I’m sure that I could write about this for days. There is so much advice that someone needs to make a career out of any art. I have three main steps that I believe are pieces of the equation. I’ll detail the first here and that is knowing who you are and how you fit into the equation of storytelling.
This weekend, I am giving the keynote at the Wrangling with Writing conference in Arizona and I am using this story to illustrate my first point. It’s a short film I saw recently that opens on a part on a traditional summer afternoon. A breeze blows through a nearby Jacaranda tree as couple strolls through giggling. A little girl runs through a flock of pigeons feasting on bread crumbs. A little boy chases a balloon. A squirrel nibbles on a date.
Eventually the camera pans over to a pair of shoddy tennis shoes, and we pan up to see an older man in a dirty blazer with an unshaven face. Next to the old man is a tin can and a sign that reads “Have compassion, I am blind. Now people who walk through the park and pass by the old blind man, all read that sign, but very few are moved by it. Occasionally someone drops some change into that tin can, but for the most part, they all continue on with their day.
Eventually a young man in a business suit walks over and stares at the sign. After a few moments, he picks the sign up, flips it over and with a pen of his own, writes a new message on the back of the sign. Then he sets it down and walks away.
For the rest of that afternoon, nearly everyone that walks by deposits change or bills into that tin can. So much so that it’s ringing like a slot machine and the old man is trying to stuff all the change into his pockets, but it goes spilling all over the sidewalk.
Later that afternoon, the young man returns and the old blind man recognizes him from the sound of his footsteps and the feel of his shoes. The old blind man asks, “What did you write on my sign?”
The young man responds, “The same thing with different words.”
The camera pans over and reveals that what once read, Have compassion, I am blind,” now read: “Today is a beautiful day. And I cannot see it.”
In this scene in the park, the old man had something to communicate, but not the words to reach beyond himself. When the writer came by and helped him to articulate what was in his heart, the old man’s world changed. And so did the life of the passersby who were moved to act and in so doing opened themselves up to something larger than themselves. They all became part of a community that day.
So the first question I ask people who say they want to write, is where do you really fall into this equation? Are you the blind old man with something to say, but not enough experience with words to communicate your message? Are you the writer, looking for a muse? Or are you a passerby in the park? Once you answer that first question we can move onto the subject of theme.