What I’ve Learned from Dan Harmon

Some of you may or may not know who Dan Harmon is.  He is the creator of the television show, “Community.”  Before that Dan was a comedian and the creator of Channel 101 – a comedic precursor to “funny or die” or even youtube in some ways.  It was a gallery of funny videos – some created by Dan, some created by others.  I do not know Dan personally, but I will say that his internet thoughts have taught me volumes.  For example, Dan is a believer in STORY.  Everything is story to him.  Story is what audiences hold on to and it is why they come back for more.  Dan writes his best stuff, always with story in mind…even when he’s writing a television show.

Funny man at rest.

I can’t think of a single more important thing that a writer should know.

Now, Dan has an entire formula based on this rhythm of story.  He uses a circle to depict it and it includes a great deal of Joseph Campbell’s hero ideology.  I had to paraphrase the story concept, digest it, and spew it out through my own lens to fully get it.  Mainly, I concentrate on his hero steps.  Here’s how I interpret his concept, it’s pretty close to the main idea:

1.  There’s a soon-to-be hero.  He’s in his zone of comfort.

2.  But, he wants something.

3.  He enters an unfamiliar situation because of that want.

4.  He adapts to it.

5.  He gets what he wanted.

6.  But, he pays a heavy price.

7.  He returns to that same familiar situation.

8.  Having changed.

You can watch almost every movie and read every decent fiction book with this idea in mind.  You’ll be amazed by how much it appears to be the framework across a variety of mediums.  I’ve always felt that you must know your foundation BEFORE you embark on a creative endeavor.  You must, at least, have an understanding of the skeleton you wish to hang your meat on.

I think in some ways this idea can also apply to blogging and focusing your blog.  For example, if you ask yourself the following, it might help you get clarity on what you’re trying to do:

1.  Who is the hero of your blog?  Is it food?  Is it the parent trying to get it right?  Is it the music?  Who is the hero?

2.  What thing (or thing) is that hero fighting against?  Conflict is built into our very human fabric.  If you approach conflict through your stories in some way – even if it’s to avoid it or bypass it and you talk about that – it’s going to be compelling.

3.  What do you want from your blog?  How are you going to get it?

4.  How do you change to grow, but at the same time, keep the content that’s working?  In other words, how do you evolve?

The last thing I’ve learned from Dan Harmon is to not work with a-holes (Chevy Chase, perhaps?)  and to always be authentic.  (I think Harmon is authentic almost to a fault sometimes, but as a comedian, I truly respect it.)  I’ve understood those two things for a long time  (be authentic, stay away from the cray-cray), but it’s always nice to have them re-confirmed in real world situations.

What about you guys?  Is there another famous or not-so-famous writer that you’ve learned a lot from?

Quick End Note:  I’m going to mention this because online communities are important to me and I think that this blog has a great one.  Some of you may or may not remember the Reggie Post #3 that I did on a wonderful comedian and human being, Brad Stewart – aka Caption America.  In that profile, I mentioned that Brad went home to Nebraska to take care of his dad.  Recently, Brad’s dad passed on.  Of course, his heart is hurting.  So, if you have a moment to head over to Caption America and leave a kind word, I think he would appreciate it.

Okay, that’s it.  As always, thank you for reading.  Feel free to forward, re-blog, or share with a friend using any of the buttons below.

Sweet Mother is updated daily.  Click the “follow” at the top of the page to receive an email regarding new content.

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Photo credits:  Danwithbeer, Communitylogo

46 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned from Dan Harmon

  1. I agree with Crubin above (have the very same book by King), like Anne Lamott and Anna Quinlan’s “A Short Guide to a Happy Life.” I ask myself exactly what I’m trying to accomplish with my blog and I still struggle with it. I guess it’s a work-in-progress like me. I know what/who I want it to appeal to, but not exactly sure how to go about it. What do I want from my blog? That it appeals to a universal-type audience, that it reflects who I am with humor and grace and has an underlying theme of kindness and acceptance. That someone learns or laughs about what I have to say. It’s difficult and sometimes kind of scary putting yourself out there. Sometimes, I think it’s like high school all over again, if you know what I mean.

    As always, thought-provoking content here, SM and btw, love, love, love Community, just never knew who was responsible. See, I learned? Thanks for that. :).

