The Other Drive

The American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has eliminated the category of “Neurosis”, reflecting a decision by the editors to provide descriptions of behavior as opposed to hidden psychological mechanisms as diagnostic criteria.,[3] and, according to The American Heritage Medical Dictionary, it is “no longer used in psychiatric diagnosis”.[4] These changes to the DSM have been controversial.[5]

It’s almost like… the function of neurosis — the entire mechanisms of neurosis — is to motivate, fuel and shape, however unconsciously, one’s life journey, even if that journey is not about increased awareness, even if that journey is a result of avoiding pain, even if that life journey produces greatness and immortality and/or destruction and negativity. Here I’m using the term “neurosis” loosely, for lack of a better one, to mean: any reason for one’s inability to be one’s maximum self due to any and all things past tense (including anything unresolved, not satisfactorily understood, inappropriate, habitual, compulsive, reflexively defensive and/or has become a virtual impediment). I’m suggesting that the entire mechanism of “neurosis” – no matter how one believes it to operate, it’s origin, structure, treatment or cure – may actually be built into the composite mind-body-spirit configuration nearly like other biological “survival” drives. However this “drive” is custom-built, designed specifically, no matter how automatically and unconsciously, by each individual being. This drive is the drive of neurosis.

Possibly, this thing I’m terming “neurosis” is in fact the other survival drive. That is, not unlike other basic survival drives such as the need for respiration, nourishment, reproduction, etc, which demand basic survival motivation, this “neurosis drive” also motivates, and in doing so forges a specific living path that along the way might illuminate our innate, unique self. This other drive might actually inhabit if not just inform what we call our instinct. It too, not unlike literal hunger and sexual urges, is pain based. It is chronic; operates on a relatively low threshold, and is never permanently satisfied. But as hunger or sexual desire can be said to be temporarily sated — then the urge to lesson the pain/needs/desires/drives/urges of “neurosis,” through a “myriad of activities,” can also be temporarily sated. And of course, exactly like other more biologically oriented drives, to the degree they’re not attended to, they will reflect the intensity (and desperateness) of each being to handle and to satisfy, his/her more complex and mysterious cravings, of this other drive.

This “myriad of activity” is not quite as easily categorized and identified as simply “eating” or “copulating.” Whereas the solutions to satisfying these two survival drives are relatively clear and simple, the solution to satisfying this other drive is messy and unclear and thus … demands uneasily answered questions to be asked such as: Who am I? What should I do with my life? Etc. And suddenly the very messiness of it all, the uncertainty of what are the correct questions let alone their answers becomes the essence of the this other drive, this mysterious instinct! It is messy; it must be messy — since the pain/sensation that this neurosis drive causes is only reduced through actively attempting to order, organize, understand and affect its messiness. Even if such organization takes the form of avoidance —- it doesn’t matter! It still takes doing! And so the myriad of activity we call human life, not unlike the Homo sapiens species itself, is assured to continue — since the unresolved-ness of our neurosis can never be completely resolved. Consequently, it is our faults and deficits (that inform this other drive of neurosis), way more than our innate strengths and abilities, that, through being affected by and dealing with the problems from this drive, help determine what paths we take and shape who we become.

Our neurosis, this other drive, then, is as adversarial as hunger — another prime life motivator that motivates us in all kinds of ways. Removing the automatic, pejorative sense to the word and concept “neurosis” allows us to still engage in the understanding and/or changing of aspects of ourselves that are obviously “neurotic” (self destructive, less than optimal, etc.) — and do so with the knowledge that our neurosis isn’t simply some infected mental organ that if not removed will kill us. But, with a sense of consciousness that as we react to our neurotic drive we are concurrently creating our lives.

The Hero’s Journey Meets the Screenwriter’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey Meets the Screenwriter’s Journey

Why the F*%K do we do it?
Money? Fame? Love of the process? What is it? Why do we continue to write screenplays when aside from the outrageously arduous task of getting it even remotely right, the odds of then getting it sold and then made and then becoming a hit are…well, tremendously long and then… sustaining or repeating that success is, frankly, beyond daunting. Why do we do it? Whatever the answer is, as personal and complex as it might be, I personally find it not only rewarding to ponder this question, but it’s actually essential to ponder it as part of the (my) creative process.

