By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 27, 2016
Here’s an exercise to drive you crazy:
Tony Robbins from the Netflix documentary, “I Am Not Your Guru”
Ask yourself, “What is the theme of my life?”
I suggest this for two reasons. First, because it’s so hard for us as writers to grasp the idea of “theme.” What the hell is it anyway? How is it different from “subject?” From “concept?” An exercise like this (aside from being fairly mind-bending) is a great way to get a sense of exactly what “theme” means.
My second reason is because I was watching the documentary about Tony Robbins last night, “I Am Not Your Guru.” I only got to watch the first quarter of it, so I may have grokked its message prematurely and incorrectly. But my early assessment is that a lot of what Tony Robbins does in his “Date With Destiny” 6-day events is to force the attendees (often one-on-one and very much in-their face) to at least consider the question, “What is the theme of my life?”
“Who are you?”
“What is your destiny?”
“Why were you put on Earth?” “Is there something that you, and only you, are equipped to do? What is that—and why the hell aren’t you doing it?”
At this point, lemme let Tony Robbins off the hook and continue only in my own voice, turning to what only I myself believe.
The hardest aspect for most of us to grasp about such questions as “What is the theme of your life?” and “What is your destiny?” is simply the seemingly egomaniacal idea that our lives do have a theme and that we ourselves do have a destiny.
Do you believe that? You? Me? One of seven billion egos/bodies/carbon units on the planet? Us? Isn’t that pretty exalted? Pretty megalomaniacal?
Or let’s put it another way: what is the theme of your life as a writer? The theme in your work?
It’s one of my bedrock beliefs that we discover who we are, not just by our actions (though that’s a big part of it) but, if we’re artists, by the works we produce. What films has Matt Damon made? What poems did Sylvia Plath write? What albums has Beyonce recorded? Is there a theme to the collected works of Bob Dylan?
What about you and me? Have we written (or even partially-written) more than one work? What do these works have in common? Is there a thread running through them?
If a graduate student in Literature were to examine our writings, even our uncompleted works and works in progress, what theme would he or she identify within them?
If you’re a reader of this blog, you know that I believe in previous lives. I believe that you and I did not arrive in this dimension “in utter nakedness,” as Wordsworth once wrote, but as already highly-individuated and evolved souls.
Yes, I believe in destiny.
Destiny = theme.
Do we have a purpose, you and I? Yes. Were we put here for a reason? Yes. What is that reason? That’s our job: to find out. To find out and to act upon that finding-out.
If we’re artists we find out what our destiny/theme is by doing our work, even if we have no idea why we’re doing it, why a specific idea seized us, why we were compelled to write about the stuff we’re compelled to write about. Write it first, then step back and ask, “What the hell was that about?” What does it tell me about my own preoccupations, my passions, my obsessions?
That’s our theme.
That’s our destiny.
If you watch the Tony Robbins documentary, you’ll see that he uses extreme methods of theater, of confrontation, of personal proximity, touch, voice, profanity. Why? I think it’s because most of his event attendees are so young. They haven’t been on the planet long enough, or had enough experiences to provide them with a graspable reflection of who they are, what they want, what their destiny might be. So Tony has to shake them up. He has to rattle their cages, not just to wake them up so that they’re receptive to something, but to seed the belief that they do have a destiny, they do have a theme, their life is about something.
For you and me as artists, time and the work itself will tell us our theme. What do we love? What subjects capture us? And how does our treatment of these subjects change and evolve over time? Do we “solve” one issue and move on to the next? How is Issue #12 related to Issue #1? Did Sarah Vaughn’s last album display an evolution from her first?
What was her theme? What is mine?
What is yours?
By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 20, 2016
Call this post “Dudeology #3,” as we continue our exploration of The Big Lebowski, with an eye specifically to the writing of first drafts.
A Dude with a Code
We were talking in a couple of previous posts about the preparatory questions a writer asks himself or herself before the first word of a first draft goes onto paper. For me, the first two are:
- “What genre am I writing in?”
- “What’s the story’s spine, i.e. its ‘narrative highway’ from Act One through Act Two to Act Three?”
The third question for me is, “What’s the theme? What is my story about?”
Which brings us back to the Dude.
I have no idea what Lebowski’s creators, Joel and Ethan Coen, would say their theme is. My own take may be wildly different from theirs. But here’s my shot:
Never underestimate a man with a code.
The Dude, though it might not seem like it on first viewing, is a man with a code. A code of honor. In that, he’s just like Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade or Jake Gittes (since Lebowski’s genre-DNA is, way more than fifty percent, that of a Private Eye Story.)
Here’s Raymond Chandler on the subject from The Simple Art of Murder (1944):
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.”
I know The Big Lebowski is hysterically funny, and the Dude is one of the outstanding comic creations of the past couple of decades. But comedies, more even than more “serious” fare, must be seated in solid dramatic soil.
Consider the Dude’s character as a man with a code.
The Dude is kind. He’s capable of empathy for others (his demented landlord, the kidnapped Bunny, Maude the troubled daughter, even the Big Lebowski himself). He believes in justice. Someone stole his carpet; he wants it returned intact. (“It tied the whole room together, man!”) He lost the money entrusted to him; he feels an obligation to get it back. Despite his buddy John Goodman’s non-stop provocations to act unscrupulously (“A toe? I can get you a toe, Dude!”), the Dude remains honorable and relentless. He’s on the case. And his code is what sees him through to the end.
