Story

by Robert McKee
(Methuen, 1999)

story1.

It’s taking me so long to read this book that I’ve decided to start writing about it before I get to the end. Even now, it has taken me a full 45 mins of messing about, tidying up, making tea, checking my phone, doing everything to put off the moment where I actually sit down and type words into a machine.

There may be many reasons why I’m dragging my heels (feet, eyes, you name it) over this book and the post I’m planning to write about it, but the main one cuts to the quick of what I think I need to write about. It’s the question that stares back at me every time I pick up this book, or make notes about it, or write in my journal, or open my laptop, or read to my daughter, or go to work, or frankly every conceivable situation. The question is this:

Why am I not a fucking writer?

Why am I not a writer? A real writer, I mean. An author. A hack. A scribbler. A scribe. It’s the only thing I’ve ever really imagined doing as a job. It’s still the only thing I can imagine doing as a job. Whenever I am asked, what’s your dream job? Or whenever I look at whatever bullshit I’m being paid to do at a given moment and try to dream my way out of it, it always comes back to “be a writer”.

It’s the dream that will not die. I’ve skirted round it, flirted with it. I’ve done various writing “stints”, you might call them, rather than jobs. Copywriting, editing, even actual composing of words for publication. I’ve been a creative writing practitioner. I taught professional writing skills in college. And since all of this paid me real cashmoney it means that, in actual fact, I have been a writer, even if I never fully committed to it.

The dream that will not die? It’s looking more like the dream that never was and never will be.

Never was. Has been. These are not massively inspirational phrases, let’s be honest, but I need to type them. I need a reality check. I need to get to the bottom of this because, well, it’s hanging round my neck and dragging me down and I need to know what it feels like to breathe clean air.

I want to understand. I need to know where the failure lies. Why it persists. Why the goddamn dream won’t die.

2.

I love it when you find a train ticket in a book.

This one is from January 19th 2004, at 17:14, a single from Argyle Street to Exhibition Centre. So much life data contained in so few numbers. Did I stop reading there? Or am I bookmarking it for “research”? Could have been either. The ticket marks the “Crisis, Climax, Resolution” chapter – in the book, I mean; that chapter of my life happened about 18 months later.

Story is really a screenwriting book, not necessarily a story writing book. The subtitle is a bit of a giveaway – Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting. No doubt the same (Aristotlean) principles apply across all storytelling genres, but the examples he gives throughout his book are overwhelmingly from the history of cinema.

This is a blog about what’s on my bookshelves. I realise I have lots of books about writing on my shelves.

  • The Definitive Guide to SCREENWRITING by Syd Field
  • How NOT to write a screenplay by Denny Martin Flynn
  • Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Solutions for Novelists by Sol Stein
  • So You Want to Be a Playwright by Tim Fountain
  • The Dramatist’s Toolkit by Jeffrey Sweet
  • How Plays Work by David Edgar
  • The Playwright’s Cookbook by Stuart Spencer
  • Word Power, a Guide to Creative Writing by Julian Birkett
  • Writing Down the Bones – Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

These books are a lifestyle accessory, tokens of my desire, a lazy substitute for actual graft. I mean, they’re fine. I’ve read all of them, some more than once, and there are nuggets of wisdom here and there. But you could get shot of the lot and spend the time more profitably with close, repeated reading of Aristotle’s Poetics for all the good they’ve done me.

Story is on another level, though, with Sol Stein’s book its novelist-oriented equal. It’s dense and tightly written, full of diagrams and flow charts and packed with detailed analysis of story craft. It’s the storytelling equivalent of a Haynes manual.

As McKee says,

“Today’s would-be writers rush to the typewriter without first learning their craft…

The novice plunges ahead, counting solely on experience, thinking that the life he’s lived and the films he’s seen give him something to say and the way to say it. Experience, however, is overrated.

Self-knowledge is the key – life plus deep reflection on our reactions to life.

What the novice mistakes for craft is simply his unconscious absorption of story elements from every novel, film or play he’s ever encountered. 

A storyteller is a life poet, an artist who transforms day-to-day living, inner life and outer life, dream and actuality into a poem where rhyme scheme is events rather than words – a two-hour metaphor that says: Life is like this!”

I’m simultaneously reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life one of the reasons I’m taking so long with Story. Peterson’s book is enlightening on number of levels and sometimes it seems as if the one text is acting as a commentary on the other. Regarding the question of why-the-fuck-I-am-not-a-writer, Peterson’s book offers the following insight via the Tao Te Ching:

He who contrives, defeats his purpose;
and he who is grasping, loses.
The sage does not contrive to win,
and therefore is not defeated,
he is not grasping, so does not lose.

