Life is a series of moments strung together over time. A scientist might call these moments a “cognitive event.” I call them stories. We compress thousands of stories/moments/events into a meta narrative that defines who we are. The most meaningful, memorable moments are packaged into self-contained stories that give shape to our personal story arc and mark plot points along life’s journey. We use these moments, these stories, as a way to understand and make sense of world around us. These moments are powerful because they deliver all at once “information, knowledge, context and emotion.” (Norman, Don Things that Make us Smart)
Cognitive scientist Roger Schank observed that “Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.”
Ursula Le Guin, one of my favorite science fiction authors, once noted that “The Story – from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace – is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
In the ICS program, I spent most of my time trying to figure out the academic world around me. It was overwhelming, to the point where I would cry myself to sleep feeling it was utterly impossible to succeed in the program. I wasn’t the smartest student in the program. I wasn’t the best writer, I’m terrible at debate and new concepts take me 3 times as long to wrap my head around than my colleagues. It was frustrating.
Let me share with you a moment from my time in that program, 10 years ago:
While wrestling with some difficult cultural concepts and new vocabulary, I admitted defeat and swallowed my pride as I asked some of my colleagues meant. To my surprise, and delight, they had never heard the word either. “say it again…” my sister in law called out. I repeated the word: paradigm. “Huh?” Spell it, another said. P-A-R-A-D-I-G-M, Paradigm, I said. The room erupted in laughter, and then sympathy for my plight. “It’s pronounced paradigm,” my sister in law said with a smirk, “and it represents a way to look at something – A paradigm shift is a change in the way you see that same thing.”
It was a powerful learning moment for me, as I had just experienced the cultural concept I was struggling to understand. This was a minor plot point in my life’s evolving narrative.
Eventually, I got a handle on cultural theory, and began to see the world with new eyes. The theory I gravitated to early on was Arnold van Gennep and later Victor Turner’s theory of Liminality. Liminal, means threshold, literally: you’re not in the building, but you’re also not outside. You’re in between. I became obsessed with life’s in-between moments.
Turner and others noted that especially profound moments occurred during rites of passage, where young people shed the innocence of youth as they transition to adult-hood and during that time are instructed by their elders. That time represents a time out of time, an axis mundi or center of the universe where the initiate is endowed with knowledge about their place in the univers is unfolded befre them.
A second moment:
I was in South Africa recently, filming a global oral history project, and one of the people we interviewed lived in a township on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. As we approached the community, which stretches for miles up the sloping hillside, I noticed in the dense vegetation opposite the freeway, a number of fires burning with smoke coming up through the trees. “Do people live there?” I asked? “Yes, in fact those fires are camps where the Xhosa elders officiate circumcision ceremonies for young men from the township. They live in special huts for several weeks, shave their heads, are covered in white clay, and wear nothing but a loin cloth.” Is there something similar for the girls? I asked? “There is. During a girl’s first menstrual cycle they are taken into seclusion, and undergo a metaphorical “circumcision” as prepare for womanhood among their community.”
This was the first time I had come face to face with an indigenous rite of passage in an urban setting. I wasn’t reading about it, I was driving by it! My years of filmmaking were useless to me in this moment. They didn’t help me process what I was being told. On the other hand, my ICS training allowed me to synthisize this information and relay the knowledge to the rest of my production team, who sat there slack jawed and baffled as to why any 18 year old would trot out into the woods to voluntarily submit himself to circumcision. I was helping my team with their own paradigm shift, and enjoyed watching their collective “ah-ha” moment as I explained the significance rites of passage play in our own lives.
At this point you’re probably wondering what on earth circumcision and menstrual cycles have to do with my life as a filmmaker and producer. I’ll get to that in a second. Honest.
But what about college? Is this not a time out of time? A threshold between worlds? Could it qualify as a rite of passage? Is it the time when we come of age? I believe it does, and is, and for a western audience, I can’t find a closer parallel to a traditional rite of passage. We leave home, enter the wilderness of the world, and subject ourselves to be circumcised of heart and mind. But there is a disconnect.
Despite the parallels and the potent ritual nature of the college experience, we are greatly distanced from our elders throughout the process. Yes, we have mentors, our teachers and ecclesiastical leaders, but we are out of touch with elderly wisdom. Elders are not a part of the community experience for youth today. Without elders to help contextualize the human experience, I believe we have no hope of confidently progressing through life with an enriched world view.
Now, as an artist, I feel an obligation to make original contributions to the body of human knowledge with my work. In 2010, I asked myself a creative question: Could I take a series of short films, or moments, and string them together to create a meaningful meta narrative about life’s purpose? Could I do it in a way that provided the viewer the opportunity to step out of time, in that liminal viewing space, to experience their own cinematic rite of passage as we watched the film? The only way I felt I could do this was if the driving voice in the film was that of elders in communities all around the United States. And that’s what I set out to do.
A third, series of moments:
In April 2010, I decided I needed to raise $30k to make this project a reality. I turned to kickstarter.com which is a crowdfunding website, and created a pitch for the project which I was calling The Elders. I spoke plainly and directly to the camera, making a plea for the idea and encouraging any who watched to make a contribution to the film.
My goal at this point was $11k and I had faith that I would somehow raise the difference. In 21 days, I raised $12,500 and at the end of the fundraise, I received a phone call from a celebrity who had been following the project online. She and her business partner asked if they could be involved in the project, and what I needed. I told them I was $24k short of actually being able to make the project I envisioned, and 15 days and a contract later, I had a total of $36,500 in my account to produce The Elders.