I’ve been writing screenplays and plays professionally for over 30 years and I’ve been teaching the art and craft of screenwriting at among the best University Film Programs in the world (Tisch & Columbia) for nearly 20 years — and increasingly, though especially over the last decade, I’ve found myself with mixed emotions regarding the entire “screen-writing” enterprise, including teaching it. Aside from basic questions such as “how realistic is a life in screenwriting?” and “can one actually be taught creative writing?” I’ve been increasingly concerned about nonchalantly encouraging people (and especially young people) to learn how to write a screenplay…. if it blindly fans embers of unrealistic hope that they will eventually be able to make a decent living writing anything in the “Film Industry.” Maybe they will and maybe they won’t. Either way, for most people, including screenwriting stars that at least get monetary rewards, it’s a tremendously bumpy and sometimes thankless road. And yet, so many of us continue at it. Why?

So what is it? Among the answers – and there are as many as there are people asking the question – is the human need to tell stories. I’ve observed that there are those individuals that at sometime in their lives had that very specific experience of writing a story and, not unlike getting herpes, caught the writing virus – for life! And then from then on, to a greater or lesser degree, they have this bizarre desire and need to return to that state of writing a story. And when they are not writing (which is a lot of the time) there seems to be various degrees of craving (and guilt for not writing) that simply becomes part of one’s existence like a chronic nasal drip. When the craving begins to really act up it can be as visceral a sensation as falling in love and being separated from the object of your affection. The only cure, the only relief is to get back to your love-one; that state, that zone or womb of writing/creating. When you get right down to it creating a story peopled by unique characters going through an emotion-filled journey is about as powerful (religious?) an act as creation itself. No wonder it can be so damn addictive.

So “why we do it?” might be tied to the most elemental and existential questions mindful people have always asked: Why do we exist? What’s our purpose for living? As philosophers, poets and writers (among others) have tackled these questions, along the way they’ve — we’ve — left behind a path full of ideas and stories that continue to inspire and stimulate and entertain.

And meanwhile, as one ponders and comes up with various personal answers (that may change at various times in our lives), I’ve come to understand that for me, writing and teaching screenwriting has (must have) larger applications – and more meaning — beyond the typical definitions of “success.” Since the odds of any classical success (as in fame and fortune) are, by any standard, nil… by acknowledging this and still finding meaning in our screenwriting would nearly guarantee that no matter what happens to our scripts, the reward of the journey itself, of the writing process from beginning to end, will still enrich us. How? Why?

I’ve had many of my students apply what they’ve learned as screenwriters to other professions such as film editors, creative producers, print editors, lawyers, entrepreneurs creating narratives to sell their products, journalists, game makers, novelists, speech writers, political and business strategists, etc. etc. But aside from being able to apply screen narrative structure and understanding to other disciplines, one can also apply the actual process to self-understanding. In simple terms, one version of this might be to apply the Hero’s Journey*, as it’s often applied to screenwriting, to one’s own journey… suddenly, each foray into a new script project can take on personal meaning far beyond the singular act of writing. And if one can glean any insight let alone meaning in this process, then no matter what the outcome of the project is on a material level – on personal level it’s already a win-win victory. Then the question of why we do this might begin to have more of a tangible answer: because it’s meaningful to our lives.

*A little bit about “The Hero’s Journey meets the Screenwriter’s Journey.”

Supposedly, George Lucas had been consulting with Joseph Campbell when he created Star Wars. Whether true or not, what remains is Lucas’ mythic Star Wars trilogy that in fact follows the “Heroes Journey” as described in Campbell’s seminal book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”

In “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” published in 1948, Campbell attempted to find and identify common threads and fundamental structural similarities that run through all myths and cultural narratives from every corner of the world. In some ways he was attempting to find a sort of “unifying theory of all stories.”

