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I feel the earth move under my feet-- Chris Vogler & GIRLS LIKE US

Canterbury house after September 4 2010 earthquake
I’ve been trying to write about Chris Vogler’s visit to Wellywood. And just can’t get there. Mr Vogler’s the guy who wrote The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. You probably know about it, a classic that many writers love.

As you know, I’m a woman. A woman writer guided by Jane Austen’s words in Persuasion: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story…The pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything”. So I’ve avoided most books on screenwriting, though I love Linda Seger’s take on some women’s screenplays, where some linear narrative remains to move the story forward, but action is de-emphasized, and the proportions of emotion and psychology become greater. And I work hard to reduce some risks she identifies:
[S]ome women…may not yet have the craft to make these different models work. Although these kinds of stories can be done for a much lower budget than the more action-oriented models, if they fail, women know they usually don’t get another chance. If they compromise, they feel they aren’t truly telling their stories.
And I love what Susan di Rende at the Broad Humor Film Festival writes, because she reads a ton of women’s scripts each year and analyses them. And keeps right on thinking about them, over a long time.

But I haven’t read The Writer’s Journey. When I began my scriptwriting apprenticeship I did try—briefly—to read it. But I didn’t ‘get’ it. Trudged through a few pages and stopped. I was not going to write about a mythic single hero’s journey. Though for my third apprentice screenplay, I disciplined myself to write a single-protagonist script that worked.

But then there was an article about Chris Vogler coming to talk to New Zealand romance writers. It said:
The hero’s journey is more often straight like a railway track, he says, or a circle. But a heroine’s journey is more three-dimensional, “you have to go deep inside to the emotional levels”.
And I thought, hmmm. Wish I could hear him. And then heard he was coming on to Wellington, courtesy of Script-to-Screen and the New Zealand Film Commission, and to a second small session at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML). So I went. Twice. Once, with around a hundred others, to Park Road Post—part of Sir Peter Jackson's empire out at Miramar. I love Park Road Post, because it's a little how I imagine a Hollywood studio complex might be, and we gathered in what I imagine as a Hollywood-studio-type theatre. Later on, vegan soup (thought of you, Kyna) and a tasty orange slice for lunch, before quick side trip next door to the renowned California Garden Centre, for delphiniums, rosemary, stock, and seed mix. Irresistible brief nap in the super comfortable theatre seat afterwards. Mr Vogler presented a fascinating run through his ideas, accompanied by clips from The Wrestler (the romance writers got My Big Fat Greek Wedding). Handouts. & lots of notes in my wee pink Moleskine notebook.

And the next day, there I was in the IIML’s room-with-the-beautiful-view-over Wellington-Harbour (even Mr Vogler loved it, & I was thrilled to see the white plum blossom at the side window, as well): the room where I’ve had many remarkable learning experiences, among people I love. With twelve others this time: the 2010 scriptwriting MA students, their teacher, and another scriptwriting PhD student. Delicious lunch again, mixture of pumpkin and red capiscum in one sandwich, great new-to-me combo that worked, & nuts, dried fruit, cheeses... And Mr Vogler asked us about our projects. And when I told him that my long-term dream is for New Zealand to be the first country in the world where women write and direct 50% of our features, he advised me to aim for 75% to reach the 50%. Again, I took notes. And wished the session had been longer. I wish I'd heard him talk more about archetypes. I wish he'd talked more about whether and how archetypes connect to emotions and organs and chakras, because he told us that these visceral things are important to him. I found the potential of this discussion much more complex and interesting than the Joe Ezsterhas/ Norman Mailer writing-with-the-balls theory. It gets away from language like 'the masculine' and 'the feminine', or the hero or the heroine, while raising more questions like "What's the relationship between all the women's stories that remain unexpressed and a belief that the shadow self represents the unexpressed?" and "How affected are many women writers' throat chakras by the difficulties they face when they try to tell their stories in public and are unheard, or silenced?"

