“From time to time life gives you a cubic inch of opportunity. When it comes, you either grab it, or it is gone forever.” (author unknown)
When I was a kid, my mom played LPs (remember them?) of motivational, inspirational, and strategic self-help works like THINK AND GROW RICH, THE GOLDEN KEY, THE STRANGEST SECRET, PSYCHO-CYBERNETICS, and so forth. I hated it. Really. But…it sank in, and in adulthood, I found myself returning to it and sorting through all that wealth to find the most useful nuggets.
I’m teaching at UCLA. A “Writer’s Toolbox” course (smashing writer’s block, brainstorming, mindstorming, budgeting time, structure, character, controlling emotions, dealing with fear and doubt. All the tools you need to be a writer). The class loved it, but one guy raised his hand.
“Mr. Barnes, you’ve given us all these terrific tools, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to use them.”
Because his wife didn’t understand his urge to write, his kids ate up all his free time, his job was killing him with stress, and on and on.
I listened. And in that moment, I got one of the best five or six “cubic inches of opportunity” of my entire life. I don’t know where the inspiration came from, but there it was.
The class was looking at me, wondering what Teacher was gonna say. I took a deep breath and said words that changed my life: “If you were a character in a story you were writing, and at the end of the story that character got everything they needed, what would you have him do next?”
I watched the steam come out of his ears, and his eyes damned near crossed as his ego circuits fried. And slowly, haltingly, he said “Ummm…I could trade home chores with my wife to arrange more time. I could convince my kids it would be fun to have their Dad be a writer, and enroll them in helping me. I could eat my lunch at my desk, and write from noon until one…” and so forth. It was bizarre. Like he’d flipped a switch in his head, leading to a “mini cube” realization:
IF YOU GIVE SOMEONE AN IDEA, AND THEY SPEND THEIR TIME FIGURING OUT HOW TO MODIFY IT TO MAKE IT WORK, THEY HAVE PERMISSION TO SUCCEED. IF YOU GIVE THEM AN IDEA AND THEY SPEND ALL THE TIME COMING UP WITH REASONS IT WON’T WORK, THEY DON’T HAVE PERMISSION TO SUCCEED.
(Is this always true? No. But it is true often enough that assuming you are dealing with an unconscious block, a confusion of values, bears fruit more often than not.)
I tested the idea on the other students, and they responded the same way. They LOVED the exercise. And I drove home that night in confusion. What had happened? Why had this worked so well? I spent the next days researching, trying to understand, and came across a quote from Joseph Campbell to the effect that “stories are the depersonalized personal dreams. Dreams are the personalized cultural myths.” In other words, there was a connection between the stories we tell our children, and the way we represent our lives internally.
Or to be more specific, human beings are creatures who create matrices of meaning by connecting emotions and high-intensity moments. We don’t just record our lives, we seek to make meaning of them, often non-linearly. You remember your first kiss one hell of a lot better than you remember what you ate for breakfast a week ago. The stories we tell about ourselves, our lives, our families, our society, our world, affect our perceptions and emotions.
I asked myself another question: “what if stories are the elders of the tribe telling the younger members `this is what life will be’?” What love, mating, hunting, gathering, survival, having children, watching parents age, growing old yourself, teaching the next generation, learning and growing. Stories are about this basic stuff. 99% of stories can be hooked into the basic levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy, or the Chakras.
What if, in other words, the secrets of life are hidden right in plain sight, in the stories that have been told and found of value generation after generation. Look at the stories that have been with us for centuries or thousands of years, and they contain something people connect with on a deep level. Relate to something basic about humanity or the world we live in. What if?
So…I extracted a version of the “Hero’s Journey” that applied not only to writing but life itself:
- Hero Confronted with a challenge
- Hero rejects the challenge (usually due to fear or lack of understanding)
- Hero accepts the challenge
- The Road of trials
- Gathering Allies and powers
- Confront evil–defeated
- Dark night of the soul
- Leap of faith
- Confront evil–victorious
- Student becomes the teacher.
I’ve seen dozens of different interpretations of this cycle. They all have utility to one degree or another. This one allows you to write stories, to diagram the PROCESS of writing stories, and also can be applied to any goal you have.
I asked: what if I take all of the self-help “stuff” I’ve learned over the years, and applied it to this pattern? If I considered this the “syntax” of progress to a new goal? I tried it, and it was a revelation. And have been teaching what I learned for thirty years. Just as an example, I’ll mention the way some of the tools I teach fit into this pattern:
- Hero confronted with challenge. Goal setting.
- Hero rejects the challenge. Heartbeat meditation
- Hero accepts the challenge. Affirmations.
- The road of trials. “Five Minute Miracles”
- Gathering Allies and powers. “Ancient Child”
- Confront evil–defeated. The Morning Ritual
- Dark Night of the Soul. Glitter in water technique
- Leap of Faith. Prayer.
- Confront Evil–victory. The Art of War
- Student Becomes the Teacher. Lifewriting itself.
There would be countless ways of organizing resources. And beyond a doubt, you have resources of your own, or you wouldn’t have survived so long. Try organizing them in this pattern,and see what you get.
(btw. If you want to see how this relates to some of my recent enthusiasms, try this: Lifewriting leads to writing. Writing leads to genre writing. A sub-set of genre is Science Fiction. A sub-set of SF is “Afrofuturism”. And arguably the greatest exemplar of Afrofuturism EVER is the new “Black Panther” film. I can draw a direct line between a “mere” movie and a core primal way of viewing reality. Make sense?)