Teach Empathy

screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

I have a day job: I teach empathy.

I write action scripts and I write comedy and I write novels and I do all this shit but the reality is — my job is to teach empathy.

Story’s job is to allow us to feel the feelings of others. Our job is to craft the story so that we see through another’s eyes, so that, given enough context and circumstances and choices, we understand how it feels to be another human being. Stories teach empathy.

Your job is to teach empathy.

Even in the darkest, most life-denying piece — you set up a world that helps your audience feel despair. So that when they leave the theater and encounter a person who lives in despair, they see themselves in that person. They’ve had that person’s experience, in the world of your darkest, most life-denying piece. You’ve given them a touchstone of recognition, added to their emotional lexicon. You’ve taught empathy.

Every kind of story teaches us empathy — comedy, drama, light, dark. What matters is we feel what someone else feels. Every kind of story has an emotional heart, a character whose feelings we make our own.

Failures of empathy underlie most of the problems we face as human beings. Sharing stories with one another — teaching each other empathy — can set us straight.

What kind of asshole am I? I sit around lecturing people they don’t have enough empathy.

You Make Me Want To Vomit

storytelling

Eating disorders are our safest, most acceptable way to commit violence.

My teenaged anorexia moved into bulimia at the end of my senior year of high school. I had won a full scholarship to Tulane University, so my family and I drove down to New Orleans to check out the school. The pressure on me had built to a breaking point:

  • getting into the right college
  • finding money for college
  • not having friends
  • not having boyfriends
  • father not loving me
  • staying skeletally thin so I would look on the outside the way I felt on the inside, so the world could see something bad happened here.

And there was more. Anorexics obsess about food — they don’t eat it, so they think about it and talk about it and cook it and encourage others to eat it. In New Orleans, the pressure met with all the food and the obsessing about food, and instead of eating as little as possible — I binged. I binged so hard and so thoroughly — on po-boys and beignets and jambalya and whatever came my way — and then I had to sit with that, all that. I had to sit with the fact of being nourished, which wasn’t who I was. So I forced myself to throw up for the first time.

It happened again probably the next day. Then maybe a week later. Then a few days after that. Then, like all addictions, it became a daily habit. Within months, it was multiple times a day. Very soon I was praying to God to help me stop.

I threw up every day for a year and a half.

I popped a blood vessel in my left eye from the pressure of constant vomiting. The white of my eye was blood red for a month. I liked it. I looked brutal. I looked brutalized. I looked on the outside the way I felt on the inside: used, worn out, beat up, violently ill. Abandoned. I was 18.

The summer between high school and my freshman year at Princeton, I babysat for this woman in my hometown whom I really looked up to. She had this energy that I admired — tough, confident, brave, bold, earnest. One day we sat in her kitchen, and she talked about how tough it is to be a woman. She said something like “I even used to have that bulimia thing, where you make yourself throw up.”

I don’t know whether she knew about me or not, but she must have seen I was struggling. With something. I felt ashamed.

My bulimia continued through my entire freshman year of college and through the following summer. It’s difficult to find places to binge and throw up multiple times a day on a college campus, but when you’re that addicted, you find ways. All addicts do.

I lost my gag reflex and resorted to more and more violent ways to purge. Sticking handles, butter knives, anything that would fit down my throat. I drank hydrogen peroxide for a few weeks, because the vet told us to give that to our dogs to make them throw up after they drank poison.

Once I had eaten a ton of spaghetti, and when I threw it up, the noodles hung out of my throat. I had to pull them out.

I started throwing up flecks of blood. I didn’t know how to stop. Virtually every session ended with me lying face down on the bathroom floor beside the toilet, eyes watery from the violence, mouth raw, wiping saliva and vomit from my chin with toilet paper or the back of my arm, praying to God to help me never to do this again. Begging God to never let me do this again.

Hours later I would do it again.