Which is as good a summary of the stalemate I’ve found myself in since I bought that train ticket as I’ll ever read.

3.

Reasons I am not a fucking writer: statement of beliefs and assumptions

  • Wanting to “be a writer” has always co-existed in my mind with “not wanting to be a writer”.
  • Deep down, I do not regard “writing” as meaningful work.
  • Deep down, I believe most “writing” (specifically fiction) to be self-indulgent to the point of narcissism.
  • I love words, language, turns of phrase – not stories.
  • I’m not sure I like the sound of my own voice that much – at least, not enough to be sat listening to it for hours on end trying to “write”.
  • In a world of literary surfeit, where supermarket shelves are stacked high with teetering piles of books, where agents’ desks are stacked high with slush, warehouses stuffed with pulp, I’m not sure I’ve got anything worth adding to any of that.
  • Sometimes I think I might have found something worth saying, worth sharing with the world, but it’s immediately replaced with the thought that someone already said it before, a million times better.
  • I never found a story I wanted to tell badly enough to sustain me through the inevitable self-induced apocalypse of loathing and endless creative winters that come whenever I indulge my desire to “write”.
  • I never found an idea big enough to believe in that would make any of the above irrelevant.
  • Despite all of the above, I still keep trying to find ways to write, positively and meaningfully, keep trying to find ways to fix the bad wiring that keeps short circuiting my brain every time I try to fucking write anything. (Hence this blog.)

4.

Here’s a story about the first story I ever wrote.

I was into all kinds of fiction when I was young. Boy stuff, usually. Biggles. Just William. The Three Investigators mysteries. Books like Alvin’s Secret Code. I was into sci-fi, graphic fiction, some fantasy (mostly Tolkien) and I liked war-related stuff. I got a comic every week called Warlord and a friend of my mum’s passed on an actual sackful of Commandos, those small compact editions, like little jingoistic graphic novellas. By the time I was in my last year of primary school, I generally preferred adult pop fiction to stuff that was geared at readers my own age – possibly a result of bingeing on Famous Five novels during summer holidays in Devon.

And I read a lot. There was a kind of competition, a bit like a league table, that our teacher had set up where you got a star for every book you read. I was way down in the rankings because you got a star whether your book had six hundred pages (thanks Lord of the Rings!) or sixty. I liked reading books based on films I’d seen. I read spin-offs and tie-ins, Star Wars novels, novelisations of episodes of The Professionals. I read all the James Bond books (the ones with the racy 70s covers!) and I developed a fondness for Alistair Maclean’s spooky post-war spy thrillers.

The library played a big part in all of this. On one occasion, I borrowed a book based on the exploits of Action Man, which was a favourite toy at the time. It was a white-covered hardback with a drawing of yer man in action and a big red Action Man logo in the top right corner. I started to write a story about Action Man (that was his name) and his buddy, Tom Stone. They got into some trouble, they helped each other out. I remember folding the page in half and turning it round so that it was like a tiny book, and I remember spending a fair bit of time drawing the big red Action Man logo in the top corner of the first page.

Then the story disappeared. I don’t even think I got to finish it before it vanished from my bag or my school desk, thought maybe it had gone in the bin by mistake, or was buried in a pile of jotters somewhere. I forgot all about it until one of the guys in my class suddenly produced it. He was a guy I thought I was friendly with (our mums knew each other and we sometimes met out of school hours) but here he was parading about the classroom while the teacher was out of the room, reading aloud from the story, ridiculing me in front of the rest of the class. “Action Man and Tom Stone…” He kept repeating the opening line loudly in a pathetic mocking voice, recruiting others from my class to join in with his bullshit game. He kept it up in the playground at interval and at lunchtime, reading it out to whoever fancied joining in. He kept it up for a good long while.

And there was nothing really I could do about it except try to get him to stop. But he didn’t and I wasn’t the fighting type. So I walked away, feeling stupid and childish.

5.

I am not a fucking writer because being a fucking writer is not itself a meaningful fucking aim.

A writer of what, exactly?

Poetry? Technical manuals? TV listings? Investigative journalism? Marketing copy for arms manufacturers? After dinner speeches? Tweets? Anyone who writes anything is a fucking writer.

So.

I failed to define my terms.

I love language. I love words. I love syntax. I love the music and rhythm and style and the endless possibilities for invention and playfulness that writing can bring about . . . but none of this is necessarily of any use in becoming or being a writer. For that, I should have become a sub-editor.

