Words

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Words.

They flow so easily from your lips.

Momentary sounds of normalcy

That hold no meaning.

They change nothing,

They hide the sepsis

That slowly builds,

Pressing ever harder

Into our every morning.

I’m no better.

Eyes wrinkle in amusement,

Thoughts emerge, wrapped in softness,

Trying to hide the harshness

That lies beneath, barely hidden.

Cold feelings disguised in warm notes.

And all I can think

As I stare across the table;

The only true feeling inside

Is a solitary echo:

I can’t do this anymore.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission.)

Based on my true story

Image

As I wrote yesterday in “Write what you…No!”, I wanted to talk about a variant of writing on a topic in which you have expertise: the true story.

Now let me start off by saying that I have never written anything directly lifted from a true story—at least never attempted to fictionalize one—but I have spent the better part of two years listening to people try to do same, and it seems to me the effort is fraught with pitfalls.

(Ironically, however, I am about to start a project with someone that will be based on his true story, so let’s see if my attitudes change once I’m on the inside.)

The biggest challenge I have seen is that many novice writers forget that they need to tell a story. On the surface, that may sound ridiculous. It is a story. I know. I was there. The problem it seems is that a lot of writers try to chronicle the actual events that occurred rather than try to tell a story. That is a history, not a story.

It’s like sharing a joke with someone and having a third party enter asking what’s so funny. When you think about it, you realize the joke itself is not the funny part and you respond “You had to be there.”

The same holds true for the true story. With rare exceptions, while experiencing the actual events, you experienced emotions and actions that are just too difficult to translate into a narrative. And without your context, the audience loses something.

Likewise, you may be leaving out critical facts that are obvious or second-nature to you but elude us. When this happens, characters do not feel fully developed or plot points don’t seem connected, because we don’t instinctively see the link.

And ironically, despite what I just said, novice writers working on such stories tend to want to stick to the facts as they know it to the detriment of any sense of story…they refuse to fictionalize their story beyond changing names, settings and the odd plot point because to do more would be to remove the truth of their experiences.

Let me give an example.

A friend of mine was trying to develop a screenplay about a family coping with young adult son with a psychological disability, and the young man’s attempts to find his personal space. It was very well written, but at least in its initial stages, it felt like there were plot and motivational holes throughout the manuscript. As we discussed it in class, we learned that this was effectively a fictionalization of the writer’s family.

In her manuscript, the protagonist—the young man—was largely shut down from his family and even they largely repressed their feelings with each other as a coping mechanism. As an audience member, this made it difficult to get into the characters and rather than feel empathy or any form of connection with the protagonist, he just pissed many of us off. We hadn’t lived the experience the writer had, so we couldn’t see her story the way she did.

Try as we would to get the writer to see our dilemma, she was equally adamant that to make the protagonist any other way would make him unrealistic given his condition; a defensible position within limits. She couldn’t let go of enough of the truth to develop a story.

The story must come first if you ever hope to engage an audience. Even fact-laden documentaries and news items focus on a story or narrative. Without that, you are reading a dictionary or encyclopedia entry.

The truth or reality of your personal experiences are vitally important, but only in so much as they are used to bolster or support the story you are trying to tell. It is almost impossible to successfully do it the other way around.

(Image used without permission, and that’s my true story.)

Costume storage

Last week, I walked through my neighbourhood and passed a theatrical costume store called Malabar, a place through which I love to rummage for the sheer joy of the pageantry. And that brief moment would have been forgotten had not fellow blogger Madelin Adena Smith posted a hyper-caffeinated blog and vlog early this morning.

In it, she challenged her readers/listeners to consider the roles they play in their day-to-day lives and asked us to consider the real us that lay hidden beneath those performances, which made me think of my psychosocial closet and all of the costumes I have worn throughout my life.

(Before proceeding, this is not a complaint against family or friends. These costumes were of my own choosing and it is only now in later life that I am realizing what I did to myself.)

Here is the schoolboy outfit…god, I was so small back then…the dutiful student who wanted to explore storytelling, but knew that this was not the accepted route to success. Oh, I was supported in my storytelling, but only as a hobby. My real future lay in science and medicine.