Even the Dude’s past, like Bogie’s in Casablanca, is replete with hints to his integrity.
I was one of the authors of the Port Huron statement. The first draft … not the compromised second. Remember the Seattle Seven? That was me.
Okay. How does this help you and me as we embark on the first draft of our new novel/screenplay/videogame/whatever?
- If we know our theme, we know our hero. The hero, remember, embodies the theme.
- If we know our theme, we know our villain. The villain personifies the counter-theme.
- If we know our theme, we know (roughly) our climax. In the climax, recall, hero and villain clash over the issue of the theme.
Consider, on this subject, our hero’s name.
“The Dude” is not just Jeffrey Lebowski’s moniker, it’s his identity as the filmmakers intend it. “Dude” is the generic term for a male in a certain American culture. We greet friends with “Hey, dude!” “Dude” is the equivalent of “guy” or “man.”
In other words, the Dude is Everyman.
He’s you or me.
Which brings us back to the idea of a Man With A Code.
In many ways, this conception is the pre-eminent theme in American books and movies. The archetypal American hero from George Washington to Davy Crockett to Atticus Finch is a man with a code.
Pick a hero in any Western.
In any cop story or detective story.
Even in a gangster saga (perhaps most of all in a gangster saga.)
They will always be men (or women) with a code.
Isn’t this idea, in fact, the central identity (or self-identity) of the United States? Isn’t that how we see ourselves, as individuals and as a nation?
Yeah, we may be fat and lazy. We may pursue our creature comforts a little too zealously. We may be shallow, we may be ill-informed; we may have our priorities all screwed up.
But down deep we believe in right and wrong and if you push us far enough, we’ll actually act on these beliefs.
That’s the Dude.
That’s our hero.
The Coen brothers played this idea back to us in a zany, stoned (“Look out, man! There’s a beverage here!”) vodka-Kahlua-and-cream way. But the underlying theme was dead serious and the story was as red-white-and-blue as Bogie and Bacall and as American as apple pie.
By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 13, 2016
Here we are, getting set to plunge in on our first draft.
The Golden Gate bridge. Our story’s spine should be as simple and as strong as this.
But what do we do before that?
We said a couple of weeks ago that our first question to ourselves, pre-pre-first draft, should be:
“What’s the genre?”
Okay, great. Let’s say that we’ve done that. We know our genre. Our story, we’ve determined, is a sci-fi action-adventure. Or maybe it’s a love story. Or a Western combined with a supernatural thriller.
Good enough. We’ve got that covered.
For our answer, let’s refer back to Paul (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull”) Schrader’s excellent guidelines for pitching:
Have a strong early scene, preferably the opening, a clear but simple spine to the story, one or two killer scenes, and a clear sense of the evolution of the main character or central relationship. And an ending. Any more gets in the way.
Ah, “ … spine to the story.”
Let’s call that our second question to ourselves.
“What is our story’s spine?”
(Myself, I think of this in slightly different terms. I think of it as “Beginning, Middle, End.” “Act One, Act Two, Act Three.” “Hook, Build, Payoff.“)
No worries, it’s all the same thing. We’re asking ourselves “What’s the backbone of our story? What narrative architecture supports our tale from beginning to end?”
For our purposes now [pre-pre-first draft], this doesn’t have to be much. It can be as simple as this:
Ahab sets out after Moby Dick. Ahab chases Moby Dick around the globe. Ahab catches up with Moby Dick and fights him to the death.
Harry and Sally are best friends but not lovers. Harry and Sally begin to realize that they’re in love with each other. Harry and Sally become friends and lovers.
Why can this part of our pre-pre-first draft (our Foolscap file) be so simple? Because all we really need to assure ourselves of at this stage is, “Will this idea work as a story? Does it have a beginning, a middle and an end? Does it go somewhere? If we can write enough strong scenes adhering to this narrative spine, will a reader be hooked at the start, have her interest held through the middle, and feel satisfied emotionally and intellectually at the end?”
That’s the job of the story’s spine.
If we can answer yes to all the questions above, that’s all we need at this point.
The Terminator comes back from the Skynet machines-versus-humans future to kill Sara Conner (who will be the mother of John Conner, the brilliant rebel leader who will fight Skynet in the future). Sara Conner and Reese (a fighter sent back in time by the embattled rebels in the future) flee from the Terminator as they themselves fall in love and plant the seeds of John Conner. Sara and Reese battle the Terminator to the death and, for the moment at least, defeat him.
That’s a great spine, a strong and sturdy Act One, Act Two, Act Three. If we’ve got that much at this early stage, we are doing great.
So, to recap …
Our pre-pre first draft now has established answers to two questions. One, “What’s the genre?” And two, “What’s the story’s spine?”
That’s a lot.
We’re rolling now.
We can feel very good about ourselves because we’re working as professionals and not as amateurs. We’re laying the groundwork for what is to come—the stable, strong foundation of the edifice. We are setting ourselves up to succeed and not to fail.
Next week we’ll address Question #3 of our pre-pre first draft—a subject we’ve examined before:
“What’s the story’s theme? What is it about?”