Wilderness = Hero’s Journey

Why do we view our ordeals “in the wilderness,” in hindsight, in such a positive light? Why do people make such statements as, “It made me who I am today,” or “Excruciating as it was in the moment, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

I think it’s because this passage is our hero’s journey, in the best and most positive sense.

What is “the hero’s journey,” anyway? 

Denzel Washington in “The Book of Eli”

According to Joseph Campbell (not to mention Carl Jung), the hero’s journey is a universal rite of passage that most, if not all, human souls must undergo in real life. Jung called it a passage to “individuation”—to becoming who we really are.

Our ordeals “in the wilderness” are exactly that. 

Consider the beats of the hero’s journey, as Campbell and Jung have put them forward.

1. The hero’s journey starts in the Ordinary World. The hero—male or female—is “stuck,” but he or she senses some powerful, tectonic energy moving beneath the surface.

2. The hero receives a “call.” This may be positive—an invitation to climb Annapurna—or negative … we’re arrested and thrown in jail. Or, like Odysseus, the hero commits a crime against heaven and is “made to” undergo an ordeal of expiation. But one way or another, you and I are ejected from Normal Life and flung, willy-nilly, into Something Totally New.

3. The hero “crosses the threshold.” She moves from the Ordinary World to the Extraordinary World (also known as the Inverted World.) Like the children in The Chronicles of Narnia, we pass through a portal and enter a realm unlike any we have known.

Is any of this ringing a bell?

4. The hero encounters allies and enemies, undergoes challenges and heartbreaks, temptations and overthrows. The hero suffers. The hero loses her way. The hero has been caught up in an often hellish adventure (though with some good moments too), from which no escape seems possible. The stakes are clearly life and death.

5. The hero perseveres. Reckoning that there’s no turning back, the hero pushes on, often blindly, almost always wracked by despair and self-doubt, seeking he or she knows not what. Escape? Redemption? A conclusion of some kind to this crazy, upside-down enterprise?

6. The hero comes face to face with the villain. The villain may be internal. It may be a creation of the hero’s own mind. Or it may be the Minotaur/the While Whale/Satan in the Desert of Judea. Whatever form this villain takes, the hero fights it tooth-and-nail, to the death.

7. The hero reaches an All is Lost Moment. The villain is too strong. The abyss yawns. All hope seems gone …

8. The hero achieves an epiphany. Often this takes the form of a surrender or an acknowledgment of a truth long-denied. “I can’t do this alone.” “Yes, I have a problem with alcohol.”

9. The hero races toward Home (whatever form that may take in his/her mind), clinging to his/her epiphany. The villain may be hot on the hero’s heels, or time and distance may have taken his place as the enemy …

10. The hero returns Home. But she is no longer the person she was when the passage began. Her ordeal has changed her, matured her, broadened and deepened her view of herself and of life.

11. The hero returns with a “gift for the people.” This may take the form of violent action, like Odysseus slaughtering the Suitors, or it may come gently, as music or poetry, to restore order and bring harmony to a disordered world.

The point of all this is that our passage through the wilderness is not random and not meaningless. It is a hero’s journey, in the best and most positive sense. It may not seem that way while we’re in it. In fact, it must seem bereft of meaning while it’s happening or it wouldn’t be “the wilderness.”

In fact, our passage is not merely touched by meaning but imbued to its very core. This doesn’t help, I know, in the midst of the ordeal. But it’s true, and we will know it, on every level, when the passage is at last complete.

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

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NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

Turning-Pro

54 Comments

  1. Shaun Loynds on November 23, 2022 at 2:05 am

    Love it. Point six resonated.

  2. Leigh Bechtle on November 23, 2022 at 2:46 am

    I am saving this because you have described, perfectly,
    The novel I am writing. Thanks for the encouragement that
    I am on the right road.

    Leigh

  3. RICHARD MILLER on November 23, 2022 at 2:49 am

    It is interesting as the journey has an innocent perspective to it in terms of the thinking but a certain determination to complete such tasks having faith in the other side .

