The King (Stephen) and I

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It never occurred to me that I should compare my life to that of any of my contemporaries. Of course, like most people I’ve always kept a general awareness of what people my age are doing; but I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison of myself to anyone. The idea came to me while reading the first part of Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. Early in his book Mr. King mentions he was born in 1947, the same year I was born. As I read on I discovered he had childhood measles, which I had, as well as having to have his tonsils removed. Me too. At this point I decided it would be interesting to look more into the similarities and differences between the highly popular writer and myself. In particular I was looking for actions, events, and/or influences in our respective lives that likely factored into the different career paths we took. Since I’ve never met him I used only what he provides in his book.

As I read on, other things we had in common during childhood included liking science fiction and comic books. He mentions that the newest 1950s technology (black and white television) was late in coming to his family. It was late coming to mine as well. Perhaps the greatest similarity of all, however, was his early display of interest and talent in story writing, and my early display of interest and talent in comic book art.

Regarding my early interest in art, during the first four years of grade school I was the “go to” kid for doing art projects in my classes. I think this came about when in second grade I was so fascinated by a newspaper comic strip called Dondi that I drew three full-size panels of a similar character and showed them to my teacher. She was so impressed she mounted them on the bulletin board for the school to see. I had used India ink and artboard – all very professional looking. Then in third grade (or was it fourth) another teacher had me do all the artwork for a large paper mural that she put on the wall. My mother was so proud of me she came to school and took several 3.5×3.5 inch photos of the mural, which showed a mapping of national parks. The two photos she took are at the start of this post. I did the small drawings that are shown around the outside of the map boarder. I also added lines running from them to park locations on the map.

The significance of showing these photos of my mural artwork is not to impress anyone (not that they would). Rather, it offers some proof of my artistic bent at an early age. For example, the teacher did not ask for volunteers to do the drawings; she simply asked me to do them.

As it turns out, however, I was humbled by the accomplishment Stephen King recounts early in his book. He writes that he was ill much of his first-grade year; so much so that he missed much of school and was held back a year. While homebound much of that first year he mentions reading many comics and writing a few stories. Most notably, he describes putting together a 4-page story that he had laboriously hand printed for his mother to read. Wow! I can’t help but be impressed – I don’t remember much about my first grade but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have written even a 1-page story by the end of the school year. In those days first grade Dick and Jane books were very basic i.e. “see Spot run.” I have to believe this action was a pivotal time in the author’s life, signifying a deep interest and talent in story narrative.

I no longer feel dismayed about never having gone anywhere with my artistic talents. While I did enjoy drawing, I did not display a comparable level of natural aptitude for art that King did for story writing. He mentions that his mother was highly supportive of his talent, and I can say my mother was highly supportive of mine. In those days the attitude of most parents towards their children was, “children should be seen and not heard.”  Fortunately, some mothers back then understood more about nurturing young sons than about useless, archaic proverbs.

The Hero’s Journey Revisited

I recently attended a writers’ workshop where The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell was discussed. Campbell identified a pattern of events while researching stories and myths involving a person embarking on a journey. The general pattern can be illustrated by drawing a circle with a person starting (at home) at the top. Moving clockwise along and down the circle as time passes, events happen which result in the person beginning a journey. During the journey more events happen, including a number of challenges the traveler most overcome and fears he/she must conquer. During these events the traveler moves through the bottom of the circle and starts up the left side. Finally the traveler returns home (back to the top of the circle) and is a changed person. Not only is the traveler transformed, but he/she returns with what Campbell calls the elixir – meaning some sort of knowledge, or awareness, or potion that helps transform the world into a better place.

The movie The Wizard of Oz is a good illustration of Campbell’s pattern. In the movie Dorothy unwittingly takes a journey to Oz, a strange place with unusual characters who either want to help her or harm her. Dorothy wants to return home but discovers she must first accomplish several tasks. In the end, she successfully returns home with the realization, “There is no place like home.”

Most people wouldn’t necessarily call Dorothy a hero nor is her epiphany that there is no place like home all that enlightening for adults. Nonetheless, the movie shows how the pattern can be generalized in more than a few ways. There are some individuals who even suggest the pattern captures the meaning of life: that is, each of us embarks on a journey through life that hopefully results in new knowledge that helps human-kind.

Fiction writers have said that all they need for a story is for a stranger to come into town. When you think about it, this scenario is just a different slant on the journey pattern. It is the stranger who is the one on the journey.

The pattern can be generalized to include journeys that don’t involve physical movement. Any major life event can signify the start of a journey: high school graduation, getting married, joining the military, getting a college degree, getting a new job, joining a convent, having a baby, and getting divorced. Some of these activities involve physical travel, but the journey they represent is bigger than simply getting out of Dodge.

Two key aspects of this pattern are that the traveler: 1) confronts fears, and 2) undergoes change. The change can be anything from a transformation to an epiphany. Further, a journey (and a life) can be comprised of a series of smaller micro-journeys with each one beginning when an event occurs. Presumably, at least some of these events are prompted by decisions the traveler made based on what was learned in a prior micro-journey. The event can also be in the form of another person’s influence.

While Campbell’s findings were based on studies of stories and myths, I think their application to real life is undeniable. This suggests that the stories and myths themselves contain insights into the human condition.

Anyone thirty or older can point to events and/or decisions they’ve made that have had a major impact on their lives. In my case, the first big life-altering event that occurred to me after high school graduation was receiving a draft notice from Uncle Sam. It prompted my enlistment in the Air Force, from which I received an honorable discharge four years later. My transformation from this micro-journey included not only much-needed maturity but also being able to afford a college education.

Do each of life’s micro-journeys take us from a place of stress and put us in a better place? For the most part I think they do. Of course, much depends on the makeup of the person/traveler. If it didn’t, why would anyone care about the story?