We are the stories we tell ourselves

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Human beings connect through story. We define our individual selves by story. We even define our universe in terms of the stories we tell ourselves.

And despite often sharing experiences with others, my understanding and interpretation of those experiences—my personal Truth—is the story that I build around those experiences.

If I see something I have never seen before, I immediately construct a story. I give it context from items around it or its location or its presence at this time of day.

And remarkably, if I came upon this same thing tomorrow rather than today, the story I construct then might be entirely different from the one I build today.

Thus, story is malleable. It lives and breathes as we take in new information from our surroundings and incorporate that information into the story, making tweaks and adjustments to ensure that everything continues to make sense.

When the story doesn’t make sense, when congruence is lost, we get upset, and in some cases, put up hostile blinders. This is when human beings lose connection.

Because story is such a personal thing, the Creative—whom I define as anyone who pursues a task with passion—is faced with an essentially insurmountable challenge: How do I share my story through myriad personal filters?

Ultimately, you cannot control how another receives and interprets your story.

abstract art

What is my story for this work? What story did the Creative intend?

Even if the Painter tells me her intent in painting a portrait or landscape, the Novelist types out in no uncertain terms precisely what he means to convey, the Musician strikes notes and chords to instill specific feelings, I can remain oblivious to those intents, consciously or un-.

This simply is; and we can only hope that it does not negatively influence the passion to create.

That passion, the drive to create, must be given voice, however; and so the Creative moves forward, doing his or her best to share (much as I am doing now in writing this).

A dedicated Creative struggles on, regardless of the insurmountable barriers, and strives to convey the most effective story he or she can, looking for ways to layer thoughts and emotions and spiritual energies onto the personal stories of others.

We practice what we know. We experiment with the unknown. We seek guidance and critical analysis.

And most importantly, we accept that we will never achieve 100% success instilling our stories in others, and yet push ourselves and our Art as if it were possible.

As Creatives, as people of passion, that is central to our stories.

*****

If you’re interested in learning how to build stories more effectively, seeking guidance for nascent projects or critical analysis of existing works, feel free to check out my website So, What’s Your Story or reach out to me here or via my Facebook page.

In the meantime, I wish you all the success in the world.

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Demystifying Expertise

expertise-equation

Each of us tends to undersell (or completely disbelieve) our expertise on subjects that are near and dear to our hearts. Expertise, we believe, is something other people have.

And yet, I am convinced that we are more expert than we think. And fortunately, we are living in a time where methods to convince others of our expertise has never been easier.

Watch my recent Facebook Live video Demystifying Expertise and see if you agree.

 

Close Encounters with Arrival – a review

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Although Star Wars will remain the apex of my formative years as a young writer and dreamer, Close Encounters of the Third Kind plays a close second. At the risk of blasphemy, the latter film was significantly superior to the Lucas’ space western, offering insights into humanity and our possible place in the Universe that I couldn’t begin to fathom until later in life.

Such films are rare.

Arrival, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened widely this week, is one of those films and is a worthy successor to Close Encounters.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, a man better known for horror films like the reboots of The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Arrival opens with the arrival of 12 alien space craft—looking a bit like fat Pringles—at strategic positions around the globe.

Almost the entire story is told from the perspectives of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and shows their efforts to communicate with the aliens under the watchful eye of military commander Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), as scientists and military commands near the other 11 craft attempt the same.

While the trio works to simply comprehend the existence of the aliens, let alone try to communicate with them, the outside world falls apart as fear and a sense of insignificance grasps at the hearts of populations being told largely nothing, feeding the paranoid darkness that resides within all of us.

Without giving key aspects of the story away, the movie deals with broad metaphysical questions about existence and time, while at the same time, providing insights into our species at both its greatest apex and deepest nadir. And at its very base, it encapsulates the importance of trust in our evolution as individuals, as a society and as a species.

arrival-adams-dreyfuss

Amy Adams channels Richard Dreyfuss in her awe at the miracle before her

This is Amy Adams’ movie, and so all of these concepts are displayed through her fears and growth. She must learn to trust her human colleagues. She must learn to trust her alien counterparts, adorably nicknamed Abbott and Costello. And most importantly of all, she must learn to trust herself despite flashes of what seems like madness.

To tie back to Close Encounters, Adams is this movie’s Richard Dreyfuss, and she embues her character with both the same manic trepidation and child-like wonder as Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary.

Renner and Whitaker, for their parts, are incredibly subdued in this film.

Renner’s Donnelly is an emotional anchor for Adams. Coming from the academic world, his tone is at once familiar and playfully combative.

arrival-duo

The photographic focus on Adams is representative of Renner’s role in this film.

Whitaker’s Weber is authoritative and yet unthreatening. He is the calm in the intellectual storm, grounding the two academics for what they are about to witness and becoming increasingly appreciative of the miracle that unfolds before him.