  4. Mark Walker on November 23, 2022 at 2:54 am

    The hero gets help along the way, thanks Steven.

  5. Andy Best on November 23, 2022 at 3:28 am

    Is this still about writing?
    This feels like my life …
    currently at point 10 and hopeful.

    • Joe on November 23, 2022 at 5:14 am

      That sounds like the right question, Andy.

    • Nom de Plume on November 23, 2022 at 12:56 pm

      Andy asks the question the meme has been waiting for:

      “Why not both?”

  6. Daniel Stutzman on November 23, 2022 at 3:38 am

    Regarding point 5 and “no turning back,” I’m reminded of an excellent line from The Patriot on Prime that I’ve said to myself many times over the past couple of months:

    “If you can make it halfway and one more step, it’s longer to go back, and shorter to just finish, so you just finish.”

    • Jackie on November 23, 2022 at 4:12 am

      Daniel, Great quote to ponder. FYI checked out your page.We’re from the same PA town. Small world. Best of everything to you and with your writing aspirations.

    • Richard T. Ritenbaugh on November 23, 2022 at 5:36 am

      I’m from the Pittsburgh area too (Mount Lebanon), though I live down I-77 in Charlotte. I’ll be reading your stuff.

      • Jackie on November 23, 2022 at 7:21 am

        Wow, Richard another neighbor. I’m from Johnstown, small town, big flood.

  7. Daniel Dominguez on November 23, 2022 at 4:40 am

    Absolutely spot on Steven. Thank you for this early morning inspiration!

    • Yvonne on November 23, 2022 at 4:45 am

      Stuck on #4, so thank you for this, Steve. I’m most grateful. Another excellent post.

  8. Jackie on November 23, 2022 at 5:03 am

    From last week: Adam, I tried the tally sheet for resistance. I was amazed to see the end result. I was especially surprised to see the excuses my brain concocted. Now to channel that creativity into my work…Hmm.
    Maureen, on commenter’s remorse: It’s not easy to bare ourselves before the world. My hands shake. I am moved when others share their vulnerability and show the way. Thank you. We aren’t as hard on others as we are on ourselves.
    Thanks to all who give of themselves. I’m loath to hijack Steve’s forum, but I’m going to with a personal request. Please give thought to those who hunger (not just physically but spiritually too). If possible, look within your communities for a way to ease suffering with a donation to a food bank, bake a pie for the soup kitchen, invite someone to share a meal. Be creative. Pass on a book that’s made a difference in your life, etc. My gratitude, Steve, for Writing Wednesdays. Wishing all an advance in step on your hero’s journey and a beautiful week.

    • Kate Stanton on November 23, 2022 at 5:50 am

      Jackie I believe real courage is being vulnerable and truthful! I will donate to my food bank this Thanksgiving. I’ve also wanted to volunteer for hospice help, so your post gave me a swift kick in the rear to answer an email. Thank you for your thoughtful comments–I always enjoy reading them.

      • Jackie on November 23, 2022 at 7:18 am

        Thanks Kate, I wish you the gift of healing. Thanks for sharing. Hospice was a blessing in my family’s life, so much so that my Dad “graduated” out of hospice and is still with us. It still brings me to tears when I think of the care Dad received. Bless you Kate. Hospice is not an easy path.

      • Joe on November 23, 2022 at 12:41 pm

        Kate and Jackie, I may have mentioned that I had volunteered at hospice for several years in my 30s. It was a profound experience, being close to and serving people who were getting ready to be born into something new.

        Jackie, about your dad still being with you… I got a lot of of David Kessler’s Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms (trying out my italics skillz again). The book share people’s stories about the visions that people tend to have as they’re approaching the river, seeing loved ones who’ve passed before them. An elderly man being visited by his dead mother, but young and beautiful and in her prime. A dying child being visited by an angel, or by the appearance of the spirit of a favorite grandparent.

