Writing and the Creative Life: “Come to the edge”

Going beyond the edge of the Old World into the New World can be a terrifying experience, but a necessary one for the transformation process.

A poem by Christopher Logue:

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We’re comfortable back here,” they said.

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We’re too busy,” they said.

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“It’s too high,” they said.

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We’re afraid,” they said.

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We’ll fall,” they said.

“Come to the edge,” he said.
And they did.

And he pushed them.
And they flew.

I love this poem because it speaks to two journeys: That of the Hero and the Writer.

With regard to the Hero’s Journey, here are the exact words Joseph Campbell used to describe the beginning of a story to Bill Moyers in the wonderful PBS series “The Power of Myth”:

The Hero is found in the ordinary world…
In ancient myths it used to be the cottage or village…
In films, it is usually the suburbs or common urban environment.

The Hero is making do, but feels something missing, a sense of discomfort or tension.
The Hero needs to change, even if they are unaware of that need.

Something happens…
Maybe the Antagonist enters the Protagonist’s world, disrupting it. Or maybe someone comes, a Herald, who calls the Protagonist to action.

The call to adventure is about transformation and that’s terrifying.
The Hero has to confront fear.
Will the Hero survive?
Will they change for the Good or the Bad?

Compare this description to the poem. The character called “he” is the Herald, proclaiming the Call To Adventure, the repeated refrain: “Come to the edge.”

The “ordinary world” Campbell talks about extends as far as the people who live within it know it. At some point, there is a boundary which represents a threshold crossing. This is the Edge.

Beyond the Edge lies the New World, the World of Adventure. The Hero knows the Ordinary World… but not the New World. That in and of itself is frightening, fear of the unknown.

But the implication is that once the Hero crosses the threshold, s/he will be a Stranger in a Strange Land. New places, new faces. What works for the Hero in the Ordinary World may not, likely will not work in the New World.

Therefore, the Hero will have to change. Transformation. And that is, as Campbell suggests, “terrifying.”

This is reflected in the poem. Notice the arc of the defenses “they” — the one who is called to the adventure — mount to avoid the call:

“We’re comfortable back here,” they said.

“We’re too busy,” they said.

“It’s too high,” they said.

“We’re afraid,” they said.

“We’ll fall,” they said.

Each line strips away a layer of excuses, revealing a deeper truth, until “they” express their darkest fear: “We’ll fall.” In other words, we will die.

This is the dark cloud hanging over every Hero’s journey. Sure, transformation is terrifying. But the prospect of self-destruction is even worse.

And yet, this is what makes a Hero’s Journey compelling, confronting physical fears (death) and psychological fears (transformation) in a strange new world where the Hero is an underdog.

This dynamic describes a vast majority of story setups, particularly mainstream movies. Whether the possibility of death is visceral and actual (e.g., going off into battle, exploration into the unknown), or symbolic and existential (e.g., the uncertainty of getting married, sinking one’s savings into a new business venture), most stories establish a sense of stakes for the Hero and their journey. That’s what makes for good drama… and a gripping Hero’s Journey.

There is also the Writer and his/her journey.

The Call To Adventure is the beckoning of the story. At first, it is unshaped and largely unknown. All a writer has are a few stray ideas… images… sensations. Those may excite the imagination, but there is the hard work of brainstorming ideas, sorting through them, then wrangling everything into a coherent narrative.

This process, confronting so many intangibles along with the very real possibility of failure, represents its own form of terror.

As writers, whenever we are called to embark on a writing journey, we are enticed to the Edge. The Edge of what we know. The Edge of what we believe about ourselves as creatives. The Edge between creative ambition and the practical experience of surviving in the real world.

And yet in both — the Hero’s Journey and the Writer’s Journey — instead of turning away from the Call, rife with all of its negative potential, as the poem suggests, we do “come to the edge.”

The lure of the Story pushes us over the edge…

And if we trust in the creative process, give ourselves over to the Story, reach out to its Characters, and believe they want us to tell that Story…

We will fly.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

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For more articles in the Writing and Creative Life series, go here.

Writing and the Creative Life: “Come to the edge” was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Author: Scott Myers