Nearly 50 years later, Christopher Vogler published the wildly successful “The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structures for Storytellers and Screenwriters.” Openly attributing his findings based on Campbell’s work, Vogler asserts that “all stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies.”

After writing and directing numerous filmscripts (for Hollywood studios and independents) and plays (regional theaters, off Broadway, national tours, PBS) and teaching Screenwriting and Script Analysis for the last 20 years, I’ve come to believe that the “unifying structural elements” are not always or necessarily applicable, and/or in the exact same order, to all stories – but, learning the basic phases of the Heroes Journey in what Campbell called the “Monomyth” can be a very valuable tool for screenwriters as well as in the writing and understanding of all narratives.

Similarly, what’s also interesting is to attempt to apply the steps/phases of this Monomyth to our own daily lives as people as well as to our writing careers. And frankly, what’s more important than that? When viewed from a mythic point of view, the narrative of our personal journeys is the stuff of gods.

During my workshop/lecture (at the Screenwriter’s Conference) I will cover the basic 12 steps of the “Monomyth” and how it applies to filmic stories. I will also break it down as how “The Heroes Journey” applies to the film The Fisher King.

But most importantly, I’ll discuss (and Q & A) how we can apply this Monomyth to our own daily lives and writing careers. And frankly, what’s more important than that? I look forward to seeing all of you there at The Screenwriter’s Conference at 10am, April 7.
follow me on twitter: @lpcaplin
follow me on twitter: @lpcaplin

Accepting the Baton of Dealing with Troubled Emotional Habits

You know the joke: Sam and Sadie waited till they were both past ninety to get divorced. The judge says, “This is highly unusual a couple your age having been married for sixty-eight years wanting a divorce, but, seeing no legal reason not to grant it I have only one question: why’d you wait so long?” Sam looked down then shyly over to Sadie who took a big tired breath and said, “We wanted to wait till our children died.”

A few years ago, at 92, my father passed. My mom had died a few years earlier, in a car accident in which my father was driving. At the stop sign, as he edged out into traffic, he’d say: “you check to see if any cars are coming on your side.” There was one. An enormous Ford SUV. She didn’t say a thing… ever again. But, about ten years before all this they separated, and, to my recollection, my sister and I were still alive and kicking. Though, for me, maybe there was a sort of long slow symbolic death, and an ongoing, however difficult, rebirth.

Now wait a minute, if they separated why were they driving together when she died? Eight month after their break up, they came back together. Kind of. It was my mother’s choice to separate and her choice to return. (She had been in a fairly cool elderly “hotel.”) The fact that when they initially separated my father quite promptly scored a forty-five year old girlfriend probably contributed to my mother’s blinking first. And this was, among many things, a game of chicken. A long, long, sad, complex, interwoven game. One that obviously affected me.

In his youth, my father moved three thousand miles to get some distance from his loving but far too controlling mother. When he met the woman who became his wife, my mother, she had that kind of seductive wounded beauty and dreamy optimism that made you want to take care of her. And that is exactly what he did – as in taking care he was doubly insuring himself not to be controlled by a woman again. Wrong, big time. My mother became more and more “ill,” the diagnosis of which changed with the psychoanalytic fashion of each decade: “female problems,” hysterical, nervousness, excessively bored, low esteem, acute paranoia, manic depressive and finally, what seems to be the current default, bipolar. And the institutionalized demands of her state of mind on my father controlled if not constricted him far more than he could control her.

No matter what the truth of her actual mental state was, the diagnostic description always allowed my father the distinctively male luxury of not having to take this woman, his wife, seriously. After all, wasn’t she mentally unstable? And if hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, women (or anyone) hath no debilitating frustration like their reality invalidated. Thus, my father unknowingly inflicted on her a frustration that continued to further debilitate her. And trap himself.