And the eldest son/man-of-the-house costume…almost looks like a football uniform with its broad shoulders and firm back…heady responsibilities for a young boy growing up and not having a clue as to who he is supposed to be, let alone actually is.

The clown costume…my go-to in times of stress…a protective device against a world in which I didn’t feel I belonged or related. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh. Then run away.

The Creative Director costume…the true song-and-dance man of my repertoire. This was perhaps my biggest role in life and is a costume I still wear on occasion, if only because it is expected by clients.

My psychosocial closet is filled with these things and all of them served to block my art because they stifled the real me.

You see the problem with the bars of a cage is that they work in two directions. Yes, they keep the world from getting at you, but at the same time, they keep you from reaching your true self and that is where your art lives.

During my eldest son phase, my art would express itself in the wee hours of the morning, long after everyone had gone to bed, until my mother would finally yell downstairs for me to cease the deafening machine-gun fire of my electronic typewriter.

The clown phase almost cost me the love of my life but when the silly girl challenged that I was simply a clown, my hackles rose and I gave her reams of painfully personal poetry I had written. Her preconceptions shattered, we were married within a year and were so for 13 years.

Interestingly, it was the new costumes we donned during our marriage that led to our separation last year. Luckily, in shedding those costumes, we remain very close friends and confidantes.

Ironically, even my Creative Director guise stifled my art. Sure, I was creative, but for others, not me. This is the main reason why I chose to quit my job last year and pursue my art as a career unto itself. I had to sacrifice something, and it was the job.

With rare exceptions, my psychosocial closet is now just a relic of my past; a yearbook at which I can reflect on lives lived and mistakes made. It is not, thank goodness, something into which I feel the need to dip.

The only real costume I wear now is my Randall C Willis (please, call me Randy); the only costume that was ever truly mine. The artist has no clothes, if you will.

And because I have finally divestmented myself, my art can flow freely and keeps me warm at nights.

I am, therefore I create. It’s a great feeling.

And in the meantime, I wonder if Goodwill accepts old costumes.

So, now that I stand here naked (don’t think about it), I feel free to ask: What costumes you have worn in your life or do so now that have blocked your art?

The only costume I am apt to wear these days is on my hand

The only costume I am apt to wear these days is on my hand

Use the Force NOT the force

Earlier this evening, I had dinner with a lovely friend of mine (yay). Eventually—like 3 minutes in—we got around to discussing our blogs, and my friend starting talking about feeling the pressure to post. Not that any of her followers had specifically requested she post, but rather that she felt like she was letting down the side by not posting.

I understand this feeling at quite a personal level, as I spent most of my life feeling like I had to act lest I let down the side. Eventually, though, I realized this was something I was doing to myself and not something that was being imposed on me by outside forces (or at least not most of the time). Those in my life who were going to be dissatisfied if I didn’t act were probably going to be dissatisfied if I did act.

As my friend discussed her blog, she felt there were nights when she would sit in front of her computer with nothing to say and yet the page was blank and she hadn’t posted in a few days. Should she force herself to post something or should she just remain mute until she had something to say?

From my perspective, we blog for ourselves not others—this was a conversation many moons ago with my friend—and so the decision to post should be based on whether we feel the desire or personal need to post, an internal urge to channel whatever thoughts or emotions or essence bubbles within us awaiting expression.

I think it’s that honesty with ourselves, serving our own deeper need to share, that attracts and sustains followers. People are smart. They can see when you’re pressing out blog content like so much blood from a stone…if not on your first post, then on subsequent ones.

I talk a lot about our Art and how my personal art channels through me like something from the ether, whether I’m talking about writing or photography. I am a lightning rod through which the spirits anchor themselves—make that mean whatever you would like it to mean. That’s why I think the metaphor of the Force is so strong (okay, now I’m starting to channel George Lucas).

You cannot force your Art. It will happen when it is ready to happen…when you are ready for it to happen.

You must practice it, of course, while waiting for inspiration to take you to new levels, much as a hockey player practices skating and shooting drills in anticipation of the game when he or she won’t have time to think about those mechanical actions.

