If you’ve taken the time to click on About GITS on the home page and read The Story Behind Go Into The Story, you know that this mantra derives from a conversation I had with my then three year-old son. It went pretty much like this:
Me: Hey, Luke, I’m starting to write a new script tomorrow. And it’s funny, but no matter how many times I start a new story, I get a bit, uh, nervous about it. Got any, you know, advice for your dad?
Luke [without any hesitation]: Go into the story and find the animals.
God as my witness, that’s what my son said.
Who knows what Luke was really thinking at the time. Stupidly, I didn’t follow up with him, flummoxed as I was at his comment. I remember mulling it over and thinking that the whole idea of going into a story is precisely what a writer does, immersing themselves in a narrative universe that they create. That has always seemed just right to me, both in its simplicity and profundity, which is frankly why I named this blog Go Into Then Story.
But over time, it’s the other part in which I’ve discovered more and more layers of meaning. Start with the verb “find.” Is there any word more appropriate to describe the writing process? Here are some of its definitions:
“to come upon by chance”: Doesn’t that sound like brainstorming?
“to locate, attain, or obtain by search or effort”: Doesn’t that sound like research?
“to discover or perceive after consideration”: Doesn’t that sound like what happens when we mull over our story?
“to feel or perceive”: As we go into the story, we become more and more emotionally connected to it.
“to become aware of, or discover”: The biggie, where as explorers we uncover a story’s hidden gems.
Then there is “the animals.” I’m almost sure what Luke was thinking about was how a children’s story so often is habituated by animals. Thus in his eyes, my task was probably pretty simple: Go find the animals. They are your characters. But what if we think about it more symbolically.
Animals can be both domesticated and wild. So some things we discover as we go into the story are what we might expect (domesticated). Other times we’re surprised, even shocked by ideas and thoughts that spring to mind (wild).
Animals are alive, organic, and intuitive beings. So are our story’s characters.
Throughout human history, animals have come to mean something in stories. A fox is sly and cunning. A crow in many cultures signifies death. An owl is wise. Per Jung and others who study myth and psychoanalysis, animals can serve as conduits into the mind of the dreamer.
Which reminds me of something I read about a movie director who in prepping to make a movie gave each of the actors their own animal token as something they could reference in interpreting their character.
I’m sure if you think about it, you could probably come up with other shades of meaning for the mantra.
I just know that it’s my favorite one of all because of its source.
My wish for each of you is the same sentiment as once uttered by a cherubic youngster with bright blue eyes and a look of deep intention in his face:
Go into the story… and find the animals.
For the rest of the 30 Things About Screenwriting series, go here.
As we draw close to the end of this seemingly endless year, one of the small pleasures I discovered has been the book “A Year With Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke”.
It has accompanied me each day this year in my journey through writing projects, teaching, blogging, mentoring, and my life in Chicago as an assistant professor at the DePaul University School of Cinematic Arts.
Since the end of a year is a time of self-reflection, here is a recent entry written by Rilke to a young person wondering if they should become a writer or not. It dates from February 17, 1903 and is included in the collection “Letters to a Young Poet”.
“My only advice for you is this. Go within yourself and probe the depths from which your life springs, and there at its source you’ll find the answer to the question of whether you must write. Accept this answer, just as you hear it, without hesitation. It may be revealed that you are called to be an artist. Then take this lot upon you, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without asking for any external reward. For the creative artists must be a world for himself, and find everything within himself — and in nature, to which he is devoted.”
When I read this, I found myself swept up in reverie, ‘teleported’ in time to October 1978. I can see myself sitting in a shabby motel room in Aspen, Colorado at the far end of Main Street as you enter the mountain town. I had left Yale University with a Masters degree, one thousand dollars I’d saved up working as a janitor at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown New Haven, then set out west with no destination in mind.
You see, my last year at Yale, every time I drove up the hill to school and entered the main administration building, I had felt a deep pang in my gut, quite literally a physical sensation accompanied by a persistent thought: I shouldn’t be here.
I was seven years into my collegiate and graduate school education with a clear intention of getting a doctorate, then becoming an academic in the field of primitive Christianity, that period of time in the first century A.D. because I was driven by the question: How did we get from the figure we know as Jesus to what emerged as the foundation of the Church?
