Perhaps one of the most difficult things about being a writer is knowing how you’re supposed to go about being a writer. Pretty close to the front of Kendra Levin’s The Hero Is You, she says, “Many books and writing programs place so much emphasis on craft, they neglect one of the most challenging aspects of writing: how to go about actually getting the words from your brain onto the page on a regular basis.” This book is, naturally then, trying not to be a book about craft, but rather one about establishing healthy work patterns.
What I found most appealing about Levin’s process and about the activities in each of the chapters, is that she is not proscribing a particular method, but rather, she provides activities meant to help you realize your own method, with challenges and experiments meant to gather and acknowledge your individual resources. She recognizes this, again in the introduction, by pointing out that all too often we ask writers we admire about their process, essentially asking “How can I do what you do, the way you do it?” But this book acknowledges what we really need to be asking is “How can I do what I do in the way that will help me do my best work?”
This approach feels nice. There are lots of affirmations throughout, and one of the first myths she tosses out is the notion that to be a writer you must write every day. Good riddance—that’s an anxiety I didn’t need. The writer-centered approach also makes the book pretty useful no matter what your genre or project. It also means that, though there are plenty of quotes to give you a boost of inspiration, the real inspiration comes from learning about yourself. Many of the activities in the book feel a little bit like personality tests. For example, I learned that I am more of a “Summer” writer, one who enjoys getting everything down without worrying about how good it is (which means I sometimes struggle to fix projects later). I also learned that my most common writing “monster” type is the Hydra. But before you think the book is full of BuzzFeed-esque quizzes, I’ll assure you that the book’s strength is not in these quizzes; they are not the ends, but rather a middle step. Many of the chapters then move on to ideas and exercises, with specific insights for your results in the activity. This approach of self-discovery rather than being told how to write helps readers feel empowered, that they alone know what will get them writing and writing their best work.
The main motif of the book, and where it gets its sort of cheesy title, is the Hero’s Journey, based on Joseph Campbell’s famous The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Each chapter takes a character from the Hero’s Journey—the Hero, the Goddess, the Trickster, and even the Steed, among others—to tackle the various challenges of the writing process. As this format suggests, some chapters will be more useful to some than others. She admits this at the opening, too, and suggests that though you could read the book straight through, reading the chapter that relates to the stage you’re at, whether getting started on or finishing up a project, will be most helpful. I quickly found this to be true as I read. I found plenty of inspirational ideas that related to me throughout.
For example, I resonated completely with the chapters on how I avoid writing—with the several classes I teach, a toddler at home, a compulsive baking habit, and several D&D characters to keep alive, I have plenty of options when procrastinating writing—and so I was cut to the bone with her honest candor about how we manage to write: “If you came to this book because you’ve been struggling to fit writing into your life, you may need to sacrifice even more.” But on the other hand, because I am in a PhD program and have people whose job it is to help me along, I didn’t find much relevant to me in the chapter about finding a mentor, since I have several great ones at the moment.
I suspect this will be the experience for many readers. There will be plenty to glance over, but also, whatever your insecurities, you’ll find them in this book, because the book is meant to create a mirror throughout which you don’t look so much at your writing, but at yourself. So you’ll find lots of pearls of wisdom—such as, “A writer’s job is to create empathy,” or “Challenging yourself is exactly what’s required for doing your best writing,” or “Writing begins as play”—but the benefit of this book will largely be in how it helps you see yourself.
The genius of the book is in realizing that we are not always the same person in the various stages of the writing process. This difference is often what makes writing so difficult, as the enthusiasm we feel at one stage of the project may not be present in other stages. Quoting a conversation she had with George Saunders, Levin says, “When you say ‘I’m an artist,’ . . . What that really means is that you have all these different manifestations of you, who work for you, and your job is to manage the circus.” It is precisely these multifaceted selves that Levin’s book aims to help reveal.
So if, like so many of us, you feel you’re not quite in touch with your inner Goddess, Shapeshifter, or Shadow, then I recommend reading at least a chapter or two of Levin’s The Hero Is You. And now, I am going to go eat some chocolate, because one thing I learned from The Hero Is You, is that you should give yourself rewards for accomplishing writing tasks.