INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: Last week, we talked about the different kinds of obstacles that a character might face in the course of a telling that they might have to overcome as they're pursuing their goal. Today, I'm going to change directions a little bit. And what I want to talk to you about today is the idea that life is very, very messy. And that, unfortunately, one of the things that writers often want to do is correct things through story that were real life things that happened to them.
PRESENTATION: Now, you may know what I'm talking about. This is where you've had something bad happen to you in your past. And now you want to write that scene and you kind of want to fix it. And you want to say those things that you never got to say in real life. And, boy, you're really going to let that person have it. And this seems to be something that's happening a lot as people are writing more autobiographical stuff.
Now, by the way, I have been asked by a number of people to have a class for people that are specifically trying to write autobiographical material because people need help doing it. Especially if they're not storytellers. And a lot of people have stories to tell, don't get me wrong. A lot of people have stories to tell. And so of course we should be writing our own stories.
We should learn from our own stories. It's how we grow. When we look at our own stories, we learn a lot about ourselves, and hopefully then, we're making better choices about the future. So, I'm a big proponent in understanding your own story, and even telling it if it's useful to others.
The problem is, is that so many times autobiographical material becomes self-indulgent. It becomes self-aggrandizing. See, Lulu agrees. Because it is all about you, and you see yourself as a victim, how you've been victimized. That sort of thing. Rarely in real life do we have those moments of high drama where we feel like yes, everything unfolded exactly like it was meant to unfold. It just doesn't happen very often. Usually, we want to reconstruct that scene because we want to correct the things that didn't go the way that, now in hindsight, we wish that it would have gone. And so we tend to look at ourselves as the victim.
But all of a sudden, in the scene that we're recreating, we'll write it so that we're the hero when everybody else looks stupid and dumb. And that is the impulse, that is the temptation to forge a drama out of our own life that will correct those little bad things. So clearly, that's not a good idea. Because it doesn't make for a good story.
And I'm going to tell you a little story here. I think I've probably mentioned this before, but I just love it so much. And it's so helpful to us. And it has to do with Sir Laurence Olivier when he was in the play called Farewell to Arms. And apparently he was having a terrible time playing the character of Sergius. And at one point, director Tony Guthrie stopped by after the show and saw him in his dressing room and said, "Hello, how are you doing?" And Olivier started griping about how difficult this roll was for him to play. And at one point, Tony Guthrie asked him, "But don't you love Sergius? And he exploded and said, "Who could love him? He's a conformist who provides little except providing cues for other people's witticisms." And Guthrie said, "Well, if you can't love Sergius, you'll never be very good at playing him, will you?" And later, Olivier credited Guthrie with a true breakthrough in his own acting, he realized you needed to love the characters.
And this gets us back to why it's often a bad idea to write autobiographical material because we don't love those other characters. In fact, the whole reason a lot of times when we're writing them is because we see them as the villains in our story. We see them as the villains and we are the victims. We are the oppressed. We're the ones that are wronged. And so we want to right the wrong, but we don't actually love them. And therefore we don't give them a fair shake. We can't see the world through their eyes, and therefore, we tend to write them poorly. They end up being very one-dimensional. And that's not a good thing in any kind of story. So I don't encourage you to do that.
Now, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't write an autobiographical story. In fact, I wouldn't be working on this class that I hope to have if I thought that we shouldn't be writing our own stories. The key is that we have to get beyond our own limited view in that story.
In fact, here's the thing. I'm going to warn you. Now if you want to write your own story, be prepared to have compassion and empathy for the villains in your story. Because that's a great deal of some of the work that we're going to be doing in this class is getting out of your perspective and trying to see it through theirs. You won't be able to write the story the way that you think you will if you do that, because it forces you to have to understand the world according to that person. What are they really about? What's going on with them? And the minute you do that, you can't hate them anymore.
And by the way, this is a lot of what trauma work does. Trauma work is wonderful because what it does is it allows you to look at the wrongs that have been done to you, but without victimizing yourself, and without vilifying others. I can look at my parents and go, "Okay, I didn't get what I needed. That doesn't mean that they're horrible evil people. It means that they weren't able to provide me what I needed. That's all." And all of a sudden, it's not a me versus them thing. It's just the reality. So I can see the deficiencies.
And by the way, that's important because it's also not good to ignore those things. I've got to be honest to be able to see the things I didn't get, and see the ways in which I was damaged by their behaviors and actions. But without vilifying them and thinking that they are the villain in my story. Because if I do that, now I'm the victim. And guess what. Now I'm justified in doing every bad action. And victims are the worst. Victims think they're entitled to everything. So I don't want to do that either.
I have to take ownership of the things that now have happened to me. And what are my responsibilities? How can I fix these things? What do I need to do to correct these things for myself? How do I now take responsibility? And that's what happens when you start working on an autobiographical story with this particular perspective. You can no longer hate those people. In fact, you'll come to love them.
