At the beginning of this year, I resolved to spend more time focusing on what I really wanted to do: tell stories. Specifically, tell stories as written fiction and as film. I have always wanted to do this, but after I got discouraged out of pursuing it as a young person, it faded from a bright, burning need into a vague, “maybe someday” desire. But what is the addition of another year on top of the pile you’ve already accumulated if not an occasion to reactivate an old, neglected desire and give it one more shot.
So I made a plan of attack. It had several fronts on which I knew I had to do battle: self-education, writing habits, connection with community and balance between creative work and the rest of life. The past few months have been working on them in turns and in varying amounts. It’s not going badly, but it is revealing just how difficult it is to pursue new intentions later in life. Going back to school to learn new skills is not for the faint of heart (even if you made the school up yourself). It is, however, sometimes exactly what feels right to do.
This series of posts, “Storytelling School,” will be about how I’m doing it. If you want to attempt something similar, they might help you create your own plan of attack. Maybe they might inspire you to consider if you want to attempt something similar. Maybe they will allow you to congratulate yourself that you found your own right path ages ago and maybe inspire you to look around to see where you could serve as a mentor. In any case, I will be sharing everything I can about my own experience, from tools and tips to frustrations and realizations. And progress! There might even be progress to share. As in actually completed writing and/or film. Stranger things have happened.
In the meantime, however, I’m moving along, following each path I’ve set down for myself. The first path is devoted to input and education. As Joe Strummer said, as quoted by Jim Jarmusch, “No input, no output, man.” I know enough to know that one of the best things I can do to train myself for creating good work is to take good work in. Over the past couple of years I began to consistently read more and better books, but my film background had huge gaps. To fix this, I went to my list of 1000 greatest films, as ranked and averaged by They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They from years of critics’ “best of” lists. (There is a convenient Letterboxd version where I can mark which ones I’ve seen.) I adopted this method less because I believe this list is the ultimate, canonical, “one list to rule them all,” or that any such list could be that, and more because it’s a good place to start seeing culturally significant films that I haven’t seen before. I set myself the goal of watching at least one per week, which I’ve mostly done. In recent weeks, I’ve been exceeding that goal. Which reveals the real lesson of the whole exercise: once you keep doing something long enough, it becomes natural habit.
On the input front, I’ve also been working my way through a list of books about writing, storytelling and filmmaking. This list is one I’ve had to put together myself, drawing from conversations about what are the best books of this sort to read. The meta lesson here is that when you are creating your own curriculum, you have to read everything to figure out whether or not it’s useful to you. I’ve discovered some wonderful books in my instructional reading over the past few months. I’ve also found some that are industry-acclaimed but I feel need to be taken with a grain of salt. It turns out that’s useful, too. (Note: in the coming weeks, I’ll compile a dedicated list of recommended storytelling books. For now, you can comb through my Goodreads.)
The second major task I undertook was to develop a regular writing habit, to write consistently, meet deadlines and complete projects. That one is definitely … in progress. I journal and write essays in my newsletters, but I’m still working on the consistency part when it comes to my larger projects. Right now I’m simply trying to build up the habit by making time and space and discipline, and keeping track of what I do and don’t do. This is where some of my beloved spreadsheets come in. More on that later down the road. Both writing habits and spreadsheets. (Spreadsheets, by the way, are an integral element of Storytelling School. There will literally be more on them.)
The other primary aspect of my new pursuit is connecting with the larger community and soliciting feedback on my work. This one is also in progress. Partly because I don’t yet have a lot of completed work with which I can form the basis of connection. I think this one will come more into play as I go along. There’s a reason the input section came first and is currently lengthier than the others. Start inward and work outward. But it’s good to know what I’m working toward.
Another concern that threads through all of these different branches of study and activity is how to balance it all with Life. I have a job and a kid and various other Life Accoutrements. I have no parenting or financial help. Not only am I pursuing these new paths but I’m learning how to fit them sustainably into my life as is. It’s virtually impossible to do this without effective organization and scheduling. Which is where spreadsheets come in again. Really, spreadsheets are essential to this entire enterprise.
But, overall, I’m having fun with this so far. It’s all moving slower than I anticipated (another important meta lesson), but I enjoy making things and thinking about making things and learning how to make things better. It’s satisfying in a way that nothing else is.
So, I’m back in school. A school of my own making, that fits in around the edges of my daily life but is also building up the core of something new. I’m not sure where I’m going to end up, but it is, if nothing else, worth a shot.