Dreams are important because they are made of meaning. It’s usually not clear at first what they mean. Either the act of writing them down forces you to project your conscious logic onto them to show you what you’re thinking, or the act of writing them down processes the unconscious into the known. What arises in these written descriptions are like crystal balls to what’s inside us. And what’s inside us is what needs to go on the page. Because that’s what’s inside our characters, and inside our audience.
In this new pilot, I knew I needed a horrific, long-term crime hiding in plain sight among the characters — something they could live with and not know they were living with it, like cancer if someone could go home from their job at night and make a little cancer. Perhaps that’s what abuse is, in the context of a family. Perhaps one character goes home to reveal she’s living with abuse — and the other goes home to reveal he’s living with a girl trapped inside his sofa. Haven’t nailed this down yet.
This is my process. I didn’t even know this character existed until I woke with my heart racing in the middle of the night. I just knew something ominous needed to be hiding in plain sight among these characters. I leave everything loose and then nail pieces down bit by bit as they make sense to me. First comes knowing there needs to be an ominous plain-sight crime (because of the subject matter of the piece), then I wake with a nightmare supplying the crime, then I realize there has to be a character who works with the main character to be the perpetrator of the crime, and so on. Structure and character evolve from metaphor.
When the nightmare woke me up, I felt like the girl stuffed beneath the sofa cushions meant I had been feeling locked down, invisible, muzzled. Suppressed. So porting the dream straight into my pilot leverages all that meaning for me, accesses the feeling I wasn’t aware of until I described it. Stories tell what you’re feeling without having to unpack it — because often we don’t want to put into words our most important stuff. One great image is enough.
Last year I wrote a pilot about modern day pirates that was set in Haiti. I chose Haiti because it’s one of the poorest countries on Earth — both left behind and close to home. I felt it was real life Sci Fi. The sense of place was an important part of the piece. Now Haiti has been destroyed a thousand times more — before it was a silent catastrophe in our midst, now it will be a devastatingly loud one. While I was writing, I felt frustrated because all I wanted to do was talk about it. And no one wanted to hear it.
Now I’m writing a pilot about Iraq, and everything’s that wrong over there feels overwhelming to me. Horrifying suicide rates among active duty soldiers and veterans. Sickeningly high sexual assault rates for female soldiers, by fellow soldiers — as high as 30%. Unnecessary civilian deaths. Unnecessary soldier deaths. Outrageously corrupt war profiteering. No one over there seems to know what we’re doing over there. This is all going on — and no one cares. No one wants to hear about it, no one wants to listen. No one gives a fuck. We are members of a democratic society who have orchestrated this, and by not rising up and expressing our outrage and ending this, we are responsible. A tragedy occurs in our midst, and we are responsible.
No one cares because the Iraq story is not acute. Like the Haiti story, it was just happening. It was horrific and terrible and outrageous, but there was no moment that was more horrific and terrible and outrageous than the next. There was no acute focus to the story, no lens to help us understand how to feel about it.
With Haiti, those people had always been crushingly poor and betrayed by corrupt leaders, right? How is one day different from the next? Many people have difficulty feeling empathy for people they don’t relate to — or they don’t find a way to relate to people whose plights aren’t right in front of them. Suddenly there’s a horrible earthquake — something that any of us might experience any day — it taps into our fears about our own safety — we could lose our homes just like they did, we could be wandering the streets just like them — then as we wallow in the disaster porn because it stirs up all those feelings so many of us yearn to feel every day but don’t have access to — empathy, understanding, fear, grief — feelings that get buried by everyday life’s efficiency and competency and need to look emotionally stable — disaster porn allows us to access all those feelings — and once accessed, we get it. Wait a minute, they were fucked before this horrible earthquake. They’ve been fucked for a very long time. I just wasn’t thinking about it. It took this acute story, the flurry of excitement, the urgency and concentration of focus centered on the need to find people, find shelter, find medical aid, find water, the sheer drama of it all — that’s what it took for us to care.
If there were a terrible earthquake in Iraq, would people care about the war?
The other big story this week has been the Leno/Conan/NBC war, with virtually everyone I know declaring for “Team Conan.” Both Team Leno and Team Conan are teams that do not hire any women writers. How is it possible that with all this media coverage, no one discusses that fact? If Conan O’Brien released a carefully worded statement declaring his intention to never hire women writers, there would be a public outcry. No one would join “Team Conan” then. However, by not declaring his intention but instead just doing it, no one calls him out on it, no one gives a fuck. It’s the Haiti, Iraq problem: the story is outrageous but not acute. People shrug it off as just the way it is. There’s no urgency, no face on the story — no highly qualified woman who should have gotten a job on the show and was told “we don’t hire women” walking out of the studio with a brave face. No disaster porn to allow people to access their empathy.
