A former student, Jeff Harris, posted a note that we have been Facebook friends for six years. Fifteen years ago, he and Rich Redmond used to drive down from Seattle to study Tai Chi with me in Longview Washington, and I was always so happy to see them: good students, good people both. He said on his post: “Steven, you have been an important influence in my life. I am a better person thanks to you.”
So happy to hear that. There is nothing special about me, but there is something very special about the path my teachers opened to me, and any time I feel I can point it out clearly enough for another to find their footing, life is good.
Forty-five years ago, more or less, I entered college. I’d tried to stop writing to make my mother happy, but realized it was my dharma.
I left Pepperdine University to follow my writing bliss, afraid that if I stayed I would absorb negative attitudes of teachers, but unsure of how to proceed. Working at CBS Television city, I could read scripts and meet actors and executives and people like Normal Lear who HIRED writers. I wrote and wrote, but nothing was selling. My goal was to write for television and film, and a lady executive at CBS gave me a hint when I asked how much I should charge for a script I was writing for a producer.
She said: “take whatever you can get. Don’t worry about it. What you want is to get produced. Get a credit. Everything looks different from there.” In other words, lose your virginity, even if the first time is a clumsy mess. So I looked at everything I did as moving toward that goal of writing for Hollywood. The script went no where. Neither did the next one.
I created a break for myself by meeting Larry Niven and convincing him to work with me, and that was wonderful. Even better, one day Tad Stones at Disney wanted him to adapt a Stanislaw Lem short story for an anthology show they were doing. Larry wasn’t interested but referred them to me, and I got hired, and got my first Hollywood agent Marvin Moss. Wrote the script, but the show never got on the air. Discouraged again, I got another piece of wisdom from Marvin: scripts aren’t written, they are re-written.
I remember that Marvin saw right through me, saw the fear inside the bravado, and nailed me on it. It felt like I was a failure, and would never get anywhere.
I got another writing gig: adapting H. Beam Piper’s LITTLE FUZZY for a lady who had purchased the rights. I worked hard, but again…it went nowhere. But I kept working.
Through long-time friend Craig Miller I got the chance to work on THE SECRET OF NIMH for seven months at Don Bluth Productions. Wonderful people, and I worked my heart out. Don left about four months in to generate some income by doing animation for the Olivia Newton-John movie XANADU. While he was gone, his vice-presidents took over, and I was writing to try to make them happy. And they loved what I was doing! I was thrilled.
When Don came back, the dream collapsed. Don was FURIOUS with the material I’d been producing. “What is this mediocre SHIT?!” he screamed, and I was shattered. I went home that day with my dreams in shards. No idea what to do, or how to do it. “Why did you even hire me?” I asked.
He sort of shook his head. He didn’t know, either. When my contract was up, they didn’t renew, and I didn’t blame them. Everyone was very pleasant about it, but I knew I was a Dead Writer Walking.
And that’s the way it was: boom and bust. Boom and Bust. Each “boom” taking me a little closer before the bubble popped and dumped me back into depression.
And then one day I lectured on storytelling at UCLA, and saw the power of seeing things as a personal myth. That when they used that perspective, my students began to evolve their own answers.
And I looked at it myself, in my own life…and realized that I KNEW that my efforts would lead to success success success…and then shattering failure. Leading to a “dark night.” Followed by another leap of faith, getting back up, trying again until I found another success…and the cycle started again.
Over and over again. And it hit me: why did I pretend this wasn’t happening? Why didn’t I REMEMBER I was going to crash and burn? Because if I did…I could see the cyclical crashes as just part of the price I was going to pay to move to the next level.
I remembered that several women had said something to me: that if they really remembered the pain of childbirth, they’d never have sex again. Was that it? Was it that if I really remembered the pain, I wouldn’t go after the goal?
Maybe. Or maybe it was that if I didn’t remember, then every time it hit I could be tempted to fail: that my ego created mental scotoma, “dead spots” in our memories so that we cannot access the information that would enhance transformation.
Both theories worked. I don’t know which is true. I do know that I need to stay on the path, or I was betraying that little boy inside me who watched his mother burn his stories, and swore he’d prove her wrong.
That, in essence, pain and fear were the gatekeepers to moving to the next level. I looked at where I wanted to go: up the spiral.
How many times would I have to fail?
I have no idea. I still don’t. But what I knew was that the outcome, the goal, the THING I WANTED TO ACCOMPLISH, had to be big enough, strong enough, inspiring enough that when I hit the wall I would pick myself up and keep going. That if you lose balance failure triggers depression, and in that depression tunnel I cannot see options. And that once you are IN the depression, it is hard to get out. So…
I needed a daily ritual to balance my emotions.
I needed to study past “Dark Nights” and see how I got out of them.
I need to list the allies, friends and mentors who helped lift me up. Then I had to support them NOW so that the next time I needed some help, I would have some “money in the bank”: this is called “dig the well before you are thirsty.”
The whole thing became a game. I wanted an outcome. The path was hazardous. The hazards somehow create amnesia so that you forget you’ve passed this way before….
No more. Not ever again. Everything became a part of the process of growth, and every day’s actions carried their own reward, separate from “accomplishment”. I won every day just by keeping my word to myself.
Understanding the connection between story and life. Life and story. The failures keep on comin’. And sometimes they are heartbreaking. More specifically, ego-shattering.
But…I am not my ego. We can lose the overt goals but as long as we are true to our values, and continue to evolve on that level, NO ONE can take our soul away from us.
Rocky Balboa in the original film KNEW he couldn’t beat Apollo Creed, and redefined “winning” to simply staying on his feet. As a result, with an internally-directed definition of victory, a club-fighting pug came with in a hair’s breadth of beating the greatest boxer in the world.
I couldn’t guarantee victory in any specific instance, but the combined wisdom of all the world’s storytellers said that if you remain true to your path, face fear, keep learning, and pick yourself up every time life knocks you down…you will accomplish more than you could dream, while getting paid every day just for being your real self.
A reader yesterday said that I wanted to TRANSFORM people. Wanted to change them into something they are not.
No. He had it exactly 180-degrees wrong. I want to help people REVEAL themselves. Shatter the illusions created by ego-comforting fear and divisive anger. Open the door to traveling up that spiral to their bliss.
I’ve been doing it for thirty years. Sometimes life is wonderful. Sometimes it hurts. But it is always real. I never asked for an easy life. I asked for an AUTHENIC one, a life of creation and contribution, and the strength to get back up every damned day and hit it again.
That’s all I have to offer you, lads and lasses. That’s all Lifewriting is. If you see the same path I see, it’s the best, the only way that provides the perspective that will take you as far as you are capable of going.
Others are encouraged to find other paths. But for those who hear me…welcome brothers and sisters. Good to see you.