        Whenever I bring it up, there’s always somebody who has a similar story to report. Just last week, I went to a funeral visitation for a high-school friend’s 91-year-old father. I mentioned that I’m always comforted by these stories of people being visited by deceased loved ones, and the comfort that it brings, knowing they’re not on this journey alone (and here we are again, at a threshold boundary and preparing to step into the unknown/wilderness).

        In response, my friend Tim said: “You know, it’s funny you bring that up. My grandfather — my dad’s dad — was heavy smoker, and died about 30 years ago. A couple days before Dad died, he kept asking me to bring a lighter so Grandpa could light up his cigarette. He acted like Gramps was in the room and was surprised we couldn’t see him.”

        • Jackie on November 23, 2022 at 1:18 pm

          Thanks Joe, will check out the book. Dad had a few one foot in this word and one in the other comments at times.

          • Jackie on November 23, 2022 at 1:18 pm

            OOPs! World



          • Joe on November 23, 2022 at 5:28 pm

            In re-reading, I see I had typos in mine, too. So let’s agree our minds are operating at high speed, with no time for commas and sh!t. Synthesizing, projecting, modeling, trying to perceive beyond the limits of our animal senses. It’s hard work. And THEN returning from that wilderness and trying to put the ineffable into words? Yeah, I think we can trust each other with typos. 😉

            Fix up the spelling where you got some tricky words… https://youtu.be/h_htCIiCXfE?t=80



    • Maureen Anderson on November 23, 2022 at 12:45 pm

      Thanks, Jackie!

  9. Kate Stanton on November 23, 2022 at 5:44 am

    This resonates so deeply with where I am at in my artist’s journey. Hopefully this isn’t TMI, but I recently had a fabulous discussion with my therapist about trauma. I am now grateful for what I endured because it taught me fragility, vulnerability, empathy, and how to read others–when I was (and still am) going through the healing process I often felt such emotional pain that it hurt physically and I could not relate to others. I felt so alone. I didn’t realize I was learning how to rely on myself and a higher power. I didn’t see the gift in the pain because I was so focused on what others did to me. Now, I am realizing inner anger can be expressed outwardly without hurting others back. ART is a gift for people in recovery–whether it’s trauma, addiction, or illness. ART heals. Steve, I am so so so grateful for your Writing Wednesday blog and community. Happy Thanksgiving season to those in the U.S. and gratitude for all.

    <3 Kate

    • Joe on November 23, 2022 at 10:04 am

      Great insights, Kate. Yeah… how would ever be able to recognize joy if we didn’t have sorrow against which to contrast it? Art lets us try on different lives, experience other experiences… like going into the dressing room and trying on a pair of pants. Putting on a hat and standing in front of a mirror.

    • Maureen Anderson on November 23, 2022 at 1:03 pm

      Not TMI at all, Kate. To the contrary!

      I’ve been leaning this way for years, but this series of posts about the wilderness makes it official. I live SUCH a charmed life. Even as I round another corner to find a scarier dragon waiting to bite my head off I’m able to think, “Bring it.” Even in the moment (promise!) I remember to thank the heavens for the privilege of living this particular story.

      I used to think writer’s groups were for people who wanted to drink coffee and talk about writing (instead of writing). Now I feel like the oldest daughter in The Sound of Music. Maybe I need a governess after all.

      • Maureen Anderson on November 24, 2022 at 7:05 am

        My apologies, Kate. Had I endured the kind of trauma you did, there’s no way I’d be thankful for it in the moment — and I salute you for being grateful, later, for what you endured!

        • Kate Stanton on November 24, 2022 at 7:40 am

          No apology is needed, Maureen! I like how Joe mentioned author David Kessler above. His book about the final step in the grief process, being acceptance, is what it’s all about! I think I just needed witnesses to listen and not judge me for my truth so I can process it in my own time and way. It’s been rare that I’ve found people who just let me be me. Once I stopped separating myself from everyone, I started to feel less like a sideshow and more like a human. I think that’s why I’m so drawn to Steve’s warrior mindset. I had to force myself to move on and someday I will share my entire story. From adolescence on…

          • Maureen Anderson on November 24, 2022 at 11:02 am

            Consider this my pre-order for the book, Kate!



  10. Doug Garfield on November 23, 2022 at 6:31 am

    I found Christopher Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey — mythic structure for storytellers & screenwriters” compelling. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read it.

  11. J.M. on November 23, 2022 at 6:47 am

    Thank you! Perhaps, you’re the form of divine assistance in this drama. I wonder if a sense of hopelessness is necessary to the hero’s passage through the wilderness. If so, then, I wonder if guidance, the opposite of being lost, actually stunts a hero’s individuation. In other words, providing guidance keeps the hero from actually being Fully lost.

    I am just thinking and typing quietly with my thumbs.

    Mr. Pressfield,
    I am still waiting on the final steps in a certain method you have been teaching me.
    @grind_stone_cowboy (IG)

    • Nom de Plume on November 24, 2022 at 8:38 am

      , I wonder if guidance, the opposite of being lost, actually stunts a hero’s individuation. In other words, providing guidance keeps the hero from actually being Fully lost.

      That would depend upon the guidance, wouldn’t it? The archetypical Mentor (Ben Kenobi/Gandalf) would guide in the true direction, but others would guide in a false, safe one. That might be what Gretchen Rubin calls “drift”: going along in a set path just because staying on it is an easier choice than leaving it. Excepted: https://www.cardycareercoaching.com/2013/06/11/gretchen-rubins-brilliant-speech-on-drift/

      • J.M. on November 24, 2022 at 4:13 pm

        Thank you so much for your time and teaching. Shit..what can I say? I’m drifting…I’m a drifter.

  12. Jesse Passmore on November 23, 2022 at 6:47 am

    Thank you!

  13. Ed Van Hooydonk on November 23, 2022 at 7:02 am

    Thank you, Steven. I feel like I’ve been stuck in the wilderness for years, and also too afraid to fully answer the call. I’ve been leaving some of the best of me behind over the years. And, only realising it now. Interesting. Your posts on the wilderness have been helpful, and I appreciate them and you.

  14. Tolis on November 23, 2022 at 10:38 am

    Thank you so much dear Steve. Being in the wilderness right now, having changed land and home and work (the new works claimed all the time from my dream-book, but I don’t just react, I act with as much and wise organizing as I can) etc., I identify completely with all the stages that you describe here. The new allies, the threshold, the call, the obstacles etc. And I can sense that there are wise endings for the hero who will also be as wise as she or he can. Because just reacting to the events makes someone gain minimal progress. I can guess that the Hero needs not one but Many Journeys until they reach The Promised End. Because End it is for all, we can just make it Such an end, like the king once said.

    Strangely all the ordeals dont claim my life. They claim my book and my own journey.

    Strangely, too, Resistance gives me a free pass. A world of opportunities opens before me if I only leave the book and the exploring for now.

    But one of my weapons is Ballance. The will to ballance all the new dynamics, in order to serve the book and what matters most to me.

    Can I organize everything so that they can give me 1 hour a day, perhaps 2, for the book?

    Can I bring to the surface Parts of the Hero from within, that will allow me to write again, after two years falling of The Void while sitting on my chair in 2021 and 2022?

    Resistance can be the Hero’s Journey. Wisdom and the Epic can be the Hero’s Journey.

    They both claim the Journey’s Powers.

    Let’s see if we can run faster and longer than Resistance, but also grab the most scuttles while running like crazy and like idiots too.

    • Tolis on November 23, 2022 at 10:51 am

      P.s. I know that this whole journey, even before the last call, deprived me of all beautiful people here. I fail to connect with all of you. I feel like Froddo when Sam told him, “Look at the stars mr. Froddo, do you remember when…?” and Froddo answered, “No Sam, I remember nothing from back then, I can only feel the Ring’s power over me”. I MUST throw that ring into the fires of the mountain.

