Have you ever felt that the story you’re writing is wiser than you?
If so, I suspect you’re lost or stuck.
It also means that you’re writing something worth reading.
I became deeply lost while writing Story Structure Expedition—Journey to the Heart of a Story. We were exploring up the Congo River in a steamer until we bogged down in a swamp-forest. I had written myself into a dead-end.
With no clue how to push on toward the story heart, I thought I’d failed. A story is a river, I insisted, but we’d run out of river. It was humiliating. How would I prove my thesis?
I considered abandoning the entire nonsense. Jump ship, why not? After all, the whole thing existed only in mind.
But the story wouldn’t let me go. It owned me. I felt strangely compelled—not just to stick with it—but to make that jump. To jump deeper. But into what?
In the middle of the night, soaked from a tropical deluge, unnerved by the storm, and bleeding from tsetse bites, here’s what the story whispered in my ear:
Move forward in some other realm.
Move forward in another realm…
You won’t find that in any other book on story structure. In fact, some readers of Story Structure Expedition wish they hadn’t found it in this book, either.
But I’m not backing down from the notion of transcendence in fiction. Because it’s there in all the best novels and movies. Heroes make an impossible leap. As if they know something beyond everyday knowing.
A deeper wisdom
Michael Barnett is a real life hero who makes a practice of jumping blind as a way of learning about that deeper knowing.
In Enlightenment in a Nutshell, Barnett speaks about the dynamics of letting go into the unknown. His audience are Zen aficionados, so they might know how to cultivate an existential crisis. But for you and me and your average fictional protagonist the terror of finding yourself at the brink arrives uninvited.
“It is very frightening,” says Barnett, “and people who do make that jump are not people who are without feeling, without many loving attachments to partners and lovers and children and friends, and yet they jump.
“The mind says, ‘If you jump you are going to have to leave everything behind,’ but maybe they have a deeper wisdom and know that that is not the case.”
Here’s Barnett trying to describe that deeper knowing:
“Something inside them knows that it is not goodbye to everything. It is goodbye to the way you were with everything, but it is not goodbye to everything. Do you get it?”
Do you get it? he asks, because this jumping business is counter-intuitive. The radical change of heart can’t be accomplished logically. In fact, it’s conventional logic we’re forsaking. Heroes turn their backs on thinking because they’re frustrated with a lifetime of self-serving strategies.
No, not just frustrated—desperate! No time to wait for inspiration, we must empty ourselves now! So we risk that step over the edge.
It is not goodbye to everything
“You land wherever you arrive at when you jump,” Barnett says. “You land, and then you look out and the world is there again… [except that] the way you see it is completely changed, you are no longer in the way… you just see what is there.”
Reminds me of Henry Miller traveling through Greece in 1939, and writing about getting out of his own way, and realizing that—
“One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.”
I see that motto emblazoned on the arch above the portal leading to the Story Heart—that’s the wisdom latent there.
And Michael Barnett hammers this point home by pointing out that it’s the sudden absence of our biases and habits that allows us to just see what is there:
“Not my view of what is there—my reaction to what is there—my choices about what is there—my intentions with what is there—my rejection of what is there—my distortions of what is there—my wish to make what is there conform with my desires and wishes and hopes that it fits with what I want. That is gone, you see what is there.
“That is known as waking up,” says Barnett.
And there’s your real heroics, both in fiction and real life. The spiritual self-confidence to suffer through the waking up.
Have you ever felt your story was wiser than you?
If so, it means you’re approaching the heart of your story. It means you’re on the way to writing something good.
Just keep moving. Jump the story ship. Escape the plot. Why not? It’s done its job. Now’s the time to give your reader their money’s worth:
Move forward in another realm.