In the last couple of weeks, I have spoken with many friends about the concept of happiness as it pertains to life’s pursuits, which has forced me to give thought to my past experiences and the reasons why happiness eluded me for so long in my life. The following is the sum of my thoughts.
Life is not about destinations. Or perhaps I should argue that a happy or satisfying life cannot be about destinations, because destinations are temporary at best and completely illusory in truth.
We have been taught that it is important to set goals, to aim for a destination, and to a limited extent, I agree. Where I struggle, however, is in the assumption, the programming that suggests the goal will bring happiness, that at your destination, you can rest.
For most of us, this sets up a couple of problems.
If we do not succeed in achieving our goal or reaching our destination, then not only have we failed, but more insidiously, we see ourselves as failures.
But even in those situations where we achieve our goal, arrive at our destination, we are faced with the daunting and disheartening revelation of “Now what?”
For despite the momentary glow of success, we cannot rest. We must seek the next goal, identify the next destination. And the cycle repeats, ensuring that for all but the rarest of us, we will fail, we are failures.
Part of the challenge is that for many people, the idea of a goal or destination presupposes that we are not sufficient in the now, that our lives are incomplete and would somehow be better over there.
We don’t make enough money. We are alone. We have not achieved the heights for which we are destined. We—as we are today—are not good enough.
It is good to push boundaries. It is good to strive.
And while those two statements may sound contradictory to the questions I raise above, to what I have decried, I don’t think they are.
Pushing. Striving. These are actions, not endpoints. And that makes all the difference in the world.
A goal or a destination, a predetermined endpoint, is fine, but only in so far as it gets you moving in a direction. After that, it is meaningless.
Life is in the movement. It is in the process. It is in the journey, regardless of where that journey takes you.
Destinations and goals give us opportunities to shift the direction of that journey, but they are not the point of or the reason for the journey.
We are like photons in the universe of our lives. Without movement, a photon has no mass. When we cease to move, we cease to exist.
It is our movement that gives us life, and our interactions during that journey that gives that life meaning.
Feel free to set a direction, but be prepared for and welcome the changes that come along the way, for it is in that journey that we will truly live and ultimately find happiness.
An example from my life:
Early in my writing career, I worked for a magazine in Washington, DC. Every year, my boss and I would set goals for the next 12 months; e.g., 3 features, 10 department articles, 20 short pieces. And being a little Type A, I would accomplish my benchmark within 3 months. At the end of the 12 months, I might have tripled or quadrupled the expected output.
I would demand a promotion, and I would be told no…there were apparently other factors not included in my annual goals before I could be promoted. This pissed me off.
But surprisingly, even when I received the promotion, it was not enough. I needed the next one. I set the goals and again, felt held back despite achieving the goals.
And very quickly, the job I loved, the job I practically ran toward every morning in anticipation, became a leaden weight. I ceased to write for the love of writing. I was miserable.
In hindsight, I can see now how much I learned on that job—not the least of which was “office politics”—but at the time, all I could see was failure. It was the journey that helped shaped the man I am today, not the endpoints. I might have been happier had I realized that then.
The following video is a rather clever summation of my thoughts. Thanks to my friend Agah for pointing me to it!
Having spent a fair amount of time in airports, I have seen plenty of jets, but airborne behemoths still impress me, so recent trips to Washington, DC and British Columbia added new flavours to my fascination.
Beating the race to post the first Mother’s Day tribute on my blog.
With one exception, these are all photos from my trip to British Columbia last autumn, and I am confident that my mom will think she looks like hell in each and everyone of these photos. That’s my mom!
I cannot see you
As you might wish,
But only as my eye allows.
Of old beliefs—
Emotional and real—
Shade the greys,
Colour the colours,
Frame light with dark,
Dark with light,
Until all I see
Is what I choose
I cannot see you
As you might wish;
Be glad I see
Any of you at all.
A novel I had started working on a while ago as part of a Humber College workshop on opening pages; i.e., how to attract the eye of acquisition editors.
Really need to get back to this.
Sasha had never had her breasts go numb before.
Sure, she’d lost feeling in her fingers and had suffered frostbitten toes more than once, but this was something else altogether. But then, she’d also never spent six hours prone on a rock in the middle of the North Atlantic.
Sasha had fought off sleep for the last two hours, listening to the rhythm of the waves that charged the beach that sprawled below her. Now that the sun had started to peek above the horizon, she could focus her attention on the dark shapes floating just offshore, knowing that not all of them would be pieces of driftwood slowly making their way from the seaside forests of Newfoundland.
“Get used to this,” she thought to herself. “You’ll probably spend your next four or five Springs this way.”
It was definitely a far cry from the relative civility of her life in Toronto—although maybe sterility was a better way of describing it. The sounds and flavours of the ocean did, however, remind her of the summers she spent with her grandparents at the family home just outside of Halifax.
