“The curious are always in some danger. If you are curious, you might never come home.” – Jeanette Winterson
When my son was three years old, he was Captain Hook for Halloween. It was fascinating to watch him. He cared way more about playing pretend than he did about the candy. It would have been easier for him to lose the hook and dig in with both hands when our neighbor told him that he could take as much candy as he wanted, but what mattered to Ray was the story he was in.
One morning he got up and ran into the family room to put on his white bear paws and hat that my costume designer gave him on the set of my film Interior Night. He told me that Stanley was missing and we had to go and find him. My son tells stories all day long . . . and he never worries about whether or not they will get published.
It’s inspiring to see that level of commitment.
He literally lives for story. It makes me wonder why are we so drawn to story. I think it’s because story is the way we contextualize our lives—our imagination is the tool we use to find meaning, to resolve dilemmas, and to make sense of our world.
And yet, as we grow up, fear gets in the way—we start worrying about who is going to love us and how are we going to pay for everything, and often we fall into the false belief that we cannot rely on our intuition or imagination to guide us—and yet, we have this desire to write.
I think that the act of writing is really a process of shedding all of our false beliefs for the truth. The three-act-structure is a process of winnowing away our protagonist’s misconception of the way things are in order to lead him back to his true self.
Picasso said, “It takes a very long time to become young.”
Story often begins with an idea or an image that ignites our imagination. We become curious, wanting to know more, to see how it is going to play out. The desire to write is connected to the desire to resolve something we don’t yet understand. However, there can be a tendency to objectify the creative experience, to believe that we are somehow in control, that it is our job to figure out our novel or screenplay. The problem with this is that we tend to write our idea of the story—we think we know what is going to happen and we don’t allow our characters to take the lead. Being curious means that we trust our characters even as they lead us away from our idea of where we think the story should go. We must allow them this privilege!
If we do not allow our characters to stray from our preconceived vision of the story, our work will be predictable. It is not that our ideas are wrong, it is just that, sometimes, we fail to grasp the depth of conflict required to satisfy what we are trying to express. Our characters want something—the stakes are life and death. By going after what they want, they will meet with antagonistic forces.
When we allow our characters to struggle mightily we are rewarded with a more dynamic scene that dramatizes our ideas in ways we may not have anticipated. Our work becomes more specific.
When we approach our work from a place of wonder, anything is possible.
When we let go of the pressure that we are supposed to solve something, or that there is something we ought to know, we can relax and ideas and images naturally accrue.
There may be a period of time when the story doesn’t cohere. We may have a series of disparate images, a sense of our hero at different points in the story, and we wonder how on earth he is going to get from here to there. Understandably, this can make us nervous—or we can get excited by how dynamic our book or screenplay is becoming. As long as we hold it loosely and stay connected to that initial impulse, our story has a way of telling us where it wants to go.
Our subconscious seems to be constructed in such a way that it is forever searching to find order in chaos. It is the ultimate Mr. Fix-It. We don’t need to crack the whip. In fact, it is when we start cracking the whip and fretting about whether the writing is any good that our subconscious starts shutting down.
It seems that the more we show up for our writing each day, the less credence we are inclined to give our anxiety. Every day is different, and there is little connection between our feelings and the quality of our work. When we surrender to our curiosity, our story reveals itself to us in ways we may never have imagined.
I can’t wait to find out who my son will be tomorrow.