Star Wars Origins - Storytelling Lessons
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This article is also available in Lithuanian, published in Literatura ir mena arts magazine, translation by Lukas Devita



Here is a summary of what I've learned about mythic storytelling from studying Star Wars and the process Lucas went through to create it. Everything derives from the two most important lessons: work as hard as you can and quiet your ego.

1. Great art is the result of hard work over a long period of time. That sounds obvious, but nearly all television programs, movies and magazines give the impression that the people who shape the world do so almost effortlessly, and were just born lucky. This is actually A BIG LIE. As you get older, things like "talent" and good looks matter less and less, and life comes down to what you can do with your hands, how well you can figure things out, and how well you get along with other people. The people who shape the world are the ones who work the hardest, and they always seem to draw their strength from faith. "I can make the world a little better." And you can.

Joseph Campbell's most famous catchphrase was "Follow your bliss." He meant that the best way for you to become a hero and help your community is to learn to listen to the voice in your heart. That doesn't mean you should be selfish, or put yourself above other people. The heroic act involves sacrificing a piece of yourself (your self-importance) and learning to see the divine in all things. When you serve the divine and see the divine everywhere, you become the servant of the whole world.

If you want to craft a powerful story, if you want to contribute to the world in any significant way, figure out what your gift is, what you believe in, what you love, and surrender to it. You'll also need a day job.

Okay, so just how much work does it take to write a great story?

Star Wars (first movie): about 4.5 years
Dune (first book): about 7.5 years
Harry Potter (first book): 5 years
The Lord of the Rings: about 11 years directly, 32 years from first middle-earth writings

The value of anything is directly proportional to the amount of work you put into it.

2. Quiet your ego. In his 1947 essay "Why I Write" George Orwell listed four "great motives for writing": sheer egoism, appreciation of beauty, desire to understand how the world works, and to expand people's ideas about how we might get along better. He defines sheer egoism as:

Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen -- in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.

Orwell goes on to say, "And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane." We've all read books in which the hero, a taller, slimmer, better-looking version of the author, abruptly makes a long speech explaining that his opinions are great, while his rival's opinions are poop. That's not writing - it's wanking.

We all want to be well-liked, to be financially comfortable. We all feel an animal impulse to outfight or at least outargue people who diminish us. The trick I think is to keep a steady eye on these animal desires, and let them fuel our storytelling without dominating it. Every selfish little pettiness, every hatred, every revenge-fantasy, must be meticulously identified and discarded. To the beginning writer this feels like the obliteration of self, but as you gather a feel for the process you realize that the piece of "self" you're scraping away is really the demons that haunt you, harmful ideas that survive by whispering in your ear that to discard them is to discard your essence. Writing is like parenting: you need to learn the names of your demons if you want to avoid passing them on to your children.

Ironically, the more we "efface our personality" from our writing, the more our truest, deepest, best self comes through. This process is essential to fulfilling the social role of the storyteller, which might be described as tickling people's capacity to feel a sense of communion with the transcendent. When the storyteller gets it just right she helps people understand how to tap that inner potential themselves, later when they're facing difficult life-choices in the real world. "What would Jesus do?" We know because the Gospels - written long after Jesus passed away - gives us hints.

3. Don't be afraid to borrow from your favorite books, movies, myths and world history, but never copy anything exactly. As far as I can tell after years of considering the question, there seem to be only two basic ways to borrow from art without stealing: the reversal (C3PO looks like the Maria robot from the Metropolis movie, but male instead of female), and the combination of two or more good ideas (R2D2 looks similar to a drone from the film Silent Running and behaves like one of the bickering peasants from the film The Hidden Fortress).

Writer's Exercise: Write down your favorite idea from a movie or book you love. Strip out the specific character names and images used to convey that idea, until you're left with the essential element behind it. Now recast that essential element in a new way that fits into your story. Congratulations! You've just learned how to draw storytelling power from your favorite stories without ripping them off! (Now do it again a gabillion times.)

