Robert McKee, of “Adaptation” fame, has long been a hero of mine. A friend recommended his book “Story” as I was writing my first novel, “Rattled,” and it helped immensely. McKee is a genius when it comes to de-constructing the elements of story. Writing is more than putting down pretty words. It’s creating a narrative that compels, explains and — if you do it right — awes. McKee specializes in teaching screenwriting, but his tools are just as applicable to novelists. And, hell, story is everywhere, in everything. What is the current political race but a story about a biracial boy, abandoned by his father, raised by a single mother and a grandmother, who overcame all odds to run for president v. the heroic prisoner of war? They can argue about the specifics of health care plans, but it’s story that compels.
McKee’s writing workshops are legendary. He’s THE rock star of the writing seminar. He comes to New York a couple of times a year and I’ve always had a conflict. But when I got an email that he was doing a new one-day genre workshop called “Love Story” on Oct. 18, I cleared my schedule and sent my Visa number in immediately. I’m almost finished my third novel, “Cars from a Marriage,” which is the story of marriage told through a series of car trips. I’m going to VCCA next month to finish and revise. Although I followed McKee religiously for my first two books, concentrating on plot, I wanted this one to be more character driven. I wrote in a more organic way, letting the story unfold. But now, so close to the finish line, I felt more than ever the need for the steel McKee provides for erecting a solid story. But maybe steel isn’t quite the right word. It’s more like having your house three-quarters built and then going to consult an architect. Still…
McKee doesn’t disappoint. He paces the stage like Macbeth, a larger-than-life figure who bellows at you from behind an overgrown thicket of eyebrows, and then sits frowning, deep in thought, as the room empties for the infrequent bathroom breaks during the 12-hour class. He announces at the onset that if your cell phone goes off, you’ll be fined $10.
But most of all he teaches. He not only reminds you of all the tools at a writer’s disposal — like dramatic irony, which lets the audience know more than the characters — but that you’re wrestling with nothing smaller than the meaning of life. I was so excited about going to a McKee lecture that I bought a brand-new spiral notebook the night before. I almost filled it.
Probably the most interesting thing about the day was the utter lack of cynicism from this ferocious alpha-male of professor. I expected to see the audience packed with women. It wasn’t; it was 60 to 70 percent men. Who expects to learn from a man that “love is the most important thing in life”? But then, as McKee says, “comes human nature.” That what makes love story so interesting: how love attracts, ennobles and inevitably disappoints.
Occasionally McKee got off love story, and would use his pulpit to rail against Republicans. “There’s a thing going around in this election that to criticize America is unpatriotic. What the fuck is that?” It might seem off-topic, but in a way it’s not. If there’s anything McKee is for, that all real writers are for, it’s honesty. Just about all politics is disingenuous, but there’s nothing more disingenuous than the insistence (a la Sarah Palin) that anybody who lives in a small town is good and praiseworthy and anyone who doesn’t is not.
McKee delivered all the way to the end. I have to admit I couldn’t wait for the two-and-a-half hour stop-and-start, discussion-filled screening of “The Bridges of Madison County” (a movie I once called a “Hallmark card for infidelity”) to be over. My knees, frankly, were killing me. I was starving. There was a teacher’s pet in the front of the auditorium who couldn’t stop herself from providing the subtext of the subtext. We sat through a 20-minute discussion of whether a dog was yellow or white.
But then, when the credits started rolling, the big man was moved to tears by the story of an Iowa’s housewife’s four-day love affair in 1965. He stood on stage, his eyes blinking, to a standing ovation.