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Wonder with a Thousand Faces Part 1

A new look at wonder recasts captivating story design (& human growth) anew.

A long time ago, the moon was close to Earth. That, according to Sir George Darwin. The moon hung so low at this time that a boat full of five people glided below the lightless orb, lifted a ladder, and climbed to the humongous floating golf ball to fetch thick moon milk made of vegetable juices, tadpoles, mineral salts, and combustion residue. A love triangle among a man, a woman named Ms. Vhd Vhd, and the man’s deaf and sensitive cousin ensued.

“This is how the story of my love for that woman began,” the man tells us.

Actually, this is how the story of Italo Calvino’s enchanting adult fable “The Distance from the Moon” begins. And it is how the story of human emotions as well as how many a captivating story begins.

With enchanting wonder. And from enchanting wonder to longing. And from longing to willful struggle. And from willful struggle to recognition. In those four fragments, you have an emotional map of many human beings’ four seasons of life. And you have the emotional arc of a classic story.

But this arc, whether for being human or for designing a captivating story, is incomplete. It’s incomplete and errs in a profound way. Its erroneous assumption leads to misconceptions about what it means to be a complex human adult and about what it means to design a captivating story whether for a book, short story, film, or business brand.

The profoundly two-fold erroneous assumption is this: first, that wonder comes in only the enchanting variety and, second, that wonder comes only at the fresh-eyed child-like beginning of life or of a story.

Wonder, it turns out, has many faces and varieties. And wonder can appear throughout life’s phases as it does throughout a well-designed story’s classic arc. I’ll say it again: Wonder is not kid’s stuff.

And if we want to tell, design, and live out enduring stories that matter - about ourselves, the adult world, the future, or fictional places - we would do well to track wonder in all of its forms.

Aristotle started this wave of describing captivating stories. In his lectures collected in the Poetics, he describes a blue print for an effective tragic story’s beginning, middle, and end in, essentially, three acts. German novelist Gustav Freytag built on that blue print and laid out what makes for what we assume is the classic story arc - the Freytag pyramid of conflict, rising action, and denouement.

In Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell illustrated the heroic journey's mythic dimensions that, in clever hands, could overlay Freytag’s model. Chris Vogler and, to some extent Robert McKee, performed that overlay for Hollywood and screenplay writers.

Think of this article as the first in a series to consider Wonder with a Thousand Faces for captivating story design.

Something in us invests wonder with beginnings. A Garden of Eden. Elysian Fields. Atlantis. We imagine wonder embodied in a babe’s wide eyes, innocent and free of judgment. Maybe we glimpse wonder in a boy splashing in mud or a girl gazing at a shadow on a sidewalk.

We’re wired to associate wonder with innocent beginnings. Why? Because it might be the most primary and primordial of human emotions. Melvin Konner suggests as much at the end of his classic The Tangled Wing. Descartes also tagged wonder “the first of all emotions” because it precedes all other emotions in human development and does not arouse a physical repulsion or attraction (instead a neutral receptivity). Wonder’s so subtle, so discreet that psychologist Jonathan Haidt told me he thought it futile to try to measure wonder - despite his and other psychologists’ efforts to do so.

But many of us assume wonder stops in ten-year-olds as if the age of pimples covers wonder with Clearasil. The problem with this view of wonder is it lodges wonder in some idyllic past - either in place or person. And the ideal place or person likely never existed, and if it did it probably wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Innocence, we might say, is over-rated.

Still, the view of an ideal wondrous state understandably persists in our individual and collective imaginations - and the view drives a lot of compelling stories.

So, stories often begin either with some version of Wide-Eyed Wonder or - more likely - with a character in an ordinary world void of wonder (Elliott in Spielberg’s E.T.). The protagonist might begin in a state of Wide-Eyed Wonder soon to be lost (Robin Williams’ character in The Kingfisher, Tom Cruise’s character in Eyes Wide Open or a younger Charlie Sheen of a bygone era in Wall Street). The protagonist might still have wonder in a wonder-less world (The Little Prince). The film Life is Beautiful posits the story of a man who goes to desperate extremes to keep his boy’s wonder alive while in a Nazi death camp - a parable for many adults.

Cultures and families and mindsets that emphasize productivity without pleasure, efficiency without heart, and due diligence without delight are void of wonder. In fact, such cultures as 18th-century Ireland defined “the wonders” as an illness or as a daft state of mind. “Ah! Look at the lad daydreaming about the meadow! He’s got the wonders. He’ll not amount to much.” See Billy Elliot.

Such openings, needless to say, stir our own restlessness and discontent with our own life, our own times, or our family.

A holy longing, to crib Goethe’s gorgeous phrase, runs through most human beings starting by at least age eleven. By that age, I longed to live in woods or the Carlsbad Caverns on my own. I longed to be somewhere else.

Longing arises from discontent with one’s present state or place. In many captivating stories, a protagonist longs for the past, for a hazy future state, for some other place, or for the current place to be restored to its innocence (The Lion King).

Dorothy longs to escape wonder-void Kansas for a wondrous place over the rainbow.

Thelma longs for freedom - first from her bubba husband, then from the authorities, and ultimately from her own inner trappings and fears. A teenage girl longs to escape her family’s Nebraska ranch with a handsome stranger (Robert Olen Butler’s “Christmas 1910”). Mystics and poets long for union with the Beloved.

No wonder young adult fiction has run amock in popularity. If toddlers and pre-adolescents epitomize wide-eyed wonder, then surely the young adult who wishes to be a boy again or who wants to be a "free" adult epitomizes this stage of yearning in human development. This longing captures audience’s hearts because we each have our own or have had our own versions.

But in these yearnings, some adults never get beyond this stage. A woman yearns to return to some idealized sense of self when in college. A guy stays stuck in his Glory Days. Willie Loman gets trapped in delusions of his inaccurately remembered triumphant past.

It's in yearning for a bygone past (or a falsely remembered innocent wondrous state) where we don’t do justice to wonder, to adulthood, to rich story design. We can disrupt our conceptions of wonder, though, and free it from its most prevalent if not primordial face, Wide-Eyed Wonder.

What are the other faces of wonder? Stay tuned for the next episode of Wonder with a Thousand Faces. We’ll look at Vertigo Wonder and more. Same page. Same place.

I’m testing out a lot here. Is this piece helpful or insightful for your mindset, your experience of story, or your attempts to design a captivating story for a book or business brand? Scholars, do you think I’m off-track anywhere?

See you in the woods,

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Jeffrey Davis is a creativity consultant, story strategist, speaker, and author of The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies & Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing (Monkfish Publishing 2008; Penguin Putnam 2004). He mentors creatives, professionals, teams, and solo-preneurs to design their books, brands, and other big projects in ways that delight and engage their audiences.

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