Things Are Much More up for Grabs Than You Think They Are

Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have.”
Mark Vonnegut, from the introduction to Armageddon in Retrospect

I think this is going to be about story and story is important to me.

I went to New York City two weeks ago to take a seminar from Robert McKee. I had taken his Story seminar in 2000 and 2003 in San Francisco. I took it twice because the first time I took it (in 2000), I had to stop taking notes and just let the experience of story carry me out to sea, knowing it would bring me back to shore. Or maybe I didn’t know then that it would bring me back to shore.

I just trusted.

I had been through a particularly traumatic experience in which I thought I had lost the family I had worked hard to build. I’m a stepmother. Stepfamilies are precarious. The heart is a resilient muscle. And that’s a good thing. Life tests it.

As I sat through his seminar, I began to see the story of how I discovered the heart’s resilience. A villain is not a villain in the villain’s story. The character is right from the character’s point of view. If you can’t see that, you have a caricature of a human being. You haven’t drilled down to the truth of what it is to be human.

That humanized the trauma for me. It didn’t take it away. Instead it lifted the numbness and allowed me to feel the loss. It also lifted blame.

This latest seminar I attended was called Story in Business. McKee is right about story. It is one of the most powerful tools a leader has to connect with people and move them to action.

Leader as author he says. I agree.

As the day progressed, I found myself once again being swept out to sea. I was nursing a recent disappointment. Not traumatic like what happened in 2000, but nevertheless very disappointing.

Once again, I saw the events and my experience in terms of story. No villains. No heroes, just humans acting in very human ways, driven by fear of change and life passing them by. It’s what we do when change is thrust upon us and our lives are turned upside down. We try to restore our lives to what they were before they were turned upside down, when what we need to do is use our experience to change the story we were living.

For me, it’s allowing myself to be swept out to sea and then use story to make my way back to shore. It’s what I have in place of religion, my way of making sense out of chaos—out of that which I cannot control.

I said this is about story, and I still think it is. Story does not so much give me hope and faith as it shows me that things are much more up for grabs than I thought they were. That’s how Mark Vonnegut puts it in the introduction to Armageddon in Retrospect:

What occurs to people when they read Kurt is that things are much more up for grabs than they thought they were.”

The news has been filled with dread the last few weeks. Between ISIS and Ebola, we’re all feeling as vulnerable as a young black male who’s stopped by the police, or a raped woman who wore a short skirt.

We’re all going to die, Lindsay Graham predicts.

Well, that is certainly true. We all are going to die. We have that in common.

But in the meantime, things are much more up for grabs than we thought they were. Story, our stories, can help us discover that. Not a bad thing when dread hovers over us.

Weaving Our Fate

DSCN0251By acting on our creative opportunities, we take our fate back into our own hands. Such is the meaning of the Spider (High Priestess) card in the Animal Wise Tarot deck.

Fate. I usually resist that concept. One is fated for something. Has no choice in the matter.

Acting on creative opportunities to take fate back into my own hands puts a different slant on it.

Michelangelo said that he saw the statue when he picked out marble from the quarry. Then he would get to work releasing it from the marble.

My journey for a good many years was to find the innocence lost in my childhood—to restore it. I entered innocently into friendships, partnerships, jobs, with the assumption that my best interest was central to any agreements that formed the basis of the relationships. That is, I thought that my best interest was at the heart of the other party’s motivations.

I was stuck in the helplessness of childhood. That brand of innocence is actually a bit on the narcissistic side.

I don’t know when the light bulb lit up over my head. It has been there for a while, that light bulb, waiting for the switch to be flipped. I’m not even sure what made me flip the switch. But it was a revelation:

I didn’t need to restore my innocence. I needed to embrace experience.

Experience, not guilt, is the flip side of innocence.

Each one of us is living a story. It might be truly ours, or it might be one we think we are supposed to be living—one given us with such dogma that we think we have no choice but to live it. I think our job is to chip away at the dogma, much as Michelangelo chipped away at the marble slab, so we can release the story we are, not the one we think we are supposed to be. And our story comprises our experience.

My early experience showed me that there is darkness as well as light in the human heart. Maturity has allowed me to see that the darkness of another’s heart wasn’t and isn’t about me, but rather experience stuck in the darkness of shame, humiliation, and refusal to let go of innocence.

Maybe that’s the villain in us—refusing experience, holding onto innocence. The hero in us embraces experience as life, our life, and weaves it into our story.

My fate is my story. The story that is my life, comprising innocence and experience, light and dark, joy and sorrow.

We each have our own life story.