The binge/purge cycle is something no one fully understands, but here’s an attempt: you use too much of something that feels good (food or something else) to stuff down anxiety or despair or any unbearable thoughts or feelings. The harder, faster or more violent you stuff these feelings down, the harder and faster the recoil, which is when you need to purge. You’ve binged, and suddenly you’re sitting there with an unbearably stuffed gut — the very feeling you’ve spent most of your life avoiding, which is what lead to a bingeing mind-set to begin with. You think the food is the feelings, the fullness is the problem — if only you hadn’t binged, you wouldn’t be feeling this badly. If you get rid of it, it’ll all go away. So you purge, and for a little while, you do feel much better. The uncomfortable fullness is suddenly gone. You experience a sense of clearing, euphoria from purging — a release. All those feelings you tamped down with the food are gone now, as if the food was a sponge, and it all came up. But you’re still you, and the disquiet gathers again soon, depending on how quickly you’re cycling.

Here’s how it ended: my family began to realize what I was doing. Together with my boyfriend and my sister, they held a kind of intervention and said I wasn’t allowed to go back to college unless I got professional help for my eating disorder. My mom was very upset because she knew someone who died of bulimia — it has one of the highest death rates of any mental disease. They all watched me around the clock. I called the school and made arrangements to start the eating disorders recovery program the next week. I haven’t thrown up again since that day. I had problems with binge-eating and a disordered relationship with food  for years afterwards, but I didn’t throw up again. I just kept repeating the stuffing down of the cycle, without any of the joy of release. What kept me from purging again was I knew I was an addict: I knew once I started down that road again, I wouldn’t be able to stop. One drink for an alcoholic is the end, and one purge is another year in the toilet. Seeing my mom cry about how she didn’t want me to die was enough to sober me up.

Eating disorders are about wanting to be skinny, but not in the way you think. I had a father who didn’t love me and who always told me I was too fat, I was just like my mother whom he had left. My sister was wiry and tomboyish, and I was slow and feminine. He loved my sister, or felt affection for her. Because she was like him. So it is about love. But not just about love. It’s about identity, who you are. If you see yourself as fast and capable and competent and lovable, but your body looks like the opposite of all those things, you feel compelled to change that. But it’s more than that, too. If you’ve been violated, there’s no way to change what happened but to change your body. There are more reasons.

When I got back to college, I had an intake session with one of the eating disorders counselors, and I said “I haven’t thrown up in over a week, so I feel really good about that.”

She said “I feel sorry for you.”

“Why?” I said.

“Because now all that stuff you were forcing down is going to come up. Now things are going to get ugly for you.”

And they did.

Some time after that woman I admired told me about her bulimia, I ran into her at a hometown restaurant. I grabbed her kid and held her on my hip, and then I saw her.

Her eyeball was blood red.

Vulnerability Delivery Machine

novels, pilots, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

You don’t want to know what I think. You want to know that I never stop worrying about my career, my future. I never feel safe.

You want to know that relationships leave me feeling unsettled, like I never know when the other shoe will drop. And that I keep editing this piece about relationships. That’s how uncertain I feel about my place in the world.

You want to know that I’m afraid I spend too much time alone. But that I feel like I can’t afford to spend any less time writing, if I have any hope of getting my career off the ground.

You want to hear about how I’ve been so focused, so determined, so intense this year, that I’m afraid a hardness is setting in. And how that doesn’t feel like who I am — how I’m soft and vulnerable by nature, or I used to be. Before my entire life became devoted to finding safety, securing my future. Finding writing jobs.

Maybe you want to know that I both love sex and fear it. I don’t want to feel that way. Maybe you don’t want to know.

Maybe you want to know that I feel adrift in the world. Distant and disconnected. I feel increasingly distant from my parents — both concerned about them and unable to help them. I’ve felt distant from my sister for many years.

Maybe you don’t want to know that this blog scares me — though it’s good for my inner life, my writing life, because here I force myself to get big and bold and confrontational and honest — it makes me feel naked in public, like I’m doing emotional porn — and it makes me feel connected to people in a way I don’t trust. When I share these carefully edited, raw glimpses inside me, it’s easy for people to think they like me. But I don’t show all the stuff you wouldn’t like. That’s the next step.

Story functions to deliver vulnerability: when it operates efficiently, we feel what you feel. Problems rise when you’re afraid to let us feel what you feel. Because of pride, shame, fear of exposure, ego, or because you don’t really know what you feel. You throw wrenches in the cogs or you drain the oil or you cover the whole machinery with a tarp because you don’t really want to get vulnerable. You resist the function of story, the very reason you set the machine to running.

