Slaying Dragons and Saving the World: Why Producing Great Content is like Embarking on a Mythical Quest
Some people deal with challenges by being totally present, by grounding themselves in reality and confronting their problems with brute strength. Me? For better or for worse, I’m more of a fantasist and whether the challenge is personal, academic, physical, or work-related, I often find myself dramatizing a bit, and mulling over my favorite fictional success stories, my literary and cinematic heroes in the process. Somewhere in my subconscious, I make myself the hero of my own story — I face monsters, I confront evil, and I emerge triumphant.
I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one inclined to think like this.
In fact, the hero is a universally pervasive archetype, and the arc of his journey appears everywhere. The hero leaves home to go on an adventure, he’s challenged and confronted on this adventure, he dies, is reborn, and then returns home again, transformed. You’ll find this progression in pop culture, literature, even in content marketing. This is because the hero’s journey gives us hope, motivation, and strength; it is an unequivocally human tale of triumph.
If you’re a content writer, I’ll bet there are times when you could use some motivation and strength. Producing a steady stream of engaging and well written content is hard. And you’re not alone if find yourself weighing the benefits against the costs from time to time. If you’ve ever felt like that, I’m here to tell you that you are not alone.
I’m also here to tell you: be your own hero.
Below are suggestions and tips on how to embark upon your professional and writerly adventures using the hero’s journey, with examples from Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and The Hangover.
1. Call to Adventure/Recognition of Need
The call to adventure is when you hear the first real rumblings in a story. Most likely, you’ve been getting to know your main character and understanding what his ordinary world is like. You’ve built up empathy for him, and been introduced to some of his concerns and how he approaches them. It is typical for the hero to be reluctant during this stage. He is hesitant and uncertain, or may not even believe that he has been called upon to adventure. This “refusal of the call” is a big part of the journey. Hesitation, self-doubt, fear. That’s all normal.
In J.K. Rowling’s very popular Harry Potter series, Book 1 begins with an overview of Harry’s rather miserable life with his aunt and uncle, until finally a storm of letters from Hogwarts shoots through the mail slot and flies about the living room. This call to adventure forces him to leave behind everything he knows and shoulder the enormous burden of his past.
For a content marketer, the scenario goes something like this: you’re at work, you know you need to write a story, and for some reason, you really don’t want to. You find yourself doing other things; clicking around the web vapidly, cleaning your apartment, going to the market for unnecessary snacks. The adventure does not sound so appealing — in fact, it sounds like a lot of work.
Luckily, most heroes have a mentor to give them the encouragement they need to fulfill their true potential.
Harry’s first mentor comes in the form of Hagrid, who helps the young wizard accept his upcoming journey. However, he is also fortunate enough to be mentored by Dumbledore, McGonagall, Lupin, and Sirius Black over the course of his adventure.
The truth is that it’s remarkably easy to find experienced people who are wiling to help you, and the internet is a great place to start. Other bloggers from companies like Contently, Hubspot, and Kapost have all sorts of great advice for someone who’s new to the industry. And while my boss (the head of marketing) and our CEO don’t have the formidable white beard or commanding British accent of Dumbledore, they consistently took the time to offer their guidance. These work relationships are key; mentorship is not only good for you, the mentee, but you can remind them it has benefits for the mentor as well.
2. Cross the Threshold/Begin Adventuring
The next stage in the hero’s journey is crossing the threshold and beginning the adventure. This step includes what Joseph Campbell calls a “Descent into the Unknown,” or a separation between what the hero is familiar with and the something new he is going towards.
In The Hangover, a Warner Brothers movie about an ill-fated trip to Las Vegas for a bachelor’s party, Doug, Stu, Phil, and Alan cross the threshold by driving through the Nevada desert. They descend into the unknown when they arrive in Sin City, the gaudy, vice-filled carnival that is Las Vegas. This separation between the ordinary world and the world of their adventure is emphasized by the fact that each of the heroes distances themselves from their normal lives. Stu lies to his fiancé, Phil falls out of contact with his wife, and Alan leaves his parent’s house, all to go on this Vegas trip with the other groomsmen.
