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.

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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.

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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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Autopilot biography – Understanding De Palma

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I’m generally not a fan of autobiography. Similarly, I am not a fan of retrospective panels where the topic of the retrospective is the guest.

Although the thinking behind such efforts is who better to tell us the truth of past events than the person who lived them, I find that the idea rarely manifests into a reality. Too often, we are merely presented with a series of events or facts, rather than any real insights into whom these people are and how those events both fed into and were products of those individuals.

This turned out to be the case with the 2015 documentary De Palma, recently released on Netflix.

Over a span of 110 minutes, we hear every thought that famed film director Brian De Palma has about pretty much every movie he ever made, from his days as a film student up to his most recent contributions. And yet, despite all of this exposition, I feel like I am no closer to understanding De Palma than I was when the almost two-hour odyssey began.

For film buffs and film students, there is plenty to like about this documentary, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. De Palma discusses his many influences as a cinematographer and director, offering lovely homages to older films through examples of his own.

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And the film is a nice reflection on a period of time in American cinematography, when the likes of Scorsese, Lucas, and Spielberg were establishing their imprints on film. We get a taste of what it was like to always be on the cusp of the studios, and the struggle to live up to your artistic vision and hearing crickets chirp in empty theatres.

But I didn’t just want a taste. I wanted to understand the artist and his art.

A few years ago, at the Austin Film Festival, I sat in a session where Chris Carter discussed the genesis and ongoing development of The X Files, a series I quite enjoyed for its first few seasons. But rather than learn anything insightful or useful—which is the norm at Austin—I felt like I was sitting in a Comic-Con session, where a lot of the questions began: “Remember that episode where…”

I’m not belittling Comic-Con or fan worship. It has its place.

I just didn’t think that a screenwriters’ conference was that place.

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This is why I don’t like autobiographies, in general. Rare is the book or documentary where a subject is required to delve deep into their experiences, to explore how those experiences moulded them during moments of personal evolution.

Instead, the documentarians tend to be fanboys or -girls, who start every segment with the question: “Remember that movie where…”

[For context, think back to a Chris Farley character on Saturday Night Live.]

Ironically, in discussing the camera work on Carlito’s Way, De Palma kind of summarized my problem with the attempt to catalogue every film in his filmography:

“The thing you learn about the long take is that you can document the emotion happening on the screen in real time,” he explained. “And once you start cutting things up, you lose the emotional rhythm of things.”

This is my issue. There was no emotional center to this documentary. It was too technical or mechanical and lacked almost any sense of humanity and therefore artistry.

And I say almost, because De Palma finally touched on a subject that I wish the entire film had documented as he summed up his thoughts.

“The thing about making movies is every mistake you made is up there on the screen,” he said, almost wistfully. “Everything you didn’t solve, every short-cut you made you will look at it the rest of your life. So, it’s like a record of the things that you didn’t finish, basically.”

And more powerfully:

“People in your life can be threatened by your intense concentration, your complete immersion in what you’re doing,” he continued. “My true wife is my movie, not you.”

Ironically, I am left thinking the same thing at the end of De Palma. What might have been?

See also:

Variety review

VOX review

The Guardian review

On the page

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Frenzied creativity can keep you from getting all of your thoughts down

One challenge of being creative is that our minds often work much faster than the rest of our bodies can. Ideas can come at such a rate, our enthusiasm for a topic or story can be so intense, that we can find ourselves tripping over our words or leaving out things like nouns and verbs.

When I was much younger, I would see this challenge play out on my typewriter.

My thoughts were so frenzied and my fingers so quick that I would physically overwhelm the ability of the typewriter hammers to rise at the key stroke, strike the ribbon against the paper, and fall back into place before the next key stroke catapulted the next letter. Time and again, I would sigh in frustration as I would stop to manually separate the two letter arms that had become entangled.

But even in the absence of mechanical typing, such enthusiasm can result in conceptual clogging, where thoughts that cross your mind fail to find a home on the page.