No matter how much you love language or how talented you think you might be, “Being A Writer” is not an end in itself. Having something to write about, the burning desire to tell people things forcefully and engagingly enough that they will listen is at least a start. In fact, it should be a fucking prerequisite of the job.

I failed to define my subject.

I worked in a theatre company for a time. As I became more and more bored with the desk job I became more and more interested in what was going on in the rooms where the actual shows were being made. I started reading as many plays as I could get my hands on. Then, after a decade-long hiatus since completing a creative writing Masters when I had barely written a word, I started sketching out ideas, writing dialogue etc. A cycling accident gave me six weeks off work, and I used the time to put in some serious hours at the laptop drafting up the scribbles I had been making. I decided to learn the craft of playwriting and put myself out there as someone with aspirations in that direction. Spoke to whoever would listen. Put my novice sketches in front of whoever would read them. Joined a theatre writers’ group.

Then, in short order, I was accepted on to a playwright mentoring programme, and chosen to take part in a year-long writing attachment with the Traverse in Edinburgh. After months and months of relentless grafting and redrafting, I felt that I was on my way, finally, to becoming a writer of plays.

I told my mentor on our first meeting that I wanted to write a play “about football”. I knew very little about football beyond whatever wisdom I had gleaned from Jimmy Sanderson and Hugh Keavins on the Radio Clyde Openline as well as years of accidental exposure to Only an Excuse and Off the Ball. I had grown up in a bigoted part of the world where football team colours and associated imagery are fierce totems of tribal allegiance and some of that had rubbed off. Football sort of just happened around me, but it was something other people did. I had no skin in the game, didn’t play, didn’t follow a team or belong to a tribe. I was doing a ton of reading to try and compensate for my ignorance but some things you just can’t fake.

I actually hate football. One of the handful of stories I ever published was called The Last Man Left in Scotland Who Doesn’t Like Football. I don’t know what I was thinking, writing a play about football. Neither did my mentor, whose sole piece of advice to me during the whole process was to go and learn how to dance the tango…

Why did I want to write about football? Or Jocky Wilson? Or my old auntie? Or a bunch of delinquent school kids? Or a couple on a political protest march? Or any of the other things I turned my gaze towards in the hope of finding things to say?

I failed to find my motivation.

I was living a lie at the time. I was in a relationship where it was increasingly clear that there no love between us. In the things we did and said, it seemed we couldn’t stand each other. After all the hopes and dreams and plans we’d made, the truth was too terrible to admit, so we allowed ourselves to perpetuate the lie.

Writing for theatre was a lie too. Theatre is built on lies. It’s a Babel of bullshit. Actors lie for a living. To do this they must find something “true” inside of them, some emotion or experience that allows the deception they are creating for an audience to seem real somehow. If you can’t find that truth, you can’t lie. And if you can’t lie, you can’t act. Directors lie to their actors about how great they are because they want them to do good performances. Everyone lies to directors about how brilliant they are because good favour is hard currency in theatre. Everyone else lies about how much they loved the show because working in the arts is all about collective self-deception. It’s a madhouse. Some people thrive on it but I found it impossible to keep up any kind of a front. And theatre is all about front.

That’s probably all a bit harsh. The point is that if you’re living in denial of what is true for you, that shit’s going to come out, or, worse, it’s going to get in the way of you ever getting started.

In Story, McKee reminds us of the roots and branches of the word author.

“The test of authorship is knowledge. A true author is an artist with a godlike knowledge of his subject, and the proof of his authorship is that his pages smack of authority. . . And the effect of writing with authority is authenticity.”

In this he recalls the advice of Ernest Hemingway, who claimed he never got writers’ block because, as he said:
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Here’s mine:

I am not a fucking writer because I failed to try to find and to write my Truth.

6.

Let me tell you about the harpy.

A couple of years after my mother died, I started seeing a counsellor, whom we’ll call Strange Anne. She was into a therapeutic process called psychosynthesis, a Jungian branch of psychoanalysis which holds that the disordered self is made up of many disparate elements, or sub-personalities, all fighting with each other.

This leads to a loss of integrity of the self. You are in a state of disorder because there is no “I” in control of these unruly personalities. It’s a bit like a pirate ship mutiny. The first step in psychosynthesis is to identify the mutineers in the first place, to name them and define them. Then you need to take responsibility, as captain, for the dereliction of your post, whatever the reason for that may be. Counselling helps you find the “I” again, to take charge, whip the reprobates into shape and get them to toe the line or walk the fucking plank before they crash the ship.

