Friday, April 24, 2009

The Shadow's Journey

I’m afraid I’m not all that you see All along the coast of me I’m camouflaged A desert mirage A nobody --Over the Rhine, “Nobody Number One” Awaken curiosity. Find secrets. Search for those moments of vulnerability and honesty. They create “juice.” I came here to seek stories. I brought mine with me. Honestly, though, Friday was the day I looked forward to most. Out of a three-day weekend, that’s dangerous. What do I do on Saturday and Sunday? Can I help it that Friday was an all day workshop called “Holding Our Stories to the Fire” with Jim May and Megan Wells? Would it help if you knew who Jim May and Megan Wells are? They’re great tellers. They’re also extremely intelligent tellers who know why they’re doing what they do. Even at that, my expectations did not equal what I got. Theory was worse than reality. Every once in a while I guess the ontological argument actually works. I guess that’s what happens when Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell are both discussed in a workshop. They get it. Storytelling isn’t just about picture books and kindergartners. It isn’t just about oral tradition. It’s about more. It’s about me and you and how me and you become us. That’s why stories survive. It’s why they retain their power. There’s a story I came up with about a year ago, told a couple, three times and then abandoned. It had no juice. I was flat when I told it. I needed a story to put to the fire, however. I knew which one would be submitted for burning. “Jimmy’s Journey.” Resign from the role of “creator,” we were told. Resolve to be creative. This may be the hardest thing for me. I spend too much time figuring out the whys of my stories. I get too focused on figuring out the whats. It’s strange, too. I know how to do it. It happens all the time when I write. I give my characters life, I give them purpose, and after a while they start to tell me their stories. I’m just a cipher for their happiness and woe. Storytelling has to be tighter, has to be more focused. I can’t run out three hundred pages of dialogue and character development. No one would sit through that concert. Not even me. So how can I let the characters tell their own stories? How can I make the time? The answer is in secrets. Take a character, Megan Wells says. Figure out why that character cannot be defeated. Figure out that character’s vulnerability. Between the invulnerability and the vulnerability there exist the character’s secrets. Put Jimmy’s feet to the fire, then. The story, in a nutshell, was supposed to be one in my particular storyteller’s conceit. I love myth and fairy tale. I also believe that myth and fairy tale don’t serve us well if they’re never allowed to age with the rest of the world. Jimmy’s Journey is the hero’s journey. Just…different. See, Jimmy grew up in a small town. Probably a town much like one of the many bumps in the road I passed through in the pitch black last night. The sort of place that looks like every other little bump in the road. Jimmy had a dream. He wanted to go to the big city. So he packed up his car and drove. His car broke down outside a small town on a still, cold night. He wandered in to the only place that was open. A bar. Sitting in that bar was the most beautiful girl Jimmy had ever seen. He immediately decided to settle down with her. But the only way to her heart was with trinkets. So he got a job, bought her jewelry. The same day he finally bought her that all important piece of jewelry, a diamond ring, another suitor arrived. He had more money than Jimmy could ever hope to make. Jimmy had no chance. So he put that ring back in his pocket and walked away. He continued driving. And he ran out of gas in another small town. There he met the Mayor’s daughter and fell in love. But Jimmy wasn’t good enough for daddy’s little princess. So he endeavored to make himself presentable. He learned of dancing and manners and learned to wear fine suits. Then one day a man of great culture and refinement and princely bearing arrived and swept the Mayor’s daughter off her feet. Jimmy, again, had no chance. So he continued on. He finally made it to the city. There he met a woman. They sat and talked long in to the night. The next time he saw her he brought her a gift and a question. The gift was his story. The question was, “What is yours?” Their stories began to join. And when the time was right Jimmy pulled that diamond ring out of his pocket, then he put on a fine suit. Two, as they say, became one. I’d tell you that they lived happily ever after. But they didn’t. There is no forever happiness. However, through the happiness and sadness, pain and gladness, they lived together ever after. In the end, that’s really all that matters. I love the idea behind the story. I was conscious of the fact that it is the hero’s journey on some level. But I couldn’t make it a good story for reasons I didn’t understand. Then I asked the question, “What is Jimmy’s secret?” We split in to groups of three and each person did one character. So I presented Jimmy. His invulnerability was easy. Idealism. His vulnerability came quickly, too. He let others define what he was. His secret, though. That was tougher. He wasn’t strong enough to create his own sense of self. That was when I realized why I wrote “Jimmy’s Journey.” I suppose I knew it at the time and just didn’t want to admit it, especially to myself. Jimmy’s Journey was my journey. I’d let religion define who I was for most of my life. I was going in to ministry because god wanted me to. I went to church, did Bible studies, went on retreats and missions trips because that was what was expected of me. One of the questions I couldn’t answer for the longest time was, “Why do I get such stage fright when I’m telling?” I mean, I used to give sermons in church. I used to be on the speech team in high school. I was never as nervous doing those things as I am when there’s a story to tell. I was isolated from the messages I gave at church. I honestly don’t think I cared all that much about them. They were just me getting practice at doing what I thought I was supposed to do. I was never really invested in speech team, either. I quit early in to my junior year and didn’t look back. The stories I tell, though, aren’t just about what I think I’m supposed to do. The stories I tell are about me, even if the character’s name is Jimmy and he’s on a journey I’ve never taken. I am on that road. I’m looking for that girl I can share stories with. But I’m also looking for that city. I don’t know what that city is yet. But I know that when I find it I’ll be able to find everything else. Each stop along the way was a lesson learned. Each mistake was a chance to learn about myself. Each failure to be what I thought someone else wanted me to be was a chance to decide who I wanted to be. So, in effect, the stories I choose to tell aren’t there for me to make a career. The stories I tell are about me. The stories I tell are me.

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