What I found particularly interesting about Heisserer’s story was that the antagonist of the film was Fear.

Fear of the unknown. Fear of mortality. Fear of our own insignificance. And more importantly, our deepest fear that as individuals, we simply don’t measure up.

And breaking the rules of screenwriting, this fear was not embodied in a single antagonist, but in all characters, and it was only in fleeting moments that any individual character acted upon his or her fear. And yet, as fleeting as those moments were, each was vital to the evolution of the story and the critical relationships to their next stages.

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Connection relies on trust

Again, these moments fed back to the question of trust, particularly in the face of betrayal.

To assure everyone that this film isn’t simply a cerebral exercise—although it is beautiful in what it does accomplish—there is also a very deep emotional thread that runs through this movie, again centering on Adams. And from the opening, it seems like this personal journey is completely disconnected from the sci-fi plot.

But as the story unfolds and we begin to explore what is possible in an infinite cosmos, we begin to realize that the external and internal journeys are one and the same. There is no distinction. The line between physical and emotional is an artifact of our choices as humans and society.

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Arrival continues the saga that started with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Will Arrival be to adolescent minds today what Close Encounters was to mine in 1977?

Probably not.

It is a much more adult film that its predecessor, with many fewer action sequences to engage the eye. And Villeneuve’s views and sensibilities are very different from Steven Spielberg’s.

But Arrival is the closest thing to those seminal films that we have seen in a generation or more. And for the more engaged child or adolescent, it will open a window to another plane of storytelling.

See also:

Movie Review: Arrival (Danny F. Santos)

Amy Adams supplies emotional core of alien invasion film “Arrival” (Richard Crouse, CTV News)

Amy Adams has a sublime word with alien visitors (The Guardian)

Illiterate in 3 languages…all English

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“That which we call a rose, would by any other name, smell…”

William Shakespeare, Bad Line Break theatre

As many of you know (or have quickly surmised), I am Canadian, and more specifically, Anglo Canadian. Unto itself, that’s a pretty cushy thing to be in this country.

In choosing to live as a writer, however, I added an otherwise unnecessary twist to my life—I forced myself to learn English as a second language.

Wait. Didn’t you just self-identify as an English-speaking Canadian?

Yes, I did. But I’m a Canadian English-speaking Canadian.

And one of the first things you realize when you become a Canadian writer is that you will probably starve for lack of work.

Now, I’m not knocking Canadian writing, whether fiction, for film and television, journalism, what have you. It is easily some of the most beautiful writing available in the English world. But it is often written to (if not for) an incredibly small market, and opportunities to succeed are therefore often few and far between.

If feels like 8 writers encompass the entire Canadian television landscape. And name a Canadian movie. (I’ll wait.)

Nope and nope.

Nope and nope.

Okay, now name one not directed by David Cronenberg or Denys Arcand.

I was once offered a job as the Editor of a Canadian biotech magazine—yes, I used to be even more nerdy—for $30kpa. And yet, already on my resume was a job working for an American biotech mag that started around $65kpa.

Bottom line is thank goodness for my passion to write, because my passion for money has taken a beating.

(Side note: This was a choice I made and for which I take full responsibility. I don’t mean this to be a “life is so unfair” rant.)

What this has meant, therefore, is that to make it as a writer, I have had to learn English as a second language. In this case, American English.

Recently, the BBC published a short article that tried to explain Canadian English within the context of its British and American counterparts. Rightly, the author noted that the differences were more than a matter of spelling (e.g., centre v center; honor v honour). Rather, the differences also manifested in idioms, speech patterns and word choice.

As long as everyone's having fun

As long as everyone’s having fun

As with most Canadians, I had a bit of a leg up on learning American as our proximity to the border (mere kilometres and even fewer miles) means we are inundated daily by American film and television programming. But I also had the additional benefit of having been married to an American, and a Southerner to boot (more on “boots” later).

Where I would recommend taking the 401 across north Toronto, Leela would suggest taking 66 from Fairfax into Washington. Luckily, we were both practical enough to set aside arguments about whether we needed to go to hospital or the hospital.

All this to say that although the differences between Canadian English and American English can be subtle, they can easily explode before the eyes of the unsuspecting.

Writing for an American biotech magazine and working with American editors was something of an ESL boot camp. And over the intervening 15 years, I like to think I honed my American skills to the point where you suspect I am from Minnesota or Western New York (hello, North Tonawanda).

In fact, I’m going to rely heavily on my multi-Angloism as most of my writing, whether for money or in my screen- and novel writing, is aimed at American audiences. And although my primary goal remains writing the best story, my secondary goal is writing it in the most innocuous way. I don’t want my writing to “read” Canadian.

