A Return to Study
The books are piling high, and I've only just begun this new academic journey. After much deliberation, I decided to go back to school this past fall to pursue my Ph.D. in Myth Studies. I've been courting the Mythological Studies program at Pacifica Graduate Institute for the past few years, but the timing was never right. Last summer, I felt that urge, the call, that this is what I needed to do.
That call, that instinct, that voice was the same feeling I had when twenty-two years ago, I decided to study for the ministry. It was the same call I heard when four years later, I stepped away from vocational ministry to attend film school. It was the same feeling I had when I decided to move my life to Los Angeles 15 years ago. I had not heard her voice in a very long time, but last summer, she returned with her gentle yet persistent and familiar encouragement, "go."
All the rational objections surfaced in my deliberation. This is going to cost me a fortune. It will take at least five years to complete, and in the end, there is no obvious return on investment. I mean, assuming I'm able to complete the program and I'm awarded the degree, what does one do with Ph.D. in Myth Studies? Teach, maybe? I'm not looking for a new career. Disney has been good to me.
So why am I doing it?
Curiosity could be a reason. I enjoy learning new things, especially on a subject matter that I find so fascinating. I love story, and doing a deep dive into the myths, stories, epics of the world is exciting to me. The sense of accomplishment might be another reason. I like things that are difficult and feel a bit impossible. I find enticing the tasks that require focus and dedication over a period of time. Creative inspiration is another reason. I've struggled over the past few years to write truly original stories. I've been in a creative drought, uninspired, trying to find something to spring my imagination to life.
But I don't think any of those reasons fully satisfy the question of why. The simple yet more mysterious answer is because I felt that if I didn't do this, I would be ignoring the call. I wouldn't be doing what I'm supposed to be doing with my allotted time here on earth. Honestly, I don't know what will happen at the end of this, and I'm okay with that. I don't need to know. "Go," the Spirit beckons and have faith in the journey. The destination will reveal itself in time.
So every 4-5 weeks, I drive up to the school, near Santa Barbara, for three full days of classes. The rest of the work is done at home. The biggest challenge has been finding the time to complete my school work while working a full-time job and trying to maintain a semblance of social life. I'm figuring it out, and I'm getting used to the new norm. But most importantly, I'm beginning to feel that spark again.
The Myth Studies program is built on three pillars: comparative religious studies, classic art and literature, and depth psychology. I'm through one term of classes, and I'm halfway through my second term. So far, I have no regrets. The content has been a lightning bolt to my storytelling mind and has enriched my soul. My cohort is comprised of smart and insightful people from diverse walks of life. I'm already thinking of dissertation subjects and mentally preparing for the work that lies ahead. I'm so glad I listened to the call.
Last May I met up with my friend, Jeremiah, in Kanas City to hang out and work on a new idea I had for a screenplay. I came back with a rough outline for A EULOGY FOR THE BELIEVER and about 25 written pages. Not bad. I spent the rest of the summer trying to finish the script. I got to 100 pages before I shelved it without showing it to anyone. I didn’t even write an ending. I thought it was terrible: incoherent, rambling and unmotivated. I was frustrated. After that draft, I convinced myself that I had somehow become a worse writer.
The only activity in my life I have found to be truly satisfying is writing screenplays. That’s a big statement because I’ve experienced no commercial success with my craft. But it’s true. When I’m working on a screenplay I’m passionate about it doesn’t matter what else is going on in my life. I’m okay. I find it creatively satisfying. Travel is the only other activity that comes to close this feeling of satisfaction.
When I’m not writing stories, I feel lost. That’s when I start asking the big questions: What am I doing with my life? Is this is all there is? What does it all mean? Is it time to make a big move? Should I wander around Europe for the next year? Maybe I should go live in a village on an island in the South Pacific and see what that’s all about?
I started on the novel in an attempt to divert such thinking. In February, I was procrastinating and commiserating to myself about how the book is going to take me years to write, so I decided to reopen that draft of A EULOGY FOR THE BELIEVER, just to see if it was as bad as I remembered it being. What I found surprised me.
The draft was indeed rough and needed work, but there was a lot that I liked. It had life – the heartbeat of the story was there - and I discovered I could work with it.
