We asked Stephen May, Director of the Screen Arts Institute, national advisor on training and education for the film and TV industries and mentor for creative writing at Oxford University, to discuss his work in helping people shape, see meaning and share their stories.
Do we define ourselves by the external events in our life, over which we have near zero control? Or do we, instead, concentrate on our ability to respond to them with our best selves?
We might think that this is something of a no-brainer. But ask yourself how much you define yourself on the basis of your salary, your job title, your car, the size of the house you live in.
And how much credit and responsibility can we take for having those things? A lot? You think so?
If you feel you’re doing really well right now, what if you’d been born into a small village in sub-Saharan Africa during the famines of the 1970s? Would you have anticipated a college education and a BMW in the garage?
Every comprehensive study on material success will tell you that the single biggest influence on our trajectory is the accident of where and when we were born and the education we were gifted. “Self-made” billionaires are rarely as self-made as they like to make out.
And this damned virus that we’re dealing with now – if it takes your job, your freedom to move, and most sadly, your loved one – if so much of the exterior factors in our lives are decided by the “gods”, how on earth do we sustain any sense of shape and meaning in our lives?
Well, we can choose to live by our values.
Defining our best self
The number one regret of the dying is, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
So how do we define our “best” self? The one to be true to? And how do we find the courage to be that person when operating under the most extreme pressure? Can an understanding of story structure help us?
The biggest story in our lives is the one we tell ourselves about ourselves. But it is just a story. And you can retell it anytime you like. You can retell it any way you like.
You can turn it from a tragedy to a comedy, or from a story of failure and misery to one of survival and heroism just through a shift in perspective. Just by changing the position of your camera.
The difference between hope and despair is telling different stories with the same facts.
Learning to write your story
This is the work that I, and colleagues, do on our YOU Are Your Story initiatives. We work with students and young people (and not so young people) from all walks of life, helping them make the unconscious negative story they may be telling themselves a little more conscious. And then helping them retell and write their own better version.
One of the first exercises I do in most workshops that I run is some “expressive writing”, where I ask participants to imagine they had only six months to live, and to take just ten minutes to write down what they would do with that time, and with whom.
The coronavirus has had the extraordinary effect of concentrating an entire planet’s focus on those exact issues; to ask us what we really care about most, and help us really feel it. Not to get too touchy-feely or anything, but do you think, perhaps, the universe is trying to tell us something?
My background is in the entertainment industry, working for thirty years as an actor/writer/director/producer and, for the last twenty years or so, as a mentor to emerging talent in the film industry. Many of my mentees and colleagues have won Oscars, BAFTAs and broken box office records. Not that this seems to mean much right now.
About ten years ago, I realised that my knowledge of how story works was not just a way of me making a good living, it was a guide to me living a good life. And that is what I now try to share with as many people as possible.
What storytelling can teach us
The primary grammar of story – the river of meaning that runs beneath the individual events that we see played out on a screen or in a book – is the opportunity for growth for the main characters. And so it is in our lives.
Every test, every obstacle, every downside, every moment of extreme depression is, in some ways, an opportunity for us to grow – and an opportunity for us to make more meaningful connections with the people around us. Suffering and extreme emotional challenges are, after all, a given in life. And these things, perhaps, connect us more deeply with others than happiness.
A story only really starts when (excuse the language) the shit hits the fan! It is what happens next that proves the worth of a hero. And right now, for billions of us, the shit has certainly hit the fan.
Stories follow a series of external events, tests and opportunities, to illustrate an internal journey. Will the hero succeed in getting closer to the best version of him or herself, or will they fail and float further away? In life and stories, the external events will often become more and more testing and we have little control over them. The true shift occurs on the inside, from the meaning we give to those events. And we have total control over this.
I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity over more than four decades to make a thousand mistakes and to survive them. I’ve learned some great tricks and exercises to reframe those events – to entertain audiences in the process and, now, to share those exercises with others so that they can see what wonderful, creative, valuable individuals they already are.
We use movie analysis, group chats, value analysis, neuroscience education and tiny pieces of “expressive writing” which never get shown to anyone, all as part of a smorgasbord of story tricks. We are our stories – and we surf on the wave of the same stories that have been told for tens of thousands of years. We are all unique, and the same.
Check out this scene from the movie “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the young editor of France’s Elle Magazine, who was paralysed from a stroke and could only move his left eye. With the aid of a nurse reading out an alphabet of letters, he “blinked” the most extraordinary memoir.
It was published just after his own death – a true trumpet blast of joy for the miracle of life.
If Bauby can do this in his circumstances, what can we do with ours?