Although this happens more in fiction than nonfiction writing, I have read examples in both situations where a writer has failed to include important information about their characters, the plot or even the settings of events. Because we see everything in our heads, because our thoughts move so quickly, we may not realize that we have failed to put this on the page.

When I write a line of dialogue for a character, for example, I hear the character’s voice in my head and I know his or her emotional state, so I hear the intonation that reflects that state.

On a good day, the same information is relayed in the words the character speaks and/or in the actions the character performs while saying those words. (On a really good day, the words spoken and the actions taken don’t exactly align, revealing subtext.)

As often as not, however, I threw down the first dialogue that came into my head or described a relatively generic action to get to the really cool moment a couple of pages from now.

Again, I heard the intonation. I know how the character is feeling. So, in my head, nothing is missing. Everything a reader needs to understand what is happening is found in the black letters that stripe the white screen or page.

 

Am I reading what you’re writing?

Your reader is not in your head, however. She doesn’t necessarily know how the character feels or where the story is going.

She will likely fill in those blanks with her best guess based on what she’s already read, and she might be right.

But if she’s not, if her assumptions are wrong, the moment of realization might be quite jarring, and she may have to drop back to re-read one or more passages to catch up to you.

NOTE: These moments are particularly noticeable if you have someone or a group do a cold-read of your work. The minute a reader starts the line “wrong”, you see (or hear) the potential train wreck ahead.

Any success you had in engrossing your reader and revealing your creative genius dissipates, and has to be newly won in the subsequent pages.

As the reader, if I need – or even just want – to know something to help me understand a character, relationship or scene, make sure I do. Make sure the idea or concept is on the page.

You ultimately cannot control what goes on inside the head of any reader, whether their personal perspectives or attitudes or what kind of day they’re having, but you can do as much as you can to get your idea, your story across with as few filters as possible.

You don’t necessarily have to do this with Draft One – anything you can do to ride the wave of enthusiasm and get Draft One completed takes priority.

But as you transition to Draft Two, Four or Eleven, look for opportunities to be clearer in your intent for your characters and your story.

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Aiming for clarity

How many ways could a given line or sentence be read?

Unless you’re purposefully pulling for subtext Nirvana, try to reduce that number, if for no other reason than the number in your head is probably three to five times lower than what it actually is.

Sometimes, clarity comes in the perfectly chosen word.

“Cameron put his glass down.”

“Cameron slammed his glass down.”

“Cameron let his glass drop.”

“The glass slipped from Cameron’s hand.”

Sometimes, clarity comes with more information/words.

“Cameron put his glass down.”

“Cameron gingerly nestled the glass into its condensation ring.”

“Avoiding a fist of broken glass, Cameron lowered his drink to the table.”

Yes, you run the risk of over-writing, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of writing travelogues rather than setting descriptions in early drafts.

I would argue, however, that it is better to cut back something over-written than omit vital information.

And yes, for genres such as thriller or horror, you may want to avoid providing too much information for fear of ruining the suspense.

I’ll talk more about genre another time, but in the interim will suggest that while you may wish to mislead your reader, you never want to lie to them, even by omission.

Once the final reveal is made, the reader should be able to go back and see all the connecting dots. Simply leaving out an important point is a cheat, from my perspective, especially if it prevents someone from making connections.

Misdirect, fine. Leave things open to interpretation, certainly. But never lie.

 

Seeing what’s not there

So, how do you know what you’ve inadvertently left off the page?

Time away helps.

Once that initial energy has dissipated, put the work away for a while. Clear your head by working on something else, and only then come back to it and see if it reads like you wrote it.

Alternatively, as suggested above, have someone (or some-many) read it aloud to you while you sit completely silent – not easy. You will hear every clunk and every reinterpretation of your intent.

And sometimes, you simply cannot see it, which is where people like me come in: experienced story analysts who know the standard or common issues that arise and can not only identify where they occur in your work, but also offer insights or possible fixes.