Funny, she thought, this was the first time she’d thought—allowed herself to think—about her grandparents. All those years spent trying to escape the East Coast and here she was, smack in the middle of it again.
Adjusting her position ever so slightly, Sasha grunted inwardly, trying to remain the silent sentinel while allowing her blood to circulate to her chilled extremities. But even as she settled back in, she knew that something was different. Something had changed in the surf. Some of the driftwood had started to move with purpose, making a beeline for the beach.
It was time to prepare her kit and call the others.
(Okay, I don’t have any photos of Atlantic Canada, so I’m substituting this one from Tofino.)
It may sound ridiculous to say, but wherever and whenever I travel, I find symbols of my inner journey, the personal transit that extends beyond airline tickets, overstuffed luggage, and souvenir shops. And it’s often not until I arrive home to look at the images within my camera, that I see the patterns.
Am I imprinting meaning where none inherently exists? Does it matter?
Whether inherent or imposed, the imagining of a pattern changes me and the pattern becomes true.
The following are a selection of images from my travels last year through British Columbia, a break before I began on the next great journey of my life, and one I take alone.
In Part One, I discussed the idea that to understand any characters you create and to make them more alive to your audience, you need to understand their baggage, the emotional and psychological events of their past that informs/moulds their behaviours and responses today. Today, I want to talk about making sure you let your audience in on the cosmic joke.
A couple years ago, I wrote a pilot episode for a new sitcom that I was developing—and still am; oh producers, where are’t thou?—and I asked my long suffering wife to read the teleplay.
My concern, I explained, was that of the four main characters, I didn’t feel I had a handle on three. The protagonist I nailed—knew him inside and out—but the other three seemed a little superficial. I wanted a second opinion, though, in case I was just being hard on myself.
Upon reading the script, she asked me a question. [SIDEBAR: Keep all friends who ask questions before offering opinions.]
Which of the four characters did I think I was most like? The protagonist, hands down. She smiled.
Based on her single reading without any background information, she proceeded to describe the other three characters in the script. And nailed them! She matched almost perfectly what I had had in mind for them.
But as was her wont—never in a malicious way—she then burst my bubble by telling me that she had almost no clue as to who the protagonist was, other than he was very similar to me. Without the benefit of 10 years of marriage, the protagonist was a black box. A name followed by narrative action or dialogue.
We walked through scenes and I explained motivations. My explanations made sense to her, but they weren’t on the page. My protagonist was so close to me that it never occurred to me that things weren’t obvious.
More recently, I’ve had the pleasure of reading other people’s developing screenplays, and very often, one of the problems I find as a reader is that I don’t have a clear vision of a character’s motivations in a scene. Why did they do what they did, say what they said?
One fellow student in particular I pressed for explanations about some characters in her otherwise amazing script (which horrified the bejeezus out of me btw). She waxed eloquent on her characters’ motivations and histories, offering amazing little vignettes from their pasts that helped explain why her characters were now behaving as they were.
But it wasn’t on the page!
Before I go further, this is NOT a call for more flashbacks (or cowbells). I am addicted to flashbacks, so I understand their power. Please avoid unless it is really there to move your plot along and not just a underhanded form of exposition designed to keep you from having to learn how to write subtext.
My recommendation to my friend, and something I will do on occasion, is to actually write out those vignettes, full narrative and dialogue, but only for myself and not for inclusion with the screenplay. Don’t just think about them, though. Actively write them out. For it is the act of writing that you will find the emotion of the scene, and it is that emotion that will provide the subtext of your screenplay.
That emotion will inform your dialogue and narrative word choice. That emotion will mould the flow and cadence of your dialogue (e.g., short, terse response vs. raving diatribe). It will also help inform how other characters will respond.
As I have experienced, having this information in my head makes it an intellectual exercise, with all of the cold aloofness that goes with it. But putting it on paper forces you to acknowledge and release those demons. It activates your lizard brain, as another friend of mine liked to call it. It is more visceral, more real.
It also has the added benefit of giving you something back to which you can refer when working on the story after six months of doing something else.
When someone reads your work or an actor performs it, you want to make it as easy as possible for them to get your characters, to understand the turmoil in which your characters function. Except at the highest levels of your story, do not ask your audience to think. It takes them out of the story.
You want them to feel the anger; the amusement; the sadness. If your protagonist is being oppressed, you want your audience to feel angry at the mistreatment, frustrated by the inability to change what is happening, and vindicated/exhilarated when your protagonist triumphs.
They can think on the way home from the theatre or after they close the back cover of the book.
If it is not on the page, none of this will happen. You audience will not engage and your story will suffer.
Sure, it sounds like extra work—it is!—but you’ve already invested this much time and effort on your story. Do you really want to risk that being all for nought because you’re the only one who gets why this story is important?
Who is this man and what is he thinking? What is he waiting for? If he looked at me, would I see boredom, anger, fear, joy?
(Taken in Tofino, British Columbia.)