Saving Yourself, Saving the World

Today I’m going to give you a core tool that will change you forever, if you listen carefully and take it seriously.

Real talk.



Almost 30 years ago, I was teaching at UCLA, a “writer’s toolbox” class that ranged over flow-state management, organizing, brainstorming, researching, time management, and more.  It was a fun class!

But about 3/4 of the way through it, a student asked me a life-changing question.  “Mr Barnes,” he said.  “You’ve given us all these great tools, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to use them.”

“Why not?”  I asked.

“Well…my wife doesn’t understand my wish to be a writer, and my kids need a lot of my time, and my job is just burning up my energy…” and on and on he went, and as he did I felt the energy in the room, that had been building positively for hours, suddenly begin to drain away.


There’s an expression I’ve heard.   It is that from time to time, life gives you a cubic inch of opportunity.  That when that happens you either grab it, or its gone forever.   This was one of maybe ten I’ve had in my entire life.  I don’t know where it came from: maybe Steven King’s “Boys in the basement.”


I said to him: “if you were a character in a story you were writing, and at the end of that story the character got everything they wanted…what would you have that character do RIGHT NOW.”


That guy stared at me, with steam coming out of his ears.   You could hear the gears stripping in his head as he caught himself and jumped to another track. And then slowly started speaking:  “well,” he said, “I could exchange some household tasks with my wife, in trade for some private time…and I could bring my lunch to work and eat at my desk. That would get me at least a half-hour I could spend writing…and I could enroll my kids by getting them to see all the fun stuff they’d be able to do if their Dad was a published writer…” suddenly, instead of seeing obstacles, he was seeing possibilities.  Suddenly, he had the perspective he needed to see ANSWERS instead of PROBLEMS.   Total shift.


Confused, I used the same technique on the other students, and the whole class was buzzing with new energy.   That guy’s question had unleashed a firestorm of creativity, as everyone began to re-frame their lives as a heroic conflict with their own demons.


I drove home that night with my head exploding, and told my wife what had happened. Did she think this was something real, and that it was worth investigating.  She enthusiastically agreed, and I started research.   About three days in, I came across the work of Joseph Campbell, he of “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”.   I thought his cross-cultural analysis of myth patterns fascinating, but was riveted by a specific quote, something like: “cultural myths are the de-personalized personal dreams. And personal dreams are the personalized cultural myths.”


That hit me like a bomb.   Suddenly, I asked a question: if Campbell was right, that there were core patterns to all world mythology and storytelling, from Eskimo shamans to Ibo Griots to Irish Bards to New York Playwrights to Hollywood screenwriters…where did they come from?  I mean, had there been some kind of world-wide conference down in a cave 10,000 years ago, where all these folks got together and agreed to some synthetic pattern that sounded cute?


Or…could it be that the pattern of story was universal because IT WAS THE PATTERN OF LIFE ITSELF, as observed by the village elders, over the entire length of their lives? That those stories were, in essence, the older people of the village telling the younger members:   “this is what your lives will be…this is how it goes.”  Love, and fear, and growth, and death, and hunting, and gathering, and fighting, and fleeing…all the basic aspects of life, the rise and fall of tension, the acceptance of challenge, the solving of problems, the dealing with the demons in our hearts…


All the gathered wisdom of mankind RIGHT THERE IN PLAIN SITE.  And I asked myself: what would happen if you took any goal in your life, and laid it out on that pattern. Would you be able to see the inevitable path of action, in advance, because patterns repeat?


And holy crap, it worked like Gangbusters.  And Lifewriting was born. Then I asked the next question: what happens if a writer SPECIFICALLY applied this pattern not just to plotting a story…but WRITING a story…and the process of living life as a writer..?


That question changed everything.  And LIFEWRITING FOR WRITERS was born.  It opened the door to realizing that A SINGLE SENTENCE A DAY is all that we need to keep our feet moving on the path. All the rest is rememebering WHAT we want, WHY we want it, and solving the problems as they arise, one at a time.


“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home. All right, questions?”–Mark Watney, “The Martian.”


That’s you. That’s your life.  One step at a time.  One sentence a day.


This is amazing stuff, this is how we’re going to write those stories.  This is how we’re going to change the world. One person at a time. One story at a time.  One sentence at a time.  One DAY at a time.   I challenge you to join us.  Do you see dragons? Then be a damned hero.   We’ve gotten tired of Damsels in Distress.


Be the Hero in the Adventure of Your Lifetime. If you have a story to tell…we have the way to set it free.


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