THE CORPORATE WALK
I was first introduced to the Story Walk by Art Vitello when we were working on the first season of The Gummi Bears. Basically, the Director/Producer (Art) and the Story Editor (me) would exit the Cahuenga Building (our office) and saunter up and down the residential streets of Toluca Lake. From a casual observer’s point of view, it was just two guys wandering the neighborhood with nuthin’ to do. But in actuality, we were working up the story lines that now comprise the first and second seasons of that seminal Disney program.
We rarely headed out with a specific story in mind. Instead we would chat about what was working on the series, what wasn’t, which gag Tom Enriquez just storyboarded, which writers were really sharp, etc. Y’know, business stuff. But more often than not we started off with non-Gummi chit-chat. “Did you see Simpsons last night?” or “Remember that scene in Raiders when…..” This would invariably lead us to an idea. For example… “Hey, check out that gardener’s truck – it’s loaded with leaf blowers!” “Cool. Hey, do you think the Gummies do gardening?”
“Sure, they’d have to.” “Which of ‘em would be in charge of the garden – Grammi?” “Maybe. Though Tummi is probably the most patient of the bunch. He’d sit there for hours until a seedling sprouted.” “Right. Plus, he loves food!” “Well, the garden would have to be hidden, or Duke Igthorn would find the Bears easily.” “That’s it. Igthorn’s next great idea…” “Stolen from Toadie, no doubt.” “…is to track down the Gummi garden!” And the story would grow.
The Story Walk worked so well that I continued it throughout my Disney career. Obviously this method provides results, because there are two (or more) individuals feeding the idea. But most of us are lonely freelance writers sitting on our butts at our cramped and cluttered desks. Who do we walk with? Simple. Ourselves.
THE SOLO WALK
The solo Story Walk is what I do in my freelance career. It works like this (now pay attention): I get up out of my chair, exit the house, and walk. (Should I repeat that?) What can I expect to accomplish on a solo story walk? Well, beyond the obvious “fresh air and exercise,” I’d say the main benefit is “reconnecting to the real world.” I don’t care how great the internet is, or how fast it takes us places, or how it overflows with information… it ain’t reality. You’ve gotta get off your keister and revisit your home planet. Why? Cuz whether you’re writing gritty film noir or high fantasy or wacky cartoons, they only truly work when they come from a real place. Regardless of the fanciful settings or the superlative special effects, all stories have to “feel real” at the human level – comedy or drama. So when you reconnect with the Real World, you are reconnecting with your true human sense. And your stories and characters will benefit from it.
Now this is probably totally bogus physics, but I’ll throw it out there anyway. When we look at a tree, we don’t actually see a tree – we see the light (from the sun) that is reflected off the tree. That light bounces of a leaf and carries with it green light waves, which dive into our iris. So if those light waves carry the color of a tree, then I like to speculate that at some sub-atomic level another part of that tree – some electron – some DNA maybe – is being carried by that light wave, as well. Thus, part of that tree or truck or skateboarder or cloud is entering my body and becoming part of me. Wow, what a way to connect with your subject matter!
OK, OK, enough of the esoteric stuff. So I’m connecting with the world. Light and sound waves are bombarding my senses. So what. How does that help me as a writer? Well, let me remind you of the fabled “6 word story” that Ernest Hemmingway supposedly wrote. “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” Gah! That gets me every time. Whether Hemmingway wrote it or not, it’s a powerful story, because it carries so much emotion. And it also proves that there are stories everywhere. (OK, Jymn, prove it.)
Fine. Here I am outdoors on a story walk –right this very moment– writing this blog. And I’m looking around for stories. Ah, check that out – a hole punched in a cinderblock wall from an errant car bumper. What’s the story behind that? Was the driver drunk? Asleep? Texting? Oh, and how about those deflated birthday balloons tied to a mailbox? And what’s the story behind that half-buried Sprite bottle on a hillside? Or those Christmas lights still up in May? Or that stray lap dog? Unfinished brickwork? A squashed squirrel? A rock band sticker on a stop sign? 8 newspapers on a lawn? An angry phone conversation spilling out a window?
See, you’ve got to stay open. You’ve got to have your feelers out. You’ve got to be facile. Here’s an example: I was walking past a nearby college one day and noticed that a new parking lot had been put in. Bulldozers had cut a wide notch through a hillside to create the entrance ramp. I walked through the notch and got to speculating about the relativity of time, and how (to the ancient universe) the time between the entrance being bulldozed and me walking through it were less than an eye blink. From a cosmic point of view, it probably looked like I had walked toward the hill and a notch was instantaneously carved in front of me! This led to a spontaneous short story – a story that I hadn’t been looking for when I set out that morning.
Letting your mind wander and soak things in and being open to the universe is great. But most of the time, you’ve got a very real problem to solve. Pragmatically, you start your walk with a specific goal in mind: “I’ve got to figure out three funny ways for my character to sneak into a hotel.” So you keep your eyes open and start jotting down ideas. (Oh, did I mention you’ll need a pencil and a note pad? Duh.) Now you’ll come across many images that you may have no concrete use for (yet), but just jot them down all the same…. A long garden hose. A saw horse in the back of a construction truck. A powerful trunk release on a car. A rope swing. A pool skimmer pole. A florist van. A rusty padlock on an unused door. Don’t judge the images – just write ‘em down. You’re “shotgunning” right now. And, behold, when you return to your computer you have 7 ideas that will trigger a solution.
As I said before, the goal is to keep your mind facile – open – receptive – moving. Imagine I’m writing a show bible for a new series, and I have to come up with good character descriptions (something more than just, “She’s the smart one with glasses”). I’ve got this cocky antagonist named Jerry… and I have to describe how he thinks and talks and moves. Suddenly (and this really happened) I spot a house with a bright red door. Now this is very out of place for my neighborhood, so it kicks my brain. I unconsciously start singing, “I see a red door, and I want it painted black.” Bang, the Rolling Stones are in my head…. and, bing, there’s Mick Jagger… and, boom, there’s my answer. “Jerry is all strut and snot, like a young Jagger rooster.” See, I didn’t force that – I was simply open and ready when it struck.
Don’t be surprised if you return home empty-handed. Story walks aren’t a guarantee – they’re just part of your toolbox. At the very least, you got off your ass for a few minutes and got a different perspective. You readjusted your thinking.
THE NON-STORY WALK
Walking should be part of your routine for health reasons – both physical and mental. As a creative engine, you’ve got to recharge your creative batteries, and putting feet to concrete is a great start. I personally like to read and walk at the same time. (Eyes on a book and feet on the sidewalk is talent you CAN develop.) Or take your iPod and listen to something. (I prefer classical music or old radio shows, but whatever floats yer boat.) Or just take it all in. Look. Listen. Breathe. I remember once walking in Muir Woods north of San Francisco where these giant trees were shrouded in fog. Suddenly, I heard a plaintive horn, like Robin Hood calling his men together… then I realized it was just a distant freighter. But the initial rush of that Sherwood Forest imagery thrilled me and recharged my batteries.
Also, walk at night. Get primitive. Feel the moonlight on your skin. Check out the constellation and think of the early storyteller who stared at the same stars. Remember how insignificant we all are compared to the cosmos. Then turn it around and recall that everything we see and feel is inside us – and that WE are part of the cosmic creative power.
Oops, got all metaphysical again. All I’m saying is that the Story Walk (in any of its forms) can be a valuable tool for finding answers. So slap the pavement, flatfoot! (And don’t forget your notepad.)