Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!
IF YOU WATCHED a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers. You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on to think about the story you’d seen. The truth is, you wouldn’t remember that movie a week later, except you’d feel robbed and want your money back. Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo.
When Steve, Ben, and I first started working together, I didn’t want Don to embrace conflict. I wanted it to be an easy story. But nobody really remembers easy stories. Characters have to face their greatest fears with courage. That’s what makes a story good. If you think about the stories you like most, they probably have lots of conflict. There is probably death at stake, inner death or actual death, you know. These polar charges, these happy and sad things in life, are like colors God uses to draw the world.
Somehow we realize that great stories are told in conflict, but we are unwilling to embrace the potential greatness of the story we are actually in.
I thought about the elements of our screenplay, then, knowing the elements that made a story meaningful were the same that made a life meaningful. If Steve was right about a good story being a condensed version of life—that is, if story is just life without the meaningless scenes—I wondered if life could be lived more like a good story in the first place. I wondered whether a person could plan a story for his life and live it intentionally.
I’ve wondered, though, if one of the reasons we fail to acknowledge the brilliance of life is because we don’t want the responsibility inherent in the acknowledgment. We don’t want to be characters in a story because characters have to move and breathe and face conflict with courage. And if life isn’t remarkable, then we don’t have to do any of that; we can be unwilling victims rather than grateful participants. But I’ve noticed something. I’ve never walked out of a meaningless movie thinking all movies are meaningless. I only thought the movie I walked out on was meaningless. I wonder, then, if when people say life is meaningless, what they really mean is their lives are meaningless. I wonder if they’ve chosen to believe their whole existence is unremarkable, and are projecting their dreary life on the rest of us.
I also knew from the McKee seminar that most of our greatest fears are relational. It’s all that stuff about forgiveness and risking rejection and learning to love. We think stories are about getting money and security, but the truth is, it all comes down to relationships.
IF THE POINT of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation. If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed. He’s a jerk at the beginning and nice at the end, or a coward at the beginning and brave at the end. If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just a condensed version of life, then life itself may be designed to change us, so that we evolve from one kind of person to another.
I asked Marcos what he’d discovered; and he said, essentially, humans are alive for the purpose of journey, a kind of three-act structure. They are born and spend several years discovering themselves and the world, then plod through a long middle in which they are compelled to search for a mate and reproduce and also create stability out of natural instability, and then they find themselves at an ending that seems to be designed for reflection. At the end, their bodies are slower, they are not as easily distracted, they do less work, and they think and feel about a life lived rather than look forward to a life getting started. He didn’t know what the point of the journey was, but he did believe we were designed to search for and find something. And he wondered out loud if the point wasn’t the search but the transformation the search creates.
ONCE I UNDERSTOOD the power of story in my personal life, I wanted to know more about how to create a good one. I was getting up a little earlier, and interestingly enough, I was going to fewer movies. In a way, I’d started a new story about trying to find a story, and so I didn’t need to escape my boring life anymore. I was a character who wanted something, and, well, that’s half the battle. And I kept learning more about story. I learned that not just any character can work to create a good story. It takes a specific kind of character. And not just any ambition would define a good story. It took a specific kind of ambition. The elements of story were conditional, in other words. These conditions were fixed principles too, and every good screenwriter knows them the way a musician knows his scales.
Steve nodded in agreement. “But how do we show his anger on the screen? How do we tell the audience he’s angry?” he asked. “We just say it,” I said. “We can’t say it, Don. It’s not a book; it’s a movie. We have to show it. A character is what he does.”
I didn’t know getting lost in daydreams was odd until a couple of years ago when I asked an old girlfriend what she daydreamed about. She answered, “Nothing.” How does a person daydream about nothing? I wondered. But she explained she lived in the now and worked with whatever was really happening. In the room where I’m writing today, nothing is happening. And later there will be laundry happening, which is nothing to daydream about. I can’t deal with reality.