Perhaps you can practice on your blog, but I have yet to read a blog that suggests people are practicing. To this point in my reading, our blogs are our Art…or at least, part of our Art.

I know this is true for me, and I am confident this is the case for my friend. Thus, any attempt on her part to force a post will be a lie—to followers, more importantly to her Art, and most importantly to herself. She deserves better than that.

I can do better than that

Almost a year ago, I had the opportunity to substitute teach a class of would-be advertising copywriters at a local community college. I was quite excited because it would give me the chance to talk to people at the beginning of their careers, while they were still fresh with anticipation and ready to take on the world.

Out of the gate, I let them know a little about myself and background, and then went straight for the “So, what made you decide to become a copywriter?”

To a person, the response was largely the same: “Well, I saw so many terrible advertisements and knew I could do better than that.” I am extremely happy to report that this was not all that they had going for them. Each was amazingly talented in his or her own way and it was a great couple of weeks.

But their original motivation hangs in the air, like a persistent echo that refuses to die.

No matter what our art, I would not be surprised to find that out that we have all said at some point in our lives “I can do better than that”. It’s only natural. It is how society has raised us.

I would like us to stop, however, because I fear it is killing our spirit and therefore threatens our art.

First, it’s just negative thinking on a topic for which we do not have a full understanding.

Having worked in advertising for a few years, I have a much better understanding of the great divide between what we came up with creatively and what finally made it to the magazine page or television screen. Trust me, the average ad you watch bears almost no resemblance to the original concept.

And even if my head exploded a little at the thought of the movie Piranha 3DD, I have to give the writers and producers some credit for getting it made and into theatres. They’re well ahead of where I am with my screenplays, which currently sit on my laptop computer and in a few competitions.

But more important than simply being the “why can’t we all just get along” guy, I think we denigrate our own efforts by focusing our attention downward.

Art should inspire and the artist should aspire. We shouldn’t look down and sneer. We should look up in awe at works that truly stir our hearts; that shake us to our artist core and make us strive to be better.

If all we do is attempt to be slightly above the dirt, then we merely set ourselves up to be the target of the next person in line.

If, however, we push ourselves to reach further, attempt more, climb higher, then there is every reason to believe that we will be the one who inspires the next person to stretch beyond our grasp.

I don’t want to write a screenplay that’s slightly better than Walk Like A Man. I want to write one that surpasses The Usual Suspects.

I want to write sketches funnier and more pointed than Sid Caesar and Monty Python.

I want to take the most beautiful photos that tell the most intricate stories, using every other photo as my muse.

By looking up, we become a lightning rod for our art, attracting the energy and inspiration that drives our passion. Looking down, we shut ourselves off from those same spirits, blocking out the positive input that surrounds us.

Simply in aspiring to something greater, we raise our art and therefore ourselves to new levels. And as difficult as each incremental step may be, the rewards are exponentially greater.

When we look up, we are bathed in the light of our truth. Looking down, we see only the threatening abyss of failure.

Aspire or expire, the choice is yours.

The sheer scale of these falls was only overtaken by the thought that they followed a geologic fault separating Europe from Greenland.

The sheer scale of these falls was only overtaken by the thought that they followed a geologic fault separating Europe from Greenland.

Dara Marks at Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2013

Engaging the Feminine Heroic

Dara Marks

In a follow-up to her very popular Transformational Arc talk of previous years, Dara Marks took us through another aspect of character development, something she calls the feminine heroic. A counterpart to the well known hero’s journey, the feminine heroic completes the hero’s character and thus is not necessarily tied simply to female heroes. Rather, it encapsulates the feminine side of everyone’s natures.

Transformational Arc

She explains, as writers, we are constantly trying to understand the narrative in which we are living, but we experience that narrative from a very personal perspective. Thus, in her canonical transformational arc, there is both an outer realm, where external forces act upon the hero, and an inner realm, the more personal influences. We grow, she says, only in relationship to demands on us to grow, and the external realm stimulates the internal reckoning.

