A Stoic Symphony

From The Daily Stoic, one of my favorite websites (and books), here are some notes about making progress as a Stoic.

You are making progress if you find yourself...

  • criticizing no one

  • praising no one (I don't entirely agree—a kind word can go a long way; but I understand the idea)

  • blaming no one

  • accusing no one

  • saying nothing about yourself to indicate being someone or knowing something

  • when frustrated or impeded, you blame yourself (*warning: lots of language on link!*)

  • if complimented, you laugh

  • if criticized, you ignore

  • relaxed in motivation

  • banishing harmful desire

  • watching yourself as though you were an enemy plotting an attack

I find that last one very important. As with most artists, I have an amazing capacity to self-sabotage. My harmful desires, my nihilism, my darker fascinations—such things are always at the ready to undo me. Positivity and a growth mindset (traits that don't come naturally to me) are keys to success, while balancing such aspirations must be in harmony with wisdom, a lack of naivety, measured discernment, and love. It's not enough to pretend to be optimistic and positive all the time. I have to embrace my natural Stoicism, my faith, and my five-ness. There's simply no way around the makeup of my brain and my soul. So why fight it?

“I go to sleep content, but my final thought is of Resistance. I will wake up with it tomorrow. Already I am steeling myself.” — Steven Pressfield

Harmony. Harmony is key. Polyphony. Multiple melodies acting in accord. The macro is the whole symphony. The micro is every line, every note. People will only understand the symphony (the thing I’m trying to build and communicate) if each note is properly in place.

So what are the notes of your life? The melodies? How do they weave together? Ask yourself that today.

—G

Some Days

song in my head — “One Foot Before The Other” by Frank Turner

Some days the words come. They flow from mind to fingertip or pen as easily as a river flows to the sea. The Muse is with us and there’s magic in our bones.

Other days the words are hard to come by. They hide in dark shadows just on the edge of our vision; they gang up on us and overwhelm us until we can’t make sense of them. On days like these, we might think we’ll never write again.

The great Steven Pressfield would call this feeling “Resistance.”

In the opening of his masterful creative manifesto, The War of Art, Pressfield says:

“There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.”

But are you a real writer or a wannabe?

If you’re a real writer then do the hard part. Sit down to write.

This doesn’t always mean the words will arrive, but it means the intention to write has. Struggling with the work—thinking of it, pressing through it, mulling it over—is the valuable work of a writer, too. It’s not just words on the page. It’s butt in the seat and story in the head. It’s exploring. It’s discovery. It’s wrestling with yourself and the material, battling with the Muse and the forces of Resistance. If you run from it, you’re lost. But if you face it, if your intentional, you’re doing the work.

So are you intentional with your writing time whether the words are there or not? Good. You’re being persistent. And Resistance hates persistence.

—G

Predictable, But In A Good Way

song in my head — “Predictable” by Good Charlotte

One of the most important things I believe a storyteller can learn—especially one who wants to push conventions yet still reach a large number of people—is the subtle art of audience expectations. What does my reader or viewer expect from a story like this one?

Many factors play into audience expectations, and they vary from medium to medium. In the film world, for example, something unrelated to the actual movie, like the budget or some behind-the-scenes drama, can have a significant impact on how a viewer enters the theater (if they enter at all.) In most stories, however, regardless of medium, genre conventions and "tropes" often play a highly critical role.

One thing I find exciting to try and achieve in all my stories, no matter the genre, (and a quality I really enjoy experiencing as an audience member,) is the idea of predictability. Is this story predictable?

Now, you often only hear about something being "predictable" in a negative criticism, but I think being predictable in a good way—what some might call “inevitability”—is a worthy aim. It means you have set up your story well, and that the payoffs are clicking. It means an audience is tracking with you. It says you're playing all the right notes.

Of course, being predictable in a bad way is undesired, and usually comes when a story isn't inspiring, unique, or well-crafted. When an audience can see every moment coming from a mile away, well, that's not very satisfying.

However, an audience (especially a mainstream one) generally likes to be one tiny step ahead of you. Most people can't tolerate being in the narrative dark for too long. They want to understand the story—want it to feel familiar in some way, even if they can't articulate that need. It feels good, then, to have that flash of revelation, that moment when you see how the story has stacked the dominos, just before the storyteller topples them.

If you can hit this sweet spot—making the audience do a little work for the joy of revelation—then I believe the potential for more people to enjoy your work is higher. And what artist doesn't want that?

—G

A Beacon of Light

song in my head — “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley

Why do I create?

I create because I have to. Storytelling is like oxygen to me, courses through my veins like blood. But plenty of artists say similar things. There are plenty of us out there who would say things like "I would write if no one read it" or "I would still write if I didn't get paid."

But here's a little paradox I've discovered about myself.

I only write for myself, but I find it very hard to write if no one is listening.

What do I mean?

