Friday, January 16, 2009

Case study for creative artists/viewers (2)

This is a follow up to the creative case study where I give you suggestions about how you can turn the story line that I provided in the previous post into actual exercises to work on.

The most obvious thing that you could do is to use this story line as inspiration to outline new original story line work of your own, emulating the emphasis on the ordinary with a twist. That is the key to good and validating story telling, which is to take genuine ordinary life and write about something that is extraordinary and memorable, either the characters themselves or their situation, or both.

For further inspiration if you have not already do read O. Henry’s seminal short story “The Gift of the Magi.” It is difficult to believe that anyone who has gone through the school system has not read this short story, but then again, who knows where education is these days. I do not know if it is available on line, probably is, but I’m not signed on now as I’m writing this so check for yourself. It is the definitive short story and the definitive ordinary people in a memorable situation, and that story sticks with anyone and everyone who has ever read it. That is the key to both drama and escapist entertainment that is genuinely worth the paper it is written on (or the electrons) and the brain cells used to produce or to view it. People used to understand that, even in the fantasy and science fiction genre, which is why the movie “ET” was really worth while. You had ordinary people, in this case children, encounter an extraordinary circumstance and while there was suspense it was far from being dark, brooding, depressive and nihilistic (what moderns now think are synonyms for “entertainment.”) So look back on “The Gift of the Magi” and use that and my story line as inspiration to jot down and maybe develop some “ordinary plus one or two great twists” formula story lines.

If you are really stuck in the depressive and nihilistic creative community (and who is not, except me I guess) then I recommend the following exercise instead as a first step. Take my plot line and develop one scene, using script or play format. That scene should be one conversation between the protagonist, the wounded vet with the knack, and one fellow wounded colleague. Thus the scene would be the protagonist meets the person for the first time, they chat about ordinary things (you decide if it is about the battlefield experience, their childhood, their families, their background, favorite sports teams, or a mix of the above). The key to this exercise is for you to write real dialogue that two genuinely average wounded vets would have, whether it is in the context of their being wounded vets or not. You know that as a result of that conversation-no matter what the topic-that somehow the vet with the knack cures the fellow conversationalist of his or her PTSD. But the point of the story line is that no one, including the one with the knack, knows what exactly “works” since experience shows that even the most trivial conversation works, but that it’s not simply the protagonist’s silent presence.

This exercise will force you to write cleanly again about reality. You will catch yourself if you do the following and stop that line of thought. They are speaking of how they both grew up on farms. Suddenly, the wounded vet has a flashback. He remembers he once dreamed of a person who looked like the vet with the knack. NO! No “foreboding,” no “supernatural.” The whole point of the story line is that there is no correlation, no supernatural powers, no foreboding, no battlefield radiation turned him or her into a mutant, none of that crap at all. Let’s see if you creative geniuses can actually write normal dialogue between two people meeting for the first time. The key is can you resist the itch to be flakey just because you know that something wonderful happens after a totally normal and mundane (but interesting, because that’s what you have forgotten-all people are interesting “even if they are not reincarnated or vampires or mutants or have sex with animals on the side) conversation. Let’s see if you can write a scene of normal conversation that also does not work oral sex into it. I know it’s difficult, but really, really try hard.

Seriously, if you have trouble, stop and go back and read “The Gift of the Magi” several times and let the role model for normal dialogue and action that is memorable through the ages cleanse your palate (and your palette) so to speak. You can also find online one of my favorite short stories, “Mr. Know All” by Somerset Maugham and read that. It is also a perfect gem of people meeting, ordinary and somewhat pompous conversation taking place, and then a perfection of a twist and how someone rises up to the occasion. It is one of the most glorious of short stories around, I think.

The key is to reprogram your self to be able to envision and write perfectly normal interactions between perfect normal people again. They aren’t those adorable smart mouth “precocious children” that are “wise beyond their years” (and over sexualized) that Hollywood loves. They aren’t “vampires, psychics, or tormented spirits living out their pasts” (they can’t possibly die soon enough in my opinion). They aren’t people who are just quivering (including their botox lips) with how “fraught with destiny and doom they are, since they are ‘special’ and ‘caaaaaallllled’”. They aren’t spending all their time trying to think of how to scam, exploit or kill someone else. I mean, can anyone actually imagine a normal person anymore and produce a creative work with normal people who are in it? I sometimes wonder.

So that is the most valuable exercise that you can do, which is take the story line I have provided and write a scene of dialogue that takes place between a PTSD wounded vet and the protagonist vet who has the knack.

Another exercise is that you can spend time developing the ordinary life that if you were writing this story that the protagonist has. As you recall I emphasis how it does not matter their gender, race, orientation, religious upbringing (just not freak please, for the above reasons) or racial composition. They key to the entire story line is that this person is an ordinary guy or gal. So it would be a great exercise for you to write the bio of the ordinary protagonist and again see if you can actually do it without making them the imaginary descendent of Mary Magdalene. Reading the local newspaper helps, seeing what kids are on the scout troops, honor roll, sports teams, attend church fetes etc, in other words, remember how the other half lives.

