Sunday, November 26, 2006

Life. Who Needs It?

I’ve been attending an Intensive Journaling workshop recently. It’s a method pioneered by Dr Ira Progoff, a Jungian psychologist who died in 1998. His method of journalling encourages one to examine one’s whole life history using a carefully designed procedure to make one aware of the importance of certain milestones and patterns in one’s life. The point of this method is to make one more mindful – a Buddhist term applied by the course coordinator – of one’s life and the decisions one makes or has made along the way. The reason I mention this workshop is that I had a blinding insight about life during this most revealing process.

Previously I’d spent days trying to avoid writing down ten important “stepping stones” on my path because most of these moments in my life were traumatic and almost all were not of my choosing. For example, the examples of the most outrageous fortune described by my stepping stones were firstly my parents’ divorce, then my hero-worshipped older brother having a breakdown after being sent to the army; next his subsequent ordeal in an appalling mental home; then his enforced return to the border and unsurprisingly his death which followed a few days later. That following year my father died. And a few years later my younger brother was killed in a freak accident. These were just some of the worst moments on a fairly bleak path. It was a bit of a shock to find that only one step came about purely through my own choice. I couldn’t help feeling that life had been truly awful so far and I wanted to shout, “Life? Who needs it?”

When I reached the point where I had to think about the one overarching image to describe my here and now, I remembered a moment from my childhood. I must have been about five or six. I was standing at the edge of the sea, facing probably either one or both of my parents, smiling happily at them. Being born and bred inland meant that my dad’s sudden impulses to wake us up at 2am and tell us we were going to the sea were the highlights of my childhood. Anyway. There I was paddling happily at the water’s edge, smiling blissfully at whomever, when WHAM! An almighty wave came up behind me and knocked me flat on my face. Now you wouldn’t think that I’d be surprised. Surely, even at the age of six, I should have realised that the sea has waves. But to say I was taken unawares is an understatement. I was mortified, horrified and extremely angry that the sea had snuck up on me in that way. Surely I deserved more respect, my six year old self thought. My pride was deeply wounded, and I don’t think I’ve ever recovered fully from that shock.

Now the reason I refer to this image is that it describes succinctly the way I’ve viewed my life since then. For some reason I’m still outraged and angered by the audacity of life’s waves to knock me over. And yes, I have been known to moan a little about the poundings I’ve taken. But the interesting thing about this method of journaling is that it requires that you engage with the image and explore it a little further. When I did this, I realized that I’ve been pretty damn stupid not to expect waves from the sea. Okay, life, if you insist. After all, only fairy stories promise a “happily ever after.” Yes, I’ve had more than my fair share of knocks. In fact, sometimes they’ve been devastating body blows. But I kept living my life waiting for the time when things would be just peachy and nothing would ever go wrong again. How naïve can one get?

So. A large learning curve has taken place. Almost as large as some of those waves. And what I’ve taken out of this workshop is that a) I have to learn to surf, and b) I have to keep my eyes wide open to watch that infinitely treacherous sea.

Hopefully by the time the next wave comes along I will be like Shaun Thomson facing a tsunami: looking forward to the opportunity of having an almighty ride… and perhaps learning a few lessons for future reference on the side. One can only hope, can’t one?

Meeting the Mentor.

“The second time I watched the movie, I tried to imagine a man who was maybe 6 ft 2 inches, nice-looking, graying hair, delivering the lines almost the same way and I realized there would be absolutely nothing offensive. Women are expected to wrap their request in a special package. On film sets male directors don’t have to do that. Female directors do. It’s the secret misogyny of our society.”

So says Meryl Streep in a recent interview about her role in the film, The Devil Wears Prada. Streep plays the role of Miranda Priestley, allegedly based on real-life editor of Vogue US, Anna Wintour. Watching the film before I read the interview quoted above, I was struck mostly by how demanding it is to be a woman boss, or mentor. I wondered whether some version of Streep/Priestley/Wintour’s approach might not be the right one to adopt.

Lecturing in scriptwriting part-time and working with students, I’ve experienced the phenomenon of being a mentor often. When the projects are big, such as a production to take to a festival, or a film to prepare for an MNet competition, the demands on the mentor are enormous. Not for the reasons one might imagine though. Working hard isn’t part of the problem and goes with the territory. But being a female mentor has inevitable pitfalls which I’ve discovered while manoevouring through this new – for me - territory. To get people to work with you, I’ve found one has to adopt a gentle, cajoling approach, much as Streep mentions the female directors doing above. If a woman is heavy-handed in her approach, she runs the risk of being branded a hard-hearted bitch. On the other hand, if she is too gentle, she runs the risk of creating a new step in The Hero’s Journey, which is not mentioned by Joseph Cambell and Chris Vogler, who documented this wonderful blueprint for storytelling - and for life, itself. This step follows quite closely behind the one Vogler calls ‘The Meeting of the Mentor’. It is reserved mostly for women and is called ‘The Kicking the Mentor up the A***’ step. Male mentors usually don’t have to deal with this stage as their natural authority, passed down through genetic evolution it seems, makes them automatically exempt somehow. But I wonder if I’m being naïve? I’m not sure. One thing I do know is that fairly soon after I have passed on pearls of wisdom and encouraged said mentor-ee to feel confident enough to spread his/her wings for a fledgling flight, ‘The Kick the Mentor up the A***’ step kicks in.

I realized about two large projects/journeys ago that necessity demanded yet another addition to The Hero’s Journey. Shall I call this step ‘The Mentor Asserts Her Own Bony (wishful thinking) Little A***’? Watching Meryl Streep’s performance made me think about this issue again. I realize how I’ve had to assert myself as a mentor to remind said fledgling that he/she can make it on his/her own but the truth is that he/she is not quite flying solo just yet. And the velvet-clad whip – as my latest mentor-ee and I jokingly call it – has to be implemented just a little, though with perhaps less force than that Devil wearing designer shoes. This approach seems to be working for me, and once that very important commodity – respect - is re-established, the mentor can again enjoy encouraging her fledgling’s wings to grow to full strength. In fact it won’t be long before she is able to watch with satisfaction as the fledgling takes his/her first solo flight across the barren desert of the real world.

But Streep is completely on the mark in her statement above. There are few women who can get away with being hard-hearted and ruthless for long. Thank goodness not many women in positions of power have granite hearts. But I assure you, sometimes - just sometimes – a woman will have to pull that whip out of its velvet bag and crack it. Just to prove that she can, if she so chooses. And only then will she be taken seriously.