The Hero With a Thousand Problems

“Life is, like, 93 per cent luck and 12 per cent judgement. The other 3 or 4 per cent is just shitty maths.”

Most people who know me* know that if there’s one thing that floats my boat it’s narrative storytelling. I have long been interested in screenwriting theories and playwriting manuals and anything that seeks to distill stories into their alchemical constituents in a crucible of… unfinished metaphor. I recently got ridiculously excited when a kung fu master showed me a book he had written about martial arts moves that revolved around the agricultural cycle (“agricultural cycle?” I beamed. “Man, do you know how mythic that is?”)

I’ve attended seminars by filmmaking gurus who claimed to have 22-steps to a successful story, or 3-week formulas in which to script an Oscar-winning masterpiece. I’ve read shite-knows how many pages of that grumpy old American bastard who seems to think he’s changed the landscape of screenwriting with a single application of his own magical piss, despite the noticeable handicap of never actually having written a screenplay. (Yes, you know who you are. And, yes, you are not reading my blog and are off counting money somewhere. Congrats!)

Swindlers, all! Busy guffawing their way to the bank and twirling their mustache while I was still sitting with my feet up in a filthy garret scratching my ear with a pencil, struggling to finish so much as an alchemical metaphor.

Paramhansa Yogananda said in the opening line of his Autobiography of a Yogi that “the characteristic features of Indian culture have long been a search for… [the] disciple-guru relationship”. That characteristic has definitely spread to China, and many in the west have also begun the search (fruitful or otherwise) for some kind of ‘guru’, usually being pedaled easy answers by an American guy in sneakers who offers some free snake oil before pulling down trou and applying butter for the financial equivalent of Last Tango in Paris.

A true ‘guru’, though, is someone who’s willing to share knowledge with you for everyone’s favourite price: Sweet Fanny Adams. A valued mentor who will sit with you over a cup of tea that he’s paid for, a favourite author who will dispense advice after a reading in Waterstones, even a mathematician who will tell you that an in-depth knowledge of Game Theory will not actually help you become a better writer (or find a girlfriend). A fake ‘McGuru’ is anyone, especially someone in sneakers, who’s selling something. Even that old kung fu guy wanted 100 kuai for the book, which looked like he’d illustrated it with a paintbrush sticking out of his arse.

Uh, maybe next time, shī fu!

I love ‘graphic novels’ (which is a pretentious term for ‘comic book’ that pretentious people who like comic books came up with in order to avoid the fact they were reading comic books). One of my favorites is Logicomix, which is about the seemingly-snore-inducing but surprisingly exciting quest to discover the foundation of mathematics. I know as much about maths as I do about agricultural kung fu, but Logicomix explains this mind-bending concept extremely well to the average dumbass layman.

For those unfamiliar with the quest for the ‘foundation of mathematics’**, it was basically a bunch of uber-nerdy mathematicians such as Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig ‘laugh a minute’ Wittgenstein who were all trying to break maths down to its building blocks, or foundations. People were writing papers and books on this for years until a young upstart called Kurt Gödel came along with his classic page-turner On Formally Undecidable Propositions of “Principia Mathematica” and Related Systems, which proposed something called the ‘Incompleteness Theorem’. At the risk of simplifying all of this horribly, he was basically saying that some things are just unprovable, or that the reason nobody could find the foundations of mathematics was because there aren’t any. This comic book revelation, an event which ended the careers of several mathematicians, became a turning point in my own quest to find some magic storytelling formula, and a great motivator to simply sit down and get some writing done.

There is no magic formula. Life doesn’t unfold like the plot of a screenplay or novel or multilayered epic graphic novel. That’s how maths works. That’s how narrative storytelling works. And it’s how life works, too.

*(and I’m aware that ‘people who know me’ make up a significant proportion of readers of this blog. Just slightly under 101% at my last estimate.)

**(and I’m aware that it may indeed be the same amount of people as in the previous note, unless you’ve read the comic too!)