Studying Lucas, Tolkien, and Frank Herbert revealed a curious little rule-of-thumb: if there's a story which you really love but there's some little piece of it which just doesn't feel right to you, include that piece in your own story as a reversal. Why? If you're a writer, your mentors are the people who wrote your favorite stories, and myth teaches us that the student's heroic cycle doesn't end with merely absorbing the mentor's wisdom; to fully honor your teacher, you must transcend him by taking his teachings further than he could. This doesn't mean that you become superior to your teacher: there are plenty of things which you couldn't have seen without his help. The hierarchy between student and mentor is an illusion; it's more like a partnership between two people with different strengths and imperfections, both working towards a common goal. Obi-Wan couldn't have defeated Darth Vader, but neither could Luke have defeated Darth Vader without Obi-Wan's guidance. Your teacher gives you the gift of his teaching, and you give your teacher the gift of bringing his teaching forward.

For instance, in The Lord of the Rings there were nine kings who didn't understand that acquiring power for it's own sake leads to evil, so their lust for power ultimately transformed them into the Ringwraiths. I suspect that they were a reversal of the twelve kings from Le Morte D'Arthur (who also ride horses, carry swords and hide their crowns under dark cloaks). I get the impression that Tolkien considered King Arthur's story extremely powerful, but felt uneasy about how unhesitatingly Arthur and his friends would kill anyone who got in the way of their acquisition of power. These kings felt their acts were justified because they were absolutely certain that they were right (cuz they were Christians and the other guys were pagans). Tolkien consistently makes the point that everyone thinks they're the good guy, and all evil comes from the moment when we're so sure we're right that we're willing to limit, hurt or kill other people.

4. Some of the ideas in your story should seem original to your audience. But isn't "originality" the magical, divinely-inspired gift to create ideas out of nothing? No, that idea is nothing but a misunderstanding of how creativity works. All ideas come from somewhere! A story will feel original to your audience if you expose them to story ideas which are (a) mythically valid, and (b) the audience has never heard before. Lucas once described the storyteller's job as "telling the old stories in a new way." Here are some ideas about how to do that:
  • Borrow the best stories from other cultures, and retell them using the vocabulary of your own culture. The Lord of the Rings is practically a retelling of Norse mythology. Star Wars borrows heavily from Japanese culture, in particular tales of the Samurai. Give yourself a broad overview of several cultures so you understand cultural differences, but for maximum cohesiveness you might find it easiest to draw your raw material mostly from a single culture. The most powerful untapped source of myth is the stories which have survived for thousands of years but have not yet been translated into English. For instance, The Shahnameh ("The Book of Kings") was written 1,000 years ago and quickly became the national epic of Persia (modern Iran). Hakim Abol-Ghasem Ferdowsi Toosi (940-1020 CE) worked for thirty years to craft his masterpiece, just about the same amount of time Tolkien worked on The Lord of the Rings. Translations into English have been mostly too academic and dry to read for enjoyment, or merely excerpts, or a bit expensive (as in "costing more than a thousand dollars"). The first full-length, entertaining, accessible English translation just came out in 1998. I haven't read it yet, but I'd bet a gazillion dollars it's chock full of fantastic story ideas which will finally begin to really percolate into our culture. Cuz that's how this stuff works.

  • Find stories which were once immensely popular in our own culture, but are no longer well-known. Usually some element in the story fell out of political favor, but the massively appealing aspect is still hidden inside. All you have to do to recapture all that immense story power is retell the story without the negative element. For instance, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind is arguably the greatest and most popular love story of all time, selling over 28 million copies since its first publication in 1936 and practically creating the "romance novel" genre. But these days it's downplayed because people are uncomfortable about the way African American slaves were treated and depicted. Lucas used the movie version as one of the sources for the love story between Han and Leia, taking advantage of Mitchell's brilliant storytelling while removing the obstacle to people's enjoyment.

