When I was writing my first novel attempt roughly ten years ago (a novel that was fundamentally so bad that none of it was salvageable), I went to meet my friend Jose at a coffee shop. We sat down and talked about the books we were working on, and Jose said, “Sounds like you’re trying to write a hero’s journey.”
I said, “A what?”
He set his coffee cup down and smiled at me. “Really?” he said.
See, I’d never heard of the hero’s journey. Never mind that that particular archetype had been perfected by authors living 2500 years ago or that thousands of authors throughout history had employed the structure. I didn’t know that most high school teachers tell their English 9 classes about the hero’s journey, and I didn’t know that almost all coming of age books ever written follow that pattern. Honestly, “the hero’s journey” didn’t even sound familiar to me. Jose had to explain the whole thing, step by step. I took notes.
That was ten years ago, but I’m still discovering the full depth of what I don’t know. This past fall, my editor at Tyrus Books pointed out that the flood I had incorporated into my novel Graphic the Valley was “Deus Ex Machina.”
I said, “Deus ex what?”
“Deus ex machina,” he said. “You know, God on a wire?”
I didn’t know. I’d never heard of it. And even though my novel employed the technique, I wasn’t sure what it did or how it worked.
“Hmm,” I said, “Can you explain that to me?”
Then five days ago, reading Poets & Writers, I learned about “in media res.” I had to look it up.
It’s not like I haven’t started in the middle of things before. I written many stories and an entire memoir “in media res.” But I didn’t know that this was a thing. I didn’t know its name. I hadn’t studied it and figured out what it does for the beginning of a story.
As a person without an undergraduate or graduate writing degree, I sometimes stare up at the stars and wonder just how many things I don’t know. And how many authors are there who don’t know as much as I don’t know. Probably not many.
If you follow the line of the chest belt on the constellation of Orion, those three stars point to the constellation Pleides up and to the right, to the southern sky. But until recently, I called Pleides “Ruthie’s dipper” because my daughter and I would look at it’s dipper-like shape and marvel at its tininess.