The union of the feminine and masculine brings about wholeness in the character. It is a combination of the masculine spirit, which represents all that we can be, and the feminine soul, the deepness of our authentic self. Marks offers the example of a tree, which may reach toward the sky, but is only as strong as the root system that provides it nutrients.

Everything we are in life is what comes from deep within ourselves.

Marks presented this relatively complicated diagram that illustrated the hero’s external and internal journey (and in many ways, reflects our own journey through counseling or life itself). To the left, we find the Ego Self, where the onus is on my aspirations and beliefs of me. To the right is the True Self, which is understood after reflection and denotes my understanding of myself in the universe.

The union of the masculine and feminine sides of a character creates a wholeness

The union of the masculine and feminine sides of a character creates a wholeness

Ego Self: All early development, even that of a child, relies very heavily on the development of the Ego, a sense of will and determination. We believe that we’re in charge, despite all evidence to the contrary.

So if we start the journey in the Ego Self realm, we can look at the External or Masculine side and the Internal or Feminine side of ourselves.

Masculine Ego: In the top left quadrant, we have the Call to Life, the external mission that demands we strive or ascend to a greater level. We assert the force of our will on the universe. This area therefore is associated with a youthful and energetic quality. We have to move forward. We cannot let fear hold us back. To do this, we must sacrifice our feminine side, pushing those feelings down, or we cannot move forward.

Marks suggests that the tragedy of Hamlet was that he couldn’t get beyond his feminine side when he needed to move forward. She also gives the very literal example of Agamemnon, who was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia before the Greek ships would be allowed to voyage to Troy.

Feminine Ego: In the lower left quadrant of the diagram, we see the influence the masculine decision has on the feminine ego. We suffer a wound because part of us is no longer valued. We are literally abandoning a key part of our self and this will have a lingering effect. While we appear invincible externally, we are very vulnerable internally.

Thus, the feminine side needs to be rescued by the proverbial knight on a white charger. Marks is quick to point out that this is no time for political correctness as at this stage in our development, we just don’t have the internal skills to rescue ourselves.

She goes back to Greek myth to show how this works, focusing on the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, the latter of whom was abducted to the underworld by Hades to become his wife. Demeter was distraught at the loss of her daughter and journeyed to the underworld to bring her back to the surface.

The underworld experience may be difficult, but it is educational and we need to journey through it to come out more whole in the next stage.

Marriage of Death: The combination of the masculine and feminine ego is what Marks calls the Marriage of Death. Anytime we strive to become something new, it means the death to other aspects of our being. We just can’t strive at all things at the same time. But this marriage is not designed to last.

As Marks points out, the problem with striving is that it is doomed to failure. We can’t be rich enough, strong enough, famous enough, whatever enough. And it is at the moment of realization that our dreams are doomed that we have a Crisis of Faith (masculine side), which leads to an Awakening of Potential (feminine side). We move closer to the discovery of our true self, the right hand side of the diagram.

Masculine True Self: As the masculine ego passes through its crisis of faith, it suffers a fall from the unattainable heights, which converts the Call to Life into a Battle for Life. For self-renewal, it is essential that our delusions and illusions are shed during this descent, such as the belief that we are in control of our lives. And thus, at this stage, it is the masculine self that needs rescuing.

Marks offers the example of Odysseus (a popular subject at TSC this year) and the knowledge that his journey home was his great undoing as he loses more and more of his ego self (including his ships, crew, etc). The second half of his journey is literally the journey homeward toward his true self.

Feminine True Self: And who rescues the masculine true self? As the masculine side becomes more vulnerable, the feminine side becomes emboldened. We heal our wounds and reunite, turning pain and suffering into love and creativity.

The way out of our self-imposed purgatory is through compassion. We have to hear the story and then feel and acknowledge the pain. And it is only when the pain is given voice that it can move back from the underworld into life.

Marks exemplifies this aspect with the myth of Inanna and Erishkegal (which I do not know as well and so simply provide a link).

Sacred Marriage/True Self: It is at this point, through the sacred marriage of the masculine and feminine that we finally achieve the true self.

NOTE: All images and illustrations are property and copyright of Dara Marks and are used here without permission.