  • Pay attention to your dreams and the delusions of schizophrenics. Of course no one knows for sure, but many anthropologists believe that humanity's first myths and religions originated from these two sources. Certainly an amazing amount of science fiction began as the fictionalization of visions of people who were arguably delusional schizophrenics. For instance, much of America's ideas about what extra-terrestrials are like originally came from the letters of a mentally ill man named Raymond A. Palmer, which were first published in Amazing Stories in 1946. Dinotopia, Disney's Atlantis movie, Nadia, Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books, the religion of Scientology and the New Age movement are all heavily based on the writings of a few brilliant psychics from the 19th century: Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) and Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).

  • Borrow from other genres. This is particularly important if you write science fiction, since your audience is probably familiar with all your favorite stuff and will groan in recognition at every idea you quote from Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, The Matrix, Terminator, Blade Runner, Forbidden Planet, 2001, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Of course the most obvious genres to borrow from are adventure genres such as Fantasy and the Western, but be careful about borrowing "too close to home." The more distant the genre you borrow from, the more original the idea will seem to your audience. As a general rule-of-thumb, borrow a minimum of 50% of your story ideas from genres other than the one you're writing in.

  • Borrow from other fields. Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976, German physicist best-known for his quantum Uncertainty Principle) said "...in the history of human thinking the most fruitful developments frequently take place at those points where two different lines of thought meet." The easiest way to borrow from another field is to find a way to import wisdom from a job or hobby you already have. What did you learn from stamp collecting, waitressing or your punk music collection that you didn't know before, and how can you express that idea in a story?

  • Keep looking deeper. Comic book guru Alan Moore explained creativity as "looking at something as a series of knobs, and twisting a few of the knobs a few inches. I think the influential stuff twists a knob so deep no one's ever thought to twist it before." So let's say you're beginning to see the common underlying structure of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and Gilgamesh. People also like art that evokes a mood rather than telling a story, like the music of Bach, or an abstract painting by Jackson Pollock. What's the underlying commonality between Star Wars and the paintings of Jackson Pollock? Or Gilgamesh and... a day at the beach? If there's not an underlying commonality, how can you create a single work of art which gives you the same feelings you get from both influences? If there is an underlying commonality, how can you create a new thing with the same underlying commonality?

  • Understand your personal myth. Whether you do it consciously or not, ultimately you draw all the mythic energy in your story from your own life: the hero's relationship with his parents will reflect some aspect of your own relationship with your parents. Your shadow-character will embody your greatest fear. Blockages you have resolving a story-character reflect blockages you have dealing with their archetypal source in your own life. Solve the problem either in your story or your life and the resolution will spill over into the other world.
5. Some of the ideas in your story should feel familiar. The Jedi Knights are basically a combination of the familiar Arthurian Knights with the exotic Samurai (plus a spoonful of Knights Templar). Han Solo is a blockade runner like Rhett Butler, but also a cowboy. People are comforted by the familiar, but they're also bored, so the more recognizable your source the more important it is to use Combinations and Reversals. Quoting older stories and ideas fulfills one of the most important functions of myth, giving your audience a sense of their place in history by honoring those who came before us.

Be careful to avoid confusing allegory for myth. An allegory is an intentionally-obvious retelling of a story everyone knows, such as Adam and Eve, or a "story" from history, like Russian communism. This is not to say that there's anything inferior about allegory; it's a powerful tool for making political and social points, like George Orwell's brilliant Animal Farm. Just remember that allegory is really a form of logical argument, not a myth. If there's only one possibly interpretation of your story, it's an allegory.

I think of new ideas expressed well as "art," old ideas expressed well as "craft". Excellent craft and very little art creates tales like Disney's The Lion King, which are reassuring and give us a common cultural identity without trying to say anything new. Stories overstuffed with art but not much craft include works like E.E. Doc Smith's The Skylark of Space, which is full of great ideas but is probably too amateurishly-written and "out there" to reach a modern mainstream audience. The most enduring and influential works, like The Odyssey, Le Morte D'Arthur, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars always excel at both art and craft. A word of advice to young writers deciding whether to focus on art or craft: are you an alumnus of an ivy-league school or otherwise politically connected? In competitions between two works of craft the one with the larger budget has a huge advantage; money can buy high production values, but not inspiration.

