinkled my suburban yard with sun-gold tomato seeds and left wild places for weeds to harbor bees and butterflies; I would have barbequed brats and swilled canned beer with my neighbor. And called it good…enough…
But I walked away from that. Not kicking and screaming, or trumpeting and heralding, but with sadness and fear. Like a hero, I didn’t answer some call to be a writer. Oh, I wanted to; I longed for it; dreamed of it enough to take annual pilgrimages to writing retreats or conferences. I joined a terrific writers group. I bought books on the craft and I dutifully paid monthly on the student loans that earned me the writing degree that allowed me to work in marketing and management and business communications.
Stories skimmed the surface. They bubbled from time to time, breaking the waters like a turtle searching for a place to bask. I wrote a few starts; a few shorts. I taught my team to write cinquains and I loved the months that it was my turn to lead the writers group in Saturday morning prompts.
I had money, support, stories still in my blood. Why walk away from the ordinary world? After all, it was quite comfortable.
Ah, comfort. The comfort zone. Who wants to enter the abyss or cave–otherwise known as the “supreme ordeal.” Are you kidding me? Ordeal? Let’s not.
And truly that is insight to the not-yet-a-hero character. The ordinary world defines her–or his–comfort zone.
Consider the opening to the epic series, “Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan. The first chapter is about an ordinary world, despite the its opening line, “The Wheel of Time turns, and the Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.” We know it’s going to be an epic, but first we must see how ordinary the one-day-hero is. We see him in a thin cloak with wind gusting at his back; a sheep-herder’s son on the a walk into a very ordinary town. He’s just a common boy, nothing more.
Recently, I watched two movies that are classic hero’s journeys: “Gravity,” and “Captain Phillips.” The first opens up with Sandra Bullock’s character performing an ordinary service, albeit in an extraordinary setting. But she firmly focuses on staying in her comfort zone; she’s just doing a job. She’s an ordinary astronaut, not a maverick. In the second movie, we see Tom Hanks’ character preparing to go to work as a sea-faring cargo captain. He’s talking with his wife, discussing job opportunities for their kids, driving to the airport. He’s just an ordinary guy with a job.
The comfort zone of the ordinary world is what brings magic to the writing of a hero’s journey. Bad things start to happen, mentors show up to help, but we struggle to stay comfortable. Without that ordinary world perspective, we would not understand how transformative the hero’s journey is.
If the hero jumped right into being heroic, there isn’t the growth of tension or the deliverance of the elixir in the end. If we charge out on a white horse and win all the battles, our stories become predictable and ho-hum. But we can each understand what it is to struggle to stay comfortable and ordinary; we can hold our breath as trials and tribulations begin to mount; we can cheer the common sheepherder who emerges the Dragon Reborn.
If I hadn’t had a series of unfortunate events push me from suburban home and secure career, I wouldn’t fully comprehend how incredible it is that I can walk outside my door and see elk romping past in a gang. Then I can fix my coffee, write my words and share stories. It’s become my elixir. It’s not safe–I barely make enough money to get by; I rent this lovely home but it’s not mine; no one promises to publish what I write.
It’s no longer an ordinary world. So consider that when you think you have to open your novel with 100% thrill and action. Set the ordinary first.
And I’d love to hear from any writers about how they have done that! How do you set the ordinary world while hooking the reader into an extraordinary journey?