For a content marketer, crossing the threshold means coming up with an idea and an
innovative angle to write about this idea. The writer then must descend into the unknown for research to flesh her idea out. Coming up with an idea and conducting early research can be the hardest steps of writing a story. Fortunately, when you develop a healthy idea generation process, ideation becomes smooth and easy.
Along the course of their journeys, heroes face many trials and tests that they must overcome.
In The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy written by J.R.R., an expected hero named Frodo must destroy a mythical ring to defeat the evil encroaching on his world. Frodo’s challenges arise as he’s traveling through Middle Earth. He encounters every manner of monster, battles the will of Sauron, and fights the powerful temptation of The Ring in order to complete his quest.
Just as traveling through Middle Earth to destroy the very embodiment of evil in our world is no walk in the park, neither is producing a piece of smart, data-driven content. In content marketing, the trials and tribulations faced are many and may include: getting lost in the research black hole, the struggle to massage a story angle into something workable, and the process of deciding what exactly it is that you, as a writer, want to say.
Challenges, such as these, force heroes to confront their fears. The best way to face your writing fears as a content marketer is to create an outline and make a writing plan for your developed story idea. While this is indubitably a formidable task, be reassured by the fact that while we, as writers, have to nail down our story idea, our heroes don’t have things much easier. Frodo has to travel through gloomy and unforgiving territory to the fiery pits of Mordor.
A revelation is when our hero experiences a sudden change in how he sees life, the world, or himself. In fiction, revelation is usually followed by sacrifice and/or death. Pretty self-explanatory.
Fictional revelations are plentiful (and usually dramatic). In Harry Potter, perhaps the most integral moment of revelation is when Harry realizes that he must die in order to defeat Lord Voldemort. He then selflessly sacrifices himself to save his community and quite literally dies. The truth is that heroes have to make sacrifices, and, as a writer, so do you.
For me, the feeling of revelation comes after I finish a first draft of a story, and start seeing the potential that the story has, as well as all the work that still needs to be done and the sacrifices that need to be made.
If you’re scared, you definitely should be, because for a writer, this metaphorical death takes the form of editing, a process in which you must kill your darlings and trust your team to help you edit your draft into a content marketing masterpiece. Try your best not to cling onto any sections of your story that aren’t serving you anymore, and don’t take any edits personally. Everyone on your team only wants you to succeed.
5. Transformation/ Rebirth
Rebirth is a process in which a hero who has appeared to die faces himself internally and is then resurrected.
The process of rebirth happens all the time in fiction. For example, in The Lord of the Rings Frodo wakes up in bed surrounded by worried friends after blacking out in the wake of the destruction of The Ring. And Doug is reunited with his wife and promises her that this sort or thing will never happen again (a promise he clearly breaks in the sequel movies, but that’s a whole other issue), and gets married.
After a rigorous round of editing (or two or three), your story will finally enter the Final Draft stage, and be published and distributed. You (hopefully) will be relieved and hopeful about the benefits that your writing will bring to your company.
Not only do these heroes persevere in their respective quests, but they are also blessed to reap the rewards of their bold adventuring. Frodo goes with Gandalf to live in the Undying Lands, and the wedding party in the Hangover gets the reward of powerful new friendships.
You, the questing content marketer, will be rewarded for your work as well in comments, likes, new industry friends, and more leads and paying customers for your company.
But your job isn’t over just because you’ve finished writing a pretty amazing story.
As you probably know, the end of one story only means the beginning of the next. You have to let go of all the hard work you’ve just done, maybe have a coffee or a long night’s sleep (or both, although probably not at the same time), and prepare for the next adventure with the new knowledge you’ve gained from your past adventure.
And this is how writers are “reborn.”
Originally published at ozcontent.com on August 6, 2015.