Story Lessons from David Lynch
David Lynch is certainly a master storyteller. His process is very intuitive, and some of his movies feel like dreams, so you might feel that his process would be hard to model. But, if you read his deceptively simple book Catching The Big Fish, you’ll see that he offers loads of advice to those who aim to live a creative life. Yes, he gives credit to his lifelong commitment to meditation for the mindset and stability that has fed his success but there is also a lot of conventional wisdom therein.
Lynch obviously realizes that stories must be filled with conflict, but he preaches that one needs to find peace in life and to reduce conflict to a minimum. You don’t have to live a conflict-filled life to understand it. Conflict (aka too much drama) will actually keep you from creating good work since it’s such a drain of energy. He also believes in staying true to an idea from its initial birth. Yes, it can and should evolve but you must not lose sight of its essence. Keeping hold of the idea that first excited you during the weeks, months, or years of development is crucial. It’s the best guarantee of success too.
Lynch believes that you must work well with others to bring strong work to life. The right team can enhance your original idea. I’m always looking to work with that sort of talent too, and that includes the client. That’s largely where the fun lies. And he believes you must be open to occasional accidents that can often connect the dots of your original concept. Recognize and use them when they present themselves. And, of course, always practice kindness throughout the entire process. It’s the right thing to do but people also create at a higher—more ambitious—level when they feel appreciated and aren’t operating from fear. That’s just the tip of the iceberg on what he offers up in his book. A must read.
I love Mullholland Drive. It’s one of his masterpieces. The first time I saw it, I understood it completely. And the next time I saw it, years later, I could not make my way in. That’s not the norm with most movies and it’s a testament to how he creates his stories on such an organic level. But something else was at work here. Lynch practices meditation to help him find peace and get his mind right during his waking life so ideas and the process can flourish. He doesn’t feel meditation gives him access to ideas, but with one notable exception. Yes, it was his only movie that was fed by ideas gathered from meditation. That explains a lot. Mulholland Drive is certainly a dream.
Some think David Lynch movies are bizarre and aren’t for everyone’s sensibilities. I can understand that but, before you make that assessment, be sure to watch The Straight Story. It’s another masterwork on the other side of the spectrum in terms of tone. It’s a very simple, classically constructed story about an aging brother travelling, by any means necessary (and this includes a tractor), to visit his ailing brother before he passes away. It’s straightforward and conventional, but full of heart and perfectly executed. He has done it all by being a good collaborator, being true to the original idea, and running an operation filled with people who care and who are treated the right way. Great storytelling doesn’t happen by accident. It must be nurtured.