So I encourage you to be careful. If you want to hold on to that hate and bitterness, you probably don't want to take my course when it's available.
Okay. So again, if you write a story that's based on the SOB or ignoramuses that you've had to tolerate for your entire life, it is unlikely to be a good story. And that's why your attitude is the one that has to change. It also means that you have to understand the psychology of the person behind it. Now, this again, becomes a slippery slope.
As I talked about last week, sometimes people do things because they're broken. Sometimes people do things because they're evil. We need to be able to understand the difference. And maybe you do have a true villain in your life. Sometimes what we have to come up with is we have to come to the point where we can see that.
One of the things that actually has happened in my own recovery is that it was very difficult for me to say out loud that some of my father's behaviors were evil. I didn't want to say that out loud. I still struggle. You probably just saw me squirm right there just saying it. It is hard for me to say that. But sometimes we have to get to the point where we can actually admit that another person's motives were evil. And it wasn't just well, you know, they did the best they could. No, sometimes it's the opposite of that.
We have to come to learn to say something is evil. And that's true in our stories, too. But that means we have to understand it from that perspective.
See, if we have a character that is truly embarking on an evil goal. We can't give them these broken motivations and try to humanize him always. We have to be looking at it as a spiritual issue.
You know, this was one of the things that really bothered me in the Star Wars series with poor Anakin Skywalker, who goes over to the dark side and kills all the little Jedi Knights in-training and all this. They tried to justify that through a human means. They tried to make him sympathetic. He was worried about his wife dying. He was worried about that. He was worried so worried that he ends up going on this killing rampage. They actually tried to make him sympathetic in something that is evil and heinous.
A better way to approach that would be to show the truth of a character who is attracted to the darkness.We like it. We like it. There's a part of us that could always be seduced to the dark side. That's what makes it interesting. Not trying to justify his going to the dark side because of human foibles and fear. No, but because he likes it. And because he likes it. He destroys everything. That's the truth. That's the truth. That's what we should have explored.
So we need to be able to do likewise in our own stories. We need to understand those sorts of motivations. Now having said that, that isn't to say that there aren't still nuances, right? That there aren't complications, or three dimensional things motivating. There can be a great deal of brokenness in a character's background that is a villain. And yet, their solution is evil. Right?
They've become a selfish, self-aggrandizing, self-indulgent, careless, reckless, hateful human being who has a very well-developed sense of entitlement. And yet, it can be because they were horribly abused. It doesn't excuse the fact that they were horribly abused, doesn't excuse their current actions. And yet, we can see both. We can have sympathy for the kid that was abused, and still hate their solution.
That's the point. That's the point. And this is why none of us are without excuse. The point is, is that you can't make them one-dimensional. Even in their evil role they still have multi-dimensional things at play. And we have to try to account for all of it, which can get rather tricky sometimes. That is the acid test. How do you do it? How do you do it? Well, that is the trick.
To return to the subject of autobiographical writing. Here's another reason why I often discourage it. It's because we tend to think of ourselves as being acted upon rather than acting. And so what that means is that when you write something autobiographical, you typically look at yourself as being a passive character, where all these things happen to you. Nobody comes home from the store and says, "Oh, my gosh, guess what I did?" Or "guess what action I took." Usually people say, "Guess what just happened to me." As if something just happened to them, right?
So that can be problematic when you're the main character of something. If you're thinking about yourself as having been acted upon, you're not going to write a very dynamic, active main character. Because what is the main character? Well, it's somebody who has an objective, and then they pursue it relentlessly. But the problem is, again, in autobiographical work, sometimes it's hard to even identify if it's autobiographical. What was your character after? What did you want? And then what steps did you actively take to get it? Because it's really just a meandering of all the bad things that happened to you. And you don't want to do that. So that can be kind of a problem.
Of course, passivity is a problem in a lot of stories I'm reading anyway. There are so many passive characters. And if I can encourage you to do anything, I would go back and look at your characters and see what your character is doing to drive the action of the story, not to just react to the story. See, a lot of people, I think, are mistaking reacting to driving the action.
A reactor is somebody where something bad happens, and then they react to it. And they're running, and they're hiding, and they're doing all these things. And we think that now they're action oriented, or that they're driving the action. No, that's not quite correct. They're just being reactors.
You want actors. You want people that are driving the action. So okay, something bad happens. But guess what. This person planned ahead. You know, they had this secret clandestine meeting with the underground to try to get some sort of special technology device that is going to sell somewhere on the black market for millions. Okay, let's just say that. And here, they meet with them. And then something goes wrong. All of a sudden, the cops are soaring overhead, and all these bungees are coming down. And they're robo cops, so they're not actually real people. But our character planned ahead.
