Finding the Through-line
In a play, the whole stream of individual, minor objectives, all the imaginative thoughts, feelings and actions of an actor, should converge to carry out the super-objective of the plot.
Every character in a story should have a through-line, the central impulse or desire that connects all of their individual motivations and objectives together. From a very distant perspective, all of a character’s actions can be seen as coming from a single deep-seated, unconscious drive. Although this may seem to negate the possibility of complex characters, it does not.
For example, a character who is struggling to find freedom may be fighting for freedom in relationships, at work, and in some internal sense. But, she may need the support of dysfunctional friendship to obtain freedom at work, and she may define freedom within relationship in a way that constricts her internal freedoms. The struggle to find freedom can then be continuous and still complex and contradictory.
Writers, too, can have through-lines: questions and themes that each piece in their body of work addresses in some form. Often, these themes are elucidated in retrospect – biographers and scholars seeing patterns that the writer was too close to the material to see.
[E]ach life is formed by its unique image, an image that is the essence of that life and calls it to a destiny. As the force of fate, this image acts as a personal daimon, an accompanying guide who remembers your calling.
In The Soul’s Code, archetypal psychologist James Hillman proposes that every person is born with a defining image, a specific impulse towards a unique destiny, a personal daimon. This daimon reminds its keeper of that impulse, but not with direct instructions to remember the deep purpose. Rather, the daimon nudges. It shows up in uncompromising resistance to social expectations, and feelings of dissatisfaction and yearning.
In Hillman’s view, a child is like a seed and can only grow into one kind of adult plant. An acorn must become an oak; it may be straight or twisted, but it will never be a maple.
This idea has floated in and around my consciousness off and on for a couple of decades. Some years it resonates with me and some years I cannot figure out how my current life detour relates to last year’s tangent. But, in moments of clarity, I come back to realizing that I do have a question that haunts me.
The question that haunts me is this:
How do human beings bridge the gap between the selfish, internal, body-bound, individual experience of being alive and the social construction of community?
In college, I didn’t have a major. The College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University has a small program that replaces all academic content requirements with a required senior project.
My Freshman year College Scholar application was my first attempt to articulate the through-line of my life, to connect the dots that are all my many interests. And it worked. I got into the program and spent the next three years deepening my investigations into what continues to be a lifelong inquiry.
But, I am not truly a scholar. I am a maker, a creator, and artist.
This weekend, it came to my attention that my work in progress is dealing with the same question. On the surface, The Red Oak is a traditional hero’s journey. But, the greatest internal obstacle my protagonist faces is that she has accepted her community’s definition of who she is rather than trusting her own lived experience. But, the community’s understanding destroys the source of her power and she must reject that external definition and claim her own experience if she is to defeat the monster that attacks her community.
Two years ago, when I started this story, it was formulaic, but the more I refine it, creating the story that is demanding to be told through me, the more the unique elements that reflect my life’s themes are enhanced. I have always believed that authors tell unique stories because they have unique perspectives, but I didn’t expect to see it so clearly in my own work while I was still writing.