Versus

Truth be told, I don’t want my writing per se to be noticeable at all. If it is, I’ve taken the reader out of the story.

This is not to say that I want my stories to be bland, but rather that I want all of the art to be in the story itself, rather than the more mechanical aspects.

In my Canadian stories (so far a sitcom pilot and screenplay), which are set in Canada, involve Canadians and target Canadian audiences, I write Canadian. For pretty much everything else, I write American.

Should I start targeting British audiences, then I’ll spend more time learning British English, and make fewer spelling changes.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to bounce back and forth between the multiple Englishes like a character out of Monty Python.

What’s it aboot?

Anyone can make fun of how Canadians communicate (or don’t). Goodness knows Canadians do. But I have to admit that I struggle with the whole “oot and aboot” phrasing that American audiences in particular seem to see as a Canadian phrase.

It’s not that I think we pronounce these words correctly so much as we don’t say “oot”. Rather, we say “oat”.

As I mentioned, I was married to a Southerner, and one day, we had a lengthy conversation about the word “South”. Try as she might, Leela could not get me to pronounce the “ou” without it taking on a surreal emphasis akin to “owwwwwww”.

Instead, I would say “Soath”. And instead of “about”, I would say “aboat”. And as I made a point of listening closely to Anglo-Canadians speak, I never heard a single one say “aboot”. It was always “aboat”.

That being stated, I will totally cop to “eh”. It’s us. End of story.

In other words

Word up!

Word up!

According to a Global Language Monitor survey from 2014, there are 1,025,109.8 words in the English language. (Not sure what the 0.8 word is.) And based on further research, this tally makes English anywhere from 5- to 10-times larger than most Western European languages.

Depending on who you ask or possibly where, a native English-speaking adult has a functional vocabulary of anywhere from 10,000 to 75,000 words. Thus, on a regular basis, we use about 1-10% of the words available to us.

Many of those words have similar if not identical meanings and can often be used interchangeably with slight variations in implied meaning or significance. Hell, a British clinician with a list-making fetish famously went out and tried to catalogue these word relationships, offering encyclopedic lists of alternates to the most commonly used English words.

A man with a list (or maybe that's just how he sits)

A man with a list (or maybe that’s just how he sits)

So, given this profusion of synonymic wonder, why am I seeing an increasing number of stories—novels, screenplays, etc.—that seem only capable of the low end of the vocabulary spectrum?

And I’m not even talking the big words here. I am talking the simple words we use every day and yet which hold little more meaning than their strictest definition. Words like “said”, “walk”, “enter”.

Now, I am not suggesting people necessarily have to write with a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus next to them, something of which I have been accused on occasion. But while exsanguinating your latest cerebral machinations into the fibrous folds of the human record—sorry, I digress—why not make the most of the words that are at your disposal?

For example:

Hearing a cry from the other room, Cecily walked through the door.

Now, Cecily may indeed have “walked” through the door, but that tells me absolutely nothing other than her transitional geographic location.

What was Cecily’s emotional state and how eager was she to discover the source of the cry?

There are so many other words—common words—in the English language that will tell us so much more about Cecily than the fact that she moved.

What about strutted, strode, skipped, crashed, bolted, dashed, raced, blasted, crept, snuck (sneaked?), sauntered, staggered, bounded, tripped, stumbled, inched, crawled, or fell?

Each of these words tells us so much more about Cecily’s relative state of confidence and sense of urgency, and any one of these in place of “walked” prevents the writer from having to later explain her emotions with a second sentence.

In some cases, people will append adverbs to offer greater insights into the emotional state of a character, but again, even this can often be avoided through use of more descriptive verb.

For example:

“You’re crazy,” Philip replied angrily.

Definitely better than just “Philip replied”. But what if Philip did more than reply? What if he screamed, shouted, barked, bellowed, screeched, roared, or cried?

Again, each word offers a slightly different take on Philip’s emotional state and gives us a sense of whether he is angry at his target or terrified by her.

All the kids are doing it

All the kids are doing it

And what holds true for verbs, also holds for adjectives, and particularly as some of the simpler ones can be relative.

The precise height of a tall man varies significantly between someone who is 5 ft 2 versus someone who is 6 ft 1. And again, the adjective has an opportunity to add an emotional or psychological angle to the description.

Rather than “tall”, what about towering, mountainous, tree-like, statuesque, cloud-scraping, looming, or neck-straining?

Or instead of a specific age (unless the precise number is vital), what about world-weary, worn down, spry, vivacious, ancient, wizened, infantile or cadaverous?

Got your back, kid!

Got your back, kid!

Again, I don’t think we need to discard the presocialized anthropoidal biped with the bath water, but particularly in our writing, I think we need to make better use of the wealth the English language affords us and open ourselves to more precise and effective word choices.

Together, we can strut the walk and hallelujah the talk.