6. Mythic structure is a helpful roadmap for telling a story. Joseph Campbell first proposed this idea in his famous book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Christopher Vogler simplified Campbell's ideas for scriptwriters in his hugely influential memo to Disney executives A Practical Guide to The Hero With a Thousand Faces (which hugely influenced The Lion King). He later expanded his original memo into a book called The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Vogler's interpretation of Campbell's work has created the dominant vocabulary for analyzing scripts at all major American film studios. His book really is excellent, but be careful about falling into the typical Hollywood misassumption that following "the formula" will automatically give you a good story. The studios have broken Campbell and Vogler down even further, creating a rigid, elaborate set of rules like "The Hero must show vulnerability by page so-and-so." If this were really a magical success formula, every movie would be a hit. Mythic structure is just another basic tool, like grammar or spelling. Stories become more understandable when they follow the mythic roadmap, but they only become art when they follow the mythmap in a way the audience didn't expect.

Don't forget that Campbell described only the most typical structure, not the only structure or even the best. If Lucas slavishly followed Campbell's book point-for-point, Luke would have found the "treasure" (the Deathstar plans) in the "Belly of the Whale" (the trash compactor). Would that have made Star Wars a better story? If R2-D2 didn't carry the plans right from the beginning, how would the plot have even worked? Slavishly following the Campbell formula almost guarantees a weak story. Every storyteller must find the correct point-of-balance between following the formula, which helps people understand what's going on even within fantastical metaphors (like Star Wars), and tinkering with the formula, which enables storytellers to communicate using even the most mundane metaphors (like Ordinary People). Either way communication happens through the interaction of archetypes, but again you must exercise delicacy: The most influential stories all present the standard archetypes in ways which surprise you, and the way you're surprised is usually somehow a reflection of the story's theme.

7. 90% of your job is to entertain. Often writers will complain that "people are too dumb and unwilling to be challenged, or my work would be more popular!" I think this is a fib we tell ourselves when we feel inadequate. If you want to be a storyteller, that means it's your job to communicate with the audience, not the other way around. The "channel of communication" with an audience is the degree to which you entertain them. Entertaining someone demonstrates that you understand them and care about how they feel, and they'll reward you by opening up to your story.

The essential element which make a story entertaining is elusive, but here's the closest I've come to describing it: People are most entertained by stories which vicariously fulfill their fantasies. The world's most ancient stories are all about gods, the chosen of the gods, or superhumans who are half-divine because one of their parents is a god. In the modern world the most popular stories seem to be those which provide a kind of wish-fulfillment no one's even imagined before. For instance, Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter was three times as strong as any other guy on a planet full of beautiful, naked, forever-youthful women who really went for strong guys. E.E. "Doc" Smith invented what was arguably the first galactic empire just so his character could be the most important person not only on the Earth, but in the entire galaxy (an idea so good it was repeated in both Dune and Star Wars). Frodo is The Ringbearer, the only person who can save the world, which is doubly heroic because he's also Nobody Special. Harry Potter is a wizard by birth, the son of wizards who loved him so much they were willing to sacrifice their lives for him, rich, gets to go to a special school for special kids like him, and will no doubt prove to be the best kisser at Hogwarts. This list could go on forever, but the point is that the myths which endure play out a previously-unimagined fantasy entwined with the story of a hero coming into accord with the divine.

While studying all these old stories and how they developed I discovered to my surprise that there's a sort of "predisposition towards divinity" in the way people enjoy stories That is, even stories which begin as straight-up power fantasies are told and retold until the power fantasy aspect eventually becomes a metaphor for the spiritual power of living in accord with the divine. I believe that one of the basic human desires is that our behavior merits the approval of God (or The Light Side of the Force, The Tao, Nature, Morality, Atman, Prana, "the right thing to do" or however you think of stuff outside yourself that deserves reverence). I'm no psychologist, but this feeling of wanting the universe to be proud of us seems to me like an extension of the impulse of wanting our parents to be proud of us.

