As I’ve studied the nature of stories over the last few months, a few things became clearer and clearer to me. Throughout time people have told the same type of story. There are several plots, whether it’s seven or seventy is irrelevant. Most of them boil down to the same characteristics. From there, they can be distilled even further. In the end a singluar pattern emerges, whether we are talking about the great myths of ancient India with their multi-armed Goddesses and gibbering demons, or a modern detective drama with a tough wise cracking cop or Shakespeare and his intensely varied body of work. You’ll find the most popular stories of all time delivering the same message to you. It’s a story programmed in our collective unconscious.
As writers we all hew to an eternal pattern. Sometimes the personality writing the story isn’t developed enough to “see whole.” They can’t see the larger pattern at work. They only see and feel their own pain and project it out onto the page. I’ve often been guilty of this. Much of great writing comes from pain, but to develop the true underlying patterns of literature, you need to evolve yourself and capture the joy and triumph as well as the fear and tragedy of life. Shakespeare’s stories are filled with wildly different characters and personalities, but Shakespeare could only write that broad assortment of personalities if he could see everyone unfiltered. He had to be a keen observer of life. He had to see the world around him and perceive not just the beginning but the end of a person’s personality arc. Where does a person start and finish?
After studying the deeper meaning of story, I’ve figured out that the greatest stories follow this simple proverb: “Tend your own garden.” Let me explain.
The fantasies we tell when we create stories reflect the essential human struggle: the desire to heal the split inside of us. As the one becomes the two in the Universe, pain enters, duality enters. Unlike the animals we are not simply tied to the present moment, unaware of the past or the future. When an email is hungry it hunts. When it’s tired it sleeps. But we have a trillion ways to satisfy that hunger: sex, entertainment, meditation, writing, battle, politics, sports. We can cast our minds into the past and the future and live in the illusory realm of time, which doesn’t really exist. In other words, we have an ego. Unfortunately, the ego is both our great gift and our nightmare. It splits us off from the timeless present and from our basic nature. Because of it we are capable of great creativity and great cruelty. We have an empty feeling that somehow never gets filled and so we chase and chase and chase. The universal story is quiet simply about healing that split. It offers a method, in a thousand different disguises, but it’s the same method. Stories tell us how to heal the pain inside of us.
Think about it. Why do so many stories end with a marriage or a kiss? Is a marriage or a new relationship really the end of anything? More than likely it is just the beginning of a lot more things. If not a marriage, how many stories end with a child’s birth? Again, certainly not the end of anything. But a marriage, at it’s deeper level symbolizes the healing of the split, the two parts of us coming together. A child represents the continuation and triumph of life. The wheel turns. Everything moves forward again and life begins anew.
So how does the phrase “tend your own garden” come into play? Most stories play out at this fundamental level: The world is out of order. The hero comes to us incomplete and having to right the world’s wrongs but to do so, he must solve his own internal rift, which involves moving from selfishness to selflessness and then he sets the world back to its natural order. It’s that simple really. There are a trillion examples. The only variation on this is the tragedy, where the character does not set themselves to right, they can not tend their own garden, and so the world must set itself back to the natural order, by bringing that fallen personality to an untimely end, usually violent.
When the world is out of whack, it can be on a large or small scale, a household in turmoil or a world at war. But in order the win against the forces of chaos, the hero must get his own house in order. He must develop the ability over the course of the story to see whole. The ego and its perpetual selfishness is always blind in some way. It believe it sees all the angles, but it only sees attack and defense. It sees problems. When it has no problems it creates problems for you. The hero must transcend his ego and find the basic heroic traits you’ll find in all heroes: selflessness, responsibility, follow through, strength of mind and character, humility. As the hero learns these life lessons he is able to see the path to fixing the world. Then just as he finds the answers to his own questions, he can see clearly what to do. He is the master, invincible against whatever stands unjustly in his way. Whether he finally now has the courage to walk away from a bad relationship or whether he shoots a dragon out of the sky with a magic bow, he now knows exactly what to do in the moment of crisis. The world is saved. The forces of violence and death are destroyed. Life is renewed, as a new couple unites, as a child is born and the cycle of life continues, as the army is vanquished and balance is restored. Life springs again from the ashes, as the monster crashes to the Earth. Thus we have the essential essence of all stories. Tend your own garden and the world will follow.