last year I was sitting in a café in Boston when a man came in with his wife and their two children. One of the children was a boy who looked to be three, and the other was an infant dressed in pink. I went back to reading, but after a time the infant began to cry in a shrill I would normally find annoying. But it didn’t affect me the same way this time. I watched the mother lift the baby into her lap and comfort her until the child’s sobbing turned to gasping. As the mother brought the child to her shoulder and rocked her until gasping turned back to breathing. It hit me then that while I had spent my twenties daydreaming and avoiding the reality of crying children, this man I didn’t know had met a woman and started a real family with real children who were not literary inventions, but actual characters who cried in coffee shops. This sort of life once sounded boring to me. It was too real, too unromantic, I suppose. But there in Boston it occurred to me that his story was better than mine for the simple fact that his story was actually happening. He was doing real things with real people while I’d been typing words into a computer. When I arrived home from Boston, I realized there were no pictures on my mantel. I set down my suitcase and walked into the living room and looked across to the fireplace, and it felt empty. Empty of real stories. I went into my bedroom where the bed was made, and on my desk there were no pictures in frames and on the end tables there were no pictures. There was a framed picture of Yankee Stadium above the toilet in the bathroom, and there was some art I’d picked up in my travels, but there was little evidence of an actual character living an actual life. My home felt like a stage on which props had been set for a fake story rather than a place where a person lived an actual human narrative. It’s an odd feeling to be awakened from a life of fantasy. You stand there looking at a bare mantel and the house gets an eerie feel, as though it were haunted by a kind of nothingness, an absence of something that could have been, an absence of people who could have been living there, interacting with me, forcing me out of my daydreams. I stood for a while and heard the voices of children who didn’t exist and felt the tender touch of a wife who wanted me to listen to her. I felt, at once, the absent glory of a life that could have been.
I was watching a reality show on television about this time, and I wondered what a show might look like if a camera followed me around. I wondered what people would think. That is, setting aside my daydreams and wants and thoughts and revealing my life through an objective camera lens. The thought was humbling. In truth, I was a person who daydreamed and then wrote down his daydreams. Sure, there were other characters, friends and business associates, but I wasn’t living any kind of sacrifice. My entire life had been designed to make myself more comfortable, to insulate myself from the interruption of my daydreams.
Here’s the truth about telling stories with your life. It’s going to sound like a great idea, and you are going to get excited about it, and then when it comes time to do the work, you’re not going to want to do it. It’s like that with writing books, and it’s like that with life. People love to have lived a great story, but few people like the work it takes to make it happen. But joy costs pain.
A general rule in creating stories is that characters don’t want to change. They must be forced to change. Nobody wakes up and starts chasing a bad guy or dismantling a bomb unless something forces them to do so. The bad guys just robbed your house and are running off with your last roll of toilet paper, or the bomb is strapped to your favorite cat. It’s that sort of thing that gets a character moving. The rule exists in story because it’s a true thing about people. Humans are designed to seek comfort and order, and so if they have comfort and order, they tend to plant themselves, even if their comfort isn’t all that comfortable. And even if they secretly want for something better.
Robert McKee says humans naturally seek comfort and stability. Without an inciting incident that disrupts their comfort, they won’t enter into a story. They have to get fired from their job or be forced to sign up for a marathon. A ring has to be purchased. A home has to be sold. The character has to jump into the story, into the discomfort and the fear, otherwise the story will never happen.
The most often repeated commandment in the Bible is “Do not fear.” It’s in there over two hundred times. That means a couple of things, if you think about it. It means we are going to be afraid, and it means we shouldn’t let fear boss us around. Before I realized we were supposed to fight fear, I thought of fear as a subtle suggestion in our subconscious designed to keep us safe, or more important, keep us from getting humiliated. And I guess it serves that purpose. But fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe; it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life.
James Scott Bell says an inciting incident is a doorway through which the protagonist cannot return. I didn’t know I was doing it at the time, but I had certainly walked through a doorway. I was an overweight, out-of-shape guy who wanted to get into shape and date a specific girl. I’d walked through a doorway that would force me both to get into shape and to interact with her. I suppose I didn’t have to get into shape, but if I didn’t, the story would be a tragedy. And nobody wants to live a tragedy. I’d found my motivation. I joined a gym the next day.
It’s true that while ambition creates fear, it also creates the story. But it’s a good trade, because as soon as you point toward a horizon, life no longer feels meaningless. And suddenly there is risk in your story and a question about whether you’ll make it. You have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I’d be lying if I said it was all fun. I definitely lost a few hours of sleep imagining myself collapsing on the Inca Trail, but it beat eating ice cream and watching television. I was doing something in real life. I’d stood up and pointed toward a horizon, and now I had to move, whether I wanted to or not.