There is nothing more arduous than writing the first draft when every page is blank, and the task is to fill it with words. It’s exhausting. There is a first draft fog that descends. The writing is subpar because the goal is not craftsmanship but page count. It’s no wonder I finished the draft feeling defeated.
Five months later, the fog had lifted, and I returned to the script to see it for what it is: a draft of a story that came from a personal place; a story that was worth fighting for.
I put the novel on pause, and I spent the past month re-writing the script. I’m happy to say that I now have a readable draft that I’m proud of. I’m starting to share it with my writer friends for feedback. I plan to submit it to few festivals and contests next month.
A year ago, February 25, 2017, to be exact, I wrote a post confessing that I hadn’t written anything new in almost three years. I can’t tell you how very satisfying it is to have a new fresh script in my pocket. My creative soul is no longer defined by past work. I still have something to say. And I hope it keeps the big questions away for a while.
Burn it and Start All Over Again
Years ago, I heard a writer say that when you finish the first draft of a script, you should invite your family and friends over, light a fire in the fireplace, uncork a bottle of wine, and celebrate. Celebrate because completing the first draft is an accomplishment. Then, she said, take your script and toss it into the fire, burn it, and start all over again, because what you’ve written is garbage (I remember she used a more colorful word).
When I first heard this advice, I thought to myself there is no way I’m burning my first draft. I worked too hard on it. Now that I’ve written several scripts, I’m convinced she was right.
We deceive ourselves when we think that hard work equals brilliance. Just because you work hard on something doesn’t mean it’s any good. This reality is tough to swallow. Countless businesses fail each year, not because of the lack of effort. Books are written, plays are performed, and movies are made by the hands of hardworking artisans only to open to poor reviews and small audiences.
We were taught when we were young that hard work pays off. Therein lies the problem. There is an expectation that my work should be rewarded. Because I've poured so much into the effort, I feel the audience should applaud and cheer “well done.” A painful disappointment comes when the audience does not cheer, or you discover there is no audience at all.
Hard work is a given. It’s the price you pay to play the game. It does not guarantee an outcome.
I’ve finished the first draft of A Eulogy for the Believer. Well mostly, there are still a couple of scenes that I have to flesh out, but for the most part, it’s all there. Now the real writing begins. It is the careful crafting of the story - the deliberation over each word and image - that will ultimately determine the story’s fate.
Today I will pour a glass of wine and celebrate. Tomorrow I will burn my first draft. But not literally, the draft is on my computer, and I’d rather not toss my computer into the flames ;)
Earlier this month, I went to Kansas City for a writer’s retreat. As I bemoaned in my Feb. 25th post, I haven’t written anything new in quite some time. Commencing a new script always feels a bit daunting. Add to that the weight of self-doubt and the task of tapping keys on my keyboard feels like an attempt to summit Everest.
So Kansas City was necessary to jump-start the writing process. It was just a buddy of mine and me. My friend has read everything I’ve written and is familiar with the kinds of scripts I like to write. Over dinner, we talked about the story. He'd ask questions, tell me what parts didn’t make sense, demand better answers, make suggestions and then he’d be quiet and let me work. When I needed a break, we’d go out and get BBQ or see a movie.
In the three days I was there, I was able to hone the story, better define the characters, and write about 25 pages. It was an all-around success. Since that weekend, I’ve been working on the script a little every day. I currently have about 65 pages written with another 35-40 pages to go.
This story has flowed in a way I did not expect. And while I would not use the word “easy,” it has been significantly less arduous than anticipated.
The key in a first draft is not to look back. I’ve learned I can kill hours re-reading and editing what I’ve already written. So I have to force myself not to scroll back. Keep writing forward. The re-writing process is a beast of its own. For now, it’s about putting ideas on the page and not judging them.
This story has surprised me as I’ve been working on it. I’ve discovered new characters along the way and revelations about my protagonist that I didn’t see when I conceived the story. This is what makes the writing process so exciting and rewarding.
For the curious, here is a short synopsis of the script:
A Eulogy for the Believer is a dark comedy. In the not too distant future, in a place much like our own, a believer, experiencing a crisis of faith, is asked to the give the eulogy for a friend who was a famous, yet controversial, celebrity pastor. Struggling to know what to say at the funeral, the troubled believer embarks into The City, a place where one can find whatever he or she is looking for, where he encounters, and ultimately must reconcile, his ideas of God, before delivering the eulogy to a worldwide audience.