    1. oh, yeah, dan harmon is a genius. just google him and ‘writing’ and you’ll see a ton of his thoughts on it. as for the blog, i think you ARE accomplishing all those things. but, i hear you it’s a grind that keeps evolving. i’ve read both king and lamott. love, love lamott. i have not read that ‘short guide’ but, i’m going to now! so, thanks for that! xo, sm

      1. Oh, and it’s Anna Quindlen, I misspelled her name and I hate when people misspell mine so…anyway, she says one of her greatest teachers was an elderly homeless guy she met on Coney Island on the pier when she was doing research for an article about how the homeless suffer in NYC in winter…good stuff. I have it and anyone who’s visited my home and taken time to read it has said the same thing.

  2. The hero of my blog is a yet to be published mildly rotten banana that I have nicknamed Juliis.

    As for what I want from my blog, I think that’s obvious. Someone to offer me free samples of protein shakes which may or may not resemble the taste of a Snickers bar.

    Guess Im hungry.

    1. ditt-feckin-o. i’m hungry. loool. i need an alter ego for my blog…oh yeah, i already have one…loool. also, tried to comment on your blog today, but it said ‘too few words’ or something… sm

      1. Yeah. I don’t know what’s up with that. Must be all those nifty spam filters I have on there. Apparently it’s keePing the good people out too. Sigh.

    1. interesting, isn’t it? not totally sure how to fit blogging into it. but, i think you can definitely fit blogging – content into the structure. sm

  3. Anne Lamott’s ‘Bird by Bird’,a book given to me by professor/poet jeredith merrin, who who had just slapped a ‘D-‘ on my constructive writing paper.
    The chapter ‘Shitty first Draft’ changed my thinking about writing forever.

    1. i am so with you. bird by bird is the right book for every writer. and that shitty first draft thing is supreme. anne is totally the type of person i’d love to have a glass of wine with…i find her writing style hilarious. sm

  4. Yep, “On Writing” and “Bird by Bird” are at the top of my list, too. I’m not a fan of King’s fiction—horror isn’t my thing—but his take on writing is spot on.

  5. Beautifully written. I’m a huge Dan Harmon/Community fan, and it’s a shame they ejected him from his own show. Hopefully a bit of his methodology and quirk carried over to the remaining writing staff.

    1. i’m so with you. i’m adamantly against harmon being taken off his own show. i know it happens all the time, but I don’t like it. and yes, i sincerely hope his methods spill over on to a lot of writers – on community and elsewhere because i love the quirk factor you can create when you pay attention to story AND your own authenticity. great comment, rujabes. thanks for reading. sm

  6. Thank you for this post. I love writing and I am glad I found it again after some separation. I also love Dan Harmon, so this speaks to me on a few levels. While I haven’t read a book about writing per se, but I absolutely LOVE travel writing and early Chuck Palanuik among others. When I read books like “Travels” by Michael Crighton, or “The Beach” by Alex Garland, or “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac I am just inspired whether I am actually traveling or not. It helps me see my everyday world as something special, something worth writing about.

    “I know what/who I want it to appeal to, but not exactly sure how to go about it. What do I want from my blog? That it appeals to a universal-type audience, that it reflects who I am with humor and grace and has an underlying theme of kindness and acceptance. That someone learns or laughs about what I have to say. It’s difficult and sometimes kind of scary putting yourself out there. Sometimes, I think it’s like high school all over again, if you know what I mean.”

    I also agree with Brigitte about blogging. I know exactly what she means. I know who I want to appeal to, but saying all that is in my head with quality is the hard part. When I started writing my blog it was a sort of therapy for me and it still is, but that meant that the people closest to me didn’t know about it and many of them still don’t, but now it has more to do with their lack of looking than my lack of telling them about it.

    In all, I could get lost in this world of reading and writing, but then I remember that I need the outside world to fill me up so I can come here and process it all.

    Thanks for posting.

    1. living, this is such GREAT commentary. i totally agree with your last line — you have to live to write. experience, in order to have something to say. i also found myself going, ‘testify!’ to brig’s comment. this is ALL easier said then done. i think my blog started as one thing and may be morphing into something else. i’m not totally sure yet. as for the books you’ve mentioned, i’ve given chuck a try and can’t always get through them. tho i loved ‘fight club’. i’ve read ‘the beach’ and ‘on the road’ and feel the same way about them. as for the michael chrighton book…i’m so gonna pick that up now, so thank you! and thanks for leaving such a great comment here. it is much appreciated. sweet mother

  7. So interesting. I have always just been an off the top of my head kind of writer. I have a flash of inspiration and I just go with it. I’ve had a hard time with disciplining myself to write regularly, when I’m not inspired. I so admire how you consistently write. It’s freakin’ hard! My hat’s off to ya! Right now I have that whole raising children thing to keep me occupied and give me a reason to feel OK with not writing regularly.

