How I went from paralyzed to energized: Living in a Movie! (PART 1)

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Photo by  Jeremy Yap

Photo by Jeremy Yap

Here’s the setting for what my story looked like a few years ago:

I live in Manhattan. I’m 19 years old, working most days of the week at Junior’s Cheesecake in Times Square, struggling to make rent. I’m dreaming of being an actor, but I’m totally paralyzed. I have energy and fiery passion but no clue how or where to direct them, and I seem incapable of taking any meaningful action towards what I actually want in life.

To use a metaphor my best friend (and Xernai team member) Ethan Ferris thought of :

I’m like a beautiful moon-bound spaceship:

- ready to take off !

- fueled up !

- my coordinates are mapped !

But my brakes are firmly fixed in place.  I rev my engines furiously, but I’m unwilling to launch.

I’m getting overheated, and feeling deep frustration.

I’m so afraid of not meeting my own expectations that my potential is floating around in outer space, fruitless, hopefully waiting for me to truly reach for it - to “follow my bliss” as Joseph Campbell put it.

I am, in a word: deactivated.

Some weeks, honest to god, the closest I come into contact with my artistic self is when I perform card tricks for the Mexican cooks during my dinner break.  One of the (distressingly few) other connections that I have to my art is studying film script analysis every Thursday evening at The New School. (Side note: The New School is now over 130 years old. I think they should consider a name change.)

This education in film will end up helping me later on, in unexpected ways…

At this point in the story it’s about a half-a-year after my decision to drop out of the acting school I had been attending. I made the choice to leave because I felt that it was a toxic environment for a young artist, so I took the risk to go out on my own. But I didn’t come up with a real plan before I left, and now I felt like I had the pressure of my whole future on my shoulders, an immense weight which was psychologically crushing me. I’m suffering, and not just mentally. I’m getting these mysterious headaches and nosebleeds almost every day, and I find myself really struggling with dark levels of depression. I feel awful most of the time, and suicidal some of the time.

I will never forget one life-changing afternoon when my mom came to visit me- we are sitting at an outside table of a little breakfast place on 46th street. Taxis pass by, the city swirls around us unsympathetically. I am slumped over, exhausted, bitterly casting out ugly words, reasons for why I hate my life and the world it takes place in.

My mother looks at me with gentle but intense concern and says,

“Will, I don’t even recognize you like this. The energetic and creative person I know you to be... he’s totally missing. I don’t know what to do with this person sitting across from me right now...”

(I would be surprised if these were her exact words to me, but it’s how I remember it.)

These sentences, from my own mother’s mouth, seep in and begin stirring up a question within me:

How did I get to this moment and to feeling so utterly paralyzed?

Photo by  Ian Espinosa

Photo by Ian Espinosa

***

It isn’t until a few more difficult months that my story arrives at a turning point. Through my roommate's father, I learned about a three-day “story intensive masterclass” that was going to be held in one of the major hotels in Times Square. I’d never heard of “John Truby, famous Hollywood script doctor”, but something called me to it, and I budgeted to save up enough to buy a seat.

I could never have guessed how important a decision I had just made.

Mr. Truby made the whole world new to me again.

His teachings and ideas about story entered my mind and opened it. I moved into a state of childlike wonder that I hadn’t experienced for a long time.

I can only describe it as a feeling of being… activated.

He explained the difficulties of starting a story out with a “purposeless hero”, and that if a writer wanted this type of story to become engaging they would need to introduce a strong desire early on, and have the character take new actions to actively pursue it. I had an out-of-body experience as I saw the circumstances of my life situation reduced to a way to get the audience to care about the character before he gets moving into the real story.

I started looking at everything in my life through a shiny new pair of eyes - through the frame that “it’s all a story.” Suddenly, I saw nature’s vicious compositional intelligence reflecting in everything around me. To say that in a less wordy way: I could see beauty and structure, a type of artistry and order, present in every aspect of life around me - even the usually chaotic elements, like nature.

It was a process of at first seeing story elements scattered here and there, and then observing them with increasing frequency. First, I noticed how every group had its hierarchy. the leader, the best friend who supports the hero, the jester or comedian of the group, and on and on. Then, I also saw that any member of any hierarchy could be the hero, a great story could grow from anyone’s perspective. I became more empathic and wise.

I noticed how the situations in my friends’ lives seemed to mirror their own personal weaknesses and needs as “characters”, and how their stories were being illustrated through events and metaphors in their lives.  Even chaotic and painful situations seemed to guide them towards needed lessons and opportunities for growth. For instance, a friend was struggling with speaking up for herself, and yet somehow she never considered that it could have been be linked to why she kept losing her voice.

I noticed, and for the first time could truly acknowledge, how the difficulties in my past had all been catalysts to my making new decisions and changes in my life. I just kept noticing and noticing. It was all around me, I just had to look!

To phrase it in perhaps a more poetic way:

I realized that stories weren’t mimicking life, but that stories were actually the very basic structural materials from which life was building and expressing itself.

This wasn’t just a fun shift in vision, but a profound new way of understanding my life. I’ve had many difficult periods since this time, but the fundamental feeling of being re-awakened at this moment has never fully left me.

In a good story the characters can only grow when they have challenges. With the lens of being a main character, every difficult moment in your story can have its place, can feel justified. In fact, every aspect of every moment can feel important.

I’ve started to think about how much work goes into every shot of a film. There isn’t a single moment that doesn’t have the potential to be meaningful. Even if it’s just standing in your kitchen, for example. Think of all the “set designers” who collaborated to give you this space to play in and to be alive in this moment - it simply wouldn’t be present in your film if there wasn’t something of significance that it could offer to you.

No matter what has happened or could happen in your life, there is always the possibility for meaning.

A movie is just a big collection of individual shots, moments made from sound and light, sequenced so that it’s as if it could never have been any other way. Once we notice our lives as moments of meaning, we start to gain a momentum forward that can not only make taking action possible, but exhilarating.

***

So my character change was: “A purposeless hero discovers the beauty of his story which frees him from paralysis.”

The moment my ability to take action matched my desire to do so was the moment that my brakes got released. I stopped being so afraid of failure because I now knew that I could leverage it to learn and grow.

I shook off the paralysis, and started becoming a character in movement.  

The spaceship could take off.

Photo by  NASA

Photo by NASA

Enchantedly yours,

~ Will Swyers!