The synopsis is rough, but so is the story. It’s all in process and will get better as the story continues to be crafted. My goal is to have a readable first draft by the end of June.
War History - Kristian's Story
For the past four years, I’ve been the head mentor for an organization called Young Storytellers where I lead their script-to-stage program at an elementary school in Burbank. The program is simple enough: ten fifth grade students, chosen by their teachers, are paired with an adult mentor, and over the course of seven weeks we teach them the basics of storytelling and screenwriting. We drill into them that every good story has a beginning, middle, and an end. Stories take place in a setting. They have a protagonist that wants something, a goal, but the goal is not easily achieved. Obstacles get in their way. Sometimes the obstacles are people, called antagonists. The story builds to a climax, the most exciting part of the story, and then resolves when we learn if the hero achieved his or her goal. Usually, the story conveys a lesson, either for the characters or the audience.
The culmination of the program is the Big Show. After the stories are written, we invite professional actors to perform the scripts on stage in front of their classmates, family, and friends.
While I’m proud of all the kids that participate in the program, this past Spring session had one especially memorable student. Kristian was shy. That’s not unusual. A lot of the kids are shy when we first start. But over the weeks, the kids warm up, and before long it’s hard to get them to stop talking. But Kristian was different. He was a serious kind of quiet. During the first couple weeks, he barely participated.
On week three, his mentor told me he wanted to speak to me. I sat down with him and asked him what’s up? He said he didn’t want to do the program. He didn’t want to write a story. He didn’t want to do the Big Show. He was adamant, “I wasn’t asked if I wanted to do this.” I sensed it was the Big Show that was the stumbling block. He didn’t want to be on stage. I get it. Public anything can be scary and downright terrifying for some.
I told him not think about the Big Show. We’ll figure that out later. I encouraged him with Young Storytellers mantra that “Every child has a story worth telling.” I tried to convince him that it was important that he write a story. I used phrases like “unique voice” and “original ideas, ” but it didn’t inspire him. It was tough going. “I don’t know” was the answer to every question I asked him about his ideas for a story. I’d never had a kid not finish the program, but I thought to myself he might be the first.
We have agreements in Young Storytellers that we come up with in week one. The agreements cover a range of topics that we think will make our time successful, such as don’t be late and treat other ideas with respect. It also addresses the content of our stories. We all agree that the students will write an original story. They can’t copy a story from a book, movie, or video game. We also agree not to use violence to solve problems. Characters cannot physical fight their way out of their problems.
Week 4. Kristian’s mentor asked him if he’d talked to his parents about participating in Young Storytellers. He said he told his mom he didn’t want to do it, but his mom said he had to.
By this time, most students have the logline and an outline for their story and are beginning to write their scripts. Kristian was still working on an idea. At the end of the session, he had his idea: a war story based on his favorite video game. Sigh. I decided I wasn’t going to tell him that his story was in conflict with our agreements. At least he was participating, sort of. We went around the room, and I asked on a scale of 1-10, how do you feel about your story. There were a lot of 9s, 9.9s, and a couple of 10s. Kristian said 0.
Week 5. Kristian had resigned to the fact that he was not getting out of this, so he told his mentor that he would write the story, but would not do the Big Show. Baby steps. As they worked on the script, he kept asking about page count. He wanted to know how close he was to being finished. His mentor wisely cheated the margins and format to make it appear that he had written more than he had. “See you’re already on page three. Let’s keep going!” His mentor was great. She matched his energy with the opposite energy. When he was quiet, she was encouraging. When he thought his idea was stupid, she thought it was great. Her positivity was contagious. I caught him smiling a couple of times. At the end of the session, we again went around the room. I asked the kids to tell me a color that best describes how they feel about their stories at this point. There were several reds, yellows, and blues. Kristian said black.
Week 6. Kristian and his mentor continued to work on his story. I see that he is talking more. His “I don’t know” knee-jerk answer was replaced with some “maybe this.” I let his mentor work her magic. At the end of the session, his mentor told me that he came in today with an idea that changed his story in a clever way. I got excited and thought to myself we might get a story out of him after all.
