Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are so ingrained in our society we rarely stop to think about it. I can write anything I want – dark fiendish plots without fear. I can criticize the FBI, the CIA, the President and Congress without giving it a thought.
– John Grisham


It is challenging at times to let go of our idea of the story in order to allow the actual story to emerge. If we are stuck, the way out is not through forcing our idea, but rather inquiring into the nature of our character’s dilemma.

In the Coen Bros. dark comedy, Burn After Reading, the dilemma is vanity. It might be characterized as, “How can I have love when I don’t believe I’m enough?” It is a set up, a circular problem that can never be resolved. This question arises over and over again in the film. All of the characters constellate around this question of how to get the love they want. The filmmakers are exploring the nature of yearning to darkly comic effect.

In creating our stories there can be a tendency to want to figure it out. Remember, the desire to write is connected to the desire to resolve something within ourselves. To some degree we are always writing our story, therefore, we are going to be touching that tender spot in ourselves.

Notice how we must confront a dilemma for ourselves in writing our story: If we are trying to resolve something and we don’t have the answer, how can we finish it? Writing our story is a setup. It asks everything of us – because if it didn’t we would never surrender.

Here’s the solution: be the wise man or woman on the hill. Know that a place lives within you where the dilemma is resolved. This place doesn’t live in our heads. It lives in our subconscious. Our subconscious understands that life is not about good and bad, winning and losing. It understands the nature of existence is about cause and effect, action and consequence.

It is crucial that we maintain an objective distance from our work in order to be a channel for the images that want to be told through us. Put simply, we need to cut ourselves some slack so we can get to that raw place. When we go to the place of not knowing, we discover what we know. But if we think we already know we never move beyond what we merely believe. Knowing is a place that can contain the dilemma. Belief is the precarious place where our hero is forever buffeted by the winds of change.

Let’s give ourselves permission to write the forbidden. We may feel that we are exposing our deepest secrets. Good. People only care about the story! While watching Burn After Reading, do we wonder if the Coen brothers are the vainest people in America, or if they have ever secretly taken a hatchet to someone’s head, as Malkovich did to Richard Jenkins? Do we wonder if perhaps they are secretly saving up to buy butt implants like Frances McDormand in one of the opening scenes? Of course not. Here’s why: vanity lives in all of us, as does the murderous impulse, as does anything we can imagine. Terence, the Roman playwright and philosopher, said, “Nothing human is alien to me.”

When we write from the personal, we connect to the universal. In acknowledging our weaknesses, we are set free.