There is an old adage that the more specific you get, the more universal your message will be. That’s why when Pres. Obama pointed out the 102 year old African American woman in the audience at his State of the Union speech who had to wait six hours in line to vote in Florida in the presidential election in November, his shout out was not corny but resonant to so many people. We’d heard stories like this for more than a century of minorities, especially women, discouraged or deterred from voting, but what made this one especially affecting was that several new details had been added. It was not just an older Black woman but it was a 102 year old woman. It was not a story of civil rights-like voter suppression from 50, 100 or even 150 yeas ago. It happened within the LAST year.
That’s also why the gun violence/“they deserve a vote” section of the speech also worked. We’ve all seem victims of gun violence from both sides – the shooter and the shooted and the respective families of each. But there was yet another new twist on it this time. Due to the proliferation of assault weapons used in so many of these mass shootings, firearms which blast up to 30 bullets in five seconds, many more people die in record time. But because any one of these individual blood fests – Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech – can cover a greater number of people and acreage, more than one or two humans these days also manage to escape or survive and then, live to testify. Whether it was the young man in the Colorado movie theatre who has become an anti-gun activist despite the bullet fragments still lodged in his body or the fighting spirit of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her ability to resume life after a near fatal brain injury, it’s really just simple math: the greater the area and number of victims you’re dealing with the more likely the percentages that something will go wrong and someone will live to speak out against you. Once again – old story, but with a new slant. Of course, there was the classroom of 20 dead children and 5 adults at the Sandy Hook elementary school where everyone did die, proving there are exceptions to every rule. But let’s face it, the lack of survivors and extremely young median age of everyone in that 2012 mass shooting only made that tragedy even more unique and caused it to stand out given the norm of the “aughts” decade of where we now all reside.
Putting your own “contemporary” spin on an old story is something we all do either on the page or in real life, whether we know it or not. Actually, it’s impossible not to do it if the yarn takes place in or is being told through the lens of someone who lives today. But often times we feel quite insecure about it – as if we’re unoriginal or ripping off some other tale of woe or happiness that we particularly liked either consciously or subconsciously. And if me writing about the notion that no story is new except for the personal spin you put on it sounds as if you’ve heard it before – well, you probably have. But perhaps not put exactly this way. See, addressing an issue in an opinion piece is no different than creating a story from ground zero to tell your friends, or writing it down in short story, play, screenplay or book form for your readers. Or verbally addressing a crowd, or talking to Matt, Diane, Oprah, Katie, Jay, Dave, Jerry Springer or the nation or the world in an interview. A version of every story in the world has been offered in some form ad nausea. You might swear it’s new because you’ve never heard it, or the people who were around the last time it was told are long gone, but pretty much someone or something has done it prior. And perhaps better (though certainly different) than the version you’re hearing or seeing now. And if you need any proof of that just look at the various movie versions of Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally and 500 Days of Summer after watching Two for the Road and Scenes from A Marriage and see if you don’t see what I mean.
Perhaps this seems corny or obvious even though I don’t mean it to be. Yet that’s a normal reaction in any discussion of archetypal stories, archetypal behavior or archetypes in general, since the very essence of the word is defined as:
“A symbol, term, statement or pattern of behavior – a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated.”
In other words, any discussion of cliché become cliché because a. it is literally about cliché and b. because it has been done and talked about so much before.
The most famous of these thoughts were advanced from Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” which rethought some of the work of the famed psychiatric mind of Carl Jung, both of whose works were re-adapted by Christopher Vogler for, of all things, screenwriters in the movie business two decades ago in what is now considered a bit of a movie industry how-to masterwork entitled The Hero’s Journey.
THJ was quite popular among studio executives and adult storytellers of all ages in Hollywood as it helped crystallize a “formula” for storytelling (and who in the entertainment biz doesn’t want that all knowing formula) that had been written about for decades and probably centuries but in different language. Simply put, it states that if you’re trying to weave a compelling tale you FOREMOST must have in your tale certain kinds of characters that will compel fellow humans to listen, buy movie tickets or read about. These include: a hero, a villain, a mentor, a love interest, a best friend, a jokester and so on and so on…. i.e., recognizable types human beings have been known to respond to en mass (Note: it was no coincidence Vogler first conceived his “adaptation” of these theories in a seven page film studio memo while an employee working at — Disney)
We can bellyache all we want about this – “oh please, it’s the same old thing over and over; that book was from the nineties, this isn’t new; I’m tired, I need a drink, and why am I reading about something that was popular 20 years ago when we know they didn’t have the web back then and, let’s face it, computers have changed everything” – but the dirty little truth is that when utilized judiciously (and sometimes blatantly) it always works. Even a discussion of it often evokes enough controversy to warrant validation because the fact is I didn’t twist anyone’s arm to read this but for better or worse, most of you are still reading (I think). And – if you are still reading – it means you’re curious to know more about old stories, archetypes, THJ and why they work (or at least, what I am going to say about it) – which in itself lifts it very essence above cliché and thus reinforces the following point:
When you or anyone else puts your own individual SPIN on the familiar it immediately CEASES TO BE SUCH. And will in that moment can be seen in some NEW WAY.
This might be an obvious intellectual insight but it is shocking to me in how many moments of real life so many of us (myself included) don’t truly believe it.
This became apparent to me earlier this week when I decided that a new piece of writing I’ve made a bunch of notes on for myself wasn’t really worth doing because I felt like I didn’t have anything new to add to the subject despite pages of observations to the contrary. But lucky for me, after teaching several days ago to a group of many young yet like-minded writers, I’m not sure I still feel this way.