The lesson here is this: if you have an important story you want to spread, find a way to make it acute. Give it a face and a focus and make it urgent. Shape it into disaster porn.
Seeing the story transpire firsthand makes us witnesses. We participate. Instead of hearing the characters relate how they think and feel about what happened, we witness what happened and we relate how they think and feel for them. We tell their story for them, in our minds and to each other. When a character talks, she takes the witness stand, and we nod out in the spectator seats. When we watch her act, we take the witness stand, sitting upright and paying attention to detail and thinking carefully about what we know of her thoughts and feelings so we can get the story right.
When the entire story happens in the minds of the audience — with the audience as witness — audience becomes storyteller. We care more, we’re invested more, we believe more what we see with our own eyes. Because we’re in the witness stand now. We’re the real stars of the show now — we’re telling the story.
Whenever you can, let your audience tell the story. Give us all the information we need, and let us piece it together. Then it’ll be ours. You have no greater goal.
I am abandoned. That’s my worst secret. The secret that gave birth to the rest.
That was the secret behind those two football players in college —
I am abandoned.
That was the secret behind every relationship I’ve ever had —
I am abandoned.
That is the secret that made me a writer —
I am abandoned.
I’ve made it my life’s work to protect this secret like a child, nurture it and let it grow. I understood early that no one could know the worst thing about me — this was mine. I should keep this secret locked inside, never to see the light of day, never to get out and converse in public and come back changed. I would never abandon it — it was me. I couldn’t abandon myself.
I was five the day my dad left. He sat me down, alone, and said “I’m leaving and I’m never coming back.” Fat tears rolled down my cheeks, and I fought to hold them in. He said “don’t cry.” Later that day, as he packed all his stuff in a moving truck, I got stung by a bee. And I was glad — I could scream.
My mom used to play Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am A Rock” and say to me “That’s you, Julie.” Because — a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.
This week I told my dad — in a text — that I wasn’t going to speak to him anymore. It was the most cowardly way possible to do it. By text. In the middle of the night. After dodging his calls for a few days. I wrote “Our last conversation was extremely upsetting to me, so I’m not going to speak to you anymore for a while.” I added the “for a while” to soften it for him. And for me. Because I’m too cowardly to just end it here and now.
He didn’t respond.
Since leaving that first time when I was five, my dad has found colorful and newer ways to abandon me again and again. When I was 11, he disappeared off the face of the earth — only to call from South America a few months later to say he was sailing around the world with his then-wife. And to say how much fun he was having. Once, he admitted he loved my sister but not me. He once said to me “no man has ever loved you, and no man ever will.”
When I remind him of these things — and more — he asks me why I can’t just get over it. Because we both did wrong.
I never did anything wrong. The only thing I’ve done wrong is stay too long in a losing fight.
John August says the villain doesn’t always know he’s the villain. That’s part of what’s kept me swinging in the mud this long — I am an empathic person. I see myself in my father. We give to others what we want them to give us. Consciously and unconsciously. All my life I’ve tried to nurture him, and counsel him, and care for him, and empathize with him, and help him, and have compassion for him. I see in him the wounded, abused, abandoned creature I see in myself. I have tried hard to show him how to love that person. To do it for both of us. I have pursued him like a lover. I have been rebuffed.
Choosing no longer to speak to him is big and terrible and freeing and sad for me. It means giving up on my lifelong dream, the goal I’ve spent my life chasing — to get that man to love me. I know cutting him off now is just a gesture — no doubt I’ll continue this pursuit in various forms until I find a way to put it to rest. Still, this was very difficult for me. People have been telling me for years I needed to do it, and I resisted. I told them I felt it would be a heavier psychic burden to deal with the fact of not speaking to him — of having cut him off — than to have to live with that cloud hanging above my head.
Because now I have abandoned him.
In the hours and days after I did it, I watched my phone. Afraid a raging, wailing, screaming child would rise up from that phone to recriminate me — the child I see in the mirror. I relaxed as I realized — nothing was going to happen.
So long as I needed to keep this secret, he had power over me. He had me in his thrall.
I am abandoned.
And I loved him. I love him. I love him the way you do a child you’ve raised, who doesn’t love you back. The way you love a person who doesn’t want your love. I have a long history of loving men who don’t love me back. It started here. I know it’s not enough to just end it with him and expect my lifelong patterns to fall away. But it’s a signal. Instead of busying myself, anxiously chasing relationships and sidestepping the truth within the heart that wants them — I now say —
I am abandoned.
