Life is change. If we’re adventurous we meet the changes that alter and sometimes upend our lives with a mixture of courage and curiosity, courage because sometimes the experiences life throws our way are formidable, and curiosity because, when change sweeps through our lives, it serves us well to take a minute at least to not know what to do. I call this minute “getting lost.” It’s the minute before we marshal our resources or even know what they are. The minute before the answers come.
I’ve never been comfortable getting lost just as I’ve never been comfortable failing. Yet, both have their place. The Samuel Beckett quote (above), “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better,” just about writes the whole book on failure. It suggests that failure is a necessary ingredient for success, much as Malcolm Gladwell does in Outliers, where he argues, quite convincingly, that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything. Rack up 10,000 hours and you can bet that, somewhere along the way, you will have failed and failed again and failed better, like Thomas Edison, who failed more than 10,000 times on his way to inventing the lightbulb. You will have failed until finally failure perfected you. And by perfect, I mean perfect like a rose — with thorns, uneven petals, and all.
That is the virtue of failure. It perfects you. But what of failure’s sibling “getting lost?” What benefits does it confer? Consider Columbus. He set sail for India, got lost, and found North America instead, which only proves the point that sometime you have to get lost so that you can find the thing that you didn’t know you were looking for.
In the Grail Legend, the hero Perceval is lost in the forest, wherein he finds the Holy Grail. I invoked this myth in my very first Editor’s Letter, writing that “[l]ike the hero in the Grail Legend, we must risk getting lost in order to find our way.” At the time, I didn’t know I was stepping into my own dark forest, and I didn’t know what I’d find there. What I’ve found is that my days of writing screenplays are not done. It’s a strange discovery. I felt certain those days were behind me. But characters are whispering in my ear again. Stories I’d abandoned are once again asking for their due. And I’m discovering that I still love film narrative, and with a ferocity that I haven’t felt in many years. This means nothing in particular. Not everything a writer writes will meet the world, and nowhere is this more true than in Hollywood, where people are paid handsome sums to write things that never see the light of day. Still, I can’t escape the notion that a Third Act awaits me — and that it’s connected, perhaps by a gossamer string, to film.
I don’t see myself climbing back into a life that I’ve been happier without. On the other hand, I am different, so perhaps my experience of that life would be too. Then there’s the idea that I need to write these stories because they’re coming through me — and I don’t need to know where it leads. I think here of Taiye Selasi, the novelist who’s debut novel Ghana Must Go already has fans in the persons of Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie. Selasi, a Yale and Oxford grad who’s worked at a hedge fund and at Proctor & Gamble, has also written a novella (her “Sex Lives Of African Girls,” which appeared in Granta Magazine) and screenplays (she has two in development now), but it’s her novel that’s turning her into an international superstar, a novel that came to her more or less fully formed — “all the characters…, their stories, the three-part structure” — while she was in the shower while attending a yoga retreat in Sweden. Per the advice of Madam Morrison, she had been working to expand Sex Lives into a full-length novel, but Ghana Must Go intervened. Selasi followed where it led and the doors of history flung themselves open to her. And that is how it goes.
“Getting lost” is about being in motion without being overly attached to where you’re going. This isn’t the same as aimlessness. Perceval, after all, was looking for the Holy Grail and Selasi was busy turning herself into a writer, but both of them remained alert to symbols and signs and, when they appeared, they followed. That’s how you get the Grail.
THE MEANING OF THE THIRD ACT
In film, the Third Act comes after the “all is lost” moment when the hero, having found herself at the point closest to metaphorical or literal death, fights her way back to a triumphant end. The end the hero achieves is set in motion in Act One, when the hero sets an external goal, often accompanied by an internal goal that the hero is generally unaware of, a transformation goal, so to speak, which the hero achieves as a result of facing down the challenges and obstacles that present on her way to her goal. These obstacles refine her like alchemy, turning the base metal of her being into gold. This is the journey of a film — or at least the very best ones. I call these films “fall films” — a nod to the films that come out each fall and go on to become award contenders, though some of the better films, particularly the better genre films, also come out at other times of year. What these films have in common is their universal themes, transformational character arcs and hopeful endings, whether we’re talking about a historical drama like The King’s Speech, about a man finding his voice, or an action-thriller like Man On Fire, about a man finding something worth living for before he dies.