I was watching the movie Star Wars recently and wondered what made that movie so good. Of course, there are a thousand reasons. But I also noticed that if I paused the DVD on any frame, I could point toward any major character and say exactly what that person wanted. No character had a vague ambition. It made me wonder if the reasons our lives seem so muddled is because we keep walking into scenes in which we, along with the people around us, have no clear idea what we want.
A story is made up of turns, Robert McKee says. Once an ambition has been decided, a positive turn is an event that moves the protagonist closer to the ambition, and a negative turn moves the protagonist away from his ambition. All stories have both. If a story doesn’t have negative turns, it’s not an interesting story. A protagonist who understands this idea lives a better story. He doesn’t give up when he encounters a setback, because he knows that every story has both positive and negative turns.
LAST YEAR, I had to go through all twelve months of my bank statements and highlight anything I could write off. At first I started the assignment sort of excited, because I thought I might save money on my taxes. As I highlighted potential business write-offs, however, I began to realize the stuff I spent money on indicated the stories I was living. By that I mean the stuff I spent money on was, in many ways, the sum of my ambitions. And those ambitions weren’t the stuff of good stories. I actually bought a Roomba vacuum cleaner, for example. I highlighted that line on my statement and then looked over at it sitting in the corner of the room. I’m not sure why I thought I needed a Roomba, but apparently I had nothing going on that day. I think I turned it on a couple of times just to see how it worked, and after that I forgot about it and used a broom. I’d bought a new truck that year, and I’d moved from a house to a much nicer condo. Nothing against a nice condo, but I privately wondered whether I was a protagonist telling an exciting story who happened to live in a nice condo, or whether I was a protagonist telling a boring story about trying to pay off his nice condo. Looking over my bank statements, I feared the latter might be true. My only consolation was I wasn’t alone. Most Americans aren’t living very good stories. It’s not our fault, I don’t think. We are suckered into it. We are brainwashed, I think.
The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. If you want to know what a person’s story is about, just ask them what they want. If we don’t want anything, we are living boring stories, and if we want a Roomba vaccum cleaner, we are living stupid stories. If it won’t work in a story, it won’t work in life.
I DON’T KNOW if anybody actually writes his or her own story in real life. It’s an odd thing to talk about, because while we control our destiny, it’s limited control in so many ways. What makes a story work on the screen is the endless scenarios that might befall a protagonist. He may want the girl, but the girl may want somebody else, or she may leave the country or die. A writer of fiction can control all those elements, but as real-life protagonists we can control only what we do and say, what choices we make, what words we say. The rest is up to fate. And so life has positive and negative turns. And you rarely see them coming.
I found myself wanting even better stories. And that’s the thing you’ll realize when you organize your life into the structure of story. You’ll get a taste for one story and then want another, and then another, and the stories will build until you’re living a kind of epic of risk and reward, and the whole thing will be molding you into the actual character whose roles you’ve been playing. And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time. The more practice stories I lived, the more I wanted an epic to climb inside of and see through till its end.
“What kind of things go into an epic movie?” I asked, perhaps letting on that I wasn’t talking about movies anymore. Steve stopped walking and looked at me sincerely. He folded his clipboard in his arms and thought for a moment. “Well,” Steve said, “you’re talking about taking a story to the next level. I think there are a couple things that take a movie into the category of epic.” He started walking again, explaining what made a story great, while pointing out good places to shoot specific scenes in our film. According to Steve, a story goes to the next level with two key elements, and both of them have to do with the ambition of the character. First, he said, is the thing a character wants must be very difficult to attain. The more difficult, the better the story. The reason the story is better when the ambition is difficult, Steve said, is because there is more risk, and more risk makes the story question more interesting to an audience. The greatest stories, Steve told me, are the ones in which the character’s very life is at stake. There needs to be a question as to whether the character will make it, whether he will defeat the enemy or the enemy will defeat him. The second element that makes a story epic, he said, was the ambition had to be sacrificial. The protagonist has to be going through pain, risking his very life, for the sake of somebody else. “Those stories are gold,” Steve said. “You can ask people to name their favorite movies, and those two elements will be in almost all of them.”
The main way we learn story is not through movies or books; it’s through each other. You become like the people you interact with. And if your friends are living boring stories, you probably will too. We teach our children good or bad stories, what is worth living for and what is worth dying for, what is worth pursuing, and the dignity with which a character engages his own narrative.
I asked Bob what was the key to living such a great story, and Bob seemed uncomfortable with the idea he was anything special. But he wanted to answer my question, so he thought about it and said he didn’t think we should be afraid to embrace whimsy. I asked him what he meant by whimsy, and he struggled to define it. He said it’s that nagging idea that life could be magical; it could be special if we were only willing to take a few risks.