And I thank those football players in college, because, while it was hell living across the hall from them for an entire year, I now see they were on my team. As painful as that night, and the following morning, and the following year was — they were there to show me what I am —
I am abandoned.
As painful as it is to love someone who doesn’t love me back — and know I’m doing this to myself — I’m glad and I thank you — because your not loving me opens my eyes to the place where I live —
I am abandoned.
Keeping secrets is resistance. Resisting what’s true. Resisting moving forward. Resisting the opening of the space the secret takes inside you. Revealing secrets releases resistance, allows you to say —
I am abandoned.
Stories are secrets revealed bit by bit. You can start with the secret and take the long road to reveal how it happened. Or you can start with the consequences of the secret — what just happened because of your character’s secret? What happened before that to cause it? How did The Secret cause these things to happen, and how can you invest these events with a sense of depth, gravity, significance, reality, purpose and comedy, because you know what The Secret is — and we don’t? Most importantly, what happens next? How does The Secret inform what happens next? Does anyone know The Secret, including the character it’s about? The Secret doesn’t have to be some big hairy deal. Entire lives can be built around a secret as simple as —
So your neighbor is all “why won’t you stop calling cheese stores and telling them you’re throwing a benefit for the homeless they have to donate to” and you’re all “I jack fancy cheese stores out of cheese because it’s profound.” Because everything I do is profound. Because I’m doing it, it’s profound, and the fact I’m doing it means something. Tricking fancy cheese stores into donating me cheese is a mirror standing before my life, showing me what I am.
My superhero power is a curse: I see meaning in everything around me.
A life is a novel in practice: meaning and symbols and structure and symmetry lie everywhere you look, waiting to be exposed. Being profound means that even when your life centers around tricking fancy cheese stores into donating you free cheese, you see meaning.
So here they are, MY TOP TEN TIPS for how to be profound:
Go Beneath The Surface. First, show us what’s on the surface. What’s on the surface is a symptom of what’s beneath the surface. Profundity is like acne: it erupts all over your face as an expression of your body’s secrets. So once you’ve established what’s on the surface, you’ve got a basis to ….
Drill Down. Reject face values. Whatever you see on the surface of your world — your parking ticket, the pollution in the bay that bars you from surfing, the garbage juice you just poured all over your apartment — exist as indicators to show us what’s really going on. Parking tickets are society’s notices that we shouldn’t linger here, this isn’t our place. We can’t surf because we live in our own filth, waiting for the rain to wash it all away into the toilet that is our bay. Garbage juice … eh, see Reason #2. Why the fuck doesn’t it rain inside?
Get Open. If you are closed, it’s going to be a hell of a lot more difficult to see how things relate to one another. Because you’re too busy guarding the fortress, making sure none of them relate to you. But once you make efforts to open up, you can …
Connect. See the connections between one thing and another. How does one thing resemble another? What’s bothering you? What makes you angry? What does it remind you of? Anger is a flag that something is important. What makes us angry often reflects in our own life.
Get Free. Some people fear connections — between ideas, between things, between themselves and others — because they’re afraid of being tied down, afraid of tying this Buzz Ballads II 2-CD disc compilation to the time you drove around all night in Atlanta listening to that song about rubbing lotion on someone, wondering if some boy was home and if not what he was doing and why he wasn’t home and with whom wasn’t he home, to the times you used to sit out on the curb as a child waiting for your father to get you and wondering the same thing. They’re afraid of tying these things together because of the fear there’s no end, no bottom, and because of the fear that once locked into one series of connections, that’s it. You’re done. You’re never done. Once you choose freedom, you’re always free, and all the things and people in your life can say and do whatever they want, and you’re still free. You’re never tied down to one story.
Understand. How do you interpret what you see around you? It doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong. It’s true and it matters because you say so. Your understanding is a precious gift you share with the rest of us. And you share it by how you show one character looking at another, how you focus on a specific object on a table. That look and that object help us see your understanding through your connections, and they help us form our own.
Get Bigger. Some people live a small life and tell small stories. Others choose to be profound. A life isn’t small because of a person’s profession or status or friends or attractiveness: a life is small because a person chooses not to grow. Every time we’re faced with an obstacle we make a choice: we shrink or we get bigger. Profundity gets bigger, and circles in other people under its wing, and takes the long view, and the deep view, and the transparent view.
