Stories We Tell Ourselves
A couple of years ago I was struggling to finish a novel called The Profession. I was lost. The book was dying. It was a Bad Moment.
This is when it’s great to have a friend/editor/literary Kahuna who really knows his stuff. Shawn flew out to L.A. from New York and we beat our brains out for a couple of days. I remember vividly what he finally said:
“You know what this book is about? It’s about stories. We all have stories that we tell ourselves about what our lives are—and those stories are always wrong.”
That was it. That was the stroke that split the diamond. It solved The Profession. But, though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was also a template not only for the hero’s journey in most of the novels or screenplays that you and I write, but for many of the struggles we face in our real lives.
Last week’s post was called “Good Guy Speeches.” Good Guy speeches are the soliloquies (however brief) in which the hero of a book or a movie lets go of Story “A” and prepares himself to move on to Story “B.”
Here’s Crash Davis’s (Kevin Costner) Good Guy speech from Bull Durham:
Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There’s 6 months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week – just one – a gork … you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes… you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week… and you’re in Yankee Stadium.
All his life, Crash has dreamed of playing in the majors. That’s his Story “A”: “I’m going to make it to the big leagues.”
Crash has bet all his chips on that story.
Now, in the moment of his Good Guy speech, he finally accepts that this story is bankrupt. He’s not going to make it to “the Show.” Crash’s speech is a gorgeous lament for the non-appearance of that stroke of fortune, that run of good luck that is sometimes the entire difference between a winner and an also-ran. Crash acknowledges with this speech that that streak has not come for him—and, even if it had, it wouldn’t have been enough. He tells Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins), who is on his way to the majors, “You’ve got a million-dollar arm. All my body parts put together don’t add up to seven cents.”
Another all-time great Good Guy speech comes from a different sports movie, the first Rocky.
In this Oscar winner for Best Picture, a ham-and-egg boxer named Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) has through freak luck gotten a shot at the heavyweight championship. He’s going to fight Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) tomorrow night. But tonight, the eve of the title fight, Rocky can’t sleep. He leaves his g.f. Adrian at home and goes alone to the empty arena. What he experiences there changes him profoundly.
Rocky looks around at the brand-new ring, the thousands of seats, the huge posters of himself and Apollo, the giant American flags. Until that moment Rocky’s Story “A” had been that he could win. He could knock off the champ. That was the story Rocky was telling himself.
He comes home to Adrian, who sees at once that something bad has happened. “What’s wrong, Rocky?”
Who am I kiddin’ [believing I can beat the champ]? I ain’t even in the guy’s league…It don’t matter, ’cause I was nobody before…I was nobody. That don’t matter either, ya know…It really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either. ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed. And if I can go that distance, ya see, and that bell rings, ya know, and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, ya see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.
When Rocky says, “‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance,” he has switched from Story “A” to Story “B.” This is monumental. It is his true victory, hours before the fight itself. Because he has moved from delusion to reality.
He has acquired wisdom.
In the final scene of Bull Durham, Crash Davis returns to the woman he has always loved but never yet really connected with, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon). He tells Annie he has quit playing ball. “I hit my dinger and hung ’em up.”
(In other words, Crash has relinquished Story “A.”)
Then he tells Annie that he’s heard there’s an opening for a manager at a minor league club in Visalia, California.
What do you think, Annie? Think I can get to the Show as a manager?
You’d be great!
Crash, like Rocky, has moved on to Story “B.”
We all tell ourselves stories, like Shawn said. And those stories, as he observed, are almost always wrong.
The nutshell plot of many movies and books is simply this:
ACT ONE. Hero starts off desperately believing and living Story “A.”
ACT TWO. Hero tries like hell to achieve Story “A.” Events intervene. Hero cannot achieve Story “A.”
ACT THREE. Against his will, hero releases Story “A,” moves to Story “B.”
In more complex stories like The Godfather or Shane, the hero’s passage from Story “A” to Story “B” may be a dark elevation—i.e. Michael Corleone’s evolution from Marine Corps captain to Mafia don—or a noble but tragic fall: Shane’s transition from the dream of hanging up his guns to his recognition of the necessity of strapping them back on forever.
In really good writing, the seeds of Story “B” have been planted from the very start. When we, the reader/moviegoer, flash back in our minds to the story’s beginning, we see the clues that we had missed the first time through.
In Rocky’s case, even though he was at the start an untrained, going-nowhere brawler, it was plain to us in the audience that he had plenty of heart, he could take a beating, and he had thunder in his fists.
In Crash’s case, even though he was way past the age when minor leaguers get called up to the Bigs, we could see that he possessed the savvy, the grit, and the leadership to whip a team into shape and to turn boys into men.
Story “B” was there all along, if only we had had eyes to see it.
I’ve been asking myself lately, What Story “A” am I believing about myself right now? Is there a Story “B” lurking somewhere? If so, what is it?
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