As fascinating a subject as that was, I found myself more and more consumed by a desire… no, need to explore my creative self, specifically my music, both as a songwriter and performer.
So I decided to take a year off. Head off to points unknown and see where my musical abilities, such as they were, would take me. I knew at my core, if I didn’t choose to pursue those dreams, I might very well become a successful academic, but I would have always been haunted by the question: What if I had followed my musical and creative muse?
Through a series of coincidences, what Jung would call synchronicity, I was steered to Aspen because it had a vibrant live music scene. After all, it was home to John Denver, Jimmy Buffet, Glenn Frey and Don Henley of The Eagles, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band among others.
In the few weeks I had been in Aspen, I had performed at the Monday Hoot Night at Jake’s Abbey, a long-standing open mic night started by the Smothers Brothers in the 60s where such artists such as Steve Martin had cut their creative teeth. My appearances had thrust me into the center of the local musician scene — Bobby Mason, Chris Cox, Dan Forde, and others — so I had in effect made the ‘first cut’ creatively. In other words, I had talent. But was I meant to pursue music in a serious way?
That is the question I find myself confronted with as I sit in the Tyrolean Lodge in Aspen. I’m down to about $ 300 of my savings. If I want to apply to doctoral programs for the next academic year, I need to be pulling those together this month. In effect, this is fish or cut bait time.
What do I do? I ‘go within myself’. I take a yellow legal pad, write up top, “Should I continue to pursue music?”, then create two columns: Pro. Con.
I sit. Think. Feel. I jot down impressions and reflections. I take walks. In the bright mountain sunshine. At night in the crisp darkness with a million stars aglow in the Colorado sky.
After a few days, I have pretty much filled the top sheet of that legal pad. The Con column outnumbers the Pro list. By logic, I should give up. I graduated cum laude from Yale, I have professors all lined up ready to write me strong letters of recommendation, I know I would be an excellent teacher and a solid academic.
That is the safe choice, the rational choice. And yet…
My gut won’t let me give up. Give it more time. I decide to stay in Aspen at least a little while longer.
The next Hoot Night, I sit waiting my turn to sing my songs. Then on stage, I see this incredible guitar player. I mean stunning work. It’s like he’s playing both rhythm and lead at the same time, his fingers a blur of action. And his original songs are great. His name: Pat Flynn.
My turn. I play three of my own original songs. The applause is meager… it’s after midnight, most of the crowd having left. But as I get off stage, who is there to greet me but Pat.
“Hey,” he says, “Good stuff. We should get together and jam.”
We do. Eventually we join forces and become Myers & O’Flynn, playing hundreds of gigs in town opening for Richie Havens, John Prine, Taj Mahal, Poco, and many other acts.
I won’t bore you with the details of my circuitous journey, but eventually it led me to a nightclub in Southern California and saying these words: “I can do that.” Thus, a career as a screenwriter, TV producer, blogger, teacher, and all the rest.
So when Rilke writes, “Go within yourself and probe the depths from which your life springs,” I resonate with that. Big time. It all comes back to someone I studied as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia… Joseph Campbell, someone who has influenced me for most of my adult life.
We have one life. One chance at embracing the possibility of becoming who we are meant to be. For us to have any opportunity to do that, we need to KNOW something of our Inner Self. We need to go within ourselves and probe the depths of what we find there.
Go into OUR story… and find OUR animals.
As Rilke points out about the creative life, we must experience both “its burden and its greatness”. But as challenging as being a writer is, as long as it’s an expression of our most authentic nature, that is the path upon which lies our best chance of embracing Life.
So amidst the noise and general busy-ness of New Year’s festivities, take some time to yourself. Maybe pick up a legal pad. A pen. Write down some reflections and observations, both intellectual and emotional. Take stock of who you are and who you could become.
If you’d care to share some of your thoughts, feel free to write a RESPONSE here. Or just do the work in private.
Whatever you do, for those of you who are choosing to pursue your creative ambitions, I applaud you. It takes courage, persistence, and willful intent.
But if this is your calling, you have to heed the call…