Early this week I was supposed to finish writing “Story of G”. Instead, our latest Netflix DVD came in the mail, and Dear Wife and I decided to sit down and watch “Where the Wild Things Are” together. Doubtless you will see this decision reflected in my weekly writing progress recap.
I have to say, “Where the Wild Things Are” touched me deeply, at an emotional level. And it made me think – about myself, my history, and my writing.
Let me clarify this: I am not writing a review of “Where the Wild Things Are”. Although, if I had to, I’d give the film an “A” (but not an “A+”). But I am going to reference the film, and so this may be a little spoilery if you haven’t seen it (it came out in late 2009 so there the statute of limitations has passed).
“Where the Wild Things Are” is not a movie for children – certainly children can watch it, as there is nothing offensive or truly terrifying or too mature in the movie, but they may be unlikely fully to grasp, and especially to appreciate, the movie for what it is, even if it is based on a famous children’s picture book. The director, Spike Jonze, is quoted as saying it is a movie “about childhood”. That’s true – it is about childhood, as seen through the refractive glass of adult introspection – but it is about something more than that. It’s about our relationships to one-another, our emotions, and how we sometimes let the strongest of those emotions harm the relationships we have with those we love most. It’s about loneliness and the pain of separation and loss. It’s about existential angst, primal fear. And it’s about the stories we tell ourselves, the inner lives we invent, to cope with it all.
In that latter way, it’s about being a writer.
Maybe that’s a lot of deep theme for a movie that’s based on a picture book that’s about ten or twenty pages long (with as many sentences). The original children’s book is a simple (and yet deceptively deep) examination of a child’s anger and the realization of loneliness that results, with a narratively satisfying resolution that reunites loved ones. The movie expands on that tale with a closer examination both of the world of the Wild Things themselves – effectively a group of enormous children with “jaws that bite and claws that catch” – as well as a more nuanced understanding of the source of protagonist Max’s anger and angst. (The trials of a child in a single-parent home with an absent father – either dead or divorced. A teacher at school who thinks its okay to go on at length about the eventual destructive demise of the sun. But that’s okay, because human beings will have extinctioned each other to death long before that happens, with some combination of famine, global warming and maybe nuclear war or somesuch. Worst. Teacher. Ever. A mother who’s working hard and brings the work home, and who’s trying to have something resembling a romance in her life, leaving her too little time for her children. And so on.) Max’s reaction to these pressures is predictably juvenile – and that was the focus of the original book, after all.
I wasn’t raised in a single-parent family. And I never acted out my frustrations in such an aggressive or violent manner. But I have done stupid things, hurtful things that have harmed my relationships with those that I love – not only in my childhood but in my adulthood. I continually regret those things, and the memory of them always haunts me, and will undoubtedly follow me to my grave. And, like Max, I have escaped into stories, hiding from myself and from the world. Stories about myself and stories about invented people in imaginary places and times. I have been the true king and savior of a bizarre dream world, the only one able to defend it against forces both malignant and powerful. It comes as no surprise, but is nonetheless a poignant revelation, that I was both savior and destroyer – that both the good and the evil in my imagined worlds had their shared source within me.
So it is with Max of Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are”. He comes to recognize in the monsters reflections of himself, both in their good and their bad, in the ways they are endearing and the ways they are frightening.
To really understand Max’s story, however, you have to have dodged the “jaded and cynical” bullet that so often strikes with age. You have to be open to difficult emotional truths. You have to be able to embrace aspects of your life that are uncomfortable, and do it honestly, and to its fullest extent, both the good and the bad. If you’re too cynical, you’ll look on this story as a sorry attempt to pull on heartstrings that you no longer have. A writer trying to tell stories has to have the same ability.
When Max arrives in the land of the Wild Things, he tells them a story about himself – of his encounters with Vikings, and his magical powers, and of his being made a king. And the Wild Things, being children and basically without guile, accept his story at face value. But we who are adults can see the truth, the painful moments in his past that gave rise to this self-aggrandizing narrative. But the real story Max is telling is not the one about Vikings and magic powers and kings. It’s the one about the monsters inside himself – the ones who are hurt and lonely and act out dangerously, the ones who can kill without meaning to. His real story is the story he’s telling himself, the one that exposes him to his own painful truths.
When I wrote my essay entitled “Write What You (don’t) Know“, in which I tackled that old writing advice, I reached this conclusion: that the only thing that we “know”, the only truth that we can write that will truly engage audiences, is the truth of our own feelings and emotional experiences. Everything else can be researched or made up, but the depths of our emotions are the only thing that’s real that we bring to our stories. And we have to be able to access the full range of our emotional experiences – both the positive and the negative – and be willing to embrace that aspect of ourselves that makes us uncomfortable, even frightened.
If you haven’t seen “Where the Wild Things Are”, I encourage you to give it a watch. And if you have seen it, and you’re a writer, I encourage you to consider watching it again – and this time with your critical writer’s hat on. I encourage you to consider to explore your past, your emotions, your triumphs and your mistakes, your moments of glory and your moments of despair, and channel that into your writing. Discover your own inner demons and your own better angels, and make them your own Wild Things.