What is Meditative Writing?
Many of our students have contacted us recently with questions about Meditative Writing: what it is, how it’s used, and how it can forever change the way you view writing.
So in this podcast, we’ve decided to give you all a free 30 minute sample of a meditative writing class with Jessica Hinds, recorded here in Costa Rica during our summer screenwriting retreat.
Jessica breaks down the structure of a scene from both a traditional and a meditative perspective, showing you how you can use meditative writing not only to get to the heart of your character and your story, but also to improve your craft and the structure of your movie.
For those who prefer to read, the transcript, as well as some fantastic graphical representations of the concepts Jessica discusses in her lecture are below.
JESSICA HINDS: Well, thank you all for coming! I know some of you have had some meditative writing experience and some of you are complete newbies. Meditative Writing is about getting to the truthful motivations and most connected writing that you can for your screenplay. So, I first want to make sure we’re all on the same page when we talk about a scene, and what the basic structure is for the majority of scenes. There’s always going to be exceptions. But this is a really great way to look at scenes because it will help you if you get stuck.
A scene begins with a character, preferably your main character. You always want your main character driving your story. And they need to have a powerful want.
That want can be just about anything. “Little Jenny wants to win American Idol.” Fabulous! You can make an entire film about that.
In the basic structure of a scene, you have your main character driving the movement of that scene by taking an action to go after that want.
So, if little Jenny wants to win American Idol, she might wake up and the first thing she does is she practices her chords. And that’s her taking an action to go after what she wants.
Now, the next thing that’s going to happen is you’re going to have a secondary character come in, or force or fractured identity of that first character – which we can get into later if we need to. And they also have a want. And this want should be in direct or indirect conflict with your main character’s want.
So, if little Jenny’s mom comes in and says “stop playing your damn chords and clean your freaking room,” now we have a scene that has conflict. If she comes in and says “oh yay I’m so glad you’re practicing your chords. Continue.” That’s going to be a really boring scene. Nobody wants that.
The main character then will try different tactics – if you are an actor, you know this – to get what they want. And each of these should be different and should progress.
So, if she comes in and she wants to practice her music and the first thing she says is “oh mom, please…” she wants to beg her mom.
If that doesn’t work and her mom says “No! Go do the dishes,” then the next tactic she has to use has to be bigger. She might say “well, if you don’t let me practice then I’m going to tell dad that you were screwing around with Uncle Mike.” So, she’s moved to blackmail.
But her mom might say “shut your mouth girl and go in there and do the dishes” and the girl might then punch her mom in the face. And that’s how quickly it has to happen in a screenplay.
If you hit the same tactic twice in a row, you are wasting space, you are costing your producer money for an action you don’t need. Don’t do that. You can do it in a play – in a play you can hit the same beat multiple times and let the actors play around and find different ways of doing it. Can’t do that in film. You get one shot at the tactic, it doesn’t work, and then the character must change their tactic instantly.
You know the scene is over when one of three things happen: your main character either gets what she wants (Jenny gets to practice her chords). She does not get what she wants (Jenny has to go and do the dishes); or she gets interrupted. But this is the key about interruptions: it better be bigger and badder and cooler to actually interrupt the character’s action.
Because if you’re sitting there and your child is in the middle of the road and you’re trying to save her and then you see an old friend from high school, you would not abandon your child in the middle of the road to go say hi to your friend. If you’re going to interrupt your characters actions instead of giving them what they want or what they don’t want, it better be for something bigger, badder, cooler. So, if it’s not on the level of aliens suddenly coming down and abducting your character, you haven’t thought big enough for that interruption.
And the very last thing is, in order to give a sense of closure to the scene, you generally want to end each scene on an action that your main character takes, which feels connected to the first action that they took in the scene. So, if Jessica walks in to welcome Sandy and she has a big box of chocolates and a bouquet of roses– and then the very last action is Jessica weeping, dragging the broken flowers behind her as she walks away, we know what happened in that scene. We don’t know specifically but we understand she wanted to go bring chocolates and flowers to someone and they broke her heart and she didn’t get what she wanted and now it’s sad.
So, you want to have those two actions, in the perfect world, relate to each other.
