It is challenging sometimes for me to let go of my “idea” of my story, in order to allow the actual story to emerge. Let’s remember that we never need to impose anything, but rather inquire into the nature of our character’s fundamental dilemma.
In the Coen Bros. darkly comic film, Burn After Reading, the fundamental dilemma seems to have something to do with vanity. We might characterize the dilemma as “how can I be content, when I don’t think I am enough?” This is a dilemma, because if I am content, I may believe that I will become complacent, and I cannot afford to be complacent, because I don’t think I am enough, therefore I will never get what I want, e.g., love, money, a plastic surgery operation, etc. It is a setup, a circular problem that can never be resolved. We can see how this question arises over and over again in the film. As viewers, we experience the dilemma as a feeling tone. It’s visceral, never intellectual. We are completely invested in the experience, along with the characters. (Spoiler alert for next sentence) Did anyone not recoil (along with George Clooney) when Brad Pitt was shot in his closet? We experience the film viscerally.
In creating our stories, there can, at times, be a tendency to want to play it safe, to control our story in some way. As I’ve said before, the desire to write is connected to the desire to resolve something within ourselves. By that I mean, we are always writing our story to some degree, or at least investigating into the nature of something that compels us. Therefore, we are going to be touching that tender spot in ourselves.
Rather than getting all warm and fuzzy, and saying that we need to be gentle with ourselves (which, of course we do), I want to suggest an image. Let’s think about being the “wise man or woman on the hill,” which is what our unconscious is. Our unconscious understands with absolute clarity that life is not about good and bad, winning and losing, and the dispensing of blame. Our unconscious understands that the nature of existence is predicated on cause and effect.
What I am getting at, is that if I am always, to some degree, writing my own story, it is absolutely imperative that I maintain a “professional distance” from my story, while at the same time allowing myself to be a channel for the images that want to be told through me.
In simple terms, I need to get my ego out of the way. I need to cut myself some slack, and then, I need to be willing to go to that raw place. Let me allow myself to get a little embarrassed by what I’m writing. (By the way, I always give myself permission to not show my work to anyone – I also don’t tell people what I am working on. I never discuss my story with people, including my agent or my wife, and certainly never in any specific way). My story is sacred, and I treat it as such.
If I give myself permission to be dangerous on the page, to expose myself, people are going to connect. This is the great irony of the creative process. The more personal (meaning specific, not self-consciously confessional) my story is, the more people will relate. We will all understand. Hell, more than understand, we will care, we will be invested, and we will be on the edge of our seats wanting to see how this story resolves itself.
Let us give ourselves permission to write the forbidden. We may feel that we are exposing our deepest secrets, but guess what, (and this may or may not surprise you). Nobody cares! All people care about is our story.
Let’s ask ourselves. Did we wonder, for even a second, if the Coen brothers were the vainest people in America, because they had written a movie about vanity? Did we wonder if they had ever secretly taken a hatchet to someone’s head, as Malkovich did to Richard Jenkins? Did we wonder if perhaps they were secretly saving up to buy butt implants? I sure didn’t. I’m really not wondering these things. And here’s why . . .
Terence, the 100 B.C. Roman playwright and philosopher said, “Nothing human is alien to me.”
. . . because vanity lives in all of us, as does the murderous impulse, as does anything that we can possibly imagine.
When I am willing to write from the most personal aspect of my characters, I instantly connect with their universality. It is the irony of art, that in exposing my supposed weakness, my puny-hearted pettiness, for example, I commit a most large-hearted act.
Let me know your thoughts.
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