The limitation to delivering wish-fulfillment is that a story can't feel "fake." In other words the story can't violate myth by presenting an archetypal transformation which the audience knows could never happen in real life. For example: If the girl thinks the hero is a selfish jerk she can't suddenly love him in the end unless he's done something in the middle to prove he cares about other people. If you break this rule your audience may still enjoy parts of your story, but you will forgo the possibility of reaching them on a deep level.

8. A story is a big metaphor made up of lots of little metaphors. So if you want to be a storyteller, study metaphors! A good metaphor has at least two layers, and the topmost layer is always easy-to-understand. Enduring metaphors possess beauty. Those with the greatest ability to communicate are always open-ended, meaning they suggest two or more possible interpretations without contradicting either. Open-ended metaphors show respect for your audience, creating a conversation with them rather than attempting to dominate them. If you wish to tell people what to think, nonfiction is a more appropriate and effective form. A final elusive point: The more your metaphor represents aspects of the divine the more open it has to be to work.

9. Make stuff up. Have you ever noticed that the really great stories tend to feel imaginative, while the mediocre stories tend to feel derivative? Artists have observed this connection between imagination, love, compassion and the sense of communion with the transcendent for thousands of years: Percy Shelley said "The great instrument of moral good is the imagination." W. H. Auden wrote "Evil, that is, has every advantage but one - it is inferior in imagination." William Shakespeare said, "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact." Ursula Le Guin wrote "As great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope." Why do so many influential artists draw such similar conclusions? In the last few years neuroscientists have begun imaging the brains of people who are experiencing spiritual ecstasy or nirvana, and they've found that these states correspond with increased activity in the right frontal lobe of the brain, the same part which seems to be responsible for imagination and empathy (our ability to imagine how other people are feeling). The sensation of oneness with god/divine energy/humanity seems connected to decreased activity in the parietal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for our sense of separateness from other people and the world.

Imagine if you were going to enter a boxing match and you could choose either Stephen Hawking or Arnold Schwarzenegger as your partner. You'd probably choose Arnold, because his physique is better-suited to boxing. Even if you had been raised by wolves and didn't know the words "boxing" or "muscle" you'd pick Arnold, because that kind of awareness is nonverbal. You might think of the right frontal lobe as a kind of muscle, which master storytellers like Lucas and Tolkien learn to condition over many years just like bodybuilders. I believe that we're born with an instinctive, nonverbal recognition of good stories, a sensation intimately connected to the storyteller's display of imaginative power: this story is wonderfully imaginative, so it might have something to teach me. Arnold's powerful physique suggests that he'd be a good boxer. Lucas and Tolkien's powerful imaginations suggest compassion and the ability to achieve communion with the transcendent, two of the most important qualities children need from stories.

Extremely Important Note: Some scientists say that if a certain part of our brain shows more activity when we think about God, that proves that God doesn't exist. Is this claim true? No, logic cannot prove a negative. Claiming to prove a negative is an example of the Argumentum Ad Ignorantiam (or "appeal to ignorance") fallacy, which means that it violates logic. Maybe the right frontal and parietal lobes are merely the parts of the brain which think about God, just like the left hemisphere of the neocortex is the part which thinks about writing your name in crayon. Neuroscience cannot prove or disprove the existence of God anymore than it can disprove the existence of crayons.

10. Tell the truth. The more fanciful the "facts" of your imaginary world, the more important it is that your depiction of emotional and mythic relationships and transformations be true to how these things work in real life. Truth is the tool for shaping your imagination into a form that will benefit and communicate with other people. Ursula Le Guin expressed the importance of telling the truth magnificently in her micro-essay A Few Words to a Young Writer:
Socrates said, "The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." He wasn't talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth.

A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.
11. Emphasize the positive. As the old saying goes, "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar." George Lucas began his film career with THX 1138 (1971), a science fiction movie which dramatized that "Surrendering to The Machine is bad." It attracted some complimentary reviews, but audiences mostly found it depressing and the studio considered it a flop. 1977's Star Wars conveyed almost the same message as THX, but this time Lucas had learned to emphasize the positive instead of the negative: "Transcending The Machine is good."