    I remember reading Maya Angelou’s words on being a writer when raising children. She said once she was writing with her daughter in her lap and the daughter puked all over what she was writing. Maya didn’t stop, she said she wrote around the vomit. That’s dedication to your craft! I wonder if I truly have that dedication or if writing is more a hobby for me. I wonder if I have what it takes. I’m so stupidly emotional these past few days! Gah!

    1. you know, fishes, i wasn’t as consistent of a writer as i am now. i wrote A LOT, but now i make sure that SOMETHING happens everyday. it does make a difference, even if you can devote an hour a day, it’s amazing what happens. at least for me it’s been a huge lesson. it keeps me sharper and when i have to pick up and write a longer project, my muscles are already ready to go if you know what i mean. so, i guess what i’m saying – is that for me – the commitment to the writing was gradual. but, yes, now it’s full on. and it seems to be helping. AND don’t be so hard on yourself. it took me some time to get there. it may be the same for you… xo, sm

  8. Hero of my blog? i think that would be all the DC comic guys becoz a lot of my posts are based on Super Heroes..used as an example.. 🙂

    now that i think of it every story has the same hero concept , as mentioned in your post..you are so right Sweet Mom

    Am really sorry to hear about Captain America’s Dad.. 😦

  9. Kipling. Rudyard that is. My fave hands down. The preface of my book was inspired by the writing of Rudyard Kipling’s “How The Alphabet Was Made.” Also, I wrote the very last page for my sisters, but it was totally inspired by Kipling’s “IF.” Nice post. I did leave a message on Brad’s blog. I hope he doesn’t think I’m some psycho butting into his personal business. : )

    1. so interesting, honie. i don’t know that one, but i assure you, i will find out and read ‘how the alphabet was made.’ it sounds so interesting. i don’t think brad will think you are psycho. i hesitated in writing that note…but, he’s open about it and i know he’s hurting, so i thought it was the right thing. at least i hope it was. he’s such a great guy. okay, stay well, honie. hugs, sm

      1. You were correct, it was the right thing to do and he responded to me already. I know that pain and I feel so bad for him. btw How The Alphabet Was Made was a story Kipling made up for his daughter. He created all kinds of stories for her. Dads are great like that. His daughter died of pneumonia, sad story. Kipling’s wife was being interviewed by Ladies Home Journal, I think, and gave the story to them to publish. Anyway, just a little factoid. : )

  10. Unfortunately the hero of my blog is me (we are doomed) and the point of my blog is “we are doomed”. I hope to inspire everyone in a we-are-doomed kind of way.

    Writers I’ve learned from: Dr. Seuss, because he always keeps it interesting and short.

    1. we are so similar. i’d say the hero of my blog is me and my point is, ‘i’m going to fight my way out of this paper bag whether you all like it or not.’ strange, but true. and you DO inspire me in a “we are all doomed” sort of way. you set the scene of the apocalypse – beatifully. time and again. 😉 mother

  11. Ugh, you mean this writing thing is something that I’m supposed to put THOUGHT into? But my brain dribbled out my ear months ago! And I’m supposed to READ things, too? Jeez, Sweet Mom, what are you DOING to me? I need a drink.

    1. perhaps, i truly needed a drink this morning when i wrote this! looool. i so hear you, kathy. i like to think about it, but not overthink it, if i can. 😉 sm

  12. SM, I love it when I feel smarter after reading something. I have never read anything about writing but the hero steps are such a great way of understanding structure. Thanks very much for sharing.

  13. My favorite writers are all science fiction authors that write about strong female lead characters that are super slutty. Not sure if I can translate that to my blog. Of course I think everyone needs a little slut in their life.

  14. Thank you for this one. I have read, read more and then read some more. Not a think specific to how to write but my library contains over 500 books, those are the ones I can’t let go of. There are so many authors I love; from classics to modern hip hop writers. I look for language, grit and storytelling.

    Hero? Woe is me. My blog started as one thing, but as I knew it would as I got brave it evolves. Now it is a few things and it is segregated by those few things. Some is the political wonk in me, some is the real me and the story I have to tell, some is my view of the world because of the story I have to tell.