Yet another exercise is to skip forward and without developing any of the episodic or biographical character development, imagine reactions of various people and institutions to finding out about a person with the knack for instantly curing PTSD. You could write some very realistic outline of dialogue of how people grapple with how to react and work with him or her. Again, this is a great paranoia detox exercise. Most normal people would respond in a normal way, which would be wanting to be helpful. Only Hollywood has made it so that nefarious evil people would immediately try to sabotage or “own” the person for their own greedy or low spirited reasons. The vast majority of honest reaction would be to try to figure out how he or she could help the most people without burning him or her out and ruining his or her life. Only in Hollywood do people get out their sniper rifles, poison and alien abduction scenarios in response to such a story line. In real life people would do the best they can fumbling through a remarkable situation.

Look at insurance companies for example. Don’t rush to a conclusion how they would react. Put yourselves in their shoes and in their conference rooms and try to imagine them thinking this through. They would save a lot of money if this person with the knack could cure their insured’s who are suffering from PTSD (I mean non-vets here if the insurance company is paying for treatment). Where it would be funny and “truth is stranger than fiction” is how they would try to get him or her to cure their most expensive PTSD insured’s, LOL. It is a lot to think about regarding how they would try to seek out and direct the help of the vet with the knack.

Thus a good exercise is to identify one institutional segment, made up of normal people, and examine how they would react to news of the vet with the knack and how they would try to work with him or her. It has great potential for humor and drama, all within a genuine and totally realistic setting.

Does the knack work through a language translator?

Well, I hope that you have found these suggestions for exercises useful. By the way, one reason both story lines I’ve suggested thus far includes Iraq conflict vets is because I am using real life current situation to wean people away from aliens and vampires, conspiracy theories and psychopaths. Those of you who are younger will not recall this, but after the Vietnam War Hollywood churned out endless “entertainment” based on psycho Vietnam vets coming back damaged from the war and shooting up civilians. It became one of the caricatures of the century of entertainment, unfortunately. They could have done so much differently with the movies and TV series of the past decades, but already with the way Vietnam vets were treated in the “entertainment” media I could see which way this country was going and it was not up. That is one reason I am selecting story lines such as the two I have presented. I will broaden to other story lines, but as I triage that is why I want people to use our citizens who are returning from conflict in story lines that are edgy but wholesome and who emphasis these are real people like everyone else.

See, Hollywood and all in the creative arts make one mistake over and over. They latch onto whatever is the current crisis or trend (HIV, climate change, military conflicts, etc) and immediately take it out of the norm. Instead of basing entertainment on the norm, and then finding the extra something that makes the story line, they go into a warped place of unrealistic angst that is the opposite of how all the great classics in literature and entertainment went. So I will suggest story lines in the future with topics and settings other than the Iraq conflict, but I started because it is a forty year old problem, now, of how to tell a military story without wanting to throw one’s self in front of a bus after writing, producing or viewing it. I’m not na├»ve, I know, for example, that even cartoonists have worked dark and weird allusions into children’s cartoons for years now, and I’m not trying to do a purge of the creative mocking and strangeness that some just are impelled to do for some control issue reason or whatever. What I am trying to get people to see is that almost everything that has been produced in the last forty years is unviewable because the creative arts are no longer creative. They are a formula of hidden messages, conspiracy theories, angst and fear, dehumanizing while claiming to be liberating, etc. I think it would be, for example, a real challenge for any creative artist today to write my story line, about Iraq vets, without working in their left wing or right wing political swipes, and being gay aliens to boot.

But life is lived as it really is, and a wounded vet, for example, not bathed in a constant stew about how just or unjust the war was. Regardless of one’s personal opinion, life, and ultimately entertainment, must be written against a normal and balanced background scene drop. So you can write a script about a war protestor, for example, but it is invalid if it is written over a set of assumptions about the surrounding people that just are not true.

Let’s look at the life of Martin Luther King. Suppose someone wanted to write a new script based on part of his life. Would you write it so that you focus on some white guy in the background, who was the one who “really made MLK the success that he was?” Of course not, because it’s one thing to use creative license, but it is another thing to tell the story of MLK against a backdrop that simply is not true and call that “what if” or “entertaining.” You could imagine some anonymous white guy in the audience and then write a script about how listening to MLK changed his life. That would be very creative and valid (Hmm, another interesting story line). MLK would be the springboard for a script about some white guy who happened along, heard MLK one day, and then did something very interesting in his life. That’s creativity and that is entertainment and that is “what if.” That’s very different from having a heavy handed warping of how historic and current events really are taking place, against the backdrop of genuine average people.

Actually, I just had a great idea about a storyline and will cover it in the next posting.

So that is some of my teaching motivation in how I develop story lines and exercises for these creative case study postings.