I write what’s inside of me in what I hope is a way that only I can. My inner imaginations and passions and voice are my fuel; nothing external like "the market" will inspire me to write something. I think stories are like puzzles, and that almost any idea that I chew on for a bit could be a story worth telling. Otherwise, why would it come to me? I'm so dedicated to this idea, in fact, that I have “stories” in my head that are only titles! I have no idea what the rest of the tale will be, but the title sparked something so deep in me that I can't and won't let it go. It's like a key that unlocks a box—I only have to find the box.

That said…

Though I may write for myself, I believe writing is communication above all else. I write to express and communicate my inner workings. So while I don't write for you—some imaginary audience member with market-tested tastes or who likes certain genres—I do write for You—that person out there who maybe, just maybe, sees the world a little bit like I do. I don't know who you are, or how many of you are out there, but my hope is that if I write enough words, if I spark enough fires and let the ashes float out into the ether, that someday we'll find each other.

What I'm doing here—scribbling down my thoughts every day, writing my fanciful stories—it's not a marketing strategy. It's a beacon of light in a dark forest; I'm lost, like you. But I'm finding a way.

Perhaps we can find our way together.

— G

Finding Stan Lee

song in my head — “Vindicated” by Dashboard Confessional

When it comes to art, the voice of the artist matters.

But what does "voice" even mean?

Voice, I believe, is perspective, and perspective is the key to making good art. It's the inner viewpoint you're trying to outwardly communicate.

Okay, yes, voice has a little bit to do with how you tell your story—your choice of genre, the pacing, the tone and use of language, violence (or lack thereof), description (or lack thereof), etc. But that's superficial skin compared to the necessary meat beneath.

In my opinion, an artist's "voice" makes an artist; it's why they create. Your art should be the reflection of a conglomeration of experiences, interests, emotions, opinions, beliefs, world views, and everything else that adds up to make you who you are. If this voice or perspective is missing, the audience will know it. They might have enjoyed the recipe you concocted, but it won’t be a lasting taste.

And worst of all, it won’t last for you as the artist, not in the deeper, meaningful way that it should.

So, ask yourself this: could anyone create the thing you just created? If so, you owe it to yourself and the people you hope to serve to try harder to be you. Inject every word and every scene with your theme—what you think and what you want to say, and leave finding the audience to the birds.

Because I genuinely believe that if you put something with perspective out in the world, and that you craft this with skill and style and understanding, you will find fans. And those fans will follow you anywhere. So don't be afraid to create the strangest thing you can, something unique that sings of only you. If it has a heartbeat, the audience will find it. The right tribe will embrace it.

Anyone can create a superhero. There have been knock-offs of characters with powers and superhero stories since we've been telling stories! But not everyone could’ve created Spider-man. Stan Lee wrote what Stan Lee wrote because only Stan Lee could write it.

People like us do things like this.

We see then that the answer isn't to "be Stan Lee."

The answer is to find the Stan Lee within you. Who are you? What do you do? What do you stand for?

Now go stand.

— G

Creatively Agnostic

song in my head — “SGL” by Now, Now

The great American professor, Joseph Campbell, spent his life taking an anthropological look at the impact and importance of human storytelling. His idea of the monomyth—how patterns and themes and archetypes repeat in the myths, legends, and religions of a myriad of people groups throughout history—was most clearly articulated in his seminal 1949 work entitled The Hero With a Thousand Faces. From this vibrant and vital research, a methodology developed known as The Hero's Journey. It's an idea that has permeated screenwriting and storytelling ever since.

However, a critical thing about Campbell's work that is often left out in the execution of The Hero's Journey as a practical storytelling method is that Campbell never intended for his work to be used in such a way. His is a descriptive conception, something that explains observed patterns in things that already exist, not some prescriptive advice on how to write stories. Because of this misconception, when used purely in a story creation way, without the greater context of what the work means, some (and often many) of the beats in The Hero's Journey don't make modern story sense.

Bumping up against this then tends to elicit two types of responses. It causes some creators and teachers to double down on the importance of sticking to The Hero's Journey, forcing square story pegs into round holes or shifting some of Campbell's literal examples into metaphorical ideas to justify their zealotry. I've been guilty of this from time to time myself.

Other observers go in the opposite direction, dismissing outright the usefulness of The Hero's Journey in story creation, citing inconsistencies in pieces as a reason to ignore the sum of the whole. They throw the baby out with the bathwater if you will.

To me, either approach is ill-adviced.

As you'll come to find out in the pages of this blog, I love thinking about story structure as a whole, and notably The Hero's Journey. Campbell and his work have fascinated me since I first came upon it in film school. But I will be the first to point out that it is not a perfect storytelling system or prescription. It's a helpful tool in what Stephen King would call the writer's toolbox, not a writing gospel.

When creators become overly for or against a particular system or way of doing things, they can lose sight of the importance of imagination, flexibility, and fluidity—necessary and worthy traits for an artist to have! But as human beings, the more dangerous result of this rigid mindset may be that we close ourselves off to the possibility of fresh perspectives, new voices, and important ideas.

Apple wants you only to use Apple, thus forcing everything to become proprietary. That works for them (and others), but it doesn't have to be your way, especially when creating art. It's helpful to study and to study hard, to develop favorites methods and hone your craft. But it’s often just as beneficial to be creatively agnostic.

— G