Many times after one of my six-week classes is completed, a student, excited by what he or she has just learned, has said to me, “You should teach an advanced class!”
I am always flattered, but always a little surprised. Advanced? I know for a fact that they have not mastered the most basic principles, and yet they feel that they are ready to move on to the next level. Being introduced concepts is nothing like truly understanding them.
I never cease being bowled over when someone blows off a concept as basic—some people are always looking for “something new.” But storytelling is as old as humanity and there is nothing new to it. Someone may have a new way to say an old thing, and that might help the concept be more clear to some, but if it is real knowledge, it will be an old concept.
Stories and storytelling are rooted in human emotions, motivations and psychology, and these have not changed. Until they do, no one will have anything truly new to say on the subject. Anyone who says differently is trying to sell you something. (My apologies to William Goldman)
One can change the form that stories take—for instance, from stage to film. Film was new and techniques of using that medium to best tell stories had to be developed, but stories and storytelling are still rooted in common human experience. This will never change. This is why Aristotle’s Poetics is still read and studied today, because despite all of the changes and advancements made in this world nothing of consequence has changed about the fundamentals of storytelling.
The best way to discover “new things” is to contemplate the old ones. Contemplation is not something Westerners put much stock in—and we Americans are particularly bad at it. We need to know it all—right now! But contemplation—deep contemplation over months, years or decades—is the only way to fully understand anything worth learning.
Someone recently requested that I post pictures of my bookshelves on my blog. I’m guessing she thought it might give some insight to how I have learned what I know. I don’t want to be presumptuous here, there are plenty of people out there don’t think I know much at all. But if you think I have anything worthwhile to say, this is how I learned it.
When I was very young I used watch television shows and movies. I took them apart the way other boys took apart their toys to see how they worked. In the ’70s, before the days of videotape, I used to audiotape television shows and study their construction. I knew about act structure before I ever read one book about it or even knew it was something other people studied.
We were poor. I remember days without food. I remember going to school with an empty belly. I wanted more than anything to have a movie camera, but there was no money for such a thing. One day Mister Rogers showed how to make flip books on his show and I became obsessed with making them. I have no idea how many I made, but I made at least one a day for years. People who were adults at the time still remember me making these flip books. I learned things then that I still use today.
In 1975, I met a kid with a movie camera and we made a Super 8mm film, an animated film using plastic army men called The War. My strongest memory from that time, my strongest feeling, was: Finally. Finally I’m getting to make a film. I was 10 years old.
The first movie camera I owned was this exact model. It was not even super 8mm – it was 8mm. It was a very old camera even when I was using it.
Film, filmmaking and storytelling were my life. I read about it all the time. I read every interview with every director, screenwriter, animator and special effects guy I could find. And then I would watch films and television trying to spot the theories and principles talked about in these interviews, to see if these things were really there and if they worked the way they were supposed to.
When anyone would say that they had recently seem a film they liked or didn’t like, I would grill them about what they liked and what they didn’t. I would sit in movie theaters and watch one screening after another of a film, studying them. I noted where people reacted from one screening to the next. Some screenings I would watch the audience more than the film.
I didn’t know it, but I was lucky in some ways: I didn’t do well in school and was never told that I was smart. I had dyslexia, but no one bothered to diagnose it. I thought that I was stupid, thought that I never understood anything, so I worked extra hard to understand the things I was interested in. I thought about concepts for years. (The only adult outside my family who ever told me I was smart was my mentor, Bruce Walters.)
I won’t recount my entire life here, but suffice to say that I have spent my life contemplating the very first things I ever learned. By the time I teach them, argue about them in a coffee shop, write about them in a book, or lecture on them, I have literally spent years in deep contemplation on the subject.
Once you think you understand something, you will stop learning about it and your knowledge may stagnate and even atrophy.
I have become confident that I understand the things I have studied, but I know that there is still much to uncover on these subjects. Because all of these hours over the last 35 years (more really), have taught me one thing above all others: There is no such thing as “advanced.” All there is is a deeper understanding of the basics.
P.S. Here are some famous people who also have dyslexia