But then there was the big earthquake down in Canterbury. And now a huge northerly gale here. It’s so unsettling that I can’t get to what I want to say.

(And every time I read or hear of ‘safety’ being the first priority in the south I’m waiting for the not-so-magic words: domestic violence. A few years back, on a government gig, I met Rosalind Houghton, who’s just finished her PhD on domestic violence that accompanies natural disaster. Some of it’s related to schools closing and children’s constant presence at home adding to the stress of cleaning up. This morning, many schools are closed in the south. I hope that Civil Defence has remembered Rosalind’s research.)

The Christchurch earthquake was small by the time it reached us in Wellington. Big enough to wake us at 4.30 a.m. just before it happened, but not big enough to require us to roll out of bed, to cover, and to hold on. The kind of earthquake that I quite like if I’m gardening. A twitch of mother earth’s tail. A reminder of who’s really in charge. Big earthquakes scare me though. Three possibilities especially. Being trapped in a lift. Falling into the depths when a chasm opens beneath me. Or the chasm closing up on me as I fall. I feel a little sick when I read about people in Canterbury being rescued from holes.

But, after Chris Vogler's visit, some quake images resonate with me the script writer. And a couple of words that go with them. The best I can do for now is to show you those. The one at the top and this one are just for context. Like the rest, they come from Stuff.

Central Christchurch

Then there's the chicane, no longer a Chris Vogler-type railway track:

And torques on bridges, probably over Christchurch's river Avon. Bridges that no longer work.

I find the chicane and the torques very beautiful. But the ground effects really get to me. The slumps, the gashes, the corrugations, especially on the roads.

And the pic that got me most of all was this one, and it took me a while to work out why: there's a child, on a day when aftershocks are frequent, choosing to enter a chasm that might close on her. Doing something I'd never do, because it feels too risky.

Yes, of COURSE I'm thinking about vagina dentata stories and theories. And about Maui caught between Hine-nui-te-po's thighs. Working out my immediate, fearful, response to this image and whether it came from fear for the child or for myself, I remembered Queen Elizabeth I's angry protest, too: "My lords! Were I crested not cloven you would not treat me thus!" So the fear began to mix with anger.

And I also remembered Jonathan Gottschall’s findings, which reinforced my general resistance to men’s books about scriptwriting. His comprehensive and cross-cultural statistics-based investigation into folk-tales showed that female folk-tale characters were underrepresented (1:3) among prominent characters, that the percentage of active male protagonists significantly exceeded that of active female protagonists, and that there were almost always more references to female than male ‘beauty’. Just like the movies. Is it possible that most of the publicly storied visceral responses to chasms and splits and clefts are about men's fears? I've read a little bit about women and mothers and wounds, but otherwise I don't know anything about chasms and women's fears, and would love to hear what you think and feel.

After this, I thought again about Chris Vogler's references to bodily organs and their related emotions, and about chakras and writing, wished I knew more. I also began to think about some sentences that Dara Marks wrote:
Art is a process of self discovery that can only occur at the far reaches of one's own world. This is where the birthing of new consciousness takes place. Therefore, intuition, instinct, and sensitivity cannot be replaced with any 'surefire' techniques. But understanding the natural patterns of movement in the human quest for self fulfilment can offer greater insight into the nature of the story. It can also serve as an organising principle around which a creative vision has the opportunity to open to greater consciousness.

Was this child fascinated by this hole as something that symobolised the far reaches of her world, at the centre of the earth? Was I scared because for me it symbolised risk, an edge, a drop, a fall into darkness, which is sometimes how writing feels? And how does this relate to GIRLS LIKE US?

The challenges of a GIRLS LIKE US screenplay have drawn me into a full-scale investigation. Mostly, I’ve thought about structure. How to structure a decades-long story about three women whose lives intersect at only a few places, other than taking a tiny slice of time(s) where their lives do intersect? There are myriad options.

