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4.13.04 My stories -- what's good about them

At the risk of boring everyone, I'm thinking about what I do best. The purpose is to think about What Next.

Clearly, the best video I've done is "The Valentine 1955." It came out of my head, only casually commissioned by someone who wondered what I could produce about ethnic diversity.

It has yielded a bit of fame, if not fortune. Today, we learned that it would be screened at one of the local art theaters as part of their ongoing Emerging Filmmaker series. The same woman who lines up the Emerging Filmmakers series also decided to put it into a "poetry on video" presentation at the annual conference of the National Association for Poetry Therapy in Costa Mesa, CA.

The movie depicts a very personal moment set against the backdrop of history. It sets up a scene, then a confrontation. It creates suspense and depth by pausing the action to reflect on Huckleberry Finn, another child, another time in history. And then the ending is sort of a thudding reversal of expectations. I really pulled it from deep inside me as I wondered how such a cruel encounter could have occurred among loving people.

My success in radio (defined as actually being broadcast) is "Dangling Woman". Again, it revolves around a single moment against the larger context of my work. The literary allusion is in my style -- Joseph Conrad.  Again, I really dug it out of myself.

*

Fast forward to my recent production of "Kitty Keeps On Singing." The critique from my PRX reviewer actually emerged bit by bit as we corresponded over the weekend. From Thursday:

I applaud the intention of honoring a grandmother's strong spirit, and it's great to hear the home-recordings of Kitty belting out a song... Things came together for me on hearing the old 78s, and by the end I felt Kitty's buoyancy, and would have enjoyed a few more insights or remembered moments from the producer as to what fed Kitty's strength.

On Saturday, in her first e-mail she added:

Kitty is something, that's for sure. I did kind of yearn for more about her. I love hearing about or from the elders.

Then, when I mentioned that I was taking her feedback to heart, she said:

You write well and the piece felt like it would have been even more effective if you'd put little of yourself in, in terms of what makes her strength meaningful for you, or as I said, more about her, more about your experience of her, something... but it's a compliment, you see, because I wanted MORE not less!

So, what I'm stuck thinking about is whether my strength lies in that personal confessional moment -- something that forces me to dig deeply into what something truly means for me. With "Kitty" I was trying to do something historical, using those old 78s. I did a lot of thinking and comparing notes with my mother, but I didn't take it to the deeply personal level the reviewer wanted.

I wonder if I'm discovering the difference between being an artist and being a hack. I sit here worrying that I don't have another "Valentine" in me. That's stupid. I should be worrying that, as my motion-graphics, sound-designing craft gets better, I will substitute flashy effects for the craft of storytelling.

I go back to the words of Robert McKee*:

The writers of portraiture and spectacle, indeed all writers, must come to understand the relationship of story to life: Story is metaphor for life.

A story teller is a life poet, an artist who transforms day-to-day living, inner life and outer life, dream and actuality into a poem whose rhyme scheme is events rather than words -- a two-hour metaphor that says: Life is like this! Therefore, a story must abstract from life to discover its essences, but not become an abstraction that loses all sense of life-as-lived. A story must be like life, but not so verbatim that it has no depth or meaning beyond what's obvious to everyone on the street.

...Mere occurrence brings us nowhere near the truth. What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens.

Sigh... It's so much easier to lob off these little essays every day than to pull together a good life-is-like-this story. One of these mornings, I'll have to get down to business...

"But it's hard!!!" she whines to the universe.

Notes

*Robert McKee is the author of Story and screenwriting guru extraordinaire. If you saw the movie "Adaptation," he is the guy who gives the weekend screenwriting seminars, which is a fact. His book takes everything you learned in high school English class about stories and explains to you why it's still important and how you can see it all in good movies.

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