    Loved this one, will have to go look for Dan and see what new and wonderful things I can learn.

  15. So sad that Dan Harmon won’t be returning to Community. And I recall reading an article where he described his “circle” method of storytelling, I had to double take at the picture in the article because it looked like he was teaching a mathematics class. Actually, maybe he was. I don’t know. Either way, he sure knows how to build a story that can resonate with an audience.

  16. Just started reading you thanks to Le Clown. Not too far away from my own first post. I started a blog because I was tired of lying awake nights with so many thoughts inside my head and nowhere to go. Writing some of them down, capturing them before they disappeared, has been difficult. I don’t think I started my blog for anyone but my therapist and myself, hoped some of the folks in a writing class I took a few years ago might drop by. It always surprises me when someone reads something I’ve posted and likes it and comments on it. So maybe now I have more mental ears to post to than initially and perhaps my reason for blogging has/may change(d).. I like reading someone who was a college prof in the 70s when I went to Cal State Long Beach, Gerry Locklin. He doesn’t write about writing, but his writing has taught me a lot about writing Thanks for the topic. Don’t watch Community, will go check out Dan Harmon now.

    1. very cool commenta, para. and thank you for joining the party – my blog 😉 – i love le clown. so, i’m honored to have a reader of his here. i’m with you – i think a blog morphs into other things from time to time. i think mine is doing that. time will tell. anyway, thanks for reading. much love, sm

  17. I agree with Dan Harmon’s recipe. And your thoughts, too! Actually my biggest influences was a high school teacher’s opinion that I had “nothing to write”, and a techical writing professor in college who had the opposite opinion! Nothing like motivation to fire your writing!

  18. Great question. Great post (aren’t they all, Sweet Mother?).

    To answer your question:

    1) Oscar Wilde: He made wit an art form, turned the mirror on both himself and his social crowd, and wrote fairy tales made me cry real tears.

    2) Mark Twain: Brilliant, political and a true story teller.

    3) Judy Blume: Simply for going places with children’s literature that were sometimes uncomfortable or taboo, but in a manner so compelling that the spine of every Blume book I own is completely worn out.

    4) Alice Walker: For keeping it simple. And, oh so powerful.

    5) Maxine Kumin: For writing these words: “I will be years gathering up our words, fishing out letters, snapshots, stains, leaning my ribs against this durable cloth to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.”

    6) Nora Ephron: For writing scripts that made me want to write scripts and for creating Sally, a character after my own heart. Can I have that on the side?

    7) Johnny Cash: Do I need to even explain this one?

    8) David Sedaris: He stepped in when we needed a new Mark Twain – and eventually drew me a vagina. He’s taught me to find the humor in every situation – no matter how benign.

    9) Charles Bukowski: Kudos to any person who can write the same three poems ten thousand different ways, yet keep me coming back. Plus, he says fuck..a lot!

    10) J.K. Rowling: Anyone who can make an 9 year old read an 800+ page book is fucking awesome. I will never possess her world-building or storytelling genius, but it is something to aspire to.

  19. When I first read this I was thinking of Mark Harmon, and I was really confused.

    To answer the questions posed in your post:

    1. I am the hero of my own blog

    2. I am fighting against people being jealous of my raw sex appeal

    3. I want people to accept that I am a dead sexy beast

    4. I evolve by becoming even sexier (if it’s possible)

    I think I have a winning formula here.

  20. Writers? Michael Ondaatje, master of beautiful, lyric prose, who, unfortunately, died. Rowling for her storytelling ability, Margaret Atwood for having an incredible style, and P. D. James for remaining a force well into her 80’s, which gives me hope.

    And questions?
    1. Hero? that would be me for still hanging on
    2. I’m fighting against life, and I seem to be losing.
    3. What do I want? World peace, no wait. World recognition. Yep, that one, but I’d settle for more loyal readers.
    4. Evolution? I try to keep changing up, writing about whatever strikes my fancy and worrying less about what loyal readers might want because I don’t have more than a handful, which, when you think about it, gives you a lot of freedom.

  21. I love this post! I think writing is a process that evolves, changes and shows glimpses of who we want to be. I can’t think of one writer that inspires me, but I can think of many writers that I adore from classics like Jane Austen to today’s JK Rowling. 🙂

  22. Holy smokes, great post. I am printing this one out and taping it to my forehead. Maybe I should tape it to my computer because it would be easier to refer to.

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