12. Cut 80% of everything you write. It's easy to read a great book or watch a great movie and think "this artist has better ideas than me, so I might as well give up!" But it's truer to say that the great artists have just worked harder than you have... yet. Everyone can generate ideas just off the top of their head, and some ideas are always better than others. The trick is to come up with many more ideas than you need for a project - let's say 5 times as many ideas as you'll need. Then all you have to do is cut everything but the best 20%, and voila! Your finished work will be 5 times better than it would have been otherwise. George Lucas wrote a treatment and 4 full drafts of the script for Star Wars; A New Hope over several years, cutting, cutting, cutting all but the very best ideas, infusing his final script with enormous story power. The first draft of any project tends to be little more than a subconscious imitation of the books, movies and television programs the author has recently experienced, and the point of writing a first draft is mostly to remove all this "clutter" from your mind so you can reach past the clutter into your own imagination. If you want to write a boring, derivative 200-page novel, write 200 pages. If you want to write a brilliant 200-page novel, write 1,000 pages and cut the least-interesting 800 pages.

13. Make your fantastic world feel real by focusing on the least fantastic elements. Show things that are broken and dirty. Show people doing mundane things. Refer to people and events that happen offscreen. Teach your audience the special rules of your world and then be faithful to those rules. H.G. Wells described it this way: "In all this type of story the living interest lies in their non-fantastic elements and not in the invention itself. They are appeals for human sympathy quite as much as any "sympathetic" novel, and the fantastic element, the strange property or the strange world, is used only to throw up and intensify our natural reactions of wonder, fear or perplexity. The invention is nothing in itself and when this kind of thing is attempted by clumsy writers who do not understand this elementary principle nothing could be conceived more silly and extravagant."

14. Make the most important things in your story characters. A character is someone or something that: (a) the audience can empathize with, (b) has a goal that relates to the main plot, and (c) the audience believes might not achieve the goal. When the Millennium Falcon just barely starts in time to escape Darth Vader, it becomes a character. If you want the audience to sympathize with a character, give that character their own heroic cycle, or even a scaled-down version. R2-D2, Darth Vader and Boba Fett all pass through nearly-complete heroic cycles.

15. Overcome the temptation to show off how clever and educated you are. Express your skill by telling a great story, not by drawing attention to the writing.

16. Write from the heart, not the head. Do all these "rules" sound depressingly formulaic? A ballerina uses her mind to condition her body, but when the time comes to dance her mind must relinquish control. Cartoonist Gary Trudeau explained it like this: "Plan methodically, execute organically." It's the same with writing: Art created by formula, art created by the conscious mind, is poop. But art without skill isn't so great either. We learn "the rules" of story the same way Bruce Lee learned "the rules" of martial arts, relentlessly training until they become muscle memory. But when it came time to spar, Bruce Lee didn't think "I shall use White Crane style now." He just moved.

They say you must learn the rules before you can break them. Why? Because breaking a rule without understanding it is a temper tantrum. Breaking a rule because you understand it backwards and forwards and see a better way to meet the rule's inner goal will give your story real power and value. Weak art breaks the rules, mediocre art follows the rules, great art expands the rules by transcending them. You must pass through to pass beyond.

17. Don't be afraid of your idiosyncrasies. What makes you different makes you special, and including that difference in your writing will make your story fresh.

Apparently there's science fiction other than Star Wars

Further Reading on the Craft of Storytelling
Okay, so you've decided that you want to get serious about learning the craft of storytelling. Maybe you've even set your sights on creating an epic myth, in the tradition of Star Wars, Dune, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, or even The Odyssey or Gilgamesh. Now what? Part of your motivation involves personal goals, like proving your value to yourself and the world, or earning a living doing something you care about. Those are valid goals! Part of your motivation involves more communal goals, like finding the most productive way for you to give back to the world, or to create a story that nourishes young people the way your favorite stories nourished you. How do you entwine those goals together, to create a synergy between your animal and spiritual/artistic impulses? How do you create a story which heals those pieces of you which aren't yet as healthy as they might be, then share that recipe for self-healing with the world?