Week 7. We played a “guess the movie tagline” game. Kids vs. Adults. Kristian got the final answer correct and won the game for his classmates. I’d never seen him smile so wide. It was a major confidence boost. At the end of the session, his mentor was all smiles. “We did it. We finished the script.”
We talked as a group about the Big Show. I explained that each of them would go on stage with their mentor and answer the question, “What inspired your story?” I glanced at Kristian. He had no reaction. I couldn’t tell if that was a good thing or bad thing.
The Big Show. To be honest, I was a little nervous he wouldn’t show. A sick day maybe? But there he was, on time, with a new haircut. He dragged himself in with the look of a kid being dragged by his parents to the dentist office for a filling. His steps were slow and heavy. He collapsed in a folding chair. I decided that asking how he felt wouldn’t do any good. I knew he was nervous. He knew he was nervous. Why dwell on it?
We give the kids VIP badges to wear around their neck. It gives them exclusive access to the red carpet. And yes, we bring a red carpet. We introduce the young storytellers one at a time, and they get to strut down the red carpet to the cheers of their peers and bulb flashes of their mentors and family members taking pictures. I called Kristian’s name, and he came through the door. He offered a slight hand wave then hustled down the carpet.
I placed Kristian in the middle of the program so he wouldn’t have to go first or wait in agony until the end. The lights dimmed, and the show began. As the first story was being performed, Kristian’s teacher sat down beside me and whispered, “Did Kristian talk to you? He’s not going up on stage.” I was surprised to hear this. She went on, “He was in the principal’s office this morning. He was so stressed he was feeling sick. They made a deal that he wouldn’t have to talk and that he would watch the performance from behind the curtains.” I glanced over at Kristian, who was sitting with his mentor. “He looks fine,” I said.
Of course, I was concerned. I sneaked back and took a seat next to him. “You good?” Kristian nodded his head with the subtlety of one in deep focus. I returned to my seat next to his teacher. “I think he’s fine. Let’s see what happens.”
It came time for Kristian’s story to be performed. I watched in anticipation. He slowly climbed the stairs to the stage and took his place. Without a stumble or a hitch, soft-spoken but without a quiver in his voice, he introduced his script then took his place on stage to watch his story come to life by the actors. He nailed it.
His script was called War History, and it is a story about two brothers reading a history book about WWII. All they want is to know what happens next after the Germans attack a secret military lab. But they can’t finish the story because they have to go to school. In math class, they get caught trying to read the book and are sent to detention. Their history teacher is overseeing detention, and in a surprising reveal, the brothers realize their history teacher was in WWII. They don’t need the book. He was there! The story ends with the history teacher recounting to the boys, “There I was surrounded by German soldiers…”
At the conclusion of the performance, the audience cheered. Kristian took a short bow and made a beeline off the stage.
After the show, I told Kristian I was proud of him and I asked if he would do it again. He said no. I believed him.
We make kids do things they are scared of all the time. In our adult wisdom, we know it’s not that bad, and in the end, it will be good for them. But as we grow older, we let ourselves off the hook. We don’t have parents telling us we have to do things we’re scared to do. We take a pass.
What Kristian did was special. He stepped into a moment that terrified him, and he overcame it. In doing so, he became the hero of his own narrative. We can all learn from his example. Sometimes we have to stand up, take a deep breath, and say, “This is my story.”
Kristian and his mentor at the Big Show.
I was at work sitting in a film strategy meeting. We were going over the key marketing points – the most important things the studio wants audiences to know – for one of our upcoming movies. We talked about how, yes, the film is “epic” in scale with large set pieces and stunning visual effects, but we really wanted to convey that even though it has the spectacle, it is a surprisingly emotional film. We wanted audiences to know that the story has heart.
When I work with the 5th graders in the Young Storytellers script-to-stage program, I ask them on week one, “What makes a good story?” The kids are intuitive. They know it’s not the mere presence of wizards or mermaids (common characters that appear in the stories 5th graders write) that make a good story. Eventually, one of the students will say “action.” We unpack what action means and end up with another word: struggle. It’s the struggle that makes a good story.