This is feedback at a higher level than editing – although many of us instinctively edit – and the best story analysts help you find your way of telling your story, not theirs.

Because the story analyst didn’t write your story, they’ll see the gaps or holes much faster and more clearly than you will, and will help you fill those gaps, ensuring that you have left it all on the page.

 

So, What’s Your Story is a story analysis service designed to help anyone tell their story better, whether fiction or nonfiction, long or short, written or verbal. Even if you’re just looking for a quick sense of how well you’ve told your story, we should talk.

Fears and tears

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Tears come unbidden, unwelcome,

Blurring my vision,

But refusing to fall.

It’s the wind.

It’s a cold.

It’s allergies.

Anything but sadness,

Anger, frustration.

Throat clenches;

Chest tightens;

But the scream

Will not come;

Restricted in my lungs,

Blocked by still sealed lips.

So much pain;

So much sorrow.

The pulse quickens.

The mind races.

But legs remain static.

I run away

By running inward;

Afraid to cry

For fear of never stopping.

My silence deafens me;

Acrid saline blinds me;

Anguish deadens my soul;

And yet, I feel it all.

Feel this, would you?

I used to stare at this poster trying to gauge what I felt...sometimes it worked, sometimes not

I used to stare at this poster trying to gauge what I felt…sometimes it worked, sometimes not

I have to admit I find it difficult to write characters. No create them, but to actually make them come alive on the page.

To develop a truly realistic character, you need to be able to give a sense of his or her emotional state, and this is where the wheels tend to fall off for me.

For most of my life, you see, I have focused on facts, not feelings. I might even go so far as to say I have completely shut feelings out of my life—or at least as completely as possible without (yet) ending up in prison as a socio- or psychopath. Thus, I have been ill-equipped to deal with the myriad emotions that form the human condition.

If I look or think back to the writing of my youth, I seemed to be able to manage moral outrage and on occasion, actual rage, but any other emotions, no matter to what extreme, came across as flat. And forget any of the subtle shades in between. I did not do subtlety.

About the only character I could develop was the noble stoic who was a tad self-involved. Hmmm. Seems familiar somehow.

Lacking experience with these various emotions, how could I hope to bring them to my characters?

I’ve never believed emotions were something you could study in the traditional sense.

If I want to understand a polar landscape, I can go online or check a variety of books. Determine the behaviour of a jet that loses one engine? I’m sure there’s a Wiki for that. But emotions, by their very nature, preclude such an academic approach.

Ah, but what about other books and movies?

Good in theory, but without a personal foundation, you run the risk of simply reproducing Glenn Close’s interactions with the rabbit or Peter Lorre’s fear of Moroccan Nazis.

No, to be able to realistically reproduce emotions in my characters, I needed to have experienced them to some extent in my life. Call it Method Writing, if you wish.

Luckily, for a variety of reasons having nothing to do with screenwriting, I have been accessing my emotional centre over the last couple of years. Through a challenging process of self-examination and “coaching”, I have started to feel—allowed myself to feel—emotions like sadness, irritation, pleasure, enthusiasm, boredom and the like. And the impact in my writing has been immediate, if continuing to develop.

When my character is angry, I find myself getting angry. When my character feels loss, I can remember when. Ecstasy? I’m all over it (the emotion, not the chemical).

And I’m not the only one who notices this. As friends, colleagues and classmates read my material, I sense they too experience the emotional rainbow. And sometimes they introduce feelings I never envisioned for a scene.

This isn’t a threat to what I wrote. It is a bonus prize I receive for paying attention and sharing, for they have found something in my words that I did not see or did not know I was channeling.

Maybe it’s gold. Maybe it’s lead. But always, it is valuable.

Like my characters, I am still a work in progress, but at least I feel like I’m progressing.

(Image is property of its owner and is used here without permission. I don’t know how I feel about that.)