I loved psychosynthesis. It was a really interesting process, powered by metaphor and imagery. Strange Anne allowed me to explore the deepest recesses of my imagination and express myself creatively in a way that was empowering and liberating. I imagined the self as a tall teetering stack of books with each of the sub-personalities a separate volume. The stack was on the point of collapse and the purpose of therapy was to realign the books, straighten them up, stack them in a way that was solid and secure. Pointedly, the stack of books resembled a letter “I”.

I had quite a few warring sub-personalities. The Hulk was the physical manifestation of primal rage that hurled things at walls, that crashed his fist through bits of furniture or aimed it at his own face. The Wee Boy had lost his mammy and looked to just about any female authority for guidance, direction, anything, and did as he was told, even when it wasn’t in his best interests. The Boffin retreated into theoretical abstraction and verbose explication when too much emotion threatened to overload his limbic system. The Sergeant Major was responsible for bossing me into the gym and out onto the road running marathons. He was inspirational in some ways, but he could be an overbearing bastard.

And there was the Harpy.

The harpy was an ugly big black diseased-looking crow, ancient and terrible, that sat on my right shoulder with her beak in my ear and she would scream the worst obscenities imaginable whenever I took a creative urge. She would hurl horrific insults directly into my brain. It was relentless and debilitating, a degrading, hateful, punishing volley of abuse. I could feel her claws digging deep into the skin around my scapula. I could feel her cold bony beak poking hard and sharp into my ear canal. Trying to write anything with this was like trying to walk in the face of a hurricane.

Strange Anne taught me to nip the thing before it got into full voice. Just reach round with my left hand and grab her beak in my thumb, fore- and middle fingers. I’m doing it now. She’s been howling her derision at me the whole way through writing this, through writing everything. Even when I’m not writing, but just thinking about writing or something I’ve written, like this blog for instance, I hear the voice. Except she’s learned to be subtler about it. She’s toned down the verbal abuse. Cunningly, her voice just sounds like mine now.

I have no idea where the harpy came from. Could have been any number of factors, a combination of a million untraceable events (from the Action Man and Tom Stone humiliation onwards). There seems to be absolutely no strategic psychological reason for her existence. She’s not protecting me, she’s not a psychic defence mechanism or anything, she does me no favours. I have absolutely no use for her. The continuing existence of this insufferable thing only has the effect of making me feel as if the very act of writing is wasteful, stupid, risible, contemptuous.

And it is only writing. Play the accordion for hours? Fine. Paint and doodle and scribble and fuck about with crayons all day? Cool. Make a bunch of clay heads? Nothing. Spend hours in the kitchen decorating biscuits? Whatever. The harpy’s only interested in my writing.

Harpies exist in the Greek myths, depicted slightly differently from mine, but their functions as agents of disruption and conflict, punishment and cruelty are pretty consistent. Looking at it from a folkloric/ morphological sense, it may well be that the harpy is the Evil Beast that I, the Hero, need to slay in order to prove my heroic qualities. Kill the harpy, complete my quest, save the kingdom, ascend the throne and marry the princess. Simple.

But how do I do that? How do I kill this fucking beast? Because here’s the thing: the harpy is me, it’s literally me. The harpy, as if it needs spelling out, is the psychological manifestation of every negative thought I have internalised about writing as a pursuit, as a meaningful activity, as a thing that I do. It’s me, telling myself not to do something I know I can be good at; more than that, it’s me, shouting a bunch of hateful crap at myself in order to make myself feel wretched.

Why? So that I don’t have to do it? The specific benefits of inventing a fictional self-sabotaging device are not immediately clear to me. I need to penetrate the fog of unknowing in order to know what to do, if not to kill it, then possibly to tame it, or gaffer tape its foul beak shut, or just shoo it away once and for all. To do that gets into all kinds of beliefs I have about myself and I’m not sure this is the place to air them all.

Where does the harpy get its voice from? Where does it derive its power? Who teaches the harpy what to say? What’s in it for the harpy? Why does it do this stuff? Why is it specifically female?

The harpies were often sent by the Gods as punishment for people who disobeyed them. They caused chaos, made lives miserable, drove people mad. The “gods” of my upbringing were a pantheon of austere and religious elders – not quite the “fools in old style hats and coats” of Larkin’s verse, but close enough. I was raised Catholic, but West of Scotland Catholicism is a dour beast that has more in common with the hair-shirted followers of Knox and Calvin than it does with the flamboyant Mediterranean superhero saints we learned about in RE. Not for nothing is it often called Roman Calvinism.

The harpy, my harpy, gets its voice from that culture. It’s the voice of the rule-givers and law-makers. The permanently ill-at-ease. The dull and the dutiful. The cowardly and conforming. It’s a fearful voice. It’s afraid of what it doesn’t know. It’s afraid I’ll let the side down. It’s not disappointed, it’s not even angry – it’s fucking raging that I have the temerity to think above my station.