Heart and struggle. They are at the core of every good story because heart and struggle are at the core every human relationship. And every good story is about a relationship.
Our relationship with ourselves
Our relationship with one another
Our relationship with our community
Our relationship with the natural world
Our relationship with God
Our relationship with technology
To be human is to be in relationship.
We don’t watch the Olympics to see an athlete win a medal. We watch the Olympics to see if that athlete - the one who is grieving the loss of a loved one, overcoming a health problem, rising from a difficult environment, putting her faith on the line, or representing our country, our people - is going to win the medal.
The difference between a bad story and a good story is that a bad story sets out to entertain. A good story sets out to reveal something truthful about our relationships, and in doing so, we are entertained.
Sometimes these stories make us laugh. Sometimes they make us cry. They can have happy endings or doleful endings.
What I think we mean when we say we like a good story is that we like a story that helps us make peace.
We struggle to make peace with ourselves, peace with our neighbor, peace with our community, peace with God, peace with the natural environment, peace with the change that comes with the passage of time.
A good story lights the way to peace. Regardless of whether we find peace or not, it tells us we are not alone in the struggle.
I haven’t had much time to write for this site because I'm focused on the new script. In the meantime, I thought I’d share a glimpse at my workspace. California living is cozy living. Unless you're one of the "rich and famous" you probably live in a relatively small space. I live in an apartment where my bedroom also functions as my office. It’s where all the magic happens.
The leather recliner is a recent addition, a find on Craigslist. I call it my “thinking chair.” When I get tired of sitting at my desk and staring into the abyss of my computer screen, I’ll move over to my chair. It’s where I read, relax, and well… think.
The desk I bought off a friend. I love it. Plenty of storage provides an ample and a sometimes clean desktop.
The chair won’t win any awards for ergonomics, but it does the trick.
As you can see, it is not glamorous. I have no view of the mountains or ocean to inspire me. In fact, because of the unit design, there are only a couple hours each day that I get any decent sunlight. But it’s what I have to work with, and it works for me.
The Problem With Comfort
I will tell you a secret. Well, it’s not really a secret, not in the scandalous way most people think about secrets. It’s a fact I prefer not to draw attention to. It is this: I haven’t written anything new in almost three years.
This fact has been nagging me and eating at my creative soul. Sure, I write an occasional post for this site, and I have spent a lot of time rewriting past scripts, but I haven’t written a new story in several years.
I tell myself I’ll start on the next script after I finish one more rewrite of ________ script. Or, I’ll think I haven’t written a blog post lately. I’ll do that first and then start on something new next week. Or, I’ll justify the lack of fresh ink on a blank page by telling myself that my idea isn’t strong enough to start writing. I must think about it more.
This didn’t use to be the case. In my “starving artist” years I wrote all the time and didn’t have any problem coming up with new ideas. In fact, I couldn’t keep up with the new story ideas that flooded my psyche. Urgency was a motivator. I was desperately trying to write my way out of the life I had.
Over the years, my life changed. Today, I have a great “day” job. I have plenty of bread on my table and wine in my belly. My life is comfortable. The problem is… comfort is poison for the creative soul.
There is a reason why the Arts District in most cities is birthed in the sketchy parts of town in low-rent neighborhoods and abandoned warehouses, not in posh communities. Struggling lives inspire art. Comfortable lives consume art.
I do not confuse wealth for comfort, though I do believe wealth makes the allure of the comfortable life harder to resist. And I am not opposed to relief from pain or ease from turmoil. It is comfort as a destination that wreaks havoc. It’s when we reach the place where we stop saying, “I’m an adventurer, looking for treasure” (Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist) that we’ve lost our way.
Writing something new is a struggle and that is exactly why I must do it. To fight with words and wrestle with characters, to quest into the dark shadowy wilderness knowing that dragons be loose carrying only the certitude that I am not sure if I have what it takes to slay said dragons. That is where my creative soul must venture.
I know it is not a comfortable place, but it is rewarding. It’s where you find treasure.
The Everyman Who is Not Everyman
Tom Hanks is hands-down one of my favorite actors and I think I’m in good company when I say that. The guy is so dang likable. He’s handsome, but not in a pretty-boy Hollywood sort of way. He is funny but not in a “look at me tell jokes” sort of way. He is talented but not in an “I can cry on cue” sort of way. I like him because he comes across as someone I could enjoy a beer with. He is everyman.