The Drifts – A must see at NYC Fringe

Novelist, playwright, actor Thom Vernon

Novelist, playwright, actor Thom Vernon

Earlier this evening, I watched a run-through of The Drifts, a one-man play that will take the stage at this year’s New York Fringe Festival (Aug 9 – 25). I won’t go into the details of the plot other than to say it is excerpted from the book of the same name by Thom Vernon.

As I have written elsewhere, I do not generally like one-person plays. I find them to be self-involved and often so self-referential that they provide no context for me as a viewer. The Drifts, however, does not feel like a one-person play but rather a fully cast exhibition of characters that all happen to be performed by the same actor, again Thom Vernon.

In a good way, Vernon channels his inner Sibyl to schizophrenically present a cast of at least 8 or 9 characters, including a baby cow (seriously), and he does this with such clarity that you’ll only rarely find yourself confused as to who is speaking.

With a single motion, nervous tick, posture, sound or look, Vernon assures that you will immediately know if you are looking at desperate husband Charlie or exhausted wife Julie.

The story itself comes at you like an emotional jackhammer as each of the characters struggles to find or stand up for his or her individuality. And it is this sameness of their pursuits that provides the delicious irony of the piece, proving that what truly draws us to each other is our common need to be unique.

By the end of the hour, you will find yourself as exhausted as the playwright and actor, but it will be a welcome and refreshing exhaustion that will leave you changed—and no doubt heading to the nearest bookstore to find the book.

If you are fortunate enough to be in New York during the Fringe Festival, compound that fortune by taking in The Drifts.

Can you relate?

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I spent three days this week wandering the show floor of a conference on stem cells, interviewing scientists and corporate executives for a series of articles I am writing. As this is the first time I have met most of these people, the conversation usually starts somewhat tentative as the people try to figure out how to address my journalistic needs while fulfilling their marketing agendas. This is just the nature of such interviews.

Luckily, I have a secret that tends to break the ice a little. Early in the conversation, I try to find an opening in what they are telling me to relate a personal anecdote or observation about my own scientific training as a protein biochemist—yes, I actually used to be quite smart.

Within seconds, the interviewee’s posture changes, their voice takes on a new timber as they realize that I am a kindred spirit even if my uniform has changed. Suddenly, they know I can relate, and the conversation becomes one between friends or colleagues.

The same holds true for storytelling.

When the reader picks up your novel or short story, the viewer sits down to watch your movie, the initial engagement can be tentative as the reader tries to figure out what you’re doing, where you’re taking them. The reader holds back from completely engaging with you as they wait for that magic moment when they can relate.

No matter how fantastical or mundane your story, the reader must be able to latch onto something, to find a kindred spirit.

More often than not, it is your protagonist—the canonical Everyman or Everywoman—who has some visceral need to fulfill or challenge to overcome. Killing the dragon is the superficial challenge, but damned few of us have had much experience killing dragons. Most of us, however, have fought for the respect of our community or have had to overcome a fear and step forward to take control or responsibility.

Hell, readers might even relate to the dragon, as in the movie Dragonheart, where Sean Connery’s Draco finally explained that his assaults on the townsfolk were [SPOILER ALERT] his attempts to save the last dragon—him—from extinction.

In the rarest of cases, it may not be a character, but the environment to which someone relates. This is my situation with the series Mad Men. I find it difficult to relate to any of the characters and their hyper-exaggerated soap opera problems. Having spent more than five years in advertising, however, I can relate to the creative challenges within the office. I find myself getting angry or frustrated as I watch pitch meetings or client presentations because of my own baggage.

As a creator of your story, you cannot hope to know everyone who will come across your story. Thus, you cannot—nor should you—build your story to accommodate these varied experiences. You have to tell your story to tell it effectively, but you can broaden its appeal by making sure your characters (and possibly your environment) offer clear parallels to the current human experience. (If your primary audience is dogs or fish, then change the word “human” as appropriate.)

At their most basic levels, what are the human conditions that your characters express or are trying to repress (oooh, subtext)? When you get a good handle on that, you’ll have a better understanding of how relatable your story will be to your audience.

(Images are used without permission.)