Story is the Currency of Human Contact

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.

Bursting into Bloom

I hope that you will go out and let stories happen to you, and that you will work them, water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves

I suffer from multiple interest syndrome. I not only want to write, I want to see the writing in a three dimensional form. I like acting, and after directing Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, I discovered that I love directing.

The common denominator is story. A writer writes the story; the actor tells it through acting. What I decided my role as director was to set the stage so the story could be told and heard.

Robert McKee, who presents – well performs – a seminar called “Story” refers to story as a metaphor for life. I would agree.

When I first took this seminar in 2000, I was emerging from a period of tremendous loss – loss so great that I was in a constant state of shock, without even knowing it. These were not losses caused by the death of someone; but rather the loss of the belief that love would always win out. I had lost the family that was my stepchildren.

For anyone who has been a stepparent (perhaps, but maybe not, particularly a stepmother), you know that that relationship is a delicate one – delicate because the heart is at once delicate and durable. Parent and child need and want to be loved by each other, but that is far more complex than Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can accommodate.

To preserve everyone’s privacy, I don’t want to go into details. But what I learned about being a stepmother was that I wasn’t issued a bulletproof vest. So when the pain of confusion broke out, I got caught in the gunfire. I felt as if someone ripped my heart from out of my chest, shot it full of holes, then shoved it back into my chest.

The surprise for me was that my heart, riddled with bullet holes, kept on beating. I had survived, and had to learn to live with it.

McKee’s seminar took place over three days. As he took us deeper into story, using examples from films, I found myself drawn onto a path that awakened my numbed heart and gave me a way to experience the feelings I had put on ice. I saw the story of what happened to me; saw everyone with compassion; saw how everyone acted as if they were right, from their point of view.

Being able to see the story of what happened to me, allowed me to see the humanness of everyone involved, including me. Allowed me to see that love is not about surviving – it is about thriving.

I had been blaming myself for having gotten so involved with people; that it was my fault that I got hurt.

But, seeing the story – a story that involved a cast of characters, allowed me to see without blame or judgment. I saw it with compassion – compassion for being human.

It created a metaphor for I could feel the experience without the trauma.

As I started this post, I was thinking of writing that stories are necessary for our survival. But in truth, story is required for us to thrive. To let stories happen to us, we need to be willing to experience the gamut of emotion, from joy to grief, from elation to disappointment, from success to failure.

We need to experience our lives with the compassion for being human, water our stories with our blood and tears and laughter till they bloom, till we ourselves burst into bloom.

Note: I eventually got my family back. We all had to risk exposing the tenderness of our hearts — to trust that the heart is both delicate and durable. I have no regrets.

So There is Time Enough

Today’s New York Times has two op ed columns (Frank Rich and Timothy Egan ) that talk about Mad Men, the AMC series that follows Madison Avenue ad men in the Sixties – the Sixties that start in 1960.

So far it has covered the span of history that includes the 1960 election, birth of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), death of Marilyn Monroe, and Cuban Missile Crisis.

Racism, sexism, drinking while pregnant and/or driving, and smoking like a chimney were deeply embedded as cultural norms. Perfectly acceptable.

Tonight’s premiere begins in 1963. Should be an interesting season.

Note: Spoiler alert follows. Although, if you haven’t been watching the series, I don’t think it will spoil anything if you start to watch it.

The protagonist, Don Draper, is who he says he is, though only after assuming a new identity. He lifts the dog tags from his dead compatriot after he is burned beyond recognition in a scene that takes place in Korea.

It’s the moment that Dick Whitman changes his story and become Don Draper.

Story, Robert McKee, says is a metaphor for life.

I have become fascinated lately with rewriting the story. Not a short story or novel I’m writing. But my story. The story that I’m living.

Perhaps the best birthday present I am giving myself as I turn sixty (still two months away, but nonetheless), is to recognize that the story I thought I was supposed to live is not my story.

And so I have started rewriting my story.

Compassion, I believe, is at the base of all good story writing. That means compassion for myself for having tried to live a story that wasn’t mine; compassion for those who wrote the story I thought I was supposed to live; and compassion for the human condition.

And today, at least, I think the human condition is that we do the best we can with what we have. At its highest, the human condition allows us to learn that the best we can do can be really quite extraordinary – once we learn compassion.

In the old story, I was a monster. Monstrous because I asked questions; monstrous because my questions provoke the possibility of change.

In my new story, I understand that I have been given gifts: the gift of asking questions, the gift of being willing to embrace change; the gift of uncertainty. I have come to believe that faith is acting without the benefit of certainty.

And so I have faith in story: to allow story to unfold, reveal character with compassion, and let it end in ambiguity if necessary.

I have come to look at safety in a different way. I don’t think we can make ourselves safe from the unexpected, from the event that pulls the rug out from under us, from losing people we love, or even our own lives.

Now I think safety is more about living life fiercely so when it comes time to face my own death I can say that there was time enough.

Mad Men is good story. It shows the wages of living a life of quiet desperation. What it’s like to live a story that isn’t yours.
As a coda, there is also an op ed column about the American poet Marianne Moore. Ford Motor Company asked her to come up with names for a new car it was getting ready to sell. They turned down all her suggestions – and named it the Edsel.