Journal

LIFE ON THEME

I've read a fair bit of cynicism, recently, espousing the contrived nature of "new-ness" at the New Year. The majority of these critics take issue with some perceived falsehood present in the practice of making resolutions. The most well intentioned of them employ a line of logic that typically goes like this:

Everyday you have an opportunity start fresh. Don't let the arbitrariness of a calendar define your story.

But, I take issue with this line of thinking.

Life is Story

 
Story is metaphor for life and life is lived in time.
— Robert McKee
 
Don't let cynicism keep you from the change you desire. (photo by Trey Hill)

Don't let cynicism keep you from the change you desire. (photo by Trey Hill)

Much has been written by more accomplished men & women than me about the subject of life as story. I believe this line of thinking to have great value & will proceed from this point assuming you agree. We are living lives that (we hope) will be worthy tales, inspiring adventure and noblity and come to a happy end. The best of them will echo in eternity, to quote Gladiator's Maximus. 

Stories have a few key ingredients — character, conflict & theme among them. So if stories have these things & we are living stories, then life should have these things as well. 

You are the character in your story, therefore you must want something & will have to overcome much in pursuit of that desire. It's this desire that compels us at each new year to resolve in our hearts to be, do or change something. 

Where we are is not where we wish to remain.

A Caution Against Cliché

 
A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change.
— Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
 

I think the cynicism against New Years resolutions comes from how quickly we abandon them. If Marty McFly gives up on getting home & fades into oblivion in 1955, we have no story. If Frodo says "to hell with it" and chucks the ring, we have no story. If I resolve to quit smoking and can't make it to the end of January without opening a new pack, I cut the legs out from under the narrative I want to live. 

When you resolve to lose weight or write more or quit smoking, you are making two mistakes. First, you're telling (yourself) a boring story. Second, you're telling that boring story in a completely unoriginal way. 

Find your unique vantage point on life; perspective is everything. (photo by Trey Hill)

Find your unique vantage point on life; perspective is everything. (photo by Trey Hill)

Don't be cliché. Abandoning resolutions is cliché & stories rooted in cliché are well deserving of every eyeroll they receive.  

Honestly, you are wonderfully unique. You see and experience the world unlike anyone else. Why would you waste time & energy on some homogenized version of a story that you can't stay interested in living for more than a couple of weeks?

The answer, I believe, lies at the root of the desired thing. Going back to my smoking analogy, why do I want to quit? Health reasons? Social? Financial? Spiritual? The why behind a particular resolution is the key.

Start With Theme

 
When we want mood experiences, we go to concerts or museums. When we want meaningful emotional experience, we go to the storyteller.
— Robert McKee
 
If stories are trains, theme is the track. (photo by Trey Hill)

If stories are trains, theme is the track. (photo by Trey Hill)

As I said, a story is simply a character who wants something & overcomes conflict to get it. The sum of the waves of conflict one must endure during the course of a story, in the end, means something; this something we call theme. It's the emotionally satisfying nougat core in the candy bar of a well told story. 

To say it another way, theme is the guiding idea that strings together all the choices — success & failure — a character makes and gives them singular, overarching purpose. 

For three years now, when the story title changes — that epic story of endurance called Two Thousand Fourteen ends with fireworks & a kiss; a new story, titled Twenty Fifteen, opens on a cold, quiet morning — I change the theme instead of making a resolution.

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2013 was The Year of Collaboration.

2014 was The Year of Patience.

And 2015 will be The Year of Creation.  

By starting with a theme, I'm able to determine the trajectory of my year's story. The personal & professional choices I am faced with are weighed against their value to the idea of the story I want to live in a given year. A new year is the perfect occasion for such a reset because it offers a timeline (did you read the McKee quote?), beginning and end, complete with a new title. 

So many incredible things have come about because of living on theme. In 2013, I was able to pull together a collaboration between myself, my friends at Ditore Mayo Entertainment, I Am Second & KoRn guitarist Brian "Head" Welch; the resulting feature length documentary should release later this year. 2014 was an incredibly difficult year, but I believe I was ultimately able to weather her storms because I had built the story of the year on a foundation of patience. 

And now, I can't wait for this time next year when I will be able to see tangible things I made with my hands & mind. More than anything, I'm excited because it gives my free time new purpose.  

Conflict Will Come

 
The world has come undone
Like to change it everyday
Change don’t come at once
It’s a wave building before it breaks.
— Pearl Jam, Undone
 
Like the ocean, a new year serves up wave after wave, set after set of possibility. (photo by Trey Hill)

Like the ocean, a new year serves up wave after wave, set after set of possibility. (photo by Trey Hill)

Living life in the context of a story doesn't mean trouble goes away. If anything, bending your conscious mind toward the story you are intentionally living brings a hyper-awareness to the conflicts that stand in your way. And their significance to the story is rarely lost.

I didn't realize just how much patience my Year of Patience would require when I decided to make that the theme one year ago. In fact, I think I failed more than I succeeded in the story of 2014. I lost my patience many, many times. And the stakes seemed to keep raising on me, demanding more patience than I was able to muster. But, for all the failures of 2014, I am better for having suffered her story. 

As Coldplay so eloquently sings, "just because I'm losing doesn't mean I'm lost." You can't fail at thematic living because even failure leads to change.

If you reach deeper than a declaration of changing behavior & instead choose to let a singular idea shape your year, you will find that the behavior changes come along with a holistic growth that you didn't anticipate. 

Ask yourself what you want & then explore themes that will put you on the path to that goal. Do you want to lose weight? Choose to make 2015 The Year of Fit Living, which will impact not just the frequency with which you exercise but how often you take stairs over elevators, bike instead of drive, the food you eat, the people you invite into your life & a host of things that are completely unique to you.

There is nothing more revolutionary for a story than the author writing the first line. Make a new years revolution by picking an idea you want at the center of your story this year. After all, you have to make this trip around the sun so you might as well be in control of what it means.

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