I want to make sure we all have a basic understanding of, essentially, what drives a film, which is: your main character wants something. And they have this big want (I want to be on American Idol) and then there’s also the little want in the scene (I want to practice my scales). And that’s what your entire film is made up of: the big superobjective of the movie, and then in each scene the little objectives of how is she trying to win American Idol today, how is she trying to win American Idol the next day, how is she trying to win American Idol the day after that, etc. And that’s really how you build structure in the first few drafts of your screenplay: just following the want of the character.
So, what the hell does all of this have to do with Meditative Writing?
The cool thing about all this is that Meditative Writing is everything that’s underneath this. Because this stuff is great and this is what your actors will talk to you about and this is what your producers will talk to you about, but it’s not what’s actually motivating anything.
Because we know in our lives that we are consciously aware of things that we want and we actively go after. For example, Jessica wants to get a glass of water so she picks up a bottle and she drinks it. You guys want to finish your scripts so you come to Costa Rica on a writer’s retreat. This is what makes our lives actually happen.
So, essentially, we have to say, what’s really motivating these things? What’s the subconscious impulse that births within us before we actually think “hey, I should try out for American Idol” or something as ridiculous as that.
Meditative Writing is a way of going down and discovering what the actual emotional motivations of your characters are at the most basic, primal level– at the part of this brain of ours that’s not the advanced human brain.
If you study the way the brain works, you’ll learn that as it evolved, the human brain has never gotten rid of any of the parts that preceded it. It’s like an ice cream cone with one scoop on top of another. Our brain, essentially, at the very core looks exactly like the brain of a frog. Pretty much the same, which is great because it means we can go back down to those primal elements and fully understand what actually motivates us.
And we can write up from that primal part of the brain and create a story that not only is completely truthful and connected and powerful, but also is relatable to any audience in a way that writing from the rational brain never can be. We can write about anything, regardless of whether our audience has ever experienced it or wanted it, because people are going to connect to it at the primal level. Because on that primal level everyone’s experienced the same type of thing.
Every single frog in the world has experienced being birthed and looking for food and feeling abandoned by their evil froggy parents. (I honestly don’t know the mating habits of frogs but I’m assuming that their parent’s aren’t like helicopter parents making sure everything they do is ok). So, in Meditative Writing we’re going to go down and figure out what actually is the structure that motivates us psychologically to do the things we want to do.
Who here has ever gotten something, exactly as they wanted, and felt really unsatisfied? Yes, happens all the time. I’m sure you have a friend or a family member or a lover perhaps for whom you do exactly what they say and somehow they still are annoyed at you. They still yell at you or they’re still frustrated with you. And you’re thinking “what the hell is your problem? I gave you exactly what you wanted.” Because you gave them the tangible want they asked for, but there’s an emotional need underneath that that was not met that they probably are not aware is actually motivating their actions.
So, it goes a little something like this: There is a tangible want. And this tangible want is something that’s very important in screenwriting because your character has to want something that the audience can physically see whether they get it or not. Because otherwise, how the hell does the audience know where your character stands on anything? A tangible want is easy, such as “winning American Idol.” The audience can physically see whether or not little Jenny wins American Idol.
Now, under that tangible want are a whole bunch of emotions. In fact, why might someone emotionally be motivated to win American Idol? What’s something that might be underneath that tangible want?
JESSICA: Approval, yes! Who does Jenny want approval from in her life? Maybe from Dad? And what might be under approval? The desire to be loved. There’s the desire for fame. She might be scared because if maybe your dad doesn’t approve, that’s scary. There might be fear, up here there might be joy. A lot of people when they go into the arts say “no, I just do it because I love being on stage it’s so awesome, it’s fun. It’s so fun! All that humiliation and rejection, it’s awesome I love it.” Sound familiar writers?
Joy, approval, family, fear, respect. And then down here you get to the core. And this is why we’re looking for the primal emotional needs – because they’re as deep as you can go. And down here could be love, could be respect, could be comfort, validation, or justice. And these are the five prime emotional neeeds. Meaning that you pretty much can’t get any deeper than that.
Every single soul on this earth, whether you are an orphan in Senegal, or you are a crispy lobster Jessica in Costa Rica, you – even within just the first few years of your life – have felt the need for comfort, the need for justice, the need for validation, the need for love, and the need for respect.
