The Show Must Go On, Part 3: The Structure and The Stakes

Last week I promised you a first draft, but I’ve been through several drafts already. And frankly, they have sucked.

That’s to be expected, and part of the process. Yet as much as I’ve written, as much as I have taught the writing process, it is still hard to trust that something good will emerge eventually.

Or the other way to think about it: most of the time, the only way to get to a good draft is through some bad drafts. You’re wriggling upstream like a salmon trying to spawn, against the evil twin currents of Self-Doubt and Insecurity. The evil twins are disguised by the swirling waters of Procrastination. (And yes, the sparkle and allure of Overwrought Metaphors.)

The novelist Alexander Chee has some inspiring advice here about writing and stamina, perhaps his version of Hemingway’s famous advice about writing as the act of applying one’s seat to the chair. So, here I am.
Oh, I’m sure there might be good pieces here and there, in the drafts. But I don’t feel like I’ve “nailed” the story yet. I’ve struggled with a few things—last week, I talked about the series of events that’s needed for a good story. I’ve also struggled with the fact that I am writing for the ear, and not for the eye.

At the heart of the matter, though, is the real fear that I am trying to write around and against. One piece of my self-assigned homework last week was to look at more storytelling guidelines, so I did. This set of storytelling tips on The Moth, hit me hard, especially this part: the stakes of the story need to be clear to you, and to the audience.  Good news, then. Just by writing last week’s post, I figured out another piece of of why this story’s been tricky. I hadn’t identified the stakes of the story yet.  Bad news: I didn’t know what the stakes were yet.

If fear, as Cheryl Strayed writes in WILD,” is born of a story we tell ourselves,” what’s the story I’ve been telling myself?

Though the story’s not really a fairy tale, it might go something like this:

Once upon a time, there was a young girl who wanted to succeed. She wanted it so badly that she used to run through the hallways of her childhood house singing “I Have Confidence” from “The Sound of Music.” (She even carried imaginary carpet bags while doing so.) As she grew up, she learned that her mind could help her succeed: by reading a lot of books, by getting straight A’s, by going to good schools, by getting multiple degrees. As she grew up, she learned that her body would mostly help her fail: by attracting criticism from her grandmother; by using lack of ability as the reason to not play sports; by being out of shape as the reason for not exercising; by not being attractive enough for boys.

So she learned not to trust her body, and instead she learned to invest most of her energy in making sure that her mind succeeded, since her body would not. By following this strategy she seemed very successful. Except that she became unused to falling, and she began to equate falling with failing. And then she fell. And then her body began to break down, and she had to use her mind to fix it.

That’s a version of the story that I’d been telling myself. I gathered two morals from this story unconsciously, and I lived in them for a very long time:

  1.  I can live so comfortably and deeply in my mind, I don’t need to worry about my body.
  2. I don’t need to worry about my body, because my body’s not really worth worrying about.

These are the stakes of the story. To do a headstand, I had to chip away at these granite-hard morals, until each one disintegrated. They are how I moved from the “headstand, no way” to the “headstand, no problem” category.
So I woke up one morning last week, with a new possible structure for my story. It will be in three acts, as my producer suggested. But each act will have two components: the physical component and the mental component. For now it feels like the most accurate way to represent the story of my first headstand.

For most of my life, I thought I could maintain a separation between my mind and my body—at first, yoga was where I came to relax, to let go. Some of that story is going into Act I, along with the first time I saw my teacher demonstrate a headstand.

Then, as I was going through the excruciating year-long process of losing my job, yoga became a place where I could challenge myself physically, enough to forget about what was going on in my mind. And then, oh then. Ultimately, I was so stressed that my body refused to forget my mind, and during one yoga class I was shocked that I found myself about to cry. That moment is Act II.

And as I learned how to run regularly and how to practice yoga regularly, I found that those two beliefs had changed. And that’s how I did my first headstand. That’s Act III.

Next week, the next problem: how will I fit all of this into 6 pages, or about 10 minutes?

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