Like Jimmy Stewart before him, Tom Hanks has built a career playing the everyman.
Money Pit – A new husband overwhelmed by a home in disrepair
Big - A kid who wants to be an adult
The Burbs – A suburban guy with suspicious neighbors
Turner & Hooch – A man and his dog
Joe vs. The Volcano – A guy who loathes his job and seeks adventure
A League of Their Own – An exasperated baseball coach
Sleepless in Seattle – A widower looking for companionship
Forest Gump – A endearing man with below average intelligence
Saving Private Ryan – A teacher from Pennsylvania
I could go on and it would be well worth it. A trip down Tom Hanks lane and you’ll be stopping to look in every window.
But I’ve noticed in recent years Hanks has been playing more and more “real” everyman: Richard Phillips (Captain Phillips), Walt Disney (Saving Mr. Banks), James B. Donovan (Bridge of Spies), Chesley Sullenberger (Sully). That’s four films in the past three years in which he has played a biographical character.
One could argue that Walt Disney is not an everyman, but when Tom Hanks plays him, Walt becomes one. He is a guy trying to keep a promise to his daughters, who tells stories about growing up in Missouri to make a point.
After seeing Sully this weekend, I pondered why an actor would choose to play so many biographical characters. Isn't it risky? Would it not limit the creative choices you have as an actor? I can only speculate. It could be as simple as Hanks wanting to make a movie with Clint Eastwood.
Or maybe it is because we lean forward when we hear a true story. When the everyman isn’t just a person, but that person. The story isn’t “What if” but “Here’s how.” We love stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. We love even more the stories of real people in extraordinary circumstances.
In each of the four biopic films Hanks played characters who, when the stakes were high, did their job to the best of their ability and because they did, they saved lives or in a way changed the world.
Isn’t that what we all want? We are all ordinary people who hope that when the moment comes we prove extraordinary. We want to be the everyman who is not everyman. We want to be like Tom Hanks.
While I’m convinced that humanity’s love and need for stories has not diminished, there is no arguing that storytelling and story “hearing” has changed dramatically over time. If we go back to the early days, I’m talking millennia, stories were passed along from generation to generation verbally… around campfires. (I’m sure stories were shared in other places, but our modern minds have an easier time imaging our ancient ancestors sitting around a campfire telling stories.) They told stories for many of the same reasons we do: to explain where we came from, to pass along important information necessary for survival, and to entertain.
Written language was a breakthrough and allowed for stories to be recorded and preserved. However, since most people couldn’t read or write – and transcribing stories was a slow and arduous process – storytelling remained a public discipline, told or read aloud in public spaces.
Technology changed everything. The printing press, and later radio, motion pictures, and the internet, brought a seismic shift in how we consume stories. In ancient times storytelling required at least two people. Today story “hearing” is mostly an individual practice.
Sure, grandpas all over the world still tell “when I was a kid” stories but in today’s world Papa’s stories face tough competition. The proliferation of personalized stories delivered to the palm of our hand via Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon have completed a communication transformation: Mankind now consumes the majority of its stories without eye contact.
Movies at a local cinema and live theater still provide the opportunity for the public consumption of story, but I think most people now consider these occasions special events.
This past week I went to a Moth StorySLAM here in Los Angeles. StorySLAMs are an open mic storytelling competition open to anyone with a 5-minute story to tell based on the theme of the night. The theme this week was Back to School. Storytellers submit their name and then ten names are drawn at random. There are usually more names submitted than slots available, so not everyone gets a chance to share. (I submitted my name to tell a story, but my name was not selected.) Nonetheless, it is an entertaining evening for both storytellers and the audience.
I am grateful for organizations like The Moth, which elevate the art and practice of live storytelling – storytelling that requires eye-contact. The stories are not vetted so everyone in the room is hearing the stories for the first time. Some stories are funny; some are heartfelt. They all carried a tone of honesty and vulnerability. Here is an example of a story told at a StorySLAM in 2015. The theme for the night was “Blame.” May it serve as a reminder of the importance and power of live storytelling.
A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES