August 2, 2012 by Danielle Harris
Still going through Donald Miller‘s Storyline Conference — following the exercises. The Storyline conference helps people to take the elements of a story and apply them to life, so that I’m living a better story. Thank you to all who commented on last week’s module about inciting incidents. I loved the feedback! In this module, Donald describes how writers often consolidate the many characters that are bouncing around in their heads so the audience can identify with them as the story progresses. Many wonderful characters created by writers are composites of many experiences with different people.
The idea is to go deep rather than wide. In the age of social marketing, we have more shallow relationships than ever, and it’s negatively affecting our stories. Having too many undefined characters steals time from the people we love. The truth is the average person is only capable of about twelve deep and meaningful relationships. And deep, meaningful relationships are a key component to a powerful story.
Experiencing a great moment with a loosely connected person will not have the same emotional impact as experiencing it with someone I’ve invested much time and effort.
All human beings matter — each one is priceless. But we are only one human being with the limited capability of deeply connecting with a limited number of people. A writer must identify a cast of characters that will play a part in their story. Sometimes, the writer chooses not to chase down the sideline story of a wonderful character because it doesn’t further the story arc of the main character. Likewise, in my life, I will need to identify and streamline the cast of characters I do life with and invest in those characters to create poignant moments that have deeper meaning.
My storyline should act as a fluid decision filter. I am not considering some people as more important than others. I’m identifying and naming those whom my story affects and whom affect my story. For example, I have people in my life who are “kindred spirits.” The moment I met them I felt a connection, a likeness in mind and heart, but … unfortunately, we live far apart. We stay connected somewhat. I’d love for them to play a larger part in my story, but the reality is it doesn’t make sense.
Primary Relationships: These are people I say “I love you” to and they say it back without feeling awkward. These characters give the most intimate emotional strength and support.
Important Relationships: These are people I care about. They are my closest friends and confidants, but I may only interact with them once a week or even less. These are people from whom I gain some degree of emotional support.
Other Important Categories of Relationships: These are people who come and go within my story. These people can be listed in broad categories like Facebook friends, classmates, coworkers, spouse’s friends, etc.
My Enemies: As I live a better story, people will work against me. Some people don’t like it when I succeed. I shouldn’t be
surprised if I meet resistance as I live a better story. It’s unlikely to have an enemy so evil as Professor Moriarty or Voldemort. Most enemies will be less flat. In fact, enemies are far less romantic than truly evil forces. My friend, Robin, calls them “hair shirts.” Hair shirts were something worn by monks as a way of mortifying the flesh and doing penance.
Most of our “enemies” are just that — hair shirts.
They will have complex motives and may believe they are doing right by opposing me. I should predetermine my attitude toward them. Decide now to love my enemies. I find it interesting that enemies will grow as I follow a better story. I am tempted to play with this conditional statement.
If you have no enemies, you have no influence or impact.
Is that true? I mean, I’m a mother. I live a quiet life. I try to do my duty with love and creativity. Will that have no impact? I disagree. I think that my positive relationships will have an impact too great to measure. But, as I write more often, especially essays, I must recognize that if I say anything that has any power, there will be a negative fallout. People will criticize. People will scorn, mock, imitate, parody, spoof, deride, attack, etc. How will that affect me? Do I believe in what I do enough to pursue it in the face of all that?
My Cast of Characters: I’ll tie my relationships to my roles.
Wife: Paul is a wonderfully colorful character in my life. On Tuesday, we hung his (still wet with paint) art show at Green Plow minutes before his flight. He flew to San Jose to meet with one of those kindred spirits I wish we lived closer to. They’re birding in SE Arizona. As we raced toward the cafe, his spirits lifted.
He said, “Well, I got it all done!”
I retorted, “You always get it all done. That’s your problem! Every instance reinforces your habit to procrastinate.”
He laughed ruefully and patted my leg in thanks for all the help I gave. And off he flew. Today, I got a text message from him: painted redstart, phainopepla, ash-throated fly-catcher, Mexican jay, rufous-winged sparrow, black-throated sparrow, greater roadrunner… Bingo!
I’ve learned to appreciate the tension he creates in my life. I sometimes engage in “what if” questions about marrying someone who makes decisions quickly, who lives prudently and cautiously, who knows how to follow a ‘to do’ list from beginning to end.
