Photo from Robert McKee
Well, hello my dear friends.
Today I’m writing you from London, where I just completed the 3-day intensive STORY seminar with writing & storytelling expert Robert McKee.
I didn’t exactly plan on being here.
My friend Andréa emailed me back in February. Just one line and a link.
“Wanna come to this with me? London, May 4-7. Most famous writing teacher in the world.”
In true Rick fashion, my first thought was, “May!? It’s February. I can’t plan that far ahead.”
It looked cool, but I had no idea where I’d be in the world in May, so I set it on the back burner with “things to figure out a couple of weeks before they happen.” Besides, I usually don’t make decision like this unless I get a few really good clues that I need to be there.
Well, it stayed in my mind, and I mentioned it to Joel when we were in South Africa.
“Andréa asked me to go to this writing seminar. What do you think?”
“Oh yeah Robert McKee. That’s the guy who inspired Donald Miller to write A Million Miles in A Thousand Years.”
That book had a huge impact on me, so this was a big clue. But before making the leap, I knew I needed a couple more clues.
I went outside to the porch of our Airbnb in South Africa, and wrote in my journal, looking for a bit more clarity. “Should I go to this writing seminar in London?”
AT THAT VERY MOMENT, during my journaling (I kid you not), our Airbnb host came outside into the backyard to say hello. We got to chatting, and he told me he was a director and used to be the head of the film school in Cape Town.
“Oh wow, in that case, have you heard of this guy Robert McKee? I’m thinking of going to his storytelling seminar in London.”
“Of course! That guy is the expert. He’s the go-to guy for writing and storytelling.”
WHAT! Ok. What are the odds that at the VERY moment I asked for a clue, this guy walks outside and says that?
The last clue I got was that my parents were going to be in Liverpool for exactly 2 days, right after the seminar ended. I had been racking my brain to try and figure out a way to meet up with them on their travels, and Liverpool is a short train ride from London.
Ok, I get it, I get it. I’m going. :)
I ended up signing up exactly 2 weeks before it was scheduled to begin. Just as I suspected I might…
(Here’s his book based on the seminar, for your reference).
"you're not here on holiday. you're here to work. to quote past attendees, the material covered during the next 3 days will be equivalent to 4 years of college." 😳 ______ the little creative gnome @andrea.balt is probably one of the only people who could convince me to fly from south africa to london for a 3-day writing seminar to help us become better storytellers. ___ spending the weekend with the MASTER of the craft, #robertmckee. from writing newsletters to blogs to books to films, #storytelling is EVERYTHING. my heart is racing!!!!! 🔥 #eek #iminschool #mckeestory #liveagreatstory #tellagreatstory #writethetruth #masteryourcraft
So, off I went to spend the weekend at Regent’s University in London, with the hope of nurturing my writing.
First off — why, as a blogger, did I feel compelled to go to a seminar that was originally designed for Hollywood screenwriters?
As Robert McKee said at the beginning of the seminar, “writing is a profession and an art form. A writer is someone with stories to tell – one after the other. If you can tell story, you can tell it in any medium you want.”
I know from experience the power of storytelling in any form — and for my career specifically, in blogs, email newsletters and social media – storytelling is everything. I do know there’s a book inside me that will come out one day, but I had a feeling this seminar would help make me a better writer in everything I do.
The seminar ended yesterday, and of course my clues led me to the right place. I was definitely meant to be in that audience, and I walked out a different woman, and in ways I didn’t expect. I didn’t realize just how powerful it would be until the end of the 3rd day.
He started the seminar with a stern announcement:
“You’re not here on holiday. You’re here to work.”
The workbook we were given said, “to quote past attendees, the material covered during the next 3 days will be equivalent to 4 years of college.”
As I settled into my auditorium seat surrounded by 200 writers and realized I was about to go through 3 intense 11-hour days (9am-8pm each day) of college lecture-style teaching, I found myself suddenly skeptical.
I thought, “you know, I probably could have just listened to the audiobook.” I even said so to Andréa at the first break but she adamantly disagreed.
“No. There’s something so much more powerful about seeing him in person.”
By 7pm on the first day I was so exhausted that I could barely believe it when I glanced at the clock. We still had a full hour left to go!?
But as we neared the last hour of the 3rd day, I practically wanted to chain myself to my seat. When 7pm rolled around I felt twinges of panic. It was going to be over in just ONE MEASLY HOUR!?
Safe to say my character experienced a major turning point throughout the seminar. ;)
I’m not going to tell you about how to create a good story. I’ll leave it to Mr. McKee to do that, which he does thoroughly and brilliantly in his book and in the seminar. In fact, I filled an entire notebook with notes and I’m only sharing a small tidbit here.
What you can get in the book is expert advice about how to write profound and compelling stories that really work — for “stage, page and screen.” And it’s much more in depth than you can probably imagine.
But what touched me the most about being in person with him was the beautiful insights about life and writing he peppered throughout the course. I felt like I was listening to a wise grandpa, teaching me about what’s important.
