The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, December 09, 2013

Reasons I'm glad I'm almost dead #3: Stuff Makes Sense. People make sense.

 (Well, really reasons I’m glad I’ve lived this long)

Stuff makes sense.  People make sense.

And that is HUGE.

My largest single conceptual breakthrough came after writing almost two million words of fiction.    For decades I’d taught and used the Hero’s Journey as a “plotting” structure that also mirrored the path of creating work, and the living of life in general. With minor tweaks, I could make it fit any story, movie, incident, project, or anything else, and have never encountered a situation that didn’t fit (sometimes I have to minimalize or abstract, but in general, if it doesn’t fit the pattern, human consciousness won’t recognize the input as “story”.)
The other piece of the puzzle was the yogic chakras, which at some point I began using for characterization.   Mapping over beautifully with Maslows Hierarchy of human needs, or Milton Erickson’s therapeutic model, the chakras represent six thousand years of yogic psychology: theoretical, observational,  experimental and experiential.

Good enough for me.  The breakthrough came from asking myself about the relationship between story and character.  It seemed pretty obvious that the argument about whether character or story was primary was a false choice.

Non-dualistically, character and story are the same thing.    In other words, a situation is not a story.  Story is created by dropping a person of certain needs and capacities into a given scenario and watching what they do.  What they do reveals who they are.  What they SAY about themselves reveals a secondary level, but the primary is action.  

I remember having fun in my novel “Firedance” with the little hermaphrodite assassin “Leslie”, the deadliest human being (pound for pound) who ever lived, who is performing courageous, self-sacrificing, hugely effective feats while running an internal monologue constantly trashing herself.  The conflict between these two things—action and thought—revealed personality, specifically the damage wrought by the interaction of conflicting value structures and belief patterns.

If Maslow was right, as we satisfy lower needs (and by “lower” I certainly don’t mean less essential or worthy) we automatically begin to evolve toward the higher.   Since I was using the “create a perfect human being, damage them, and then give them a route to wholeness that requires shedding illusions” general approach to characterization, it seemed reasonable that the HJ could be seen as the route from a lower to a higher “chakra.”

I saw this as a series of tight little spiral traveling up that vertical line, one spiral between each of ‘em: survival to sex to power to emotion to communication to intellect to spirit.

Again, it made sense to me.  Then I thought of the overall process, the journey from survival to spirit, as one huge spiral, and the whole thing began to resemble a sphere.  The dynamism of the interaction between the two created a 360-degree revolving sphere of the thing called “story”.   

And my grasp of the big picture congealed.  And has never changed.   Note that this is like a wire-frame model in my mind.   It isn’t infinitely predictive. But everything made sense in retrospect, and it was a hugely valuable tool in structuring and writing.

Build a character and test him to destruction—and growth.  Or, create a situation and ask what character would be perfect to explore this, resolve it, or wreck it.

All the thousands of books and films and stories I’d seen or read or heard collided in my mind, suddenly simplified hugely: they were always either stories of growth, decay, or simple expression, a human organism seeking to evade pain and gain pleasure, operating at various levels of “sleep” or “awakening”, trying to navigate his existence to the best of his ability at the time.

Because I also used the HJ to plan the actual work (for instance, there is ALWAYS a point in my writing of any project where it feels as if nothing is working and it’s all falling apart.  This is just emotional crap…get used to it), and the Chakras to look at my own progress and blockages, something odd happened.

After about three years of using this dynamic model for writing and executing writing, I started seeing it in other aspects of my life.  In fact, once I “tweaked” to that perspective, I found it impossible NOT to see it.  And then saw it in the lives of others. And then all around me, everywhere.

Again, and this is critical: it was not “predictive” in the sense of knowing what was going to happen before it happens. But explanatory?   Frankly, once I saw it, people stopped being puzzling.  And there just weren’t human beings of vastly different aspect.    On the most important core levels, we were all the same—with the same infinite variation found in snowflakes, of course, such that we were either as different, or as similar as you could want, depending on perspective.

It was wonderful.  If the use of this juxtaposing was a “wire frame” with writing, it was the ghost of a wire frame dealing with real human beings: perceptable to intuition and emotional “flash” but dissolving if I looked at it directly: subliminal, not conscious.   Peripheral, not foveal.

But there.  And as three points gives you a circle, and four points gives you a sphere, the rest was just filling in the “dots,” and there just weren’t any dots that didn’t fit.  There are experimental stories that depend upon an educated and sophisticated audience that brings their own deep knowledge of story with them and can react to implication, minimalization and deconstruction of story and personality. And there are human beings with scrambled wiring, people with basic psychological urges out of balance or addicted to hungers and perspectives that were healthy in one context or degree, but loathsome and damaging in another.

Fascinating, and the beginning of a realization that I’d reached a different point in my life and career.  It was a great feeling: life wasn’t a cheat.  If you paid attention it really did make sense.

More on these things later…


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While it's exhilarating to have figured out 'how the world works', there's a sadness in the lessons it took almost a lifetime to learn. IMHO, a central tragedy of the Human Condition is we usually earn our few treasured kernels of enlightenment during those end years when we're mostly restricted to musing on missed opportunities. To have had such wisdom in the prime of our lives...!!!