To be honest, it had only been an idea. I mean I’d done some serious thinking about it, but I wasn’t sure whether it was a story I wanted to jump into. I wasn’t sure it would work, and I certainly didn’t feel qualified. I was afraid. But Duncan’s story was inspirational. He convinced me that having grown up without a father and having had mentors who rescued me was enough to understand the issue. I could work around my liabilities with practice and time and the right people to help. Later, after leaving his office, Duncan gave me a $25,000 check to seed the program. So I started an organization called The Mentoring Project. I hired a director and a small staff, and within the year we were mentoring eighty kids in Portland. I’d started an epic story of my own. And life no longer felt meaningless. It felt stressful and terrifying, but it definitely didn’t feel meaningless.
IT’S LIKE THIS when you live a story: The first part happens fast. You throw yourself into the narrative, and you’re finally out in the water; the shore is pushing off behind you and the trees are getting smaller. The distant shore doesn’t seem so far, and you can feel the resolution coming, the feeling of getting out of your boat and walking the distant beach. You think the thing is going to happen fast, that you’ll paddle for a bit and arrive on the other side by lunch. But the truth is, it isn’t going to be over soon. The reward you get from a story is always less than you thought it would be, and the work is harder than you imagined. The point of a story is never about the ending, remember. It’s about your character getting molded in the hard work of the middle. At some point the shore behind you stops getting smaller, and you paddle and wonder why the same strokes that used to move you now only rock the boat. You got the wife, but you don’t know if you like her anymore and you’ve only been married five years. You want to wake up and walk into the living room in your underwear and watch football and let your daughters play with the dog because the far shore doesn’t get closer no matter how hard you paddle.
The night we left Bob’s dock, I didn’t want to paddle through the night or across the wide inlet. We didn’t leave his dock till after midnight, and we had to paddle for hours through the pitch black, and in the middle the inlet was so large and the dark was so dark we couldn’t make out either shore. We had to guide ourselves by stars, each boat gliding close to another, just the sound of our oars coming in and out of the water to keep us close. I think this is when most people give up on their stories. They come out of college wanting to change the world, wanting to get married, wanting to have kids and change the way people buy office supplies. But they get into the middle and discover it was harder than they thought. They can’t see the distant shore anymore, and they wonder if their paddling is moving them forward. None of the trees behind them are getting smaller and none of the trees ahead are getting bigger. They take it out on their spouses, and they go looking for an easier story.
It’s like this with every crossing, and with nearly every story too. You paddle until you no longer believe you can go any farther. And then suddenly, well after you thought it would happen, the other shore starts to grow, and it grows fast. The trees get taller and you can make out the crags in the cliffs, and then the shore reaches out to you, to welcome you home, almost pulling your boat onto the sand.
Robert McKee put down his coffee cup and leaned onto the podium. He put his hand on his forehead and wiped back his gray hair. He said, “You have to go there. You have to take your character to the place where he just can’t take it anymore.” He looked at us with a tenderness we hadn’t seen in him before. “You’ve been there, haven’t you? You’ve been out on the ledge. The marriage is over now; the dream is over now; nothing good can come from this.” He got louder. “Writing a story isn’t about making your peaceful fantasies come true. The whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn’t think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it’s conflict that changes a person.” His voice was like thunder now. “You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That’s the only way we change.”
I realized how much of our lives are spent trying to avoid conflict. Half the commercials on television are selling us something that will make life easier. Part of me wonders if our stories aren’t being stolen by the easy life.
I’M CONVINCED THE most fantastical moment in story, the point when all the tension is finally relieved, doesn’t actually happen in real life. And I mean that seriously. I’ve thought about it fifty different ways, but I can’t figure out how a human life actually climaxes so that everything on the other side of a particular moment is made to be okay. It happens all the time in movies and books, but it won’t happen to me—and I’m sorry to say, it won’t happen to you either. Maybe the reason we like stories so much is because they deliver wish fulfillment. Maybe we sit in the dark and shovel sugar into our mouths because in so many stories everything is made right, and we secretly long for that ourselves.
If you think about it, an enormous amount of damage is created by the myth of utopia. There is an intrinsic feeling in nearly every person that your life could be perfect if you only had such-and-such a car or such-and-such a spouse or such-and-such a job. We believe we will be made whole by our accomplishments, our possessions, or our social status. It’s written in the fabric of our DNA that life used to be beautiful and now it isn’t, and if only this and if only that, it would be beautiful again.
