Sunday, April 3, 2011

Writing Seed 4: People & Choices

 [This post was originally an assignment written for a writing workshop, meant to be practiced for a period of two weeks.]
Yunnan, China, 2007
Now that we have grounded ourselves in our senses and sunk into our bodies, it’s time to tackle a complex subject:  choice.  Take five minutes now, before reading the rest of the text, and through some stream-of-consciousness writing, tackle this question:  Where do our choices come from?


In February, I went to see an animated film directed by Sylvain Chomet called The Illusionist.  The main character is an illusionist who travels from city to city, searching for concert halls and theatres where he can show his magic act.  Work is scarce and he travels further and further, until he ends up on a remote island where he meets a young woman who is enchanted by his magic tricks.  When he leaves the island, she follows him, and they remain together.  This story isn’t really a romance, and instead it resembles a relationship between a father and his daughter.  The young woman’s innocence and enthusiasm lead the illusionist to begin spending all of his money on lavish gifts he cannot really afford.  Bit by bit, he loses everything he has, and in the end all of the tools he uses for his magic shows are pawned off.  When he has nothing left to give, he suddenly finds the girl walking down the street with a young man, at which point he decides to leave her behind as well, leaving nothing but a note that says, “There are no magicians.”

The truly special thing about this film is that even though the ending is sad, it is at the same time very beautiful.  It had an equanimous quality, one that seemed to say that yes, sometimes life is sad, but there’s also something very beautiful about this, and it’s not something that we need to judge.  How easy it would be to pity the illusionist for his foolishness, or to judge the young woman for always wanting more.  But the strongest sentiment the film portrayed for me was that life simply is, and we can see beauty in that.  Finally, the characters just are who they are, and they couldn’t really act any other way than they did.  What sense is there to judge them?  In this way the director produced a film that simply depicted life as it is, lacking all judgments that so often accompany us, therefore creating a really enchanting piece of work.


The Importance of Secrets

The Illusionist reminded me that our choices come basically from who we are.  That may sound a bit simplistic or obvious, but I don’t think it is.  Ninety percent of our minds are said to be subconscious, and many of our decisions are driven from this place of which we are not even aware.   I’d like to call this place the “secret realm” – it sounds more enchanting, and puts me into the mood for an adventure!  What kind of dragons and treasures are to be found there?  And indeed, according to those who have explored and written about this realm, all our nightmares and all our treasures really do live in the subconscious mind.  Shall we go there together?

To begin, I would like you to spend some time observing yourself and the choices that you make.  I would argue that our choices tend two have one of two flavours:  either there is something that we feel we really need or there is something that we’d really like to give.  Basically, needing stems from fear, and the desire for giving from love, the former leads to pain and the latter to joy.  And to be sure, since the world isn’t black-and-white but painted in all sorts of shades, many of our choices are a complex mixture of the two.  This is something we rarely let ourselves think about, perhaps because we are afraid that our self-image doesn’t match actual reality.  By becoming aware of the realms that host our deepest motivations, we become more in touch with ourselves, and since (as I have written previously) creativity also comes from who we are, by getting more in touch with ourselves, we also get more in touch with our creativity.


Observation versus Interpretation

Next I would like you to begin to observe other people around you and the choices they are making.  Note how you might have chosen differently, and imagine all the different decisions that might have been made by a variety of people.  Why might a person choose one way over another?  Who are they, to have chosen in this way?

This is where the second lesson that I drew from the film The Illusionist comes in, namely that there is beauty in seeing ourselves and the world as it is, and that judgment only takes away from that beauty.  As people as well as writers, it’s best to stay away from interpretation and to stick with observation.  Absolutely everything a person does will be coloured by the meaning of the observer, and this meaning isn’t necessarily the same as that of the person acting.  When I say something to my lover and he does not answer, I can interpret that he is ignoring me.  In fact, he may simply not have heard me.  Interpretation most often makes us miserable.

Observation-sans-interpretation is also extremely useful to practice as a writer, since it exactly mirrors the all-important show-don’t-tell!  maxim in creative writing.  What else is “showing” except an observation put down on paper, and what else is “telling” except a judgment or interpretation the writer tries to make for the reader?  Let the readers be the judge, if anyone is to judge.


Past Conditioning

Forrest Carter’s beautiful book The Education of Little Tree is a tale about the education of a young native boy who loses his parents at a young age and is raised by his grandparents.   In one chapter, the young boy tells us about love:

“I knew that when I heard [my grandfather] late at night say, “I kin ye, Bonnie Bee,” he was saying, “I love ye,” for the feeling was in the words.  And when they would be talking and Granma would say, “Do ye kin me, Wales?” and he would answer, “I kin ye,” it meant, “I understand ye.” To them, love and understanding was the same thing.  Granma said you couldn’t love something you didn’t understand; nor could you love people, nor God, if you didn’t understand the people and God.”

The boy goes on to tell us about an old distempered and cantankerous Indian named Coon Jack, and how he just couldn’t figure out why his grandpa treated him so nicely when what he really deserved was a slap in the face.  But his grandpa went on to tell him how Coon Jack, when he was still young, was forced to give up his home, forced to fight in a war he knew nothing about, how he lost his land and his family, and how fighting was all he ever knew.  Even if he was cantankerous, it was life that had made him so.   The boy goes on to tells us his grandfather’s sentiments: “He said after that, it didn’t matter what Coon Jack said, or did. . . he loved him, because he understood him.”

What makes us who we are but our past?  To realize that there is a very good reason why people act as they act can help free us from judging them, and understanding them will most often make us feel love for them, no matter what they might do.


How does all of this translate into writing?

  »  First, when you create your character, consider their motivations, conscious and unconscious.
  »  Second, those motivations come from somewhere, namely the past.
  »  Third, show us a picture of what is, and try not to interpret in the reader’s place.


Towards the end of this two-week period, try to complete one of the following:
      1.      Secrets – Dealing with secrets can work on many levels:  there are those motivations that live in the secret realm, hidden even from ourselves, while some motivations are conscious, but we feel fearful that others might discover them.   Write a short piece that portrays a character who makes a number of choices while keeping in mind the secret – conscious or unconscious – that motivates him or her.  In fact, if you write about more than one character, give each of them a secret motivation, but don’t reveal these to us.  Characters receive a kind of depth that exists in real people when the writer keeps in mind this secret place.

      2.      Write a short scene where the character makes an unusual choice, but don’t explain the why of this decision.  Paint us an image in thoughts, words and actions, but don’t tell us where the choice comes from.  Afterwards, create two separate “backdrop” scenes from the character’s past – one where we come to understand that the why of the choice was motivated by love, and another where we realize that the why was based on fear.  This is an incredible exercise that helps us realize that actions can never be judged from the outside, and that exactly the same action can go be sourced to two completely different motivations.

      3.      Write anything that was inspired by the above text!

500 – 1000 words, as a guideline.

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