So now she takes off running. And she's running, but she slides around the corner where she's planted explosives around the perimeter of this meeting, just in case something went wrong. And now she waits for those robo cops to get just to the right place. And then boom, she ignites it, and that causes smoke and debris and explosions to go up in the air. She temporarily gets rid of the robo cops—and notice she's not killing real people. She kills the bad guys that are robo cops. And then she gives herself a little bit of time to escape. Otherwise, she wouldn't have done that.
Now. They can't see her in the drones that they're using to try to find people because of all the smoke and debris in the air. It gives her a chance to kind of get away, maybe there's a tunnel access that she has. She's able to get there, get inside the tunnel, take off running, and now she's active and now she's thinking, "Okay, they found me. They knew I was going to be here. Now what do I have to do? The gig is up. There's nowhere I can go?" They're gonna plan. "They're gonna plaster my face all over the planet. Everybody's going to know that I'm going to be on the most wanted list. But you know, who's really going to be at risk is the people that know me. They're in dange. I've got to get that secret signal to my mother so that she knows to get out of the house because they're going to go there. They're going to get or they're going to question or they're going to torture her. My mother is in danger. I won't get there before the bad guys get there. I've got to get to her now, which means I've got to go to this place and do that."
So now she goes to that place. And she does that. And then in the meantime, maybe there's somebody that she was in that meeting with that she stumbles upon who's been wounded, but has also gotten away. And now she has to make a choice, "Well, do I help this guy or not? If I help him, that might slow me down. But I've got to do that because I'm a human person that cares about other people. And so I'm going to help him. I've got to get him to the safe house. But then I've got to go back and make sure that my mom got away, and that we can meet at the right place."
I mean, you know, I'm making all this up as I go. But the point is, your character needs to be active. They can't just be reactive. And this is how you do that. You think of all the action steps they have to take to now overcome the situation. You use the thing that's happened as the obstacle that they've faced, and now they have to come up with action steps to overcome that obstacle. What do they want? How do they get it? What steps do they take to achieve it? And that is story. So too often in story, we have these passive characters who don't do anything like that.
Okay, so the last thing I want to talk about today that relates to all the other stuff that we're talking about, which is basically character—how to reveal character, how to unfold your story as a result of character actions and choices and all those good things. I want to talk about the profession of your character because whatever profession you give your character will determine a lot about your story.
There are certain professions that just don't bode well for a story because they're not active enough, they're too boring. You would never probably want to have an accountant as your main character because it's just not an active, dynamic profession. You can just look at TV to see which professions are the most active and dynamic. We have all sorts of stories about cops. We have all sorts of stories about doctors. We have all sorts of stories about firemen. You know, these are active professions.
One reason, again, why autobiography can be a problem is because the true person that's writing an autobiography is typically a what? A writer. Well, where does the action take place in a writer? Well, in the head. It's in the head. You know, there's some cheats that we can do. And we've seen it all. It's become cliche. Write the scene. We can show a struggling writer by using those cliches of they crumble up the piece of paper and throw it. You know? Or they look at the blank screen. There's a Jane Fonda movie, where the director took it one step further and had Jane Fonda not just throw a piece of paper, but she takes her typewriter and throws it out the window. So those are cliches though. Those are cliche visual cues that it's a struggling writer.
Again, most of us that are writing autobiographies, we may or may not have—we probably don't have a particularly dynamic career. And that makes it trickier to write a good autobiography. It's not something that can't be overcome. It's just something that we have to be aware of.
CONCLUSION: So I know that I've kind of gone off on a little bit of a tangent today talking about autobiography. But I wanted to take the time to talk to you about it today to let you know that if you don't know how to write an autobiography, but you have a story to tell, I am going to be having a class that's launching for this very purpose. I want to walk people through it. So they do it the right way. So they don't make these kinds of mistakes.
CALL TO ACTION: So if that's you, I'm going to ask you to go to my website. And you're going to fill out a form that just says that you're interested so that I can send you more information when this is up and running and will also let me know if people are interested enough in it for me to actually create the course. It's a lot of work to create a course. So I don't want to do it if there's not enough interest. I've had a lot of people say that they're interested. But let's see. Let's see how much interest there is. And if there's enough then I will follow through on creating this course.
So what you're going to do is go to
And it'll come up with a page that you can fill in your information and we'll sign you up. You won't get any other marketing emails except to be told when this class is launching, if it's going to launch that sort of thing. So you can get that information in advance. That would be great. It will help me gauge how much interest there is. And I would ask you to do that if you're interested in writing an autobiography.
Okay. There's a lot more I could say about this, but we'll call this good today because we've covered a lot of material. And I hope that it has been helpful to you.
OUTRO: If so, then please like and subscribe to the show and join us again next week on The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.