My Life Philosophy

May 31, 2011 | By | COMMENTS

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After law school, and before becoming a full time food writer, I spent two years getting my M.F.A. in playwriting at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of Dramatic Writing.
This is sort of a funny fact because in the five years since I graduated that program (wow, has it really been five years?), I’ve barely done any dramatic writing. Which raises the question: what was the point, then, of going to dramatic writing school? Wasn’t that a huge waste of money? Well, yes, except for one small thing. It sort of changed my life.

Now I know that’s a bold thing to say, the sort of extreme hyperbole that teenagers use to describe their summer on a kibbutz in Israel (“It changed my life!”) or backpacking across the Serengeti (“it changed my life!”) or playing Grizabella in a touring production of “Cats” (“It changed my…” (you get the idea.))
But when I say it, I mean it in two specific ways:

(1) The practical fact that while at N.Y.U.’s Dramatic Writing program I met Craig, my boyfriend of five years, who was at N.Y.U. film school; (so it changed my life in finding me the person I’ll probably spend the rest of my life with….); and

(2) It helped define my life philosophy.

And while #1 happened somewhat volitionally (with the help of Friendster (remember Friendster?) I saw that Craig looked at my profile and so I sent him an e-mail and asked if he was the guy that I saw around N.Y.U.), #2 happened by complete accident.

See, at N.Y.U.’s dramatic writing program, they’re very into structure. While you can’t teach people how to have a unique voice or how to be inspired, you can teach people how to structure a story well. And so that’s what our teachers–teachers from across a huge spectrum of dramatic writing (writers from “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons,” Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman)–hammered into us. Structure!
What does this have to do with life? I’m getting there.

A good story has a beginning, middle, and an end. And in a traditional story, there’s a protagonist who wants something specific, goes after it, confronts obstacles, faces a huge crisis, overcomes their biggest fear or weakness or enemy to get that thing and, in the end, either attains it or doesn’t.
This formula applies to most movies and plays and books and TV shows that you’ve seen or read in your lifetime. Take, for example, Indiana Jones movies. In each movie, he wants something (the ark, the stones, the holy grail, the…crystal skull?), he goes after it, he confronts obstacles (the man with the whip, the man who pulls your heart out of your chest, the guy trying to push him off a blimp), faces a huge crisis (snakes, the collapsing bridge, his father’s been shot) and, ultimately, overcomes the crisis to achieve what he wants. It’s all rather straight-forward.

But the key factor–the thing that makes those movies so compelling–is how badly Indiana Jones wants the thing that he wants. As Neil Simon puts it: “Until my main character wants something and wants it badly, nothing happens in my plays.”

Apply that, then, to life. Until a person wants something and wants something badly, nothing happens.
That’s become my life philosophy. It took a while for that to sink in, that this thing I’d been studying applies equally well to life. But when I think about the people that I know who are the most fulfilled, they’re always the people who wanted something badly. The unhappiest people that I know are the ones who either don’t know what they want or simply don’t want anything.

And when you think of life in dramatic writing terms, you can start to ask yourself important questions: what is it that I want? How badly do I want it? What am I willing to risk to go after it? What’s at stake? What will I lose if I fail?

Thinking this way encourages you to scrutinize the quality of your desires. If, for example, it’s one of your main life goals to own a Rolex watch, you have to pull back from yourself and study your desire the way you’d study a character’s desire in a story: Why does this character want a Rolex watch so badly? What does he or she think this will do for them? Is it likely that the Rolex watch will bring happiness if he or she achieves it?

(The answer to that actually may be “yes,” depending on the circumstances.)

But the point is, if you think of your life as a narrative, you can start to pinpoint the benchmarks of a good story. And it’s your job, then, to make the story better by giving your character something to strive for, something that makes sense within the context of everything that’s come before. Of course, it’s not always easy to know what that is (see Joseph Campbell’s writing for a more eloquent version of this same argument; he goes into the concept of the hero and the hero discovering his or her mission) but just the awareness that you should have a mission is enough to get you started.

The argument is best condensed by an incredibly simple line of dialogue from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. At his 35th birthday party, before blowing out the candles on his birthday cake, Bobby (the protagonist’s) friend Amy tells him to: “Want something. Want something.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Categories: life