(Originally written for Creative Pinellas, as a Professional Artist Grantee!)
I recently went down a mental rabbit hole thanks to a scene in HBO’s WestWorld.
Somewhere near the tail end of Season One, a main character, Bernard, mentions something about the death of his son being his Cornerstone Moment: the one event in his life around which his entire narrative revolves. Everything he’s done since, every motivation, every goal and regret comes back to that one defining moment.
As writers, we know that art imitates life. And fiction writing comes with its own doctrines—rules and guidelines to either follow, bend or obliterate. Like the Cornerstone Moment. We take inspiration from real life in order to flesh out a fictional world, fictional characters, and most importantly, storylines that serve an evolutionary purpose for those characters.
This scene in WestWorld forced me to apply a common fiction writing practice to my own life, and it was enlightening. If every main character has a single defining moment in their life—something around which their entire storyline revolves—then maybe I do, too. Maybe we all do. After pondering this for a bit, I believe we could learn a thing or two by thinking of ourselves as protagonists following our own real life character arc.
My personal Cornerstone Moment was not hard to find. Now that I’m aware of it, it’s clear that it’s always been there. How have I overlooked it all these years? And what could I have done differently had I looked past the static and realized what I was truly fighting for and against…
My Cornerstone Moment happened the summer after tenth grade. I dropped out of high school, got my GED, promptly moved to West Palm with my then-boyfriend, and began college that Winter semester.
You were expecting some grand moment of trauma, weren’t you? That’s natural. Life imitates art sometimes, too. But the most defining moment of our lives is not necessarily something super dramatic, as movies or novels would have you believe.
Before beginning that first semester at college, I frequently felt like the smartest person in the room. But as a high school dropout in a college environment, I quickly fell from being the “smartest” to the “dumbest”. And the youngest. Thus began my lifelong obsession with age, and my perceived connection between age and intelligence.
Moving out so young, without a cent to your name, forces one to their feet really quickly. How to get a job (or, more specifically, how to subtly lie on a resume in order to land a job you’re not fully qualified for but could probably fake until you figure it out—a worthy skill for any adult). It teaches you how to read people, because you’re constantly worried about how your older “peers” perceive you. Or your family, some of whom certainly expect you to fail without the formal high school diploma that seems to dictate success. It teaches you to really take your time and develop what you hope and want from your future, and not what your family hopes and wants for you, which I think haunts most of young adults. It did not haunt me. And most importantly, it teaches you at a young age to figure things out. All of it.
My most valuable skill is a highly-developed knack for solving every problem imaginable with out-of-the-box thinking. Because when you’re a high school dropout, there is no longer a defined box waiting for you. You have to create it yourself. And when you do, you can add windows to your box. Exit routes. Meandering hallways. Gardens. Anything you want. Because no matter where you want to go in life, there is never a single path to get there. There are dozens. You just have to keep your eyes and your mind open and you will find them. I learned this lesson/skill at a very young age, and I’m grateful to know that it will guide me for the rest of my life.
There are negative trickle down effects to any Cornerstone Moment as well, real or fictional. Otherwise we’d be pretty flat and boring characters.
I am highly adverse to authority. Highly. I’m very stubborn, and I’m very controlling of my own personal environment and experiences. Luckily for the people in my life, I have no desire to control their environments or experiences. Many “control freaks” are labeled so because they feel a need to tell others how to live their lives. I have NEVER subscribed to this theory. You do you. Just don’t try to tell me how to do me.
As a child, I was desperate to be a grownup in every way possible. So when that juncture arrived early for me, I was immediately rooted in the illusion that I was, at that very moment in time, a bonafide “capital-A” Adult. And no one was going to tell me what to do EVER AGAIN. This sounds like a very juvenile statement (and it is), but that feeling is still with me today, every moment of my life. Even if someone else’s experience or insight could help me learn something faster, that “grownupness” in the back of my mind kicks in and plants her fists at her hips. With everything she has, she resists.
I’m a grownup, dammit. Don’t tell me what to do. Don’t make suggestions because I’ll figure it out on my own without you. Always. Don’t tell me it can’t be done because it can. And I’ll prove it. Just get the fuck out of my way.
( I am nothing if not a lady.)
I think it would behoove you, as it has for me, to think back on your life and recognize your own personal Cornerstone Moment. Examine how it has branched throughout your years, the good and the bad. Be honest with yourself. How has it helped or hindered your goals? Maybe both. This is just between you and yourself, no need to sugarcoat. Sometimes even a good trait can hold you back if you’ve grasped onto it too tightly for too long. Every fictional character needs to evolve, even if they start out inherently good. Evolution is not about elevating upwards. It’s about branching out sideways. If there were an author controlling your narrative, your storyline, what would she force upon you in the quest for a greater story? A more dramatic character arc?
If I, myself, were a fictional character, I imagine my author might burden me with my Cornerstone Moment in every way possible (that’s what authors do). In order to learn my biggest life lesson, I might be challenged to figure something out—something big and very in-the-box—that causes me to question my entire self-worth when I initially fail at the task.
I’d then have no choice but to turn to the people in my life (likely someone younger, tapping into my mistakenly perceived connection between age and intelligence), and rely on their expertise to save me. I’d learn that my family and friends have always been willing to help me, even though I’ve always been too proud to ask for help. And I’d learn my biggest Cornerstone Lesson of all—they’ve always been there, seeing me and allowing me be exactly who I am. And in my act of turning to them, seeing them, and allowing them to be exactly who they are, my character evolves. I would learn that allowing others to guide me toward light when my room turns dark is not a failure of my character, or my “grownupness”. And that they’ve been waiting patiently for the opportunity to guide me all along.
That’s what would happen. If my life were crafted by an author. And I was a work of fiction.
But art imitates life imitates art, right? When we think of storylines, and life lessons, and goals achieved or lost, and character arcs, is there really any difference at all between real life and fiction?
And here, there be real life evolution…