FILM STORYTELLING (AND WHY I WRITE)
I started writing screenplays after a summer spent living in Kenya, where I was doing a human rights internship. I was in law school at Columbia at the time, and a year living in New York City, followed by a summer in Kenya, had altered my sense of what my life really was. I was young and wide open to the possibilities. I was lost in the wilderness and I was comfortable there. I knew what to do, and I knew how to read the signs. I took long walks through the streets of Manhattan. I wrote in my journal. Answers came. The answer, a single, clear as day sentence: “You will write for film.”
Back then, I didn’t know what writing for film meant. Now I do. I know what suits me about it, and what does not. I know which parts of me it feeds, and which it leaves unfilled.
All these years later I still want what I’ve always wanted, the thing I trained myself to not want, the thing that was squelched in me by a few errant words from a woman stretched to her limit’s end. I can still hear my mother’s voice taunting me: “Poor Paula expects the whole world to revolve around her.” It was a year or two after my parents’ volatile divorce (which was child’s play compared to what came next) and I was unable to pretend that my father was an ogre and my mother an innocent swan. Even then I intuited that, where there’s a blow-up, there is blame to go around. I put the blame where it lay, on the shoulders of two adults who didn’t know how to rise to what, in fairness to everyone, was a very difficult occasion. Haven’t had my own share of relationship drama (and having thankfully not had any children in the mix), I can appreciate the desperate, back against the wall feeling that must have gripped her and flung those words from her mouth. Too bad I was a child, or I might have just ignored her, chalking it up to that, but with the twisted logic of children, I took it to heart and, from then on, assumed that wanting the whole world to revolve around me (and surely that’s what I did want — at that age your parents are your whole world) was wrong, shameful, a mistake. Tragic shame I took that path, since the people who carry on expecting the world to revolve around them — and who have the guts to say so — often get just that. Exhibit A: Beyoncé. Exhibit B: Steve Jobs.
For my Third Act, I’d like to make good on that dream I had way back when, when I actually believed the world, or at least my world, would revolve around me. I never wanted to be a cog in the wheel. I wanted to be the wheel. I wanted to do something unique and original that only I could do, and I wanted the world to take note. I no longer think there’s anything wrong or shameful or mistaken about that. I know I have the talent. I hope I have everything else that it takes.
Some people have big ambitions. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s nothing shameful in that. The only shame is in not being who you are. I would like to write a Third Act for my own life in which, like the hero in a great film, I emerge triumphant, having achieved my external aims, and having been transformed in the process into a higher version of myself. The question, of course, is can I get there from here. I am tired, and I have lost my way. And yet, here I sit, in the wee morning hours after the moment when I was metaphorically closest to death, looking for my next step.
I read something recently in the yoga master Rod Stryker’s book, The Four Desires. Quoting the Baghavad Gita, the Hindu sacred text, he wrote, “The awakened sages call a person wise when all his undertakings are free from the anxiety of results.” He was talking about non-attachment, and in his next chapter he talked about stage one of non-attachment, which he tells us “releases the weight of disappointment and emotional pain.” At stage two, he tells us, “it becomes a catalyst for emotional growth and prepares you to achieve the things you would otherwise not be capable of achieving.” Stage three is its ultimate expression, which is beyond the scope of this post and of my understanding. Stryker used the example of Steve Jobs (my Exhibit B from above), telling the story of the devastation Jobs felt after he was fired from the company he founded. He contemplated leaving Silicon Valley, but with time to reflect, “Jobs realized that he still had a passion for his work, and he made the decision to begin all over again.” The result, of course, is legion. He went on to found Pixar and NeXT (which Apple eventually bought, NeXT providing much of the technology at the core of many of the most popular Apple products today).
This is what getting lost looks like.
Screenwriting is my gateway drug. Gateway to what I’m not entirely sure, though in some very basic sense it’s always been a gateway back to myself. No wonder, then, that I find myself writing screenplays again now.
Maybe I’ll write a novel next. Or host a TV show. Or make more films. Or act, a love and a talent I discovered when, in the midst of my first writing success I took an acting class just to get out of the house. I don’t know. Until I do, I will stay in motion, doing the things I know to do, with every confidence that they will lead me to the place I am meant to go.
For now, I am in the wilderness, traipsing through the dark woods. It’s the place where I have gotten lost, and also the perfect place to get found.
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PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.