      • Tolis on November 23, 2022 at 10:54 am

        Another final thought. Must we ask the Journey a specific question? E.g. for me, “What is the meaning of Life?” Or else even the best journey will get us Nowhere. Damn!

  15. Joe Jansen on November 23, 2022 at 11:55 am

    Here’s what I’m looking forward to: getting my mitts on a copy of Govt Cheese, reading, and then coming back to this wilderness series to look at it again. I’m guessing that as a memoir, Steve’s new book will shed some light on his own time in the wilderness, his 40 years in the desert, and our wilderness series here is prepping that ground (naval guns softening up the beach). He did the same thing nicely with the “warrior ethos” series, which led us right into Telamon’s and Ruth’s arms.

    Many of you might have seen it already, but Steve had a long conversation with Joe Rogan recently (find it on Spotify, and this shorter clip on Rogan’s YT channel — https://youtu.be/gaCiKQbMLcY). More big guns. Looking forward on charging the beach when Steve’s book drops on 6 Dec.

    A thought on the hero’s journey: surely part of why that framework endures in storytelling across millennia and across cultures is because it’s a story structure that mirrors every one of our human lives at the most primal level. We’re nine months in our (Ordinary) water world, receive the call (contractions), try to reject it and stay where we’re comfortable, get squirted out of the womb (crossing the threshold), and into a wilderness where all the rest of it follows. Andy recognized it up there: “Are we still talking about writing? This feels like my life…”

    • Joe on November 23, 2022 at 11:56 am

      Wonky italics. I need to brush up on my html skillz.

    • Gaylan D Scott on November 30, 2022 at 4:42 am

      Joe…
      Listening to Steven on the JRE is why I am here in this moment….more to come…

  16. Sam Luna on November 23, 2022 at 12:21 pm

    I’ve been on a memoir kick this year — “The History of Bones” by John Lurie, “Sing Backwards and Weep” by Mark Lanegan, “Life’s Work” by David Milch and just finished “That for Remembrance” by Rosemary Clooney, and seems like I’ll finish off the year with GOVT CHEESE. I’m looking forward to a deep dive.

    Today’s post reminds me of my 12-year-old self being planted on the couch to watch Bill Moyers interview Joseph Campbell on PBS for the Power of Myth. Needless to say I was bored to tears. 20 or so years later I realized The Hero’s Journey holds the secrets of writing and the Universe.

    • Maureen Anderson on November 23, 2022 at 12:50 pm

      That’s so funny, Sam! I read The Power of Myth (by accident) (which I now recognize as divine intervention) the summer I got tossed into the wilderness. Between that and discovering the magic of hard runs the same summer, it was quite the one-two punch of, “You’ve got this.”

    • Joe on November 23, 2022 at 1:02 pm

      I’m going to rewatch, Sam (maybe for the fourth or fifth time). I’m seeing one can purchase “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth” from Amazon for $12. Or I’m seeing all six episodes currently available on YouTube.

  17. Robin Kirkley on November 23, 2022 at 1:46 pm

    Hi Steven. Robert McKee’s comments in the last two pages of his new book on the Action genre now have me a bit confused about Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey. Are you able to shed any light on what Mr McKee says? Thanks.

  18. Dejan on November 23, 2022 at 2:14 pm

    Ohhhhhh baaabbbyyyy… is this ever the truth of how I’m feeling right now. It’s been dragging for some time now lost in the wilderness of the mind. Where all seem, strangers, even the ones long known. Is it me or is it them? Who has altered their state of being? Hummmmmmmm when will the light of the tunnel’s end appear? The hero must journey on to see it all unfold as it must. Thank you for the encouragement, Steve. Onward.