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) observed that virtually all "precivilized" tribal people have a witch-doctor, or shaman, who functions as the intermediary between the known and the unknown (especially the divine). We modern "civilized" people like to flatter ourselves by imagining that we have outgrown the primitive need for a shaman, but Campbell argues that the reverse is true, that the "shamanic function" has vastly proliferated, splintering into two main groups: the scientist/engineer deals with the "logos," or rational use of symbols, while priests and artists deal with the "mythos," or intuitive/divine use of symbols. Homer, Thomas Edison, Isadora Duncan, Albert Einstein and George Lucas can all be understood in the context of serving the shamanic function in society - providing useful new patterns for our relationship with each other and the world.

For scientist- and engineer-shaman, the path to gaining shamanic strength is fairly well-defined: both scientists and engineers ground themselves in logic, which is the basic set of rules that governs the physical universe (like 1 apple + 1 apple = 2 apples). People learn logic mostly by solving logical problems, typically using math, syllogisms or computer programming. Every technological innovation in the world is created using a combination of logic and the scientific method, which is really just a systematic way of testing educated guesses to discover if they work or not in reality. But what about us aspiring storyteller-shaman? We typically learn our craft primarily by intuition, starting out by imitating our favorite stories, then slowly venturing into increasingly original territory as we gain a feel for what makes stories entertaining and valuable. But what if we want to draw on more than just intuition, and approach our craft with the same methodic rigour scientists and engineers find so empowering? Where would we begin?

Because he spent his life identifying the root patterns followed by storyteller-shaman, Campbell sometimes referred to himself a "shaman of shaman," which might be abbreviated as "metashaman." Three of the most significant metashaman of the past several hundred years were Max Müller (1823-1900), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Jung (1875-1961). Müller practically invented both comparative linguistics and comparative mythology, providing the first rough "map" of mankind's relationship with divinity and divine symbols which derived from the scientific method applied to several belief systems (before Müller mankind's ideas of the divine were almost always discovered through what might be called "divine intuition" within a single religious tradition). Freud coined the modern use of the word "unconscious," meaning the part of our mind which makes decisions beyond our conscious control; this gave us our first scientific vocabulary for the "territory" inside us where the motifs used by both dreams and mythic stories operate. Jung was the first to organize these motifs into useful categories, such as "shadow" (the embodiment of all our fears) and "anima" (the archetypal feminine). Joseph Campbell extended Jung's idea of the archetype by using them to map the basic pattern of all stories, the monomyth, and also the common element behind all religions and spiritual ideas, which he named the transcendent.

If we aspiring storytellers are one modern form of the tribal shaman, then one way to approach our task is to educate ourselves toward a solid understanding of shamanism and the shamanic role in society. What exactly makes a gifted shaman so valuable to other people? What does it take to become a shaman? The two strongest sources of this "metashamanic" information might be (1) serious anthropological overviews of shamanism and (2) nonfiction essays by the most powerful modern shaman explaining their methods and goals. Both Jung and Campbell were set on the "shamanic path" by asking themselves the same question: "By what myth do I live?" Here are some powerful starting places for asking yourself the same question:
  • Poetics by Aristotle (383-322 BC) might be the oldest "metashamanic" work, an attempt to systematically explain and categorize various forms of fiction. Poetics didn't make a big splash when it was first released, but has since become a classic and staple of literary theory. Aristotle apparently coined the term catharsis, which literally means "to cleanse" but in context refers to the emotional cleansing we experience while vicariously experiencing horrible or forbidden things.

  • "Politics and the English Language" (1946) by George Orwell (1903-1950) is a concentrated burst of mentoring on how to use language with power and honesty.

  • Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee is one of the best no-nonsense books describing the basic building blocks and mechanics of stories.

  • Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) is short, entertaining, and essential. Campbell is one of the most powerful "metashaman" of all time, and all his books are worth reading. He's even more engaging in video than print, so you might start with his videotapes, particularly The Power of Myth, available at many libraries. Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers does more than simplify Campbell's book for screenwriters; he also makes well-reasoned criticisms and suggests improvements to the monomyth pattern.

