How Failing to Write Novels Revealed My Life’s Purpose

On the unfinished art of an unfinished life

Anna Mercury
9 min readAug 14


Photo by Alex Gruber on Unsplash

I’ll tell you I’m sick of the Hero’s Journey, but I really can’t help being whisked away by it every time. The part that always does it for me is Joseph Campbell’s Step 2: the Call to Adventure. It’s the scene when our hero learns his fate is to embark upon a sacred quest, when she first musters the courage to cross the threshold out of the ordinary world.

The night when Ashitaka learns he must go west, never to return. When Frodo learns the truth about the Ring and first sets out across the Shire. When Hercules sings, “I can go the distance.”

That’s my scene.

That specific nervous anticipation just before a new adventure, we don’t have a word for it. I’ll call it pre-quest. It’s my favorite feeling. But the thing is, what I long for, what I envy in those heroes getting called to adventure, isn’t the excitement or the journey. What makes the pre-quest feeling so special is the sense of fate. The determinism.

Allow me to explain: Frodo could never let the Ring stay in Hobbiton. Ashitaka had no choice but to leave the Emishi village. Hercules had to become a hero. It was not possible for them to remain in their ordinary worlds any longer, and even if they refused the call to adventure at first, fate had already ordained for them that they must embark upon the quest.

Sure, there’s fear and exhilaration in setting out on a hero’s journey, but there’s a safety in the call to adventure too. It’s the safety of not having to come up with a life plan for yourself. There is, ultimately, no choice but to go the distance, become the hero, save the world. The path is full of twists and turns and even great ordeals, but there is a path. You’re handed your marching orders from the gods and shoved out the door onto the road.

My journey’s been rather different from this. When I was seventeen, the closest thing to a call to adventure I had was to move from California to New York for college. There was a pre-determined path laid out before me, but the path kept me in the ordinary world. There was nothing heroic or unique to the journey, no sense of the gods showing me my fate. Going to college was just what people did where I…