Paul’s playful, spontaneous personality causes inciting incidents to pop up all over in my life. I used to resent them because it made me feel out of control. Early in our marriage, I had to come to a decision about my frustrations with wanting Paul to be different than he was. I discovered I would never want a man in my life that I “could control.” How terrible! I wondered at myself for always seeking to gain it. A better story releases control, allows for the whisking away, the risks, the whoosh! of an inciting incident.
The only stories about controlling people that we like are when something happens to completely knock their socks off. Paul knocks my socks off. If I had to do it all over again, I’d choose him in a moment. I tell him that too. Often.
Mother: Elsa wants to go pro in tennis. Greta wants to write songs and sing them. Ingrid may become an engineer. Dagne may be a scholar. It’s amazing to be a part of these stories. I often struggle between chasing my own dreams and fostering theirs. Balancing the two is difficult sometimes. I think mothers tend to sacrifice their own dreams too quickly and too completely. This martyrdom is sensed by their kids. Children of ‘martyr’ mothers either feel resentful because they know they’re the cause of their mother’s unhappiness — and this causes guilt and shame or they feel entitled to the same sacrifice from everyone. In other words, they become takers. This world has too many takers.
Children need to know the world doesn’t revolve around them. They need to sacrifice too. The definition of a dysfunctional family is when one person (or a group of them — like the children) is always at the center. A balanced family is when each member takes turns at being in the center.
Also, mothers tend to place children’s needs over their husbands’ needs. Marriage is forever. From the day they are born, children start to leave. This is the natural way of things. After all that giving and raising and sharing and sacrificing, they’re off. And who is left? Mr. Right. I don’t want Paul to be a stranger when it’s all over. I want us to feel a sense of completion of a job well-done and a sense of excitement for the next phase of our lives together.
Moreover, a loving marriage is the best gift we can give to our kids. If we have broken homes, then the next best gift to our children is to form the most positive relationship we can with their father or mother. Who can fathom the depth of security and happiness from children who see their parents love each other? Or, at the very least, treat each other with respect. It is the foundation of their hearts. Marriage first. Parents second. Personal fulfillment should fill up all the crooks and crannies of time. I try to model to my children to never stop searching and seeking.
Friend: The other day, the sliding door of my van locked and wouldn’t open. The kids had to enter through the trunk or climb over the seats from the front doors. My dishwasher broke. My rent check bounced. And Paul was gone. Sounds like a country song, I know, but this is my life sometimes. That morning I received a song on my phone from our best friends, the SJs. Aine, their oldest, sang La Vie en Rose. I just felt happy… and loved.
A few days later, Paul was struggling with an important life-decision. The SJs sent us another song, sung by Robin, about chasing your dreams. Best friends are the best. I’m thankful for friends who live great stories. Elida and her love of art and travel. The SJs and their music. Heather and her farm in Italy.
Writer: I just began to attend a writers’ group where we read our stuff to each other and offer feedback. These other writers inspire me. They help me be accountable, give me confirmation when I’m on the right track and steer me differently if I’m not. We’ve only had two meetings, so we’re not to the “I love you, man” stage. But, when my novel is published (I speak that when into the universe loud and clear), they’ll definitely make the acknowledgements.
Teacher: I just started a new path in my teaching career — tutoring in the classical method. I’ll be tutoring students in Latin, logic, and debate. I’m fascinated. It will bring me into the circle of some old acquaintances and some new ones. I chose this path as a way to structure my teenage girls’ schooling at home and to provide a forum for the discussion of ideas. I love to learn. I despise inefficiency and time-wasting. This is, by far, the most efficient way of learning I’ve found yet. A wonderful essay on this is Dorothy Sayers’ The Lost Tools of Learning.
Overall, this model of applying the elements of a good story to my life is helpful — especially as a fluid decision filter. I’m discovering that it’s easier to make decisions — good decisions — decisions that integrate my beliefs and my “real” life. I spend less time agonizing over decisions. I no longer live at the mercy of what is practical or generally acceptable. The magnetic pull of societal expectations has less pull. I don’t even feel trapped by money (or lack thereof). “Doing without” morphs into romance when I’m in hot pursuit of destiny and meaning.
- Part 2, Module One: My Roles (oregonpilgrim.com)
- What If? (oregonpilgrim.com)
- Directing in the Round: Fernando Meirelles’ ’360′ (Feature) (popmatters.com)
- Exercise Two: Where Am I Going? (oregonpilgrim.com)
- Alex Doonesbury Succeeds Her Father as ‘Doonesbury’s Main Character (thinkprogress.org)