There is a scene in my play, “The Homecoming Tree” where a 13 year old boy cuts down a tree for Christmas and it falls on top of him. It knocks him out and he has a vision of his father from whom he has heard nothing since the bombing of Pearl Harbor ten days before. It is a moving and chilling scene in the midst of this play and it serves as a turning point in the boy’s life as he realizes he must put aside childish things and become a young man.
That incident is based on a true story. I wrote about my own experience cutting down a tree for Christmas at the age of 11 here. I have written well over 100 plays since 1989 and on reviewing these plays, I realize I have imbedded within these stories bits and pieces of my own life story. Characters emerged based on real people from my life experiences. Ideas and messages surfaced based on my own life lessons. Such is the life of a writer. Often, whether or not we realize it, we bring to our stories pieces of our life. Sometimes, this is conscious. Other times purely subconscious.
My wife does not like serious movies. She only goes to a movie that will make her laugh. Yesterday, she asked if we could go see “Saving Mr. Banks”. And so, I, my wife, and my daughter Casey found ourselves in a crowded theater on a Sunday evening expecting to watch a light hearted movie about Walt Disney and P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books.
We went through more than three wads of napkins. In fact, if we had brought a box of tissue with us, it would have been inadequate. I was totally unprepared for the story that played out on the screen. In short, it was depressing, uplifting, sorrowful, and joyful. I went through a dozen roller coaster moments. And, it was easily the most wonderful film I have seen in the last year.
“Saving Mr. Banks” focuses on P. L. Travers’ childhood and the influence of her father on her imagination and her life. From what I gather from the film and from reading about her, she was not a happy person. And, she was totally against Disney’s “Disneyfication” of her books. What makes the movie stand out is not Emma Thompson’s magnificent portrayal of Travers or Tom Hanks’ very serviceable portrayal of Walt Disney. Rather it is the growing realization by Travers of what her books are REALLY all about.
Now, this may sound strange to the non-writer. How can you write a book and not know what it is all about? How can you tell a story and not see all of the nuances, the sub-texts, the messages hidden within the story?
My first book, “The 13th Demon: Altar of the Spiral Eye” is a straight forward supernatural thriller about the influence of good and evil in our lives. It centers around demons and angels and the humans caught in the midst of this spiritual battle. I created a villain, a rich, manipulative corrupt businessmen, Robert Ketrick. I was stunned when a life long friend of mine read the book and commented, “I get what the book was all about. It was about greed and avarice. Your demons were metaphors for the way in which a love of money damages people.”
What? No, that was never my intent. My demons were not figurative. They were literal, real destructive beings in the book. They were NOT metaphors! However, if the story did have that message for this particular reader and it made him think about the destructive power of greed, then I did do some good with the book.
After seeing this movie, I stopped and asked myself if my first book was about greed after all. Did I subconsciously associate wealth with evil? Do I see rich people as inherently greedy, evil, manipulative, and demon possessed? Good question. Because, as a writer, all of my preconceived notions color every aspect of my writing. Perhaps I need to stop and examine my past and see if I was emotionally damaged by a wealthy person; if I felt betrayed because I grew up in poverty and was deprived as a child. Was that possible? The answer will wait for another blog post.
The point I’d like to make is the power of our past to drive and color the present expressions of our imagination and creativity. Our own personal demons; the ghosts of our past; the “messages” that programmed us as children are still there. I would like to think I have pushed them away into a corner of my mind. I would like to think I have healed. But, watching Travers as the childish innocence of Disneyland brought back painful memories of her father and his battle with substance abuse brought pain back into her life, I began to wonder.
All of us are Story. Every one of us is a story in and of itself. Elements of our Story are our backstory, our background, our past. And, those back looking elements will forever determine our future. The questions we must ask is if the future they bring about is a better one because we have grown and matured. Or, will it be a worse future because of our bitterness and anger. P. L. Travers’ books touched and moved millions of children and adults and continue to do so. If she had not suffered through the traumas of her childhood, there would never have been a Mary Poppins. But, it was obvious from this film and from other sources she was far from a happy person. I did a little research and she died at age 96. Here is a quote about her death: “According to her grandchildren, Travers died not loving anyone and nobody loving her.” How truly sad! To have brought so much happiness to the lives of millions and yet, to die “not loving anyone nobody loving her.”
Look in the mirror, I said in response to that quote. In my own life, the tragedies, the crises, the pains of my past life all serve to build on one another and with my joys, my triumphs, and the abundance of joy being a child of God brings me, these elements serve to produce more stories. I cannot forget the elderly woman who saw the tree scene mentioned above in its earliest version in a play called “The Night Gift”. In that play, an elderly man tells the story of being a boy who cut down a Christmas tree and learned his father had died at Pearl Harbor in a vision. I took that older man and wrote his childhood story for the play, “The Homecoming Tree”. But that little snippet from the earlier play touched the life a one woman. After the last performance of “The Night Gift” she came up to me and here is our conversation:
“Are you the person who wrote this play?’
“I want you to know my brother died at Pearl Harbor. And, I was so mad that he died, I’ve hated him all of my life. And, I blamed God for his death. Well, young man, tonight you gave me the opportunity to tell my brother goodbye. And, to make peace with God. Thank you!”
How could I have possibly known that one cold afternoon while trying to cut down a Christmas tree and almost getting hurt and possibly killed in the process, that incident in my life would one day become part of my Story. How could I have possible known that a painful memory could become a scene in a play or a book? How could I have possibly known that these painful memories would resonate with a total stranger; that the story from my life would intersect with a stranger’s story? How could I possibly imagine that my little snippet of a story would be the Answer to a life long prayer; a pleading for understand; a search for release from bitterness and anger? Like the greed metaphor, that was never my intention. But, it was God’s!
If you are creative in any sense of the word, you MUST go see “Saving Mr. Banks”. It is a powerful and amazing story. It has inspired me. It has uplifted me. It has given me such solace and peace for this tortured soul of a writer. It has made my puny efforts and my doubts fly away like a kite soaring up “where the air is clear”.
Go fly a kite! Go see this movie! And, then come home to the cloistered world of your life and tell your Story! And then see how God uses it to make this world a better place than you found it!