When I spoke of the concept responsibility to my father, he interpreted it as blame, an indictment of himself. He prided himself, and rightly so, on having always provided our family with a warm home and food on the table; for sticking it through when many men might not have. This pride fueled him and allowed him to justify his occasional transgressions against his role as martyr. As enlightened as many of us who have gone through the sixties may think we are, I admit, sadly, to my affinity with my father’s hidden (and ultimately unworkable) logic: Be a mensch. Be compassionate. But be in control.

How “responsibility” relates to my mother seems equally mired in her misinterpretation of the idea of it. For no matter how unpopular these days it is among certain groups to imply that anyone is in any way responsible for their own illness – the reality created by one’s choices through life, can often suggest, at least, a possible reason for one’s predisposition and/or predilection toward that illness. My mother was a victim and became more a victim and, though she fought against it, she never took responsibility for it — other than the fact, that for better or worse, she married and stayed with my father. Except for that brief time of separation.

As a child, my parents’ divorcing was my worst nightmare. I was the one, at least in my own mind, who worked tirelessly to keep them together. I would regularly wait by the dark night window for my father to come home from work, willing his headlights into our driveway. The thoughts in my head were not unlike those of a hungry fisherman focusing solely on his rod, sensitive to every hopeful nibble. After a heated fight, I would make them kiss in front of me and promise they would never, ever get divorced. I would make them hold hands. But mostly I would worry about that which I never saw or heard, but constantly felt like a chronic stomach ache. Who I became, in many respects, was greatly informed by this insecure vigilance in my youth; by this constant fear of abandonment, by this natural reflexive desire to shore up a disintegrating family. How seamless it had been for me, for many men, to continue this role as care taker/provider and to find women who, at least seemed to, want to be or needed to be taken care of.

I went once to an Al-anon meeting when I first became aware of this pattern as a sort of addiction. The room was quite packed, predominantly with woman, and I immediately had that warm feeling of recognition: I know who these woman are; wounded beauty that made you want to take care of them; these are the ones that I had found and singled out at parties, in crowds; these are the ones that were easy for me to seduce; these are the ones that I’d always been involved with, that I try to make life mates. These were less my mothers and more the women who my father would feel safe with.

Although much of the reason that my parents stayed together all those years was generational, the decision to separate was my mother’s. My father was saddened, a bit awkwardly embarrassed (what will the neighbors think?), but not surprised. Somewhat relieved, but mostly at a loss to explain how life had happened the way it had. Wasn’t she just sick and he did what you’re supposed to do? Now, without the tacit excuses that all care-takers have as to why they don’t take care of themselves, he was left with an odd challenge: to try to make sense of a life he had both chosen and didn’t choose. At eighty, he said that there doesn’t seem to be any real incentive to rise to that challenge. To break the pattern, I told him. For me. For my son. But eight months on his own (even with a “girlfriend”) was not long enough for him to really have to deal with himself. To even attempt to understand how he arrived at where he was. By the time he might have essayed any change, my mother returned .. .and, of course, it’s easier to resume old habits if you’re not forced to change. So…

What my parents never dealt with in all of their sixty-six years of marriage was exactly what I simultaneously was dealing with (as opposed to separating) in my own marriage, my second marriage of, at the time, nearly ten years. When you’re over forty the big advantage is that there’s no way to blame the other person. When I found myself in the same relationship over and over, well… I guess I’m just a late learner. And yes, for this lesson to be learned, good-bye kids stuff. Time to grow up. So in a way I did die. A slow route, but who’s counting?

Probably it was the right thing that my parents got back together. After all, over a half-century of habits are difficult to change. Just the fact that they’d actively done anything toward either an improved relationship or simply improved separate lives, bodes very well unto itself. Isn’t that partly what it’s all about: to continue to continue to work life out?

Analytically, it seems odd to me that I’d continue to be affected by the choices of my deceased parents let alone by any comments they might or might not have made. Never the less, even though there’s been a few too early mornings when, in the twilight of consciousness, I’ve found myself momentarily lapse into that terrified little-boy self, afraid of being abandoned — I finally was more than ready to face the worst: freedom for those I love, freedom for myself, and an end to generations of a pattern that helped prevent it. And I’m still married.