Slaying the Dragon

Image of two red overlapping circles with a blue eye in the middle.

Once I found a book that I could not put down. It was as if the writer was telling my story. The story I wanted to tell but was unable to say. It was a book about a man who was struggling with heroin and alcohol addiction. But it wasn’t just a book about addicts. It was a book about someone trying to find themself. Someone who was always chasing something, but everywhere they went tragedy was at their doorstep. The book was called Jesus’ Son. I found it on the street. I found it to be a message, a sign for something, but I didn’t know what. 

It was my first year in sobriety. I had left my husband. I was practically broke, and I had no idea who I was anymore. All I had was the memories I had been trying to drink away for the past fifteen years of my life. And here was this book giving me permission to tell my story, to tell it like it is with no metaphors, stripped down and raw just like I felt sitting in a recovery meeting telling the truth for the very first time in my life. 

Anaïs Nin says that “the role of the writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” Writing about what I know is saying what I am unable to say. It is what I am most afraid of, and what gets in the way of what I really want out of life. For years this had been the difference in being able to tell good stories and great stories. For a long time I did not know what it was like to change, to overcome my addictions, to live a life not defined by the trauma I had endured. I understood the concept of putting your protagonist in a tree and throwing apples at her. I knew all the Jungian archetypes. I’d read books on craft and taken a handful of writing classes. I’d written in different styles and genres, but something was always missing. I could never figure out how to change my character by the end of the story. Sure, I could change their circumstances for better or worse, but I couldn’t change them. This was because I couldn’t change me. I had never completed my own hero’s journey, so how could I complete one in a story?

 I saw myself as the labels that I liked the most and not for who I really was. I thought if I married the love of my life, I would be happy. When that didn’t work, I thought if I became a famous filmmaker that would fix everything. What I found when I got sober was that all the labels I put on myself were not me. Even if I got a film into Sundance and people told me I was a “real” artist, I would still be miserable. Because deep down inside, I believed that I was all the shitty things that other people had done and said to me. Inside, I was a million fractured pieces all projecting my insecurities out into the world. Then something amazing happened. I gave up. I stopped trying to be someone I was not and stopped pretending everything was okay. I accepted that I was powerless over my addictions, and my thoughts, and what other people did and said, and I asked for help. 

Sitting in my first recovery meeting I became acutely aware that I was not the only one in the world who had lived a rough life. Every story I heard was so much like my own. The vulnerability was so overwhelming that I burst into tears. Here I was, sitting with all these women: survivors of sexual abuse, homelessness, prison, and other unimaginable traumas. et somehow, they made it out okay without something to numb the pain. Never in my life had I sat in a room with anyone who was that honest. It was contagious. I found the more I listened to myself and told my own inner truth the more I started to learn about myself. 

All those years I had been searching for this key that would unlock the door to my suffering outside of myself. When I finally realized that it was an inside job—that the change could only come from within—I discovered what was at the heart of the hero’s journey. The dragon the hero slays at the end of the story is the fear, the pain that is keeping them back from what they are called to do in this life. The dragon is a metaphor for the shadow side. It is the dark night of the soul. The things about ourselves we are the most ashamed of. When a writer tells a story about a protagonist who really faces the shadow side, it touches a chord that everyone can connect to. This is because fear, shame, and self-doubt plague everybody. It is this fear that manifests as addiction and other avoidant behaviors. It is our shadow side that must be addressed—or we can never know the truth of who we are. 

When a writer knows themself, then they can write about what they know. This does not necessarily mean that if you are a college student living in suburbia then you should write about a college student living in suburbia. It is not the personas that we wear that make us who we are. It is the things inside of us, our belief systems, our hopes, and fears that make us human. That is how a story about a down-and-out heroin addict living on the mean streets of life can be one of the most successful books ever written. If Denis Johnson had simply written a book glorifying drug addiction, I doubt the stories in Jesus’ Son would have inspired so many writers and readers from all walks of life. 

Every time I submit a story to be workshopped, I am terrified that I’ll be found out. That people will connect my characters to all the fucked-up things that I’ve done in my life and crucify me for them. Yet no one ever picks up my manuscript and tells me I’m crazy. And the more I tell stories based on the things I am most afraid to face within myself, the easier it gets. It was reading stories like my own that made me realize that everybody is kind of screwed up. That we collectively, as a society, have all been traumatized. Everyone struggles with some form of addiction and mental illness and the more we tell what we are unable to say, and the more we talk about what we truly know about ourselves, the more we will realize that we are all in this together. That no matter what we look like or where we are from, we are all just seeking the same things at the end of the day. We are all just seeking to slay the dragon; to face our fears so we can find what is on the other side of what’s keeping us from really living our lives.

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