So my morning went a little something like this:
• I woke up
• I brushed my teeth, got dressed, grabbed my sack lunch, and left for work
• I took my morning meetings and started preparations for the team’s upcoming conference presentation
• And this continued until lunch
Also, my morning went a little something like this:
• I woke up
• I remembered that this evening I had a scheduling conflict between helping a neighbor move or going with some friends to catch a movie
• I spent some time convincing myself that my friends need me, and being there for them is just as worthy of a cause as lifting furniture
• In my morning meeting someone thanked me for how I had helped him when dealing with a difficult customer
• That praise for a kindness I had done pricked my conscience. I messaged my friends to say I wouldn’t be able to make the movie tonight
There are two completely different stories in these timelines. One is the story of what happened on the outside, the other is within. These aren’t the only two possible stories, either. Another telling might just focus on my transitioning emotional states, and still another might blend my waking moments with my daydreams. Many stories will, in fact, take a few of the possible arcs available and blend them together.
Without a doubt, the most common approach is to focus on the chronological and factual events, but interweave them with a character development arc as well. Often in this approach the author looks for clever ways to have the separate paths mirror one another, and also may add little variations such as swapping between different timelines or maintaining two seemingly-unrelated plotlines that eventually converge. These are minor alterations, though, and the basic flavor remains the same for almost every story made. Because this sort of template is so common it allows for very direct comparisons between all manner of different stories no matter their genre, and there are entire critical reviews that essentially do just this.
Of course, there are exceptions to this most-common template, stories where the transitions seem jarring and disconnected. In these one most realize that the connecting tissue between moments is not based on time, character, or setting, but rather on the emotional tone. Thus, the scenes may feel similar, even if they don’t look so. Because of how much this approach flies in the face of most mass-media stories, these sorts of tales are usually considered non-traditional or experimental, and this perception has resulted in creators reserving this structure for more introspective endeavors. Less likely is the reader to be following some external character’s narrative as they are to be shown a mirror to their own insides. The scenes do not derive their meaning from what happens on the page so much as what happens within, an emotional journey of the audience’s own thoughts and feelings, each following sequentially and naturally towards some sort of personal resolution.
Examples of this sort of storytelling would include the Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, where we cut from scenes of a family at various points of time to celestial bodies floating through space to prehistoric dinosaurs. And through it all is a thread of the interconnected nature of life, that we are all parts of one cohesive whole, just as how individuals are conglomerations of uncountable smaller pieces. Another example would be Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which presents a most eclectic and erratic sequence of scenes, progressing from a man’s unexplained transformation into a beetle, to his family’s revulsion of him, to his pitiful death, to the family selling their business and moving away, to the parents discussing that their daughter is well-ready for marriage now. And then it ends. Rather odd, isn’t it? It’s easy to be dismissive of such a plotline, and yet it is reminiscent of the stories we tell ourselves every night in our dreams, where bafflement and unexpected metamorphosis, both in character and tone, are simply par for the course.
In fact, the comparison of these sorts of stories to dreams is an apt one. This sort of emotional-free-association scene-crafting was no doubt derived from the mind’s natural ability to journey through a stream of consciousness. In our sleep, daydreams, and meditations we learn that in the mind facts and fantasies are not separate entities, each naturally follows the other. The flowing mind does not concern itself with chronology or accuracy, and it certainly does not feel obligated to fit its wanderings to some specific template or predefined arc. More than anything the mind just feels its way through memories, ideas, and emotions, picking them up and setting them down based on the most tenuous of connections. The sensations can pulsate between fascination and horror instantly and effortlessly, and the combinations of old things into entirely new expressions is constantly amazing.
While the mind’s tapestry of colors and ideas and beliefs and doubts is without question bizarre and strange, it also seems important. I consider it no coincidence that artistic and creative expression often finds itself trying to imitate this natural mental process, because though it is a strange dance, it is not a meaningless one. Very often as we come out of our dreams and meditations we find that the chain of thoughts has had some special significance to us, that there was a reason to their being. Maybe their purpose was to communicate a meaningful message, to answer a question, or even just to simulate an emotional environment that we needed. Our minds are designed to work this way for a reason, and we can derive real value from allowing them to do so. When the mind recycles the same familiar corridors too frequently, it will feel restrained, which may lead to unhealthy outlets. A most common one is trying to artificially fabricate creative-flow with mind-altering drugs and chemical stimuli. These mere imitations of the natural creative process leave the mind all the more mundane after their effects wear off, leading to a habitual cycle.
So if nothing else, please take from this that all of us need some time to daydream in our lives. It’s healthy, it’s natural, it’s fun. And so long as you’re doing it, why not write down the journey? I can practically guarantee that writing a story from this more free-flowing bent is not going to give you a bestseller, this sort of stuff just doesn’t fly off the shelves. However there is a deeper value from the exercise, one of being creative on a more fundamental level than you may have ever experienced before. If you let go of rules like a proper beginning, middle, and end, if you stopped worrying about following character arcs and tropes, if you let go of preconceptions of pacing and entertainment…what would you make? It’s okay once-in-a-while to give up outlines and backstories, to do something a little more abstract and bizarre. No one, not even you, knows where it will take you. For once hold your pen, not as the dictator of a world, but as the discoverer of it.
Of course, this method will probably make a lot more sense if I just show an example instead of trying to describe it. On Thursday I’ll share with you one of these journeys that I once took a few years ago. It’s something that has stuck in my mind ever since, I hope you will be able to find something personal in it as well. I’ll see you there.