What Sam Shepard taught me about storytelling and life

Sam Shepard

With the passing of Sam Shepard, celebrated American playwright, actor, author, screenwriter, and director, I was reminded of the many gifts he has given us collectively but also to me personally. Back when I was a fellow at the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies I was fortunate to have a master class with Sam which forever changed my understanding of storytelling and life.

In that class, Sam talked about how he created a story. Sam told us that he always started a story with something deeply true, something deeply real, be it some aspect of a real experience from his or another person’s life, a news story, or even just a tiny true moment of awareness or understanding about some aspect of life. From there he would use that truth like a sacred seed and attempt to follow it wherever that truth wanted to go and whatever it wanted to evolve into. As I listened to his words I got the sense that he was talking about a co-creative process between the writer and the universe itself and that it was a constant process of taping into creative input from both within and without.

His words had such a profound impact on me that I was determined to do my own experiment in this approach for my next video project at the Institute. For weeks, I hunted for a truth that would touch me deeply and spark my imagination but no matter how hard I tried I could not find it. At the height of my frustration a friend of mine came to visit and I decided to let go of my quest for a “true story seed” for a while and just enjoy hanging out with my friend. I took her to a restaurant on the ocean in Malibu and lo and behold I found my moment of truth when I was not looking for it.

There we sat, looking at the ocean, catching up on our lives when a frail elderly homeless man came into the restaurant and sat in the booth right behind my friend. The waiter came up to the man’s table and quietly asked him to leave. The homeless man got upset and loudly declared “We have money!” And then he looked at the empty side of the booth in front of him and spoke to that empty space…”show the man your money” He paused for a moment to listen to the empty space, rolled his eyes in exasperation and said “fine, I’ll pay for it” and with that he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pile of crumpled up bills. The waiter watched all this at first with fear but then I saw a growing sense of compassion in him. There was something about this homeless man that did not feel threatening. He just seemed like a lost soul in need of help. The waiter seemed to sense this too and looked around at the near empty restaurant and then he looked at me and we had a moment of silent affirmation and he let the man stay. The waiter apologized and brought the man a menu and a glass of water. The homeless man looked perturbed and said “young man you do realize there are two us here…” The waiter, bless his heart, apologized again and brought a second menu and glass of water and placed it in front of the empty space and said he would return shortly to take their order.

And then it happened. This homeless man had a conversation with that empty space that touched me on levels I still cannot fully comprehend. He looked at the empty space and said: “Write this down…must go to Montana for Easter…” And then he got this far off look for a moment before he looked at the empty space and listened to it as if someone was really talking to him from that space. After deeply listening he responded in earnest as if he was talking to a student: “Oh, well, you see…there is this little town in Montana and every Easter they have an Easter parade and for that parade they pick a normal guy off the street to play Jesus and have him carry the cross through the streets…” He paused for a moment and got that far off look again and whispered: “I always wanted to be that guy…”

His words penetrated so deeply that I cried. They were both crazy and profound to me in so many ways that I could not even put words to my experience. I looked at my friend and I could see in her eyes that she was feeling something similar and we sat there in silence, eating our meal and listening to the strange and wondrous conversation that was unfolding in that next booth. At that moment, I more fully understood in a deep way the co-creative process that Sam was talking about, sensing that my seeking and then the surrender of that seeking, opened me to receive the creative input from the universe itself.

After this experience, my imagination and the co-creative forces went wild and I imagined and received a story that transformed this old homeless man into a retired nuclear physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project and his life was shattered after he realized what they had done. Now he wandered the streets talking to energy and giving tidbits of wisdom to imaginary students and lost souls. With more input from various external “coincidences” and inspirations the story expanded further into having him and several other people being taken hostage in a café by a PTSD suffering war veteran, culminating with these two lost souls healing each other’s deep inner wounds. Throughout this process, I continued the true seed co-creative method, including using real life stories to help shape the other characters as well, including real life stories from veterans to help shape the character of the vet.

The whole process of taking these true moments and experiences and letting them co-creatively flower into a story was one of the most profound creative experiences of my life. Sam’s approach was, and still is for me, a truly sacred process. At every turn along the way I deeply felt as though forces within and around me were conspiring to help me create this story. And I was not alone in this belief for everyone who worked on bringing this story to the screen expressed how profound their experience was. They used words like magical, profound, mystical and sacred. For all of us it was the best production experience we ever had. We worked as a team in such a deep way that it seemed like we could read each other’s minds, knowing what was needed before anyone could express the need. And yes, all of us reported having experiences in our own lives that seemed to support the work we were doing in strange and mysterious ways, from having our schedules open up to fit the needs of the production to the right locations coming to us without effort on our part. We felt like we were working on something that had a higher purpose and that the universe was indeed helping us and affirming the work.

When we screened the completed project, which was aptly called Write This Down, the response was a profound experience as well. After the end credits finished and the lights went up there was dead silence. Everyone just stared at the blank monitor for what seemed like an eternity. Then all of a sudden, there was a thunderous standing ovation that brought tears to my eyes. And as I stood there and received the accolades I could not help but feel that this work was not of me but something that came through me.

I have come to call this process “the living story” because for me the story becomes alive and has a life all its own, when it is born of truth. And this aliveness attracts forces beyond what I can rationally explain.

I will give you two closing examples and you decide for yourself…

Years after making this video at the AFI I partnered with another AFI alumnus to turn the story into a feature screenplay. When we started working on the script, the magic started to happen again. One time we were changing and expanding one of the characters and imagined a certain look to the character as well as the fact that they rode a red scooter. Then we took a break and walked outside and a young man with the exact look we imagined rode by us on a red scooter. We both looked at each other and smiled.

Another time we were walking down the Venice boardwalk in L.A. asking ourselves if the audience would believe all the magical experiences we were incorporating into the story of these homeless and lost souls. We had just sat down on a bench to ponder this question further when a one-legged homeless man on crutches hobbled up to us and asked if we had a cigarette. We both apologized saying we didn’t smoke. The man told us not to apologize and that we were lucky not to be hooked on smoking. Then he looked around like he had a secret he did not want anyone else to hear and then whispered to us…”Hey man, you dudes look cool…you see these brand new steel crutches man…” We both nodded our heads in affirmation and he continued… “Hey man, yesterday I had these old wooden crutches that were falling apart and I was freaking out that they were going to break and I wouldn’t be able to walk. And then I went down to the ocean man, and I cried man, I admit it, I cried. And then I found these brand-new steel crutches just lying on the beach with no one around. I waited for hours but no one came for them. So now I have these brand-new crutches, man…” He had tears in his eyes and then leaned in closer and whispered the big secret to us…”God is cool, man…God is cool…” And then he smiled and walked away. My writing partner and I looked at each other in awe and we knew we had received our answer.

So to Sam Shepard I owe a great debt. He not only made me a better writer, but a better human being as well. His approach to storytelling changed my life, opening me up to mysteries I still cannot fully explain or comprehend…but I remain in awe and deep gratitude of the work and of the man…

THANK YOU, SAM…

May you Rest in Peace…

Sam Sheppard (1943–2017)
NOTE: From an integral cinema perspective, it appears that this form of story creation operates across all dimensions and perspectives, simultaneously attracting and stimulating input from the interior and exterior domains of both the individual and the collective, whereby inspiration seems to come from or stimulated by experiences and forces from subjective, objective, relational and social/systemic domains.