The voice says, Know your place and it wants to put me back in it.

Fuck the harpy. Fuck all that shit.

7.

I remain open to the idea that all of this is a function of my lack of self-discipline. I just need to get on with it. Quit with the overthinking. This blog’s been months in the making. And I still haven’t finished the McKee book.

I accept that this deathless dream is killing me anyway, so I might as well live it.

I figured the best way out of a writing impasse is to write my way out of it. I mentioned Jordan Peterson earlier. I signed up for his Self Authoring programme a few weeks ago, so I’ve been working my way through that. This blog is a form of self-authoring, I guess, but in a slightly haphazard way. The programme is much more thorough, much more focussed, and having the specific aim of seeking out all the various reasons Why I Am Not A Fucking Writer has given shape to my thoughts in a very useful way.

I started keeping a journal at the beginning of a year –  just a few lines a day, with the intention of keeping it up every day for five years. Already, the regular showing up at a blank page with a pen in my hand is having the knock on effect of improving my self-discipline. I’ve been keeping note of daily accomplishments and setting myself targets for the next day. It’s good. I’m noticing small changes, pushing myself, getting shit done. I’ve been deleting attention-sapping apps from my phone. I set myself the goal of running again. I cut out the booze. There’s a long fucking way to go, though, and the only way through it is to make myself personally accountable for everything . . .

Which is inspired by listening to David Goggins memoir, Can’t Hurt Me. It’s an incredible book, inspirational and empowering, with a forceful message – that we are all capable of so much more that we are currently doing, that we are massively under-utilising our potential. All of us. And not only are we selling ourselves short by opting for more comfortable paths of least resistance through life, we’re selling the rest of the world short by denying each other the benefit of our full potential. Goggins’s story puts things into perspective for me in ways I hadn’t imagined, especially since his story couldn’t be more different from mine. There’s a lot in what he says that gives a new spin to the Jack Black Mindstore stuff too. Just, Goggins goes a whole lot fucking further.

I’ve decided to set myself the challenge of writing a story a week for the next 52 weeks, longer if I can keep it up, to read to my daughter if she wants me to. The project’s called Stories About Everything.

8.

Here’s one of McKee’s storytelling tools.

Controlling idea = value + cause

“The Controlling Idea of a completed story must be expressible in a single sentence . . . A story becomes a kind of living philosophy that the audience members grasp as a whole, in a flash, without conscious thought – a perception married to their life experiences.”

Here’s a story idea for a book aimed at children and families called My Daddy is a Dinosaur

Controlling idea: “Adults can lose sight of what’s important in life but they can be redeemed if they open their eyes to the love that’s there in front of them.”

Reads like every Hollywood family ever. Maybe refine it a bit.

Controlling idea: “We hasten our own extinction (emotional/ spiritual) when we focus on our own selfish material interests and harden our hearts to the needs and desires of those around us.”

Story summary
Boy wants to play with his dad after work but Dad’s always too tired, always got something else to do, somewhere else to go. He persists. As the Dad continues to evade his son’ s attentions, losing patience all the way, we see him grow scales, claws and a tail, finally a massive head full of teeth – which roars at the boy to go away…

The boy realises with horror that his emotionally unavailable dad has turned into a massive, scary tyrannosaurus rex. He goes to his mum, tries to talk about it, explain that his daddy is a dinosaur, but he gets the brush off there too. She’s got stuff to do for work tomorrow. She sprouts a hadrosaur-like horn and snaps at him with her beak-like mouth.

He tries his brother. He’s engrossed in a computer game, and flicks the door shut with his long diplodocus tail.

Sister won’t even entertain him, she’s all wrapped up in her own pterodactyl wings, staring into her phone.

Finally it’s all too much. Out with the family one day, at a shopping centre full of dinosaurs all roaring at each other from their cars in the car park. Hellish. It’s a sunny day and boy just wants to go and play. Mum and dad snap at him, boy has a meltdown – and sprouts a tiny scaly dinosaur tail all of his own.

Shocked, his dinosaur mum and dad can’t believe what just happened. Boy, freaked, says he’s becoming just like them, and points to their scales and tails and teeth and claws – and they see themselves reflected in a shop window. Horrified, they decide to change the way they behave from now on. Daddy makes time for him when he gets in from work. Mummy puts her phone down. Sister’s nicer, brother shares the ipad. Scales and tails and wings and claws all disappear as if they never existed at all.

And they all live happily ever after…

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