And it’s so important to go down to this level. Because even though your character has no idea they’re on this level, you need to be aware of what is really driving them in order to write them believably.
The average character’s conscious awareness of their emotions lies about right about here (see graphic) around approval. Maybe they can kind of feel that emotional need underneath, but they’re like “I don’t want to look behind that curtain. It’s joy, joy, joy.” It’s those little things we don’t want to admit to ourselves. So, this is really all that’s happening on the conscious level. But underneath it, it really gets down to those prime emotional needs.
If you’re doing Black Swan, the tangible want is to dance the Black Swan. Right here at the surface, the main character Nina is aware of her need, her obsession for perfection. And underneath, it’s going to be one of these prime emotional needs—love, comfort, validation, justice– that’s actually driving her.
So, why do we want to go down this far? Most people want to stay up here. And that’s why sometimes you’ll go see a movie and you’re like “well, it’s about firefighters and honestly if you’re not a firefighter you don’t care at all about this movie.” That means they’re staying all up here at the surface. If you’re not the type of person that’s in the movie you’re not going to connect to it.
If I hadn’t gone down to the deepest level when I wrote a movie about an African women fighting Mozambiquean Rhino poachers in Africa, then that movie would appeal to very small demographic. Because most people who are poor enough to become poachers do not have the ability to go to the movies very often.
Nevertheless, this is where a lot of writers stay, right up at the surface. And then a lot of other writers can get at least down to here at the slightly deeper level and understand what’s really motivating their character that their character is aware of. It’s feeling it in your body and being like, “oh this character is really messed up about his dad.” And that’s what it’s really about for him.
But very few times do we go really down to those primal emotional needs: love, comfort, justice, validation, or respect. And that means we’re missing out on the prime motivators of our characters.
Coming back to Black Swan, the search for perfection has honestly never been a problem in my life. I’ve never been obsessed with perfection. Even when I was a kid, I didn’t want to be perfect, I didn’t want to look like anyone else, I wanted to be different. I wanted to have braces. I wanted to have glasses. I liked being a freak. So, for me, if the movie is just about the search for perfection, I’m not going to connect to that movie. And I’m not a ballerina, and I honestly don’t really like Natalie Portman that much on the screen. So those are three things that should suggest “God! Jessica should hate this movie.”
But if you dive down deep to here to those primal emotions—suddenly I can watch Black Swan and connect it to those emotions in me. For me, it can be about the way I felt while working on my second professional script, and how my need to please my producer was so strong that it actually kept me from doing what I needed to do.
You can make your story everyone’s story by digging down this deep and growing it up out of that truth.
Because also, we can always feel these things. We can find these things in our body at any given time. For example, if I want to connect with my need for justice, all I have to do is think of any airline I’ve flown.
I remember the overwhelming desire I felt to start facebook campaigns against US Airlines after they lost my luggage three times in one year… and when I remember that feeling my stomach burns with the need for justice.
And I’m a pretty sane, rational, cool, chill person but when those airlines fuck with me I start getting angry and I start seeing flashes of when I was a kid. I think about when my sisters said “oh, I bet you can’t fit into the chicken coop Jessica” and I’m like “I can! I can! Watch!” And then I climb into the chicken coop and then they lock it and they leave.
And to me it’s about Justice. It’s not about US airways, it’s not about my luggage. It’s about the fact that my sisters, who were supposed to be protecting me, were locking me in a chicken coop.
This is why it’s good to go down to these things because you all feel it, you all believe me right now. You all are connecting and you all are seeing flashes of your own shit with your families or your own airline obsessions and you’re like “yep, that’s me too.” And that’s that great thing about art is that it reminds us that we’re all us too, that we all, DNA-wise, are pretty much the same.
There’s a little bit of variation in what we look like and where we end up and all of the experiences we have growing up. But what makes art really powerful is that it can make a room full of people who are so different have this really wonderful shared experience and still be completely individual for every single person, just by connecting through the need for justice in a really truthful way when you write.
And this is why I really love doing Meditative Writing. Because you can have the greatest craft in the world, but if you’re not connecting down here at the primal level, there are going to be plenty of people in that audience thinking, “ehhh, it’s just not for me.” And not every movie is going to be for everyone. But if you write it truthfully from that primal place, you should be able to hit the majority of people.