I teared up a few times throughout the seminar as he spoke, and the whole time I was writing feverishly, trying not to spill coffee all over my notebook as I copied every single word he said onto the paper.
(Yes, my hand hurts).
So below I’ll share a few of the insights I found most profound from Robert McKee in the STORY Seminar.
Inspiration and literary talent are not enough. Good writing and storytelling is not about something as superficial as language. Something FAR more profound beats at the heart of this art form. If you can really write story, you have no competition.
Writing is the most effective way to put ideas into the world. Writers have a social responsibility more powerful than politicians or scientists. As a writer, your core responsibility is to tell the truth, to express the truth, AS YOU SEE IT. In a world of lies, we don’t need writers adding to the slop.
It’s good to have a passion for perfection. You’ll never reach it, but you’ll pursue to the limits of your ability.
Talent is discovering the hidden connection between 2 things that already exists. The ‘3rd thing’ that nobody has discovered before. And to express that vision artfully, in a way that induces emotional satisfaction.
Literary talent is lifting words up to a more beautiful and expressive form. It’s fairly common. STORY talent is the creative conversion of life itself into a more beautiful and expressive form – to squeeze life out of ordinary things..the trivial told brilliantly. This is rare.
Writing is an exploration of life. The best writers are curious people who find human nature fascinating.
Even if you’re writing fiction, it should FEEL LIKE LIFE, have the rhythm of life… people take their IDENTITIES from other people’s creativity. Ask yourself: is this an honest expression of what it’s like to be a human being? If you don’t actually believe the meaning of what you’ve written, do us a favor and send that lie into oblivion.
To be a good writer, you must live deeply and be self aware, yes. But you must also go get knowledge and do research. Read books!!! The cure for writer’s block is a trip to the library.
Facts are neutral. Facts are not the truth. The truth is hidden beneath the surface of the fact and it is ALWAYS open to interpretation. People will resonate with the TRUTH in your story. Storytelling is an emotional experience, not intellectual. (This is why copies will NEVER work).
Think to the limits of human experience.. Write what moves you. Only the weak let other people’s opinions dictate what they write.
Take that humming and turn it into a symphony!
4 keys to writing with credibility and authority:
- Experience (write from your life)
- Imagination (be creative: what would happen if…?)
- Deep Research (know and understand the topic you’re writing about)
- Discovery (go out into the world and immerse yourself in what you’re writing about)
We are matter made from stars that became conscious of itself. The capacity that the human mind has is STUNNING.
In good storytelling, in the time it takes to inhale, you will reconfigure the most complex realities.
Everything you do as an artist must be driven by the love of the work. Good writing will generate energies. You want the audience to go through what you went through to create it. And then you want to make that happen for millions of people.
And the only one reaction you ever want?
Audience = deeply satisfied.
If you wrote well, the audience will experience tremendous rushes of satisfaction and insight.
and suddenly one day, @andrea.balt and I woke up as film students in #london. 💁🏼💭🎬 STORY seminar with #robertmckee day 3: we're spending 6 hours today at regent's university doing a scene-by-scene analysis of #casablanca as it relates to #writing & #storytelling. 🤓🎞 WHAT! this is definitely an unexpectedly cool scene in the story of my life. #writingschool #mckeestory #ofalltheginjoints #liveagreatstory #tellagreatstory #writethetruth
On the 3rd and final day of the seminar, we did a 6 hour scene-by-scene analysis of Casablanca.
He calls Casablanca the ultimate Hollywood film, in fact, he considers it to be “the most loved film of all time.”
When he asked the class who hadn’t seen it before, Andréa and I were the only ones who sheepishly raised our hands, and therefore we were the only ones on the edge of our seats bugging out as the final scenes flashed across the screen. ;)
In our analysis, we were unexpectedly catapulted into another dimension I wasn’t expecting, which brought me to tears.
The story of Casablanca asks us:
What is the true essence of reality?
Being vs. Becoming
Being — all change is an illusion, a spiritual being never changes. (Being = your inner realm, ideals, sacred truths, values, love, identity, beauty)
Becoming — everything is constantly evolving. (Becoming = your public life, outer realm, society, social institutions)
This is never resolved. Life is a constant dynamic of being and becoming. How do you keep who you are constant while you must constantly change in order to survive in the world?
At the end, Rick (in Casablanca) chooses both. To become a man he’s never been before.
McKee ended the seminar with:
“Love is a feeling in our hearts that is not conditioned by the presence of another person. If we can learn to love in that transcendent way, the demands of society and our outer life can’t change that. We, too, can have both. A full inner life AND a fulfilling outer life.
May you all find both.”
I turned to Andréa, wiping away a few fresh tears from my cheek.
“Ok, you were right. In person is better than the audiobook.”
She laughed. “Of course it is.”
Get Robert McKee’s book that’s based on this seminar: STORY
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world…she walks into mine.”
P.S. If your’e a screenwriter, novelist, playwright, or any other kind of writer who’s reading this because you’re considering taking the seminar…well, trust me — just go. :)