On Monsters, Destiny, and Trite Living
I recently visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s newest exhibition, titled “Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters.” The exhibition includes paintings, images, and artifacts from del Toro’s vast collection of horror, science fiction, and fantasy-inspired memorabilia, as well as costumes, set pieces, and concept sketches from his own films.
As my friend Shannon and I were leaving the exhibit, we asked a young woman to take our picture with “The Angel of Death.”
Always curious, Shannon asked the woman what she thought of the exhibit. The woman remarked that she felt “trite”—that looking at the work of a man who has accomplished so much in his life made her question what the heck she’s been doing with her own life.
Her comment really struck me, and shed a whole new light on the exhibit. Rather than simply being a carefully curated gallery of works organized thematically, the exhibit pays homage to a single man’s genius and dedication to his passion. As I walked through the exhibit and read the blurbs about del Toro and the themes present in his work, I found myself both inspired and unsettled.
It became clear that everything in del Toro’s childhood, background, and upbringing came together to inspire his interest in horror and the surreal and to create the man that he now is. All of the creative works that del Toro produces are full expressions of the questions and passions that most captivate him.
If drawn symbolically, his life (at least from my outsider perspective) might look like a single arrow shooting forward through time from the past to the present, relentlessly hitting its mark time and time again. It might look like a straight and true shot. It might look like destiny.
Well, no, he just ran with the single thing that most interested him and never stopped.
It reminds me of the various TED talks on the nature of success and the qualities of successful people (here’s an example). One trait that is always mentioned is FOCUS—that rather than spreading yourself too thin over various interests and projects, it's better to choose one thing on which to focus all of your passion, energy, and attention.
As an avid learner who is chronically interested in everything, this has always been hard for me. Growing up, I wanted to be a wildlife biologist, then a paleontologist, then a neuroscientist, a teacher, an editor, and a writer….
Nowadays, I’ll settle for being a fully functional, fully alive, human being.
I went to college and considered every single major, experiencing a quarter-life crisis over having to make that decision. I’m still not fully satisfied with my choice.
I’ve been “seriously” writing for two years now, and I know that writing is what I want to do with my life. But while I will always want to write, I expect and hope that the content of what I create will change. I am capricious. I’m very happy with writing speculative fiction and thrillers for young adults right now, but I suspect that literary fiction, adult fiction, memoir-ish work is in my future. And who knows? Maybe I’ll take up screenwriting and collaborate with del Toro in the future. Everything’s a possibility when you’re a dreamer, and willing to take action on behalf of those dreams.
To complicate the issue of success, there are plenty of very successful people who “started late” in the career or role that would make them famous. As my friend Shannon lovingly reminded me when I began getting nervous about “starting late” (I’m 27, who am I kidding?), Toni Morrison was first published when she was 39. So there’s hope for us easily distracted, curious types.
Let’s come back to that woman’s comment about being “trite.”
It’s a great word, meaning “overused and consequently of little import,” “lacking originality or freshness.”
As a writer, I would certainly like to avoid having that word used to describe my writing.
But as a person seeking to create, I have to ask: what does it mean to be creative or original?
How original can one be in the collective conversation of a society where so many stories follow the same tried-and-true methods, echoing well worn and often much-beloved literary tropes?
There are numerous recognizable character archetypes in fiction, from those first memorialized in classical literature—the hero, the villain, the mentor, the damsel—to the tropes running rampant in current pop culture—the eye candy, the bad boy, and the comic relief, to name just a few.
The structure of a good story itself has been analyzed and distilled to its finest essence, most notably in the archetype of The Hero’s Journey, but also in more modern configurations, such as “The Nutshell Technique.” Contemporary writing craft books have lots of suggestions and formulas on how to write a “satisfying” story, one that will leave the reader thrilled by some fresh spins on old story forms that are comforting in their familiarity.
Often, it seems, the most popular books are the ones that adhere to those tried-and-true standards, the old standbys, the security blankets, while truly avant-garde and daring works are lauded but rarely picked up for sheer pleasure.
I suppose it comes down to a writer’s audience and how she wants to leave her readers feeling—comforted and satisfied, or all shook up and unsettled.
But what I really think, and I have a feeling del Toro would agree with me on this, is that it’s never a good idea to base what you create on some imagined audience. People are capricious and hard to please. I am capricious and hard to please. But it’s much easier, and much more fun, to please myself. Chances are someone else out there will get a kick out of what I happen to enjoy creating.
Some day, I’ll discover my niche. I’ll find the story that only I can tell. I’ll figure out what I really want to say to the world and how to best say it. Perhaps at that time, I’ll look back and discover I had my own straight-and-true arrow that shot through my life and led me to a part-destined, part-created future.
In the meantime, I’m enjoying myself.
I said previously that the Guillermo del Toro exhibit left me both inspired and unsettled. And I am unsettled. I am disturbed. I am shaken. But this is a good thing. It keeps me on my toes, keeps me paying attention and alert. Focused.