Would you run up to a person and say “I have something really important to tell you — listen to this –” and then turn your back, cross your arms and scowl? Maybe you would, that tells a certain kind of story. But it doesn’t tell much. And that’s what you do when you tell a story that doesn’t deliver vulnerability. You shut off the audience, deny them access to you. You may still speak, but they can’t hear you.

Most protagonists are common folks, down on their luck, in the middle of crisis — we encounter them when they’ve lost a child, lost a job, hate their job, hate their spouse, can’t find love, hate their parents, don’t have parents, don’t have a country — and then something really bad happens to them, the action of the story. They’re low to start because they’re vulnerable, so we can access them. In stories, characters’ external circumstances reflect their internal circumstances. This is true of life as well. If you want to show that a character feels distant and disconnected, have her write a blog post like this one. Well, maybe not — the act of writing is difficult to dramatize. Perhaps have her attempt to teach these things to a mentoring student who has contempt and doesn’t listen and then have her emerge to find her car has been stolen. And she doesn’t know who to call.

If you did one thing today that felt like a risk, where you felt exposed, where you left yourself open to criticism in public, you left a placeholder in your heart that keeps that spot open when you sit down to tell stories. You drive wedges in there day after day to keep your heart open. Let your story machine function as it should: remove the wrenches and tarps, replace the oil. The story that pops out will run fast, function on max capacity.

I Am Thwarted

publishing

Just now I was curled up on my side in the bathtub, crying and repeating “I am thwarted. I am thwarted. I am thwarted. I am thwarted.”

For maybe five minutes: “I am thwarted.”

I needed to relax after getting all worked up over this article about how you should be male if you want to publish literary fiction. Stuff I knew from personal experience, but this stirred up my fear and seemed to confirm my experience:

Playwright Julia Jordan pointed me toward a recent study about perceptions of male and female playwrights that showed that plays with female protagonists were the most devalued in blind readings. “The exact same play that had a female protagonist was rated far higher when the readers thought it had a male author,” Jordan said. “In fact, one of the questions on the blind survey was about the characters ‘likability,’and the exact same female character, same lines, same pagination, when written by a man was exceeding likable, when written by a woman was deemed extremely unlikable.”

I try to be careful about what I think about and talk about repetitively. My friend points out if you say something over and over, it becomes a mantra. I believe in the magic of daily life. I believe we create the world around us. I believe there’s power in our spells.

I fear the danger in giving in to this kind of grief: indulge in grief, and you create a world in which you are grieved.

Let yourself break down in the bathtub — let yourself say out loud those terrible, magic words — I am thwarted — and you feel relieved in the moment. It’s a catharsis, an emotional release, an acknowledgement that you exist and you matter and your reality deserves to be stated, or repeated over and over in a dramatic manner. But the fear is that if you indulge this way — or God forbid make a habit of it, let this become a way of life — the grief, the acknowledgement becomes your reality —

I am thwarted.

Did the words come first? Did I have “I am thwarted” inside me — did I believe in that mantra and then use my internal magic to create “I am thwarted” in my life? This is the question that keeps me up at night — the question that scares me. Because if I can’t tell, how can I keep it from happening again?

What’s worse — having these terrible words inside me and not giving voice to them, or having them inside me and giving voice to them and seeing them become reality? Is there a way to not have them inside me at all?

Perhaps they’re not even true. I know the truth is not only am I not thwarted, I am thriving. Many people are thwarted. I don’t want to diminish their suffering by taking it on as if it were my own.

What brought on the sobbing and the volley of “I am thwarted” was this — I posted about the article on Twitter. I don’t talk about this stuff very often in public because I’m afraid of how I’ll look — in the male dominated industry I work in, I am afraid of looking bitter or difficult or man-hating or whatever stigma might apply to outspoken feminists. But –how we live shows up in our writing, and how we write shows up in our lives. To protect my writing, I have to be honest, present, and emotional.

We live in the future, but women writers work in the past. It’s true that some women writers succeed, but shouldn’t the successful be more successful? Where are all the women showrunners, directors, working screenwriters? Pointing to fields where women get ahead like chick lit, rom-coms, and their TV equivalents as evidence of us succeeding reminds me of the women who were allowed to be film editors because it was a lot like sewing.