Most simply, there’s Carly Simon, Carole King and Joni Mitchell on YouTube, sometimes with others, like Mama Cass and James Taylor. (A salute here to YouTube, how glad I am that it's in the world, with all its richness.) A mashup from the YouTube clips, one or two of them heartbreaking because of sound or image, could just about tell the GIRLS LIKE US story. Take this clip, for instance, of Carole King singing I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet in 1971. I can see the woman who WROTE that song here. In later clips, perhaps not surprisingly, the relationship of Carole King as singer with Carole King the song-writer just isn't the same. The singer/performer seems to have taken over.

But a mashup wouldn’t work as a fiction for cinema.

In the end, Joni Mitchell did it for me. Joni was talking with Charlie Rose, my favorite interviewer, back in 2007. She lives, she said, in a little stone house on the west coast of Canada, where she paints, and looks after herself. And she has another house, in LA, with staff, who look after her when she’s there. She has two homes.

AHA I thought. Maybe a GIRLS LIKE US script has to have two homes too. The public life where the characters have classic heroes’ journeys and tangle with men. The world where they PERFORM. And the characters’ shadow lives as artists and daughters (and possibly as mothers themselves), where they explore the far reaches of their own worlds as WRITERS.

In the end it's often about luck, Mr Vogler said about getting a screen writing gig. You're there at the right moment. And, "Good luck", he said when I gave him a Development-the-movie dish towel, and a reference to Jonathan Gottschall, links to Susan di Rende and to Larissa Sexton-Finck’s PhD thesis, on a single sheet of paper. He'd given so much, and I wanted to offer him a little something-just-in-case-it-was-useful. But whether I'll be lucky enough to write the GIRLS LIKE US screenplay or not, the research exercise, Christopher Vogler and the earthquake have collectively shaken me up and left me thoughtful at the edge of something new. YAY.


Rosalind Houghton. There are many Google-able references to her work. And here's her PhD link: "We had to cope with what we had" : agency perspectives on domestic violence and disasters in New Zealand

Dara Marks The Transformative Function of Story

Jonathan Gottschall. "Quantitative Literary Study: A Modest Manifesto and Testing the Hypothesis of Feminist Fairy Tale Studies." In The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, edited by J. Gottschall and D. Sloan Wilson, 199-224. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2005. (210-213).

Larissa Sexton-Finck Be(com)ing reel independent woman: an autoethnographic journey through female subjectivity and agency in contemporary cinema with particular reference to independent scriptwriting practice.

Susan di Rende The Invisible (Wo)Man in Hollywood–the Female Screenwriter. Sometimes this link doesn't work, but there's a link embedded in the next one.
Women Write—Then What?
Taking Care of Your Characters A very interesting challenge here--

There was a second, devastating, Christchurch earthquake, in February 2011. After this, Lara Strongman wrote a brilliant blog post about the danger of forgetting about earthquakes, "A song from under the floorboards".

Domestic violence has increased again following the second earthquake. You can donate to the Women's Refuge here.


  1. Loved this, Marian! Nodding as I read Vogler's comments about a heroine's journey being psychological (moreso than a hero's) and saying "yes!" out loud when I read that he told you to shoot for 75% in order to have 50%, shocked & sobered by the photos & info on domestic violence... & then nodding again about the private/public worlds (the "two homes") needed in a GIRLS LIKE US script. A film that's desperately needed. Thank you :)

  2. about chasms: sweetly made generational play between the childs sense of possibility and the adults sense of fear (A delicate equivalence to the generational shifts in feminist thinking?).

    Safety is conservative, more subtle questions accumulating around which things most necessary to conserve.

    ...'thoughtful at the edge of something new. YAY'

  3. Thank you both. And here I am in Jersey, at another edge of something new, at the Branchage Directors Lab, and having an amazing time. Developing "Development" away from New Zealand, a fresh perspective. Scary & wonderful. Tomorrow will see the local dolmens, can't wait...


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