People may hate it too, that’s another thing. You might write it and someone might think “oh that’s such a terrible movie. I hate it!” And if they get that mad about it, bully to you! You’ve done a good job. Because people don’t get that angry and upset about stuff that doesn’t touch them in a real way.
Sarah Kane is a playwright I really like. When I first read her work, I hated her. I was mad at her. I was mad at a woman who I didn’t even know was, honestly, already dead. And I was mad at her. And then years later, when I grew up a little bit more, I went back to her work and I realized I was so mad at her because, to me, what I saw when I saw her work was “oh I’m crazy too. And there’s a part of me that wants to kill myself too.” And that made me mad because I didn’t want to admit that part of myself. So, instead I said, “she’s a bad playwright.” I threw it back on her because she’d made me see something in myself that I was too scared to recognize.
And that’s good art: taking things that are repressed in you and pulling them out and throwing them on the screen and trusting that the reason it’s repressed in you means that it’s probably repressed in a lot of people. And now, you get to give those people the gift of looking up at that screen and saying “oh my God, I thought I was the only one.” And for maybe a second, we’re all not so fucking lonely anymore…
And that, I think is the true value of art in general, not just screenwriting.
And I think screenwriting gets a bad rap because we think art is for plays and art is for painting and art is for music. And we forget that screenwriting is an art, even though it’s very money driven and it’s sales driven. But that’s what the producers do. Let the producers worry about the money. Let them take care of the sales and you take care of the art. That’s your job. Because no one else is going to take care of the art except for you and maybe the director. But even for the director–when you’re writing, most of us right now, we’ve got plenty of time to write – but that director is on a very tight schedule and if one little thing goes wrong it’s a ton of money to reshoot: thousands of dollars every minute just drizzling away. They don’t necessarily have time to create art in the moment.
So, it’s your job to do the art so that they can take care of the technical stuff. So that they can take care of the sales and the money. It’s your job to find the art in it because if you don’t, no one else will. And then you can’t be upset when your film gets thrown up on a screen and you think, “ugh, that’s not what I wanted. That wasn’t my vision.”
And that’s why you have to do it when you’re here. Especially now, when you have the time to do it. When you start getting professional assignments it gets harder, but that’s why you want to practice doing this 100 percent now. You want to learn how to do it right. It’s like when you’re playing tennis, you do your movements in slow motion, you find that rhythm and then you can go faster and faster and faster. So, this is basic principle of what truly motivates us.
And you can see this too, you can watch people on the retreat, watch people in your daily lives. When you see that person freaking out in a store, when you see an adult throwing a temper tantrum, notice if you give them what they are asking for they will still be yelling. But if you can recognize if it’s justice or if it’s respect, you can give anyone respect.
If someone is throwing a hissy fit, just say “oh my god, where did you get those shoes? You have impeccable taste.” And suddenly that person will calm right down because they got what they really needed, which was respect. Human beings are not logical people.
Logic is a tool we have learned to use, just like a hammer. But you don’t see people walking around using a hammer to knock on doors and say hi to people. No, it’s a tool. We barely ever use one, unless we’re a carpenter.
For all the completely illogical things people do, we’re not born horrible, horrible, ridiculous sinners. All of our motivations are good. This is why you can see children say terrible things. And children are not horrible beings. They’re going after this tangible object and that and they’re using the fucked up little tools they’ve see in their life that get the most response, which are usually the negative ones. Like “oh when Mommy said this, Daddy really reacted so let me try that one on my little friend on the playground.”
We use the tools that we have. But even though often times our characters connect strongest to the negative ones, like rage or vengeance, the real emotional needs driving their actions underneath: love, comfort, validation, justice and respect are always positive, whether we recognize it or not.
So, these are all things we need, these are emotional things that we need. And everyone, I think, has a different word for what they call their ultimate prime emotional need. And that may be different than the words you see here.
For me, on a conscious level, everything leads to freedom. Now, freedom means something very different to different people, which is why it is somewhere in the middle on the chain from the most conscious to the most primal. For Jessica Hinds, the way I associate with my emotional need is through the word freedom. But underneath the need for freedom is going to be one of these deeper emotional needs, whether I’m aware of it or not.
