Story and life.Posted: March 6, 2012
“This is your year of imagination. Don’t complicate it with a personal story.”
– advice from a fellow student.
It’s a weird thing, being a writing student. I truly live in an alternate universe. When I go anywhere in public, watch the news, read the paper, I encounter people discussing their work, money, policy issues, economics… the “real world”. Like most people, my days are spent troubleshooting, analysing, and problem solving. Unlike most people though, the kinds of problems I am consumed with at the moment – those that do not pertain to industry job searching or life admin – are imaginary. They are story problems: which characters to eliminate, how to position scenes, how to eliminate exposition, what kind of antagonistic force I should use to propel action within a story – a story that is, of course, a creation of my imagination anyway!
The time gap between my last post and this one is largely because of this strange occupation. I am seemingly incapable of doing anything without becoming bizarrely obsessive about it. It’s unexpectedly taxing, creating worlds, playing god – fun, but taxing. This year I am writing much more than I did last year (late bloomer). I am writing a fantasy feature, will be writing a play with a far more experienced person than I, and with my screen writing partner will be accelerating work on a television series script we made little progress on last year. I’m also volunteering in a year long project to help produce an educational DVD, which will give me interesting behind-the-scenes insight into script development and production incorporating factual narratives. This, at least, relates to the “real world” – the DVD will be used to help train medical students.
The issue with spending so much time working on imaginary problems is that it has occasionally caused me a great deal of existential angst, when I have stopped to think about it – and, unfortunately, I have succumbed to this far too often (have you noticed?). Meditation and exercise help me quiet the mind, but my mind is still freaking relentless the rest of the time. So, even though this is what I am studying, and even though my intention in life is to be a writer, a creator, a storyteller, I still come up against this bothersome angst! The thought that I “should be doing something else” is a relic of a self-sabotaging mode of thinking I am thankfully, gradually, transcending.
A little Socratic questioning usually allows one to free oneself of the effects of ones mind. This is one of the most useful pieces of advice I have ever received. When I question my batshit thoughts, I seem to suffer less! Through this process of inquiry I have come to appreciate why it is I love good stories, and why I think storytelling is valuable to the world – valuable enough, at least, to champion and pursue in life. On a personal level, writing – whether fiction or non-fiction – helps me process the world and make sense of it, find meaning, clarify my own values, and tap into the deepest parts of myself. As an audience member, great stories provide the same thing, in addition to laughs, excitement, intellectual interest, emotional payoffs, or sensual gratification. I think a really great story doesn’t just provide entertainment, but also helps us understand our own humanity, and the humanity of others. It opens up the mind to the universals.
And the process of getting inside a character, and composing the elements of story to create a work, often gets me thinking about my relationships, life, and the interaction of various aspects of society – even if that work is commercial in nature. The other day, I was working on a character storyline and hit a metaphoric brick wall. I took out a piece of paper (I always move away from my computer when I get stuck), took out an orange marker and started doodling like a 5 year old. In the background, on the radio, a news story about the resignation of a politician. I continued doodling, then started writing whatever phrases that popped into my head.
“Blackboard purple chalk” I wrote first. Mm, meaningless.
“Kaballah corporate vacuum cleaner.” Esoteric custodial arts?
“Cheese and ham and pickled onion”. Okay, I want a sandwich and might be pregnant.
“Character David Bowie Under Pressure”. I stopped writing and looked at the words. Then I wrote:
“Character is revealed by choice made under pressure.”
This phrase is how you show the audience who a character really is – not superficial characterisation, like what music they like, their taste in fashion, or occupation. Real character is revealed by the choice the character makes when they are faced with a dilemma and pushed to their limit. Did they choose the right thing? Did they cower? Did they do what was honourable? Why did they make that choice? My writing brain was back online.
I then turned my attention to the news story playing in the background. Knowing the policy issues, I focused instead on the politician at the centre of the drama, the “protagonist”, placing myself in his position. There are obviously tactical political reasons why he did what he did. What are the personal reasons he made the decision to take this action? What does this event reveal about who he is, what he wants? What does it reveal about what he really values or cares about? The gulf between who a person thinks they are and who they really are is exposed in these moments of choice under pressure. These moments of truth.
Writing and dealing with human drama continually makes me think about people in this way, and, indeed, my own actions and choices, my life. I value this, and so, spending time and energy creating stories, promoting stories and sharing stories, as a medium for deeper truths, if you like, is a worthwhile and appropriate life pursuit for me. Much harm in the world is caused not merely by a lack of intellect, but also by a lack of reflection, self-awareness and awareness of others, leading to poor choices. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. The better equipped we are at examining our own choices and the choices of others, the consequences of actions, cause and effect, the better equipped we are at avoiding harm (well, in theory). The stories I seem to love the most, no matter what genre or setting, somehow take us deeper into ourselves, our humanity. I’m interested in using imagination in this way, to enhance “the real world” … or perhaps, just my little corner of it.
My last post was picked up here on this Scoop It page:
Check out this site for a frequently updated collection of articles on creativity from all over the web.
Like this one, published on Forbes.com: “I admit to being a creativity sceptic. When it came into vogue thirty years ago I cringed. Creative? What’s wrong with busy?”