On David Mamet and Living a Good Story

I’ve been re-reading David Mamet’s On Directing Film. While there are some aspects of it that are very specific to the mechanics of filmmaking, it is a nice refresher of perspectives in storytelling. Mamet is up there with Sam Shepherd and Tom Stoppard when it comes to playwrights I admire. In this book, he hits on some key truths about how we perceive Story. And, as with most True things, what might sound like technical observations for one creative area actually applies to Life as a whole.  

In speaking of how we as viewers engage the play, the film, the show we are watching he lays out a simple fact:

“The Human brain...will take all of the events in the play and form them into a story... It is the nature of human perception to connect unrelated images into a story, because we need the world to make sense.”

We do, indeed, need the world to make sense and will create so many illusory conclusions - connecting dots that don’t really connect, claiming True what is not - just to meet this need. That we are a more and more visually responsive culture only makes this easier, requiring less critical thinking and more simple acceptance of poorly drawn meanings. We form story out of the dailyness of our lives. But how often do we consider that the story we are forming isn’t necessarily a true one?

Mamet hints at this question as he talks about Narcissist and how they perceive other’s actions as direct responses or commentaries on their existence. Yes, a story is being told to make sense of things, but is it really a life-giving story, a true story?

But Mamet is talking to the one’s who are creating the plays and films we see - the authors, so to speak, of the story you will eventually interpret. He is trying to guide them to create good, interesting stories. What are the elements that make for a good story, and interesting story?

He eventually gets around to the banal tricks that bad storytellers use because they either lack the discipline, the forethought, the creativity or intellectual exercise it takes to make a good story:

“That’s when it stops being interesting. So that’s where the bad author, like the countercultural architect, has to take up the slack by making each subsequent event more diverting than the last: to trick the audience into paying attention. The end of this is obscenity. Let’s really see their genitals, let’s really endanger the actor through stunts, let’s really set the building on fire. Over the course of a movie it forces the filmmaker to get more and more bizarre. Over the course of a career, it forces the filmmaker to get more and more outré; over the course of a culture, it forces the culture to degenerate into depravity, which is what we have now.”

We can all name a film that fits this description - the film that attempts to wow us with visual tricks to compensate for a boring story. Their number is legion, and, strange enough, so are the number of people that spend money to watch them. We see these elements in the stories of the current presidential candidates. Instead of giving us a true, good story to get behind they, like all candidates before them, have digressed into lowball tricks to keep our attention. Is it really so hard to tell a good story of what a President and country could be without constantly focusing on the possible failures of an opponent?

What I am interested in, though, is what diversionary tricks do we, or more honestly, do I use in my own life so as to keep me and others paying attention? Where am I unwilling to do the disciplined work that makes for such a rich story-life that it accentuates the generative instead of the obscene? These are some of the right questions that lead to more meaningful, generative questions and thus a more meaningful Story. As Fr. Rohr said, “The words quest and question share the same root; a man will not go on a quest until he begins searching for the right questions."

Off the cuff, I know that the majority of banter I engage in throughout the Social Media realm is really nothing more than diversionary tactics. And while the enthusiasm and exclamation points may make it sounds sincere, the content is often nothing deeper than a walk through a kiddie pool - inches deep, and uncomfortably warm (and not always warm for a good reason). And certainly there are other areas where the water is shallow and awkward in my life.

Creativity is something with which we are all born, so you don't have to have an artistic gift to tell an interesting life. Even so, it does take diving deep, doing the creative work that is actually work to keep it interesting. We are all going to form a story one way or another and the one's that are closest to the truth are the one's most interesting, most generative, not only in themselves, but for those around them.