These are the most universal needs we can access, and the most universally accepted – And I’ve worked with a couple of people in different languages and cultures to figure out what actually are these emotional needs, that for the most part, at least in western culture (I haven’t got the chance to look at Asian cultures and these may be extraordinarily different), but for western civilization, for most cultures and countries and languages, these are the needs we’ve discovered that have the most primal effect. Where if you go down to these needs, everyone is going to be able to connect to your writing, because we’ve all experienced these needs even if we’ve only lived a very short life.
And then you can write up through that need to the tangible wants people are aware of. And all this other stuff is still there.
So, your character may only be aware of the need for fun or their desire for perfection. But you, as the puppet master, you can connect to one of these prime emotional needs. And this is why you need to be able to connect to your characters needs at every single moment that you’re writing.
If you are not connected when you’re writing, you’re not being an artist in that moment. And maybe you’re doing some craft work in editing but it better be something you’re choosing to edit because if you start editing while you’re writing, it’s not gong to turn out good. You want to separate those things – they are two different parts of your brain. You can’t have them active at the same time.
So, when you’re writing, you want to write and you want to be connected. You want to feel it. Because if you want your audience to feel it – we all want our audience to feel a certain way when they’re watching our film – you better be connecting to that feeling in yourself.
And then it’s your job as the artist and craftsperson to figure out how do I translate that onto a page that then translates to a stranger’s brain that would then work in an image on a screen.
But too often we’re focused on “does my story make sense” and “is it logical?” And we forget that these logical things don’t actually motivate us!
If you look at our financial systems, they are completely based upon logic. And how messed up is that? Student loans! The whole system is going to collapse onto itself. Who here put money away in their IRA account this year? Right. Who should have? Everyone. So, it’s silly to have a system based off of logic when the way we use money is emotional. And it’s silly to write your screenplay based purely upon logic. When people go to the movies they are being emotional.
So, the best metaphor I have for this is that most of the time when you’re writing a screenplay, you are in the jungle at night and it’s pitch black. And you just want to get back to your bungalow but it’s so dark you can’t even see. If you’ve ever been in the jungle in the middle of the night, there’s nothing. It’s stars and then you can’t see a damn thing. And most of us in that point in time say, “God, I wish I just had a map. If I had a map I could get back to my bungalow and I could see where I’m going.”
Except the key here is that if it’s pitch black and you can’t see anything then a map does you no good. And the map is sort of that logical outline that you might create. It’s the logic of the piece of saying oh I turn left here, I go right here, I walk 30 meters and then I do this. And I don’t even know because in the middle of the pitch black night I don’t know what 30 meters is. Even if you said walk 150 feet and turn right I wouldn’t know what that means.
So, if it’s pitch black in the middle of the jungle a map isn’t going to help you.
But imagine if you had a string. Imagine you had a string right by you and that string goes directly to your bungalow. All you have to do is keep your hand on that string, and you can trust your feeling to guide you. And you will feel your way all the way through to where you need to go.
And this is like going back to the emotional need in your writing– instead of the logical choice. Because logic brings you to the conscious brain and the conscious brain is very tiny. It holds maybe .007 percent of everything you’ve ever known and experienced.
Why on earth people want to write from the smallest part of their brain makes no sense to me!
Meditative writing bi-passes this tiny conscious part of your brain and goes to your subconscious brain, which contains every single memory, experience, sense, everything you’ve ever learned, everything you’ve ever read, every meal you’ve ever had, every person you’ve ever talked to. It’s all stored in there.
Who’s ever been walking down the street, smelled something and gone “oh my god! My grandmother used to make these. I haven’t thought of that in years.” That memory wasn’t being held in your conscious brain. That was a smell, something physical in your body that was pulling up something from the subconscious.
And that’s where you want to write from in your first few drafts. I think you want to write from that all the time, but more advanced stuff later. Especially in your first couple of drafts, you want to connect to the subconscious, because it’s going to give you everything you need, especially for a screenplay, because a screenplay is all about images and the subconscious brain works primarily in image and metaphor. And that’s what you need to do in screenplays: use image and metaphor to communicate your story…
Want to experience Meditative Writing for yourself? Check out these upcoming Meditative Writing Workshops with Jessica Hinds.