I don’t know the stats on women getting literary fiction published, but the male-exclusive lists and prizes certainly tell a story. And my experience tells a story: people loved my first novel. They should, because it’s good. And all the editors raved about how good it was — but said the main character was too unlikable. Or it was too original and Barnes & Noble wouldn’t know how to market it.

Many women writers don’t talk about this for fear — consciously or subconsciously — that talking about it will affect our ability to get work. I think women in Hollywood have Stockholm Syndrome. We know who we need to please to get ahead, so we pretend sexism isn’t as significant a force as it is — subconsciously, we identify with our captors. Our captors are not men, it’s thousands of years of bio/cultural forces that makes women and men feel like a woman cannot create A Great Work of Art. She can run a studio because that job seems like a glorified assistant — it’s less mythic. But there’s something so epic about making art that at a gut level most of us still feel like women can’t do it.

I have been afraid to speak about this publicly because I don’t want to drive away people who can hire me. The fact is — as a young woman trying to get writing jobs in Hollywood, I feel less afraid to write publicly about sucking the dick of some married Hollywood guy years ago than I do about my fears surrounding this industry’s sexism. I know I’m sticking my neck out here. But that’s my job. I stick my neck out, then I stick it out further.

When I get raw and emotional and vulnerable and honest, this is me practicing in public what I do when I face the script.

I am thwarted.

So when my friend on Twitter said that female authors sell much better than literary fiction authors do — and when I pointed out that I AM A FEMALE AUTHOR AND I WRITE LITERARY FICTION — he amended to say he meant pop versus literary fiction — and I responded — My point is that as a woman, I’m allowed to write pop books. I’m not allowed to write literature. I am an artist. I am thwarted.

Saying it in public is what sent me to the bathtub. It felt dangerous — like by saying it out loud, I was making it true. Conjuring the mantra. And waving a flag to the world — this is who I am. I am thwarted. But it felt good too. I felt recognized, I recognized myself. Because I matter, and my reality matters. I deserve to tell the world what my world looks like. And I think that’s why it came out over and over in a flood — it felt so good to say it publicly, I couldn’t stop saying it.

I am thwarted. I feel thwarted.

I hope I’m neither. But if that’s what I turn out to be, you’re gonna fucking hear about it.

Follow The Emotion, Cut The Rest

drama, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Here’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction: fiction evokes emotion. Non-fiction conveys information.

As storytellers, we side with fiction.

Even if you write articles or blog posts or biographies or State Department briefings, you convey information by transporting your reader emotionally. You sacrifice telling them everything in favor of telling them enough, in the right way, so they’ll be moved. Or engaged. Or entertained.

Here’s what got me thinking about this: I put aside the pilot for a few days because I wanted to do a quick pass on this novel before sending it to some people. I cut and resisted cutting and finally realized that in fiction — if it doesn’t follow the emotional throughline, it doesn’t belong there. No matter how interesting or informative or important-seeming or beautifully written — if the writing doesn’t build to the emotional whole, it must be cut.

All stories are fiction.

The purpose of story is not to inform. It’s to transport. We don’t engage the heart and senses when we fill someone in on everything they need to know. If it’s important, they’ll get it because it comes attached to something a character cares about. Descriptions of place don’t matter, but a character might be devastated then notice her vicinity in a way that echoes what she’s feeling. That’s the only way that descriptions of place matter: how they reflect our insides.

We’re not reading travel guides. We’re reading metaphor guides, travel guides inward. This is the function of story.

Don’t Leave Money On The Table

advice

You control your bank account. You decide how rich you are.

Your wealth is the emotional account trapped inside you. You’ve got one, whether you acknowledge it or not. It’s the 401k your company provides — even if you didn’t sign up for it, it’s there, and your subconscious provides matching funds, which could be accruing as we speak, if you bother to add your 6% a day.

Don’t leave money on the table. Your emotional vault is the only resource you have, and if it’s bankrupt, or if you don’t know the access codes, or if you hate it and resent its existence and think it’s dumb, or if your Dad didn’t know his code, you lose capital. Right now. Because emotional capital accrues, like money in the bank. It builds on itself, it grows interest. The more you have, the more you get. It magnetizes, it draws energy, it gains power, it acquires strength.

And it translates into real-world capital. Because the more emotional capital you acquire, the more you use it. When you know your emotional account is flush, you act with certainty and confidence. That certainty allows you to relax and conduct your business intuitively, guided by the freedom a tremendous fortune affords.

