Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact. — Robert McKee
In 2000, I took Robert McKee’s Story seminar. It changed my life as a writer.
A few months earlier I had lost the family I spent years building. I am a stepmother who had no children of her own. I wanted children, but for complicated reasons did not have them. So I “adopted” my husband’s children as my family.
This was around the time stepfamilies started being called blended families. I think it’s more like throwing everyone’s heart into a food processor and hoping for the best.
I fell in love with my stepchildren. One can’t help but do that when one listens to their tears, takes care of them when they are sick. I was fortunate to have stepchildren who welcomed me in.
I learned that stepparents have to earn the love of their stepchildren. Children naturally love their biological parents. They have to. They need to to survive. So it was a roller coaster of finding the right balance for me. Of opening my heart to these children, then having to let go when I had to take a backseat to their mother. I didn’t blame them, I didn’t blame their mother. I just came to learn to ride the roller coaster of a childless stepmother.
My husband and I did not know the depth of their mother’s dysfunction. She had become a heroin addict. The children, good children of an addict that they were, protected her and did not reveal the hell they were going through.
But, eventually, the shit hit the fan. The pain of abuse turned into rage, and when that happened, the emotional bullets were directed at my husband and me. We got banished from their lives.
I lost the family I had spent years building, riding the roller coaster of finding the balance of loving unconditionally while lowering my expectations of what could be returned. I just never expected that I could be thrown away.
I was traumatized, in shock, trying to reset my life without the family I had assumed would be a part of it.
Six months later I took Robert McKee’s Story seminar. A curmudgeon who believes passionately in the importance of story, he took the stage and spent three days drilling down into what story was, why it was important, and what it has to do with us being humans. Film was his genre.
For your characters to be real, to be believable, he said, you have to have compassion for them, which means you need to understand that the character is right, from that character’s point of view. You have to know, understand, and have compassion for his or her back story.
On the second day, he presented Ordinary People as an example of a story well told. As he identified the inciting event (the moment the protagonist’s life is turned upside down), I became overwhelmed by the story.
It dislodged the numbness that protected me from the grief of losing my family and I began to see my story.
I saw how each person was a character in the story, me, my husband, my stepchildren, their mother.
I saw that each one of us acted because we were seeking to love and be loved, and how life events had twisted this desire for their mother and damaged her children.
I saw that in retrospect, I could not have done anything differently. There was no way I could have protected my heart, that I loved because it was the right thing to do. And sometimes, the cards just turn out the way they turn out.
I got the emotional distance I needed so I could experience the depth of my grief.
At that moment, I understood the power of story. It changed my life as a writer—I became a better one.
My family came back to me. We are better than ever. I have the family I always wanted to have, one that can respect each other’s hearts.
The heart is both fragile and resilient. And so I look for, listen for, and write stories.
I have a life rich in the experience of being human.
I’m taking part in A Writer’s March. Click on over if you want to join in.