In 1978, I was in my final year of a Masters of Divinity program at Yale. Going there was part of the plan I had formulated as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia: Get the Masters, then use that to gain entrance into a top-notch Ph.D. program. My efforts at Yale did nothing to deviate me from that career path as I had a bevy of professors ready to support my academic plans. But after getting my M.Div., I did not pursue a doctorate, and ended up far away from university life, eventually plying my trade as, of all things, a screenwriter.
What the hell happened?
Life. Fate. Grace. Something. 'It' sent me down an entirely different life-path. Whatever 'it' was manifested itself during my final year at Yale. As I drove up to campus, and entered the main administration building, I would get this recurring physical feeling in my stomach, literally an ache in my gut, telling me that I was not supposed to be there.
Have you ever had a feeling like that? A gut sensation that you were/were not supposed to be/not be doing something? Did you 'listen' to it? Did you open yourself to other possibilities?
I did. I decided to take a year off from academics. That year became the rest of my life. That experience was one of many during the next twenty-five years which led me to a philosophy about creativity, which I believe to be true: Trust the process.
I can not begin to tell you all the remarkable twists-and-turns which led me to Berkeley, California in October, 1986 where I typed the words FADE IN on an Apple 2c computer, then over the next 8 weeks, wrote, rewrote, and finished the 112 page script entitled K-9. I can not begin to articulate the series of synchronistic incidents which led me from New Haven, 1978 to Los Angeles, 1987, where that spec script sold in a preemptive offer by Universal Studios.
That is, I can not explain it except to say: Trust the process.
I thought I coined that phrase. It was something which struck me soon in my screenwriting career, back in the early 90s. I had discovered that if I gave myself over to the story I was working on, the story would somehow find me.
Then lo and behold, someone wrote a book entitled "Trust the Process: An Artist's Guide to Letting Go." And wouldn't you know it, there it is, my experience neatly summed up in 210 pages.
The author Shaun McNiff is an artist, seemingly far removed from the world of screenwriting. But what he has to say is fundamental to storytelling:
Whether in painting, poetry, performance, music, dance, or life, there is an intelligence working in every situation. This force is the primary carrier of creation.
If we trust it and follow its natural movement, it will astound us with its ability to find a way through problems — and even make creative use of our mistakes and failures.
There is a magic to this process that cannot be controlled by the ego. Somehow it always finds the way to the place where you need to be, and a destination you never could have known in advance.
When everything seems hopeless and going nowhere… trust the process.
That is exactly my experience in creating stories. If you trust the process, you will be astounded at the results. Problems become solutions. Failures transform into successes. Magic appears beyond logic. In short, a heap of creative 'blessings' upon those who are willing to transcend ego and go with the creative flow.
Why am I telling you this? One reason is because you really ought to read this book: "Trust the Process: An Artist's Guide to Letting Go," Shaun McNiff, Shambala Press, 1998. The other reason is this: Theory and structure and tracking Hollywood trends and marketing and star-casting and sheer force of will is both necessary and beneficial in your development as a professional screenwriter. But story-telling is finally about magic. You can grasp story structure. Character. Theme. Dialogue. Plot. All of that. But if you don't find the magic, this is what you will have.
Word. Words. More words. Lots of words. 120 pages of words. A pale imitation of a story. And a script reader's "Pass."
Successful stories, great stories are infused with magic. And the only way to find the magic is to trust the process.
Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.
[Originally posted June 12, 2014]