How do you build emotional wealth?

Here’s what I do:

1. Write down anything you remember from your dreams when you first wake up. Often you won’t remember anything. But the more you do it, the more you remember. It’s not about interpreting — it’s about stretching open that connection to whatever’s in your head — keeping the line open. Even a few words will do. If you really can’t remember anything, try writing “what did I dream?” with your dominant hand, then writing whatever words come up with your non-dominant hand. You don’t believe that you don’t know your own mind, but whenever I’ve done this, my hand writes stuff that makes sense and that I didn’t know was there.

When you go back and read your dreams, you get a real portrait of where you’re at emotionally. Just now, I flipped through my journal. Everything sounded a lot more lucid than it felt at the time. The process of translating the abstract into language might crystallize meaning — we filter for the pieces that make sense to us. What stops you up in this is knowing you’re not describing the dream exactly right — but that’s what stops us up in writing. Better to get anything down on paper than to wait until we’re getting it down perfectly. Practicing this every morning keeps our blocks open: it’s like injecting Heparin in the IV tubes of the mind. Just get anything down, because these are pieces pointing to where you were that day. And as it turns out, the pieces add up to a very evocative whole.

2. Take a walk every day. There’s something about walking that stirs up the unconscious and clears access to your emotions. It’s like space clearing for the mind, and it literally readjusts your spine. Probably better to go alone, at least a few days a week, so you’re forced to confront yourself. You can try walking meditation, which Natalie Goldberg describes in Writing Down The Bones. Or you can listen to music or audiobooks. Or think about your story. Or think about nothing at all. Observe stuff, zone out. Be with yourself.

3. Meditate. Meditation was on my to-do list for a long time but I never got around to because I thought I was too busy. Meditation will change your life. I’m not fancy about it — sometimes I do it lying down. Sometimes sitting. Sometimes while walking. Usually it’s 15 minutes. I have a meditation timer on my iPhone, and I try to write down what I think about on the first bell and on the second bell — another way to track what’s going on inside me. Because this is the most valuable thing I have. My goal is to be still. Do nothing. Sometimes that means repeating a mantra that occurs to me in the moment — that’s how “Be More You” came to me. I was feeling anxious that day about staffing, and that’s what bubbled up from my subconscious: Be More You. Sometimes my thoughts run, and it’s a cacophony of all the junk of my daily life that I can’t seem to stop. And that’s okay — because being kind to yourself means allowing whatever is. Abandoning resistance. So if your mind needs to race and get all worked up, let it. Sit there with it quietly, because maybe all it needs is to be heard. And then eventually, if given enough time and enough hearing, it will run out of things to say, and then it will just be you and your mind, observing silence.

4. Write a couple of lines in a journal before you fall asleep at night. This is hard for me. But I do it because it’s good for me. If I really don’t want to do it, I’ll make myself write one sentence or one word. Again, this is about keeping that connection open and keeping a record of the flags that show up on the page. Very often you’ll be surprised by what shows up there, and it’s only when you’re forced to articulate on paper what’s in your head that you see what’s really going on inside you. What’s the point of owning a fortune if you don’t know the access codes? This is where you learn the access codes. Slowly, with practice.

5. Go there and stay there. You know that thing you don’t want to think about? The thought that provokes anxiety — that’s it, you just thought of it, then you pushed it back out of your mind. You know what it is. It makes you a little sick to your stomach. It creates a hot, burning sensation in your chest. You do not want to think about it, ever. You certainly don’t want to talk about it. You choke up a little when you try to talk about it. Go there and stay there. The ability to find those feelings and stay there, without running away is what makes us storytellers. When you feel vulnerable — humiliated — powerless — alone — do not resist. Do not puff out your chest and make yourself look bigger. Make yourself smaller. Look for chances to knock yourself down a peg or two. Your dangerous place is not the bottom: it’s the top. Stories are not told from up high. They’re told from below. Do not resist humiliation — embrace it. The more you dismantle your ego, the more you will access your own emotions, and the more your audience will access you.

Do not leave your matching funds on the table. They’re available right now, and if you let today pass without seizing and investing these funds, you’ll have nothing to draw on when it’s time to produce. Investing here, every day, is how storytellers get rich, quick.