I’m at work on a novel and one of the joyous surprises is how frequently magic appears on the page, unbidden. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, but out of the threads of the story I’ve been weaving with a conscious awareness of the plot and where it is going. Coming from screenwriting, I’d imagined, before I started writing this book, that I understood the shake and rhythms and pacing of the book and that the plot I’d outlined was more or less the plot I’d follow. What I’d learned, however, is that the plot of this novel is just the skeleton and that the writing itself is the flesh and the spirit that animates.
So yesterday, as I was making good on my pages, some words found there way onto the page that weren’t expected, and it wasn’t just the words. It was the ideas, the concept, the metaphor that I realized would add another bit of texture to an already texturally rich book. This, I realized, is what language is, it’s how it weaves its magic, it’s why story imprints itself so deeply into the imagination. Words have one meaning. And, then, through story, they have another. Whole layers of meaning piled on top of one another — or, more accurately, woven into a tapestry – until a world is made. In my story, my protagonist is weaving a tapestry from the many disparate experiences of his life. He is, in other words, as we all are, consciously or not (and most often not) weaving the story of his life from all the things that have come to him unbidden, and all the things he’s chosen, and all of his passions and longing and pains and disappointments, all of it grist for the mill, or threads for his loom. And that got me thinking…
I’ve been thinking a lot lately, and slowly formulating a theory — or finding the words for it since the theory is clear in my mind — about how we must enter our lives as a protagonist in a movie enters the world of a film. We must, for example, get over the fact that some things have gone down that we didn’t ask for and frankly do not want. We have to come to terms with what we do well and what we don’t do well — and if we have good sense, we spend most of those times building upon what we do well, devoting only the bare minimum time needed to shoring up whichever of our weaknesses we can’t ignore, while ignoring all the rest, and assuming that strengths in those areas are not needed for our journey. ‘Cause if they were, we would have those strengths (duh — sounds obvious when you think about it). It all goes back to the idea that we were perfectly made, that whatever we need to live the journey we’ve come here for, we have, even if we do have to work like the dickens to turn our little lumps of coal (our little skeins of thread) into gold (or wool blankets, or whatever).
So, the protagonist. By the time we meet her, she’s lived a portion of her life and gotten used to the rules of her world, but no resting on her laurels for her, because the next thing she knows it, something happens — the inciting incident, the disturbance, pick your favorite screenwriting term — and her world as she knows it is changed. She fights it, of course (who wouldn’t), but finally she resigns herself to the fact that she’s going to have to deal with it, and she hatches a plan.
But here’s the thing about plans, though.
They’re just a skeleton, they’re just the bones. They’re like my outline, woefully incomplete. You think you’re God of a fictional world because you’ve outlined it out? You’re just a protagonist who thinks you’re a god. And wanting to be a god, that’s really the problem, isn’t it. We want control. We want to know what’s going to happen next. We want to know that there’s going to be a happy ending (and God we want a happy ending). To which I can only say, build a bridge and get over it, because that kind of certainty, that isn’t life. That is death, that is calcification. And you are a protagonist, and protagonists cannot rest on their laurels, not if they want a vibrant life, not if they want the life they secretly (secret even from themselves) came for.
In Act Two of a movie, after the protagonist has made her plan, all kinds of stuff goes down. Challenges and obstacles, allies and villains, insurmountable odds. Any protagonist worth her salt fights for it, she fights for her goal despite all of this, she marshals her resources, she figures out who she really is and if who she is isn’t sufficient for the challenges she keeps coming up against, she becomes someone else, a better, stronger, evolved version of herself. She is transformed by her struggle. And no, she doesn’t like it, anymore than you like the struggles of your life, but she keeps going because the pressure is on (and isn’t the pressure on for all of us, the clock is ticking, our time is running out). She fights long and hard and she is not at all sure she can do this and at the end of Act Two, she is kicked on her arse — all is lost, it’s the moment closest to death, to borrow, again, some screenwriting terms.
And here’s the thing. She picks herself back up. She is exhausted, which, check, I can so relate to that. She is running low on faith (check). She has lost confidence in her own ability to affect her circumstances (double check). And yet, there is a little rumbling inside of her that says, “girl please, you’re the same badass you always were, maybe bruised and battered, but bad. ass.”
And so she, you, pick yourself up and you look back at all you’ve been and all you’ve been through, and you find the mother freakin’ threads. And then you pick up all those disparate threads, and you weave yourself a tapestry. And you tie it around your shoulders, and you charge into Act Three, where you, having been transformed by all your suffering, will defeat your antagonists, those without and those within, and you will get your happy ending. Not because of your thoughts (because I am so over The Secret and all that b.s.), and not because God loves you (because, I’m sorry, why would God wave his magic wand over you and leave so other praying, believing people to fend for themselves? I’m sorry, put on your big girl panties and use your common sense), but because you are a freakin’ protagonists. And protagonists kick arse until they get where they’re going. And in the process, during their long and arduous journey, they become who they need to be to get. it. done.
And that, in the end, is the purpose of the journey, it is the sacred and tragi-beautiful purpose of life. It is why we are here , every single one of us. And as the days and weeks and months and years pass, I’ll tell you about the tapestry I am weaving from the many threads of my life. I am grateful, at this stage in my life, to be able to see the patterns that so often remain invisible (they’re there, but you have to look). I am grateful to see how my love of story and my deep desire to change the world and years spent studying law and public policy and doing human rights work and writing screenplays and working in corporate ethics (a job I hated) all add up to a narrative that makes sense. Like a movie protagonist, I could so often only see what was right in front of me, but as I enter my own Act Three, I can look back on my Act Two journey and see that it all made sense, that it has prepared me for what comes next, and that it is for me to create it. My destiny is in my hands.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY UNKNOWN
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