I am sitting on JetBlue, readying myself for the six-hour flight to L.A., where I will be speaking at the EIPPY Awards as well as receiving an award for my contributions to education. I will then be joining a panel at Author 101 University for a three-day event that helps writers get their books finished and published.
My talk will be about how to use personal experiences to expand your brand and will include an exercise I teach screenwriters about creating a “formative event,” a crucial piece of backstory that defines the emotional core of your main character; for instance, the butchering of the spring lambs in the film The Silence of the Lambs. But this is not only a useful technique for creating rich, fictional characters; it translates directly to our own lives as well.
Reconnecting with a traumatic event in our past can help galvanize and heal, and even provide us with a new, positive direction. For example, my friend Mark, who is legally blind, has long balanced his life between “making a living and making a difference.” He works as a lawyer but has always tried to help the deaf and blind, and recently he bought a hotel-and-convention center built to serve these populations. (The hotel will be featured on Hotel Impossible in the near future.) Mark has taken the formative trauma of his severely limited vision and turned it into his life’s work. There’s no doubt his story would make a good movie!
Not long ago, I contributed a chapter on the formative event to a collection of essays called The Expert Success Solution II. In it I talk about a difficult event that helped shape my own life as a writer. I include it here and hope you find it helpful.
The Formative Event
How to Use a Simple Writing Exercise to Clarify Personal or Business Dilemmas
By Professor Marilyn Ida Horowitz
Much has been said about using writing to improve one’s life, and I heartily agree with most of it. However, the advice is often too general, and the goal, which is often peace of mind, is rarely attained. While working writers want to tell stories or report on current events, the goal for the non-writer is different. For the non-writer, writing is a tool for almost instant clarity on many critical aspects of everyday life, a way to solve an immediate problem, to get in touch with and resolve a painful emotion, or to understand one’s self on a deeper, more spiritual level.
I have been a writer, writing teacher, writing coach, and filmmaker for the last 18 years. I have a trademarked system of writing that allows writers to tell compelling stories with ease. In my work as a coach, I have helped many kinds of writers solve not just their story problems but their life problems as well. I am going to share a powerful technique that can be used to help solve challenges in your own life. It’s an exercise that will get you in touch with a crucial, formative experience, and in doing so, help you to deal with the repercussions that experience has had since().
When I was six, long before I could write, I made a series of drawings of the characters in a play I’d come up with about a princess who has been locked away by her evil stepmother for a crime the princess did not commit. I made 20 drawings of the characters and the sets for the play, each of which my mother lovingly hole-punched and bound together with shiny brass fasteners. I had now written my first “book,” which I proudly took to school for show-and-tell. My homeroom teacher, Mrs. Rank, whom I will never forget—a pretty, tall, blonde lady with deep green eyes—flipped through the drawings, clapped her hands with delight, and said, “Marilyn, this is wonderful! We are going to mount this as our first grade play and perform it in front of the whole school.”
I was pleased and excited until Mrs. Rank asked, “So, what’s the story about?” My world turned to ashes. My mother hadn’t warned me that I would need a narrative to go along with the pictures! Luckily, I knew the opening line was always “Once upon a time,” and somehow I was able to spin a yarn on the spot. It went like this:
Once upon a time in the land of fairy tales, it was winter and very cold where the princess was imprisoned. Her only friend was a starving raven whom she fed from her own meager dish. A prince came along to woo the princess, but her stepmother, the evil witch, was so powerful that she had to be killed to enable the princess to escape. The prince, naturally, was good, so he was in a quandary: if he failed to kill the witch he would lose the princess. The princess, who loved her stepmother in spite of everything, agreed that things should remain as they were and accepted her lonely fate. At that moment, the raven realized that he could help the princess who had fed him when he was hungry, and so he killed the witch himself. The three of them lived happily after.
The whole class applauded and laughed after I finished, but I was very upset because I felt I hadn’t been warned about needing a story. Years later, when I was dealing with a personal issue that required therapy, the therapist looked at me and said, “Don’t you think that this experience was the formative event of your life and that all of your work as a writer, New York University professor, and writing coach has been about helping yourself and others answer this question of ‘What is the story?’” He stopped me in my tracks. I had never before connected my life’s work with this early triumphant but traumatic moment.
Later on, when I sold a novel to a producer, I was asked to adapt it into a screenplay and very nearly failed. At the eleventh hour I was saved by a dream in which Joseph Campbell (best known for his popular PBS television series with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth ) appeared before me and “dictated” a map that helped me finish the script. When I woke up and wrote down the dream, I realized that, in both writing and our daily lives, we suffer when we don’t know “what the story is.”