Standing, sitting and sometimes pacing before 40 different students in four different classes I had to listen to any number of story outlines, ideas, detailed treatments and verbal pitches for 40 separate original story ideas for either film or television and noticed something sort of funny. What was universally the biggest fear of each creator of these many wonderful, uh, narratives, were self-doubting thoughts like – “I know this has been done before,” “right now this is incredibly cheesy,” “I know/don’t want this to sound(s) like —- (fill in film) or an episode of — (fill in TV show from the past) or, my favorite, “This is a bad rip-off of —- but I can’t think of anything else, and maybe, really, I shouldn’t do this at all and just think of something else. If I even can.”
After all these years I couldn’t believe how another old adage is true – you reflect what you give off. Meaning the question in my own mind became – was my own self-defeatist attitude so unoriginal that I was literally seeing it among a group of people in their early twenties who had not been writing even half as long as I have? And then I wondered – “jees, is this kind of thing contagious and am I infecting them with this type of thought unwittingly? Or is this something they came to on their own. Something that, dare I say it, is archetypal?”
Well, here’s the good news: I don’t think I’m the Typhoid Mary of writing teachers. But like Jung and many of his ilk who studied along with him realized – there are certain archetypes, specific kinds of behavior that are endemic to all humans. And since most writers and would-be writers are human (notice I said most – there are a few exceptions who shall go nameless – Okay, Shakespeare, Proust), it is not unusual they would share these exact feelings of self-doubt, albeit exhibit them all in their own individually unique forms of expression. Put another way: When you put your own individual spin on a behavioral cliché, it ALSO ceases to be a cliché.
Accepting all this as a given, it feels not out of line to occasionally ask oneself this cliché question – How do I become the hero of my own story? I think the answer is to go by the above advice and let whatever we dare to hang out – knowing there are no guarantees but knowing there are also no rewards if we don’t try to spin out something.
Brenda Euland, writer extraordinaire said in her wise and seminal book If You Want to Write, that no one will tell a story exactly the way that YOU tell it. She hung out with Louise Bryant and John Reed and a bunch of other New York Bohemians almost a century ago but spent most of her later life back in her native Minnesota where she was known mostly famously as a prescient writing teacher who periodically gets rediscovered over the decades, usually after the latest “how to” fad passes. Lest you think her personal story of a bohemian who hangs out with famous people in N.Y. doesn’t get famous herself, goes home with her tail between her legs, and spends the rest of her days handing out advice as a teacher to help people do the very thing she didn’t manage, sounds familiar (nee archetypal) – it really isn’t. Ms. Euland was, indeed, a talented writer. But fame and recognition is a funny thing. Despite all evidences to the contrary, some people become known for, or grow into, that which they had never planned at the outset, fame or not.
Other times, they seemed destined for greatness, or at least worldwide recognition at the outset and nothing and no one can stop them. Watch Beyonce’s HBO Special, Beyonce: Life is But a Dream, and determine for yourself whether you think this is fair or even true. Then consider the work of filmmaker Michael Bay and do the same. Then perhaps the oeuvre of our greatest living playwright of the last century, Edward Albee, now represented on Broadway in a yet another great revival of his classic play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and note it was not this play but several of those that most of us don’t know because they were not well-received that are his own personal favorites. Of all the artists I know of, Albee manages to be the least cliché, the least archetypal, in work or in his life. Yet even he admits to feeling about his plays, especially those that have trouble on the outside, like a parent who wants to protect the most vulnerable of their children from the vagaries of a cold, cruel world. Talk about cliché. Talk about archetype. Yet re Albee – never was. Never will Be.
Then finally – watch a documentary called Searching For Sugar Man – a real life story no one could have written for fear of being not cliché but ridiculous. It tells the tale of a singer named Rodriguez, a brilliant 1970s songwriter-balladeer who seemed destined for stardom a la Bob Dylan, according to industry experts, at even one listen, but whose two outstanding albums sold quite poorly in reality. Meaning they did zilch. Consequently, Rodriguez then disappeared from public sight in the US, yet someone got hold of his album in South Africa and from the mid-seventies on he became a star on the magnitude of Elvis, especially since it was believed that one night on stage he grew so despondent at the acoustics and audience response to his music that he blew his brains out in front of a live crowd.
There was one problem with this folktale, which endured for a decade and a half – unchallenged – it wasn’t true. Until someone got the idea to research the details of what happened to him and the real Rodriguez was found outside of Detroit – having spent life as a poor day laborer with no knowledge of his stardom overseas, but still in possession of the ability to sing, write and perform in almost the same manner he had decades ago. Plus – and this is the best part – he was also found to be content with the financially difficult life he had and the children he had raised despite the stardom and financial bonanzas that eluded him. Though he enjoys making music still, he doesn’t do it all the time, gives away money from his occasional South African tours to his family and friends, and just continues on. His story is a true original. A real life non-cliche because it twists the story trope of the talented artist who is never accepted and lives penniless for the rest of his days in bitterness or drug/alcohol abuse into a real life happy ending that seems unbelievable but can’t be because it’s true. One wonders – how many others like that are there out there and who is going to tell them?
Of all the subjects you cover in this blog, I think this flavor is my favorite: creativity, originality, overcoming the voice that tries to talk you out of even bothering in the first place.
I remember explaining 3-act structure to a friend and then working even harder to respond to his reaction of “I guess that explains why all new movies feel the same.” And on paper, it can start to look like that – even to the person coming up with the idea. It all can get a little depressing.
But this is the kind of pep-talk post that helps me talk over that little voice for the next 120 pages.
Thanks for writing!
Your thoughts are one of the primary reasons I started writing the blog (other than the overwhelming desire to be heard by a mass audience) so thanks for that. I’m basically expressing what I myself feel as a writer, too. Even though everyone’s work is quite different, as the years go by I see that the journey is universally the same in so many ways.