  • The Portable Jung, edited by Joseph Campbell, is among the best starting places on Jung. Jung himself summarized his ideas for non-psychologists in the book Man and His Symbols (1961). It's important to understand the basics of Freud, but he's terribly long-winded, so you might start with a summary of his main ideas written by someone else. Also helpful is Freud's essay "An Autobiographical Study" (1924), which he wrote towards the end of his life as a summary of his goals, methods and discoveries (available in The Freud Reader).

  • A huge number of books on shamanism are available, but unfortunately most of them tend to be so fluffy, or contain so much wishful thinking and misinformation, that they aren't of much practical use. The two most well-known, exhaustive and helpful meat-and-potatoes anthropological overviews of shamanism are probably The Golden Bough (1922) by Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) and Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964, originally published as Le Chamanisme, 1951) by Mircea Eliade (1907-1986).

  • As I understand the craft of storyteller-shamanism (distinct from metashaman like Jung and Campbell), Tolkien is the most powerful shaman of the past 100+ years. The closest he ever came to explaining what he was up to is his essay "On Fairy-Stories" (1938).

  • The Essential Max Müller; On Language, Mythology, and Religion (2002), edited by Jon R. Stone, may be the best starting place on Müller. While honoring Müller and presenting some of his strongest work, the introduction also acknowledges Müller's flaws and the inevitable partial out-dating of any pioneering work into a new field. Müller is also placed in the correct historical context, helping us understand how revolutionary his idea of "comparative mythology" was when it swept Europe in the late 19th century.

  • King Solomon's Mines (1885) and She (1886), both by H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925), were a powerful direct influence on The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Anne Rice's vampire books, Jung's theory of the anima, H.P. Lovecraft (particularly "The Call of Cthulhu," 1926), Edgar Rice Burroughs (John Carter of Mars and Tarzan), Robert E. Howard (Conan) and countless others. These books launched the "lost race" genre, a strong common parent of both science fiction and modern fantasy. Indiana Jones is based primarily on stories which were based primarily on Haggard's Allan Quatermain character. No matter which modern wonder stories or adventure stories you enjoy, they almost certainly have roots tracing back to Haggard.

  • Always be reading. Try spending a minimum of 200% as much time reading as watching TV and films combined. Read at least 50% outside your favorite genres, and at least 30% of your reading should ideally be books from outside your immediate culture (that means books originally written in modern non-English-speaking cultures, books written 100 or more years ago, or both). When a story grips you strongly, make a practice of tracing that story's sources: read interviews with the author, biographies and literate criticism. Try and build an intuitive feel for the creative methods of your favorite artists.

  • Figure out what you love (by trying a lot of things), and become an expert at it. Give special consideration to learning a musical instrument. Poets have been around for longer than recorded history, but up until just a few hundred years ago calling someone a "poet" automatically meant that they knew how to play a musical instrument. Performing musically will give you a feel for what sounds good that will carry over into your writing.

  • An epic is a compression of everything that's worth considering in life strung together into a single narrative. To write an epic, you need to develop your own idea of which things are most important, or worth considering. For instance, you'll probably have birth and death in there. Night and day. War and love. What else? The seasons? Different personality types, or social roles? Good vs. Evil? The afterlife? Look at the world around you - what is it everyone is struggling so hard for? Us shamanic wannabees earn our keep when we identify and communicate better ways for people to fulfill their needs and dreams.

  • Don't limit your sources to other stories: keep an eye out for ideas from music, art, your personal life and especially the natural world which you can import into your stories, expanding our idea of what a story can be. The most powerful shaman are to a degree metashaman, questioning the very nature of stories and consciousness. What is it that draws you to stories in the first place? Who are you? Why are you here?


Star Wars created by George Lucas, © LucasFilm Ltd.
Star Wars: Origins © 1999-2006 by Kristen Brennan,
part of the Jitterbug Fantasia webzine.