My work as a coach and a writing teacher led me to take the map I received in my dream and create a trademarked writing method, The Horowitz System®, that has helped thousands of first-time writers complete an entire a screenplay in only 10 weeks.
Because my system works for all kinds of storytelling, I have also worked on screenplays, novels, non-fiction, and memoir as a private coach. The method mirrors the way we like to hear our stories told and provides a story map to help us translate the tales hidden inside of us. Telling stories is a way to understand what our interests and concerns are, and where our values and assumptions lie. By understanding ourselves in this way, we stay connected to our dreams and goals and are more likely to make them happen().
A Zen master once wrote, “While pain is necessary, suffering is optional.” I pondered that long and hard—in terms of how it applied both to my students and to me. The answer was surprising: we suffer when we don’t know what we want to do or say().
Without a way to shape the stories of our lives as we currently know them, we remain victims to the assumptions and fears we hold from the past. These assumptions include cultural attitudes, self-worth assessments, whether we are worthy of self-love, and our expectations for happiness and wealth().
Here’s how to complete the Formative Event Exercise:
- Identify the issue or problem you want to work on(). Then, close your eyes, and try to remember something in your past that relates to the problem. There may be more than one memory, but grab whichever one comes up first—it’s potential gold.
For example, if you are struggling with a diet, try to recall the first time you realized that you needed to lose weight. What was the story? How did it make you feel? Were you angry? Resistant? Ashamed? And how did that experience inspire you to act? Did you go on a diet? Did you go out and binge? Did you resolve to lose weight? This memory contains the Formative Event that will become the key to greater understanding of yourself by connecting your present with your past.
- Now that you have selected the problem you want to work on and recalled a related experience, set a timer for 15 minutes.
- Write about the event. Keep in mind, this is not about writing well, it’s about getting your thoughts on paper.
- Reread what you wrote and apply the five W’s we learned in school: Who, what, where, when, and why. Then using what you have just learned analyze what the memory was about and how it has affected you. For example, when the therapist pointed out that I had spent my life answering the question ‘What is the story?’ it changed me forever.
- Finally, based on the new connections you have just made between the past and the present, consider what, if any, changes you would want to make to the current situation you are writing about.
For example, when I first attempted the Formative Event Exercise myself, it was the story of my first play that came to mind, and so I wrote about it. When I reread the exercise the next day I was pleasantly surprised by what it revealed. The clues to why I’d spent my life trying to understand and help others write their stories suddenly made perfect sense: There had been no one there to help me when I made up the story. I realized that I must have received some kind of higher guidance to offer up a story that was so morally sophisticated.
In addition, the experience of being forced to make up a good story on the spot gave me an amazing, life-changing belief about storytelling: Somewhere, somehow, we all have a story that is ready to tell all the way through. It is complete in the imagination, not just a bunch of random thoughts.
I also felt an absolute faith that something or someone had shown up to help me—that I was not alone. As the child of atheists, I found this insight to be a big deal and decided to keep it to myself. I focused on my faith in knowing that our stories are already within us, fully formed, that understanding our own stories would help transform non-writers’ lives. They simply needed to be made aware that we are all storytellers!
If everyone were taught to make stories out of moments in their lives as a problem-solving tool, they could easily take stock of the present, plan for the future, and/or solve an immediate problem. Angela Alexander says, “The process of writing your story can be very healing and therapeutic. While writing my autobiography I saw how God built my faith, which prepared me for what could have devastated my life forever().”
To summarize, the solutions I garnered from revisiting this formative event continue to inform my life choices and have become the basis for my faith in something larger than myself. Please find the time to do the Formative Event Exercise for yourself. Not only will it allow you to work concretely on a problem by looking at it from a different perspective, it may reveal for you the spiritual and/or religious beliefs that are helping or hindering you on your path to peace of mind, a worthy goal for us all.
If you would like more information, please visit my website www.marilynhorowitz.com
To recap: The line between life and fiction can be thick or thin. Most people have had difficult experiences, but the difference between success and failure depends on how the experience is processed. This is as true for your characters as it is for yourself. Try the Formative Event Exercise for both and see what you uncover. Think of the formative event as a grain of sand in an oyster. It’s up to you whether that grain will produce a pearl or simply more irritation.
I hope that you find the article helpful.
Here’s to your successful writing!
Professor Marilyn Horowitz
() “Writing slows down the mind and puts the jumble of thoughts into formation. Whether we are struggling with a personal, spiritual, business or relational mess, writing is the first step toward a permanent solution.” See Rita Ferguson’s chapter.
() “Whether your intent is to write an email, a memo, a journal, a report, or even a business plan, writing is a critical tool for gaining focus of mind and clarity of thought for successful communication with yourself and others in this world of information bombardment and overload.” See Rose Sheehan’s chapter.