The fact that my friend Matt released a loosely autobiographical film based on a break up was confusing for a lot of my college friends. It still gets brought up sometimes, because it was weird; too personal, but all facts. I get why he did it though, why he wrote it, why he fought to get it made. I think it’s something everybody does.
Two years ago I was on a road trip with my roommates, and one of them, my friend Patrick, was telling me about narrative therapy, how therapists use storytelling to vet trauma. He probably would’ve explained better if I hadn’t started talking like I was an expert already, but I was fairly certain that I am.
I’ve had this conversation a lot of times, usually drunk, a couple times not drunk. I believe that there are two types of storytellers, and two types of stories: those that dig into themselves to try to heal and teach, and those that put up a wall to distract. I haven’t read past the first chapter of enough writing books to see if this is a widely held belief, but I have been stuck in enough destructive cycles that I only got out of by hearing a beautiful sentence, and woken up from enough comic binges to think that I’m probably right. Stories help people cope, either through soul surgery or by providing the anesthetic and letting everything heal itself. Sometimes, like crazy people who decide to become therapists, or loud people who decide to brew their own beer, people who rely heavily on stories decide that they want to become storytellers.
It seems magical at first, because we’re staring into the face of God. We realize we can be active instead of passive, and we write thinking nobody else ever learned to spell. And it feels good. It feels good to get it out. It feels good to tell the truth. It feels so good, we don’t realize that we’re harvesting our subconscious, and taking those moments when we feel dramatic, the ones that everyone has, where they think this should be a movie and then we act like yes, it definitely should. We don’t realize what we’re doing until somebody says, “hey, I said this line to you, the one that you wrote. Is this me?” and then the cold reality slides in and we realize that we were the killer all along.
If this realization never happens, if the movie gets made, the best case scenario is Garden State. The worst case scenario is also Garden State. It’s just so exciting to write a movie, it’s easy to forget that like any art, the nature of doing it doesn’t imbue it with goodness. You need an eye. You need taste. And even if you have taste when you’re first starting to write, you’re like a baby; all you can do is cry about it when it isn’t what you like.
The reason narrative therapy works, Patrick told me, is because it allows a patient to apply archetypes to people that might not otherwise be applicable. Like if someone is abused by an authority figure, and they can’t talk about it because that person is liked and trusted by everyone else, in the story, that authority figure can be the bad guy, and that’s OK. It allows the patient to look at a situation layer by layer, to see what’s actually true. That’s what Matt did. He was hurt, and he was an artist, and he needed to see what was true.
Sometimes I catch myself planning shots of real moments that happen to me as though they’re happening to a character that I came up with. I’ll write entire screenplays or short stories thinking I’m creating this brilliantly angsty youngster, and people will read it and refer to it as “the character that’s you,” and I’ll be baffled. Sometimes I realize I’m creating a character and describing them as slender, with brown hair, wearing the worn out, maroon hoodie that I actually own, and I go, “Dammit. That’s me. I’ve been writing about me. Well, he also has a mustache now.” But the mustache usually disappears twenty pages later, because it’s hard to picture that character with a mustache.
There was a long time where I tried to write scripts about girls to get girls, and then whatever girl I was trying to get would read the script and wouldn’t fall in love with me, and I’d be confused and heartbroken, and then two months later, I’d rewrite the script and it would be better. I’ve mostly grown out of it now, but it still pops up in little ways. I’ll create a subplot that makes no sense, or a character that has no place, and they’ll hang around and say things to the main character that apply more to me than anything else. I’ll get notes from other people telling me the script could be a lot better if that character just wasn’t there, if this scene was cut, but I’ll refuse, because they are what make it mine.
Eventually, the writer putting up a wall to distract learns to dig to find real stakes. The writer who digs into themselves has to learn where to put up walls. I tried something different. I spent a night with some friends, a night that I felt was lovely and filled with subtlety and dramatic undertones, and I spent a year and a half trying to retype that night word for word. I told my friends what I was doing, and I bought a tape recorder, and I recorded our rehashed conversations to try to get the wording exactly right. I tried to make it as real as possible. I wanted to rewrite life. I plowed through the moments of typing where it felt terrible and boring and it wan’t any fun, because I thought, There is truth here. This happened.
But halfway through the first draft, I realized it would take nine drafts, by nine different writers who would each focus on one aspect of each character, her nervous tics or his cadence, and each draft, every single word would be rewritten. The title would change nine times, and every line, even the lines that were two words, would mean fifteen different things. Only then would it be as brilliant as the night seemed, as real life seems when it’s paid very close attention to. So halfway through the first draft, I gave up, and allowed it to be fiction.