I hit the road on July 4th, and over 60 days traveled all over the United states, racking up 13,000 miles on the rental car, and interviewing 23 incredible people from all walks of life. A 4 star general in California, a miner/gravedigger in West Virginia, A cowboy poet and rancher in Elko, Nevada, an Ohio woman who spent years in Japanese internment camps in California and Arkansas, a Native American veteran, from Oregon, a broadway actor and singer from Brooklyn, and the list goes on and on.
I began to edit the film in my mind while driving between locations. For 45 of those 60 days on the road, I was alone and was playing the role of producer, director, cinematographer, counselor, grandson, friend, to each person I spent the day with. The pace was grueling, and the days were long, but this project, I recognize now, was my rite of passage to understanding what it means to really come of age, to grow old and reflect on life as we near the threshold that awaits us in the hereafter.
When I returned home I began to sort through the 128 hours of footage I had collected, overwhelmed by the challenge that lie ahead to construct an hour long film out of this oral history mess. I spent months editing the film and felt, on many occasions stuck, unable to move forward, and extremely frustrated with where the project was headed. Maybe I’m overly emotional, but this project had me on my knees in tears more than once, pleading for some help and direction.
Direction came in the form of creative ideas not entirely my own, seeds planted by some spiritual source, as the dews of heaven distilling upon my mind, one might say. I walked away from the edit for 6 weeks, to clear my head and gain perspective. When I felt impressed to pick it back up again, in January of this year, I finished the edit in 10 days.
Exactly 1 year from the time I conceived of the idea, I sat in a packed theater in Boston, nervously watching the screen in front of me, my intangible idea for a film about a series of life moments now a tangible reality flickering away at 24 frames per second in front of a live audience. There’s nothing more grounding than inviting a bunch of friends and strangers into a room for the night to critique a year’s worth of creative output. To say that it’s humbling is an understatement.
The lively Q&A lasted well over an hour and reception to the film was extremely positive. People laughed, they cried, they reflected and they pondered. They were responding to my idea exactly as I had hoped, and in ways I had never imagined.
The viewing of your own creative idea fully realized is cathartic, and emotional. Later that same evening, after the viewing, I felt I had finally crossed the threshold of my own creative liminal space. I was satisfied with what I had created in that threshold, but quickly realized there will be many more to follow as I get this film out to market and move on to my next creative endeavour.
What is your story?
I’ve shared with you moments from my narrative, stories that drive me, and help me communicate my world experience with others. But what of your own stories? Are you working to understand your role as the hero in your own mythology? Are you connecting with the characters that have been placed on your life’s path?
And this would be my challenge to you, friends. What are you doing to craft your own story? What moments in life will define you? As you enter the world that awaits you after graduation, one where “job security” is an oxymoron, you will be one of many with a piece of paper in hand hoping to land that interview, hoping to get that job, that promotion, that raise. But what are you doing right now, during this liminal phase of your life – this right of passage – that will set you apart from the crowd?
I would implore you to begin to craft your own narrative, and your ability to be able to tell it. Write it down. Perform it. Live it. Learn to recognize the power of storytelling in the world around you. You’ll soon find that it’s ubiquitous, and requires critical, analytical, and creative thinking skills to tease out context and determine true meaning. Use your time here to ground yourself in the vocabulary of story and develop that skill set, for in a world where information is free, cheap, and easy to come by, the human family is in desperate need of individuals who can make meaning out of endless facts. Who can solve problems from a unique vantage point, who can create narrative and tell stories that shape lives and provide perspective to life’s challenges. Individuals who can contribute meaningfully to society, beyond pithy 140 character tweets and endless streams of status updates, is what the world needs now.
These skills have provided me with a steady flow of work over the years. Clients and creative partners are drawn to my way of seeing the world, and it didn’t come in graduate school. I began adding these tools to my belt while reading Clifford Gertz’ seminal essay on the Balinese Cock Fight in McArthur’s Anthro. theory class. I learned about the power of personal narratives not as an MFA graduate student, but in a performance studies class and from years of direction on this very stage as an actor by Dr. Craig Ferre. I learned the impact world cinema has as a tool for transporting western audiences to another way of seeing thanks to a post-colonial cinema course taught by Dr. Yifen Beus. I learned the way art and performance can change public opinion and shape government policy not in a book, but while conducting ethnography in New Caledonia for my ICS senior seminar paper.
I don’t mean to say that my professional experiences and my time as a graduate student weren’t meaningful – they absolutely were. But my time on this campus, despite pushing me to the point of nearly breaking, provided me with a sure foundation that the rest of my life would be built upon.
These moments in life define us, but we can shape the way we are defined by others. As you discover the power of your own life’s narrative, as you learn to tell your own story with passion, you will find opportunity comes knocking, you will stand out from the crowd, and work will seek you out.
One last moment:
One of my now good friends, Louise, is a 94 year old twice widowed house wife turned published novelist. She’s featured prominently in the film, as I use her narrative to provide context to the other isolated portraits that make up the film’s 79 minutes.
Near the end of my interview with her, she asked if she could read some of her latest book to me. “Of course,” I said, “I would love that.” I sat mesmerized as she read a few pages from the introduction to her latest book. “Everybody and everything has a source. We all have a history of some kind. Everybody not only has a story, everybody is a story. You are creating your own story every day of your life, just by living.” In that moment, as she read, I smiled inside, knowing as a filmmaker the gift she had just bestowed upon me, as an ICS grad the magnitude of her statement, and as a human being, the true role narrative and story play in shaping the way we think and live our lives.