I don’t mean to insinuate there are no minor climaxes to human stories. There are. A kid can try to make the football team and in a moment of climax see his name on the coach’s list. A girl can want to get married and feel euphoric when the man of her dreams slides a ring on her finger. But these aren’t the stories I’m talking about. These are substories. When that kid makes the football team, he is going to find out that playing football is hard, and he’s going to find himself in the middle of yet another story. And the girl is going to wake up three months into her marriage and realize she is, in fact, still lonely, and so many of her issues haven’t gone away. And if both of these people aren’t careful, they’re going to get depressed because they thought the climax to their substory was actually a climax to the human story, and it wasn’t. The human story goes on.
I’ve lived some good stories now, and those stories have improved the quality of my life. But I’ve also let go of the idea things will ever be made perfect, at least while I am walking around on this planet. I’ve let go of the idea that this life has a climax. I’m trying to be more Danish, I guess. And the thing is, it works. When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are. And when you stop expecting material possessions to complete you, you’d be surprised at how much pleasure you get in material possessions.
When Steve, Ben, and I were writing the screenplay, I suggested our characters go to a coffee shop to hash out, in conversation, a bit of the conflict. But Ben and Steve told me that sort of scene isn’t memorable, and it was time for the plot of the story to unfold in a more memorable way. I didn’t know exactly what they meant, but I started noticing, in movies, scenes often take place in strange places. There was the scene in Good Will Hunting where Will and his friend have a conversation at a batting cage, except Will is in the middle of the cage, throwing pitches. And there’s the scene in Garden State where the characters are standing in the rain on the edge of a cliff right next to a guy’s house that was made from a boat. And even in Rocky, they take his training into a meat locker so he can punch giant slabs of beef.
This idea is true in life too. I had a friend in town for six weeks this year. She was visiting Oregon and doing some work here, and over the six weeks we rented some movies and went to coffee and ate at a few restaurants. We had great conversations. But honestly, when I think back on those six weeks, what I really remember are the few times when we made an extra effort to do something memorable. We took my dog Lucy for a hike and introduced her to her first waterfall. We took the kayaks out on the river and strapped them together to have a floating picnic. When we look back on our lives, what we will remember are the crazy things we did, the times we worked harder to make a day stand out.
Good stories contain memorable scenes, Steve and Ben would say.
I remembered Bob and his family jumping off the dock at the lodge. For no good reason, they jumped into the water fully clothed, just so they could say goodbye to us in a way that cost them something, that branded a scene into our minds that we could remember for years to come. A good movie has memorable scenes, and so does a good life.
Darius Goes West is more than a memorable film; it is the story of a group of friends who intentionally create a memorable life. I don’t think memorable scenes help a story make sense. Other principles accomplish that. What memorable scenes do is punctuate the existing rise and fall of a narrative. The ambition of getting Darius a better wheelchair had the makings of a terrific story, but it’s the way in which they got there that I will never forget. And neither will Darius.
I like those scenes in the Bible where God stops people and asks them to build an altar. You’d think He was making them do that for Himself, but I don’t think God really gets much from looking at a pile of rocks. Instead, I think God wanted his people to build altars for their sake, something that would help them remember, something they could look back on and remember the time when they were rescued, or they were given grace. After studying memorable scenes, I realized why it was Bob and his family jump into the inlet when people are leaving the lodge. It’s a memory. It’s a way that they, and also their guests, will never forget their visit. But it’s like I said before, about writers not really wanting to write. We have to force ourselves to create these scenes. We have to get up off the couch and turn the television off, we have to blow up the inner-tubes and head to the river. We have to write the poem and deliver it in person. We have to pull the car off the road and hike to the top of the hill. We have to put on our suits, we have to dance at weddings. We have to make altars.
I found an article online that said the screenwriters wrote about the year Odessa almost won because that year the team tried harder. They said the year the team won the story was great, but the year they lost the story was better, because the team that lost had sacrificed more. Later, when I started learning about how to resolve a story, and when I began thinking about story as a guide for life, I took a lot of comfort in that principle. It wasn’t necessary to win for the story to be great, it was only necessary to sacrifice everything.
