Monday, December 26, 2011

What Does Christmas Mean?

I got into a little bit of trouble on Christmas Eve because when asked to share my thoughts about the holiday, I remarked how Christmas was a tool used by the Romans to co-opt the pagan holiday celebrating the birth of Saturn and assign it to Christ.

Not that I want to sound like a Grinch or anything--I'm not full of humbuggery about the holiday. It's just that, like most questions of "meaning", I tend to drift back to my undergrad Philosophy days and the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He said, rather practically in my opinion, that to talk about the inherent "meaning" of something is not that useful. Things don't mean anything outside of how they're used. It's like talking about the meaning of a chair. Yuck. But how it's used..? That can be more instructive. Sometimes it's used to sit on; other times it's used to knock people over the head with. So what does it mean to be a chair? Well, it means exactly how it's used. In other words, meaning is always a derivative of use.

So, the more practical question about Christmas isn't what it might inherently mean, but how did you put it into action in your life? Did you go on a spending binge and rejoice in the materialism afforded our modern society? Did you gather around the bible and read about the birth of Christ? Maybe you did both, deftly dancing between the stories of elves and Santa Claus and the virgin birth of the Son of God. Kind of a tough juxtaposition.

Thankfully, I have a wife who inspires and grounds me. What she did for Christmas? Well, of course we did the materialistic thing--I mean seriously, we're not savages here. BUT, and this is a big but (I know, hilarious), what I watched my wife do was pick out three families in need and engage in a campaign of charity, gift-giving, and joyful service. And she got the whole family involved. It was awesome. I don't want to go into details because I don't want to sully the pureness of her actions. But it was the most Christ-centric Christmas I've experienced in a long time. And why? Because my wife actually went out and did something Christ-like.

I suppose what I'm saying is if we inventory all the time and energy around the things we actually did over the holiday, maybe a quick reading of Luke on Christmas Eve doesn't stack up well against all the hours of Black Friday'ing, Cyber Monday'ing, shopping, buying, wrapping, etc.

Look, Christmas has a history of being co-opted by the powerful. I'm just wondering if maybe we should put a little more thought into what we're actually doing, and maybe we can claim a bigger portion of it back. It's a lot to ask, I know. And I've got a few new toys to play with.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Four Story Forms

My son, who is also named Platte, wants to be a writer, and I think this is a good idea. First, since we share the same name I can accuse him of writing any of my books that bomb. Second, if he writes something successful I can take credit for it. It's a win / win.

His dilemma, like many writers, is where to start. Sure, "It was a dark and stormy night," has some potential, but sometimes facing that blinking cursor feels overwhelming. I often think back to something I learned when I was writing screenplays: almost all stories come down to only one of four forms...four! Four doesn't seem very overwhelming.

So, the four story forms for nearly all stories:

- To retrieve
- To stop
- To win
- To escape

Try a little thesaurus exercise with each of the above words. I'll just start with "retrieve".

Retrieve: Bring back, recapture, redeem, repair, rescue, salvage.

How many stories do we know about bringing something back (stolen items); or recapturing something (on a battlefield, an escaped convict); redemption (of fallen hero or a sinner); repair (being stranded somewhere, drifting in a space capsule); rescue (hostages, those trapped in a disaster) get the idea. All derivations from the basic "to retrieve" story form.

So if you're stuck on where to start that novel you're itching to write, narrow the field down to one of the four forms. And from there, with a little help of a thesaurus, dive deeper into variations that pose interesting, unique, or compelling dilemmas. Of course we're only talking about the outer journey here, the external action. But hey, it's a good place to start and hopefully get the creative juices flowing (also, just what are creative juices and where do they flow to?)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

On Story and Spectacle

If T.S. Elliot were a blogger, I suppose he'd start by writing "This is how this blog will start, this is how this blog will start, this is how this blog will start, with a whimper and not a bang."

Now, I don't want to presume to know the mind of T.S. Elliot, but I also don't want to presume my blog will begin with any kind of 'bang' -- for that you need some combination of celebrity, crazy, and paparazzi.

I got a call from a producer friend of mine today who is out in L.A. with Relativity, receiving various and sundry pitches for a movie concept I wrote the first draft for, called "The Legend of Santa Claus". The premise was simple: Santa Claus is a kind of hero without a hero's journey, so lets create something that draws on the various mythologies and lore of Christmas and construct an adventure neither blasphemous or ridiculous. And, heaven forbid, let's try to get some good old fashioned Christmas Spirit in there as well.

What my friend and I failed to realize is that Hollywood has become less about the story and more about the spectacle. So much in fact, that part of the pitch session included two seasoned screenwriters talking about a Nazi-styled blimp that is carrying a weapon of mass destruction that Santa and his elves must stop. Now, if you could promise me some kind of dirigible-based chase scene at the end, they might of had me. But seriously, I suppose Santa would be leaping from his flying sled to the blimp, climbing down ropes and jumping into the cockpit (I assume it's called a cockpit), wielding, I don't know, a candy cane or something, and knocking SS dressed soldiers out the windows to their deaths. Yep, this is how Hollywood constructs a story about Santa Claus.

It is also why I have shifted my attention from screenwriting to novel writing. Frankly, I'm getting tired of the spectacle and I want to spend more time in the story. Not that big, climatic kinds of scenes are bad, I just don't want them to be front and center and the rest just kind of shoe-horned in as an after thought.

So, I'll be blogging about my adventures writing, trying to get published, and how to work a dirigible into my next story.