In Greek mythology, the Hero’s journey into the Underworld is called katabasis.
Writers take that journey all the time. You could say that every time we turn on our laptops to write, every time we enter the worlds of our books, we are entering the Underworld: the world of the unconscious, of myth, of dreams. It’s a useful metaphor to understand why we’re often (always?) reluctant to take that plunge, and find any number of ways to postpone the actual crossing into that realm.
And sometimes the Descent is even more literal.
After two deaths in the family in three months, in the midst of my Upside Down of grief and regrouping, I was given the gift of a writing fellowship in Aotearoa New Zealand.
It’s one of those magical rewards of being a professional writer—to be paid for a dream journey and get to call it work. And it also feels like a profound rescue, coming in the midst of my personal bereavement over the deaths of two family members after long and difficult illnesses, and my despair over the sickening slide of the U.S. into something far more sinister than the democracy we’ve been inching toward for the last two and a half centuries. The election staved off the worst for now, but the losses have been profound, and at times, paralyzing.
In the face of all that, who wouldn’t be thrilled to go off on an adventure to the literal antipodes?
(Antipodes def: 1. The direct opposite of something. 2. Australia and New Zealand)
This kind of massive synchronicity is never a coincidence. In the midst of heartbreak, I was given a spectacular gift from the Universe—again, literally spectacular, as I couldn’t ask for a more visually gorgeous place to be shipped off to. Volcanic wonders, living Maori myths, steampunk and Hobbit villages— it’s the real-life setting of the Lord of the Rings trilogy— all the elements of a metaphorical journey – In Real Life. And much more than the obviously spectacular outer journey to the other side of the Earth – it is The Descent – a depth psychology term for the conscious exploration of the unconscious.
In Greek mythology it is called katabasis: The Hero’s Journey to the Underworld.
Carl Jung defined it as: A descent into the cave of initiation and secret knowledge.
It is the eternal story, the cosmic blueprint for every book and script we write, every film we make: The protagonist journeys into the Underworld and after many trials and adventures, seizes and brings back a boon, a gift for all the world.
It’s not the first time I’ve taken this journey, and I’m sure all of you have had your own. As I started out saying, all art is a Descent, a katabasis undertaken by the artist.
I wrote the first book of my Huntress Moon series in the midst of profound grief. In the case of Huntress Moon, my Descent did not involve real life travel. I barely left my room for the writing of it. But I took all those journeys with my characters (the books are road trips, structurally), calling on my vivid sense memories of the hundreds, thousands of travels of my lifetime.
Though I barely left my room during my Descent to bring back Huntress Moon, I will be lucky if my New Zealand adventure yields a book I am even half as proud of as I am of the Huntress series. I will be lucky if it is even half as lucrative.
And that’s the point of this post. Writing a book, a script, a poem, a song, making a film, is always a Descent. Writers always have to make a sometimes (often!) terrifying journey into the Underworld and face trials and adventures to be able to bring a book back into the world.
But this is so key: You don’t have to leave your room to make the most profound metaphorical journey of your life. You don’t have to leave your room to bring back a powerful, life-changing book, script, or other work of art.
You only (only!) have to commit to the journey.
I won’t wish you “Safe travels,” because “safe” is the opposite of what the writing journey should be.
Be bold. Collect your allies. Enter the Special World. Revel in the trials as well as the adventures. Seize the gift—and bring it back for the world.
Because the world has never needed it more.
Need some help? The Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop is now available online, as a self-paced course with all the videos, assignments, movie breakdowns and personalized feedback you need to get that book written this year. In four parts, and you only pay for what you use.
Small group coaching also available in The Writers’ Room.