A GOOD STORYTELLER speaks something into nothing. Where there is an absence of story, or perhaps a bad story, a good storyteller walks in and changes reality. He doesn’t critique the existing story, or lament about his boredom, like a critic. He just tells something different and invites other people into the new story he is telling.
A good storyteller doesn’t just tell a better story, though. He invites other people into the story with him, giving them a better story too.
When we were in Uganda, I went with Bob to break ground on a new school he was building. The school board was there, along with the local officials. The principal of the school had bought three trees that Bob, the government official, and the principal would plant to commemorate the breaking of the ground. Bob saw me standing off, taking pictures of the event and walked over and asked if I would plant his tree for him. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Absolutely,” he said. “It would be great for me to come back to this place and see the tree you planted, to be reminded of you every time I visit.” I put down my camera and helped dig the hole and set the tree into the ground, covering it to its tiny trunk. And from that moment on, the school was no longer Bob’s school; the better story was no longer Bob’s story. It was my story too. I’d entered into the story with Bob. And it’s a great story about providing an education to children who would otherwise go without. After that I donated funds to Bob’s work in Uganda, and I’m even working to provide a scholarship to a child I met in a prison in Kampala who Bob and his lawyers helped free. I’m telling a better story with Bob. Nobody gets to watch the parade.
ON THE NIGHT before my friends and I rode into Washington, D.C., we were reflective. It didn’t feel like we’d ridden across the country. It didn’t feel like the ocean was only two days away. We’d grown into the lifestyle and gotten lost in the story and even, to some degree, grieved that it was ending. When you fly across the country in an airplane the country seems vast, but it isn’t vast. It’s all connected by roads one can ride a bike down. If you watch the news and there’s a tragedy at a house in Kansas, that guy’s driveway connects with yours, and you’d be surprised how few roads it takes to get there. The trip taught us that we were all neighbors, that my life is connected to everybody else’s, that one person’s story has the power to affect a million others. We rode through cities, though Dallas and Little Rock and Nashville, and we ate at diners and roadside cafés. We rode through Joshua Tree National Park, and I put the U2 album on my iPod, and it made the miles go faster. We had a thousand conversations with people at gas stations, half of them thinking we were lying when we told them where we were going, or once we made it east, where we’d come from. We rode into the sunrise every morning and kept riding until it set into the same ocean we’d left only days before. We rode our bikes through Kelly’s Ford, where two thousand Union troops had crossed the Rappahannock to attack eight hundred Confederates on the march to Gettysburg. We rode along the Rappahannock in the late afternoon with the sun coming in through the pines, and I kept smelling campfire smoke and imagined the battle camps that must have been sewn into the trees along the river. Every day of the trip was its own epic story. We woke up with an ambition, to move another hundred miles across the map, and we entered into each day’s conflict, sometimes getting off the bike to vomit, only to drink more water and get back on the bike. There were positive and negative turns, sunrises in the desert where the color comes up so otherworldly you wonder if you are on another planet, and there were bike accidents that landed friends in the hospital. There were close calls, stolen bikes, and there were always the kind hands of strangers giving us food and water and a place to sleep for the night. And each day’s story, each positive and negative turn, was shaping our character. We were becoming people with will and resolve. Our story demanded that we change, and so we did.
Nearly every day in the summer, I take my dog to Westmoreland Park, where she plays in the creek. She runs up and down through the creek bed, diving headlong into the water, chasing ducks. Sometimes when I watch her I think about how good life can be, if we only lose ourselves in our stories. Lucy doesn’t read self-help books about how to be a dog; she just is a dog. All she wants to do is chase ducks and sticks and do other things that make both her and me happy. It makes me wonder if that was the intention for man, to chase sticks and ducks, to name animals, to create families, and to keep looking back at God to feed off his pleasure at our pleasure.
Before I learned about story, I was becoming a fatalist. I was starting to believe you couldn’t feel meaning in life because there wasn’t any meaning to be found. But I don’t believe that anymore. It’s a shame, because you can make good money being a writer and a fatalist. Nietzsche did it with relative success. Not personal success, mind you, because he rarely got out of bed. But he’s huge with twenty-something intellectuals. He’s the Justin Timberlake of depressed Germans, and there are a lot of depressed Germans.
We live in a world where bad stories are told, stories that teach us life doesn’t mean anything and that humanity has no great purpose. It’s a good calling, then, to speak a better story. How brightly a better story shines. How easily the world looks to it in wonder. How grateful we are to hear these stories, and how happy it makes us to repeat them.