Get Inclusive. The most shallow people and ideas are the most exclusive. Anything that excludes — people, ideas, interpretations, experiences — clings to the surface, fights any effort to discover the meaning therein. Because that meaning is dark. Being profound means going deep, going broad, getting significant, including everything and everyone. I’m looking at you Hollywood.
Get Pervasive. Profundity understands the way you do anything is the way you do everything, and the way the world does anything is the way the world does everything. Everything is the same all the time, and nothing really changes though things appear to change all the time. What looks to us like change are things happening on different scales or in different forms, and it’s our job as storytellers to reveal how these things have not changed but are in fact the same. Profundity is intense, thorough and complete.
Find Origins. The roots of our current world originate in the past. To change the future, we change the present. Profundity honors the link between today’s garbage juice and the garbage juice of every waitress job you’ve ever held, and the garbage juice of the world, today’s parking ticket and tomorrow’s medical lab results and the mountain of social paperwork that documents and drives us through our roles in life, as determined as we are to resist.
Okay! Now it’s time to get out there and be profound.
I often assume people mean the opposite of what they say.
A mother furious at her daughter as she packs boxes of her things before leaving for college: “I can’t have your stuff cluttering up my house any longer. You need to get it out of here so I can get on with my life.”
Translation: I’m angry because I feel like I need to have your stuff cluttering up my house. I’m afraid if you get it out of here, I’ll have to get on with my life.
One friend to another whom she hasn’t seen in a long time: “Wow. You look really good. I mean, since I saw you last … You’re like, a completely different person. I’m so happy for you.”
Translation: Wow. You look really different. Remember the last time I saw you? No matter how much you think you can change, I’ll keep reminding you of who you were. I’m not happy for you at all.
Roman Polanski to Martin Amis, in an interview in 1979: “If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But … fucking, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls. Everyone wants to fuck young girls!” (via Telegraph UK)
Translation: If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? Judges don’t want to fuck young girls. Juries don’t want to fuck young girls. Not everyone wants to fuck young girls. But I do. That’s the kind of thing that makes me special, above judgement, and worthy of all the attention I receive.
We still get the point. Because human communication is subtle and complicated and interesting. And we’re crack detectives on the case.
Great dialogue happens in the spaces between the notes, when what the audience gets to fill in on our own is far richer than anything we hammer home on the page. Because the audience are always the smartest people in the room, and whenever we let them rise to the occasion to fill in the gaps, leap leaps, imagine what’s left unsaid and bridge the ineffable, our stories live.
Anyone want to chime in with more examples of opposite-talk?
I think the Ed O’Neill character on “Modern Family” is based on my real dad. He’s engaged to his 29-year-old maid. She’s an evangelist from Brazil. He still pays her to clean the house.
This is not the kind of story I would ordinarily tell on the internet, because I’m a private person by nature. But I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want this space to be. And I’ve decided — if I’m going to write about story, I need to fucking tell stories, right?
Story is risk. When you’ve got something to lose, you’ve got a story to tell. When you’ve got something big to lose, you’ve got a big story to tell.
Though on the surface it’s funny, the story of my dad feels raw, acute, and dangerous. Talking about it publicly feels risky. I feel like I have everything to lose — by telling it, I risk being unsafe, insecure, unloved, or exposed. And that’s where this story lives — where the risk is.
Get big, get brave, get risky, or don’t tell stories — because no one gives a shit about the story of how comfortable, complacent and compliant you are.
Story doesn’t grow in the middle of the road. But my dad’s fiancee’s village in Brazil seems to have plenty of poor relations who need new houses (hint hint Dad) where I suspect it thrives.
“We look for the places where the conditions are the worst — the places where others are not going — and that’s where we want to be.”
This is a motto taken from a Doctors Without Borders map of the world hanging on my wall. I read it often–it resonates with me. And it occurred to me today this could be the storyteller’s motto as well.
When we find the places where the conditions are the worst — whether most uncomfortable or the largest gap between a character’s self-conception and the way others see him (comedy) or most emotional, most significant, widest gap between what a character wants and what they feel they can do (drama) — that’s where we want to be. That’s where we find the best stories. Especially where others are not going, because we want to be brave and bold and get there first. We want to be discoverers, leaders, not followers. We want to forge the path to new stories and new ways of looking at familiar stories. Because storytelling never suffers from settings, scenarios, relationships that are too dramatic: instead, storytelling’s enemies are the bland, the banal, the familiar. We go where the conditions are worst, whether on a suburban street or far afield, because we want to be where others are not going.
We could think of ourselves as doctors without borders: surgeons moving freely across boundaries and territories.