  19. Veleka on November 23, 2022 at 7:06 pm

    Wow. Light bulb moment! Thanks to you, Steve, I suddenly realize that 1984 was my personal Hero’s Journey, and all of it took place inside my head or in St. Paul The Apostle church in Los Angeles. My career as an actress on TV had just ended, and my time had come to become a Catholic, which I had wanted to do since I was ten years old and which my Southern Baptist mother thought would send me to hell since only Baptists go to Heaven, you know. 😉 But since she had recently remarried some years after my father died and she had married a Catholic, she could no longer stop me. That year was so profound while I was converting, more than any before or since… so much so that I have wished for that year again, despite the pain and fear that the conversion caused… because the reward at the end of the journey was a true rebirth. I had been buried alive, and that journey set me free… the true me, the original Veleka. Steven, you are one of my most important enlighteners, although we have never met. This Thanksgiving (and always), I am so grateful for you, and I do hope some day to meet you.

  20. Brian Nelson on November 23, 2022 at 8:56 pm

    I am grateful for the wisdom, honesty, and vulnerability modeled by Steve and reciprocated by everyone here. To the Usual Suspects, I am so grateful for this 21st century pen-pal relationship we’ve developed over the years.

    Maybe the shorter days lend themselves to more reflective moods, but instead of opining on today’s post, I was more than content to be a grateful spectator. I kept thinking what a remarkable virtual space this has become for me and was warmed by every post.

    Like many armchair philosophers, I often categorize events, people, things into two camps. I have been thinking about the necessity of vulnerability in connection–part of my book about collective suffering–and then I thought of bullies. Then I thought there is a difference between vulnerability and weakness. Men, or at least in the domains I’ve spent much of my life, equate vulnerability with weakness when actually vulnerability is the flip side of courage. One cannot exist without the other.

    Steve models this for us, then we tentatively follow–and magic happens.

    I wish you all a wonderful Holiday weekend. Maybe blow off the consumerism and enjoy each other’s company.
    bsn

    • Brian Nelson on November 23, 2022 at 8:57 pm

      Forgot my two camps:
      Those who see vulnerability and feel compassion and those who see vulnerability and see opportunity for exploitation.
      bsn

      • Sam Luna on November 23, 2022 at 11:14 pm

        bsn—-I came back tonight to read the full day’s posts and was glad to see your thoughts. They’re very much what I’m writing about (“Those who see vulnerability and feel compassion and those who see vulnerability and see opportunity for exploitation.”)

        • Brian Nelson on November 23, 2022 at 11:22 pm

          Thanks Sam…I didn’t know what I was exactly thinking until I typed it out. I’ll so some ‘stream of consciousness’ writing this week and email you…might be interesting to see if we’re coming to similar conclusions. Happy Thanksgiving!
          bsn

  21. James Salas on November 24, 2022 at 4:19 am

    I believe the hero has no idea he is the hero. As it should be.

  22. Carl Francis Penders on November 24, 2022 at 12:15 pm

    Just read Bagger Vance for the second time. And Junah told Vance “I can’t quit.” And neither can I.

  23. Gwen on November 25, 2022 at 5:43 am

    I taught high school English for many years and it was always a joy watching my 9th graders warm to the idea of hero and realize that the hero and his/her journeys are the stuff of everyday life. In a final assignment students were asked to put someone they deemed a hero on the hero cycle and explain and compare experiences at each point in the cycle with Odysseus’ journey. One young man gave his mother (suffering from cancer) as his example of a hero. His rationale at every point in the cycle brought tears to my eyes. The journey or cycle is basic plot structure that in most respects, breaks life into understandable parts. No mystery – we are all at different points in our journeys. As writers we find success when our characters suddenly find themselves on the same ladder-rung or journey-point as that beautiful and or evil protagonist. Sparks fly and we’re off.

    • Maureen Anderson on November 25, 2022 at 9:13 am

      I think I’d be a different person had I had even one teacher tackling something this important, Gwen! You’re changing the course of history by being so good at what you do.

  24. Ed Hinman on November 27, 2022 at 1:38 pm

    “Our passage through the wilderness is not random and not meaningless.” So true and good to remember that whenever we’re ‘in the trenches’ with our art. The artist’s journey is not always rosy, but it’s never meaningless. Thanks Steve for the reminder!

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