Dance Like Nobody Is Watching (You Outline)

I needed to figure out some alternative solutions to a mystery in a story I’m working on.

A lot of the work I’ve been doing on this project has happened sitting and typing out ideas that I’ve solidified while either in conversation on the phone with a collaborator, or talking to myself while driving. But this time, I needed to generate those ideas in that moment, and I didn’t have anywhere to drive.

So I started by standing up. I have a whiteboard in my office, and it’s useful for thinking through ideas. But just standing there wasn’t helping me let my guard down and look past the couple pre-conceived solutions I came into the office with.

I recently finished reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Sparked by some ideas in that book, and the fact that I also have a subwoofer in my office, I thought about how adding some movement to the moment might help.

I want this to be clear: I am not a dancer.

I’m not a professional dancer. I’m not a good dancer. But I love music, and sometimes the groove gets in my heart.

Enter Daft Punk’s Alive 2007:

I’m not going to stop you if you want to start playing this album right now.

I can’t guarantee that any of my ideas were better because I was dancing while I was mind mapping. But it was more fun.

And there’s an aspect of breaking down your guard. Sitting down with as proper posture as I can muster, fingers on the home row, clacking away… It can feel rigid.

So getting less self-conscious about that movement and feeling the beat of the music cuts through that mental filter that makes you want to focus on perfection. Move to the rhythm. Turn off sense of self.

It’s like with meditation: If your mind is irritated or too energetic, calm the body. Take a few deep, slow breaths, and your mind will start to follow your body’s lead.

In this case, I was using my body to signal to my mind that it’s time to loosen up and throw whatever ideas it has up on the board. I broke down the mental walls separating the movements that were part of dancing from the movements that were part of writing on the whiteboard.

Change Your Environment and Change Your Mind

What I was doing by adding wasn’t just a change with my body: This was an attempt to alter my working environment.

It’s not just that I spend a lot of time sitting and typing or scribbling notes, but that when I sit and work in the same space that I check Twitter, grade papers, and track Amazon packages, there’s a sense that I have other things I should be doing besides writing.

That sense of everything sharing a space frustrates and confuses willpower.

In Keep Going Austin Kleon writes about the importance of creating a bliss station, so that there’s a specific time and/or place where you can put yourself in the headspace to work.

It’s the idea that signaling to your brain that here and now is where a certain type of work gets done helps that work get done in a better way.

He goes further to suggest that you can break down that space by certain jobs, like if you have one space where you work on your computer, and a separate space where you draw or write things out on paper. Even if they’re spaces in a single room, a small shift in where you sit or which way you face can send different cues to your brain.

It also might be about timing. Setting a timer, using a calendar to make appointments for certain tasks, or treating certain days of the week as having a specific focus are other ways to cue the brain and put it in the right mindset for the task at hand.

You are not just a brain in a jar, firing out ideas

You receive input from your environment. You receive cues from the rest of your body.

Accept that no matter how much willpower you feel that you have, you can’t exert total control and operate in a state of constant peak productivity.

But there are things you can try to control.

“When?”, “Where?”, and “With What?” are all important questions to answer when thinking about what you have to get done.

And if you’re getting stuck on something, those are the same questions you can examine to see if changing an answer to one might free up a little mental mojo.

Wind Chimes

I haven’t had the heart to take down our wind chimes yet, though they should probably come in for the winter. But they’re a particularly pleasant set of chimes, and I’m predisposed to enjoy music with elements of chance built in.

The sounds from the chimes aren’t predictable, but there’s nothing random about the music they make. A web of cause and effect composes their music.

People designed and manufactured the chimes to produce a certain set of complimentary tones. When we took them out of the box, we chose a spot outside our home to hang them, which influenced where the wind that moves them comes from. Then there’s the wind itself.

The wind pushes them based on air currents, pressure systems, and the surrounding environment. And even those factors are influenced by people, either by the way they alter the environment directly through construction and landscaping, or in on a larger scale by the way human actions influence the climate.

When people tell you everything happens for a reason, often they want you to feel like that your suffering exists to teach you a lesson.

Regardless of how you feel about that interpretation, everything does happen for a reason, but that but it is not necessarily about you, or to guide you.

Nothing truly happens in a vacuum. C happens because B happens because A made it happen, and so on.

If this sounds pessimistic, remember that you’re a part of that web of cause and effect.

Things may not happen just to teach you a lesson or force you to learn and grow, but you can choose to become something other than what you are. You can alter your links in the chain.

The Next Right Thing

Part of what got me to finally write down some of my larger thoughts on Frozen was the release of Frozen 2. While I’ve only seen the new film once, and I haven’t processed it enough for a deep dive, it still hit me hard enough in the theater that I need to work out how part of it fits in with some other ideas I’m digesting.

There’s the moment in the sequel when Anna sings “The Next Right Thing,” and I was astounded that so much of what I had felt from my own depression (and still feel) was echoed in a kids movie:

I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath
This next step
This next choice is one that I can make
So I’ll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing

I’ve written before about being kind to your future self, but lately I’ve needed to go further than that. I’ve needed to elevate some of these habits toward the notion of ritualized behavior.

In Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, she makes a great point about the power of personal ritual:

I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, may sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it—makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.

If you make something a habit, you’re saying that it needs to be done, and it has meaning. If you have something to do that has meaning, then you are giving yourself a purpose. If I wasn’t here, this wouldn’t get done. If I’m here, this needs to get done.

Sometimes it’s incredibly small for me.

  • Setting the timer on the coffee pot before I go to bed to tell myself to wake up when the coffee is fresh. I don’t want to waste the coffee, and I don’t want to miss the opportunity to drink it.
  • Making overnight oatmeal and leaving it in the fridge so that I tell myself that it matters that I take care of my body and not just eat something in the morning, but eat something that’s good for it.
  • Checking off boxes in a habit tracker I keep in a notebook, so that I can look back and see that I’m keeping up to the commitments I make to myself.

With that last one, I’m building off ideas from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. One of the hardest things to gauge when depression asserts itself is if the thing I’m doing in the moment is worth it; if I’m making any progress toward something that matters to me.

Some days I don’t get much time for bigger projects. I might wind up only being able to carve 15-20 minutes out of a particularly busy day to get any writing done. But treating it as a necessary habit grounds me in the idea that those 15-20 minutes still have value.

In Clear’s book, he talks about incremental progress as being similar to making a small shift in the direction of travel:

The impact created by a change in your habits is similar to the effect of shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet—but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.

It’s about that idea of playing the long game: If I work a little bit every day, no matter what, it will eventually matter a great deal. And it’s a reminder that if I want to see the dividends, I need to show up not just today, but tomorrow. And the next day.

But it’s also about another point that Clear makes in his book: Habits aren’t just about outcomes, they’re about identity.

I can turn my actions toward ones that support the person I want to be, or I can sit here, mired in the depressive inertia.

It can feel like swimming against the current. It can feel like the effort isn’t carrying me forward.

But that’s only the present moment. That’s not the long game.

You push against the current every day, and you can strengthen your body against it. You push against that current enough and you learn how to keep swimming.

I am not just working to keep moving, even when it’s hard, but to embrace momentum itself as a goal.

Plans are useful to help determine what needs to be done next. Goals are helpful in clarifying direction. Constructing a sense of identity helps give these actions motivation and purpose.

But measuring the distance between now and completion only creates frustration unless there’s momentum.

Which brings me back to the message of Anna’s song. Sometimes the fog is too thick to see through, and that next step is all you can see.

But you can see that next step, and you can take it.

Frozen: A Song of Doors and Windows

There’s a lot to love about Frozen, but for me, the part I always come back to is the way the movie uses doors and windows to express the inner lives of its leads, Elsa and Anna.

It’s symbolism, but not the kind that makes you step back and remove yourself from the narrative. The imagery connecting Anna and Elsa to the doors and windows in their environment feels natural, driven by the emotions and actions of the characters, and works to reinforce a central theme of the movie:

Do you open yourself up to others, or do you shut them out?

Crafting a story for children isn’t just about telling the story on its own, but working to teach children about how stories work.

With Frozen, the filmmakers reveal just a little of the mechanics of this process, while still keeping the story unpredictable and engaging, through how they use doors and windows in four songs.

Do You Wanna Build A Snowman?

After seeing the traumatic separation of Anna and Elsa by their parents after Anna’s injury from Elsa’s ice powers, the audience is introduced to Anna’s desire to reconnect with her sister.

Anna knocks on Elsa's door and asks "Do you wanna build a snowman?"

It’s a simple request, and it sets up the main relationship of the song: Anna and Elsa’s door. Through the years the song depicts, Anna directs all her attention and affection in vain at Elsa’s closed door.

In this shot, Anna bursts in from the left of the frame, stopping in the middle at the door. This focuses our attention in the center of the frame, giving what happens there a strong feeling of central focus.

But notice how the scene is shot at an angle, with the wall and door at a diagonal compared to the frame itself. It suggests that the dynamic of what we’re seeing is somehow off-kilter or skewed.

The song starts with an entire verse of Anna singing to the door, giving the audience multiple shots of the door from different angles and a chance to internalize the way that Anna’s relationship with her sister has become one-sided.

Anna at Elsa's door: "Come on, let's go and play."
Anna at Elsa's door: "I never see you anymore. Come out the door."

These shots are head-on, with wall itself visually balanced. Both sides of the door show equal portions of the red wallpaper and the frame around the door. This echoes how Anna is trying to bring a sense of order and normality back to her relationship with Elsa.

When Elsa finally replies to Anna, the audience doesn’t get to see her, keeping the audience in line with Anna’s perspective. We are denied a look at Elsa the same way Anna is.

As Elsa replies, the shots return to the off-kilter framing of the initial shot, relating to the refusal of Elsa to come back and return things to the previous natural order of her relationship with Anna.

When we are given a look at what’s happening behind the door with Elsa, it’s on her own terms. She’s trying to get a view of the outside world, but only through the glass over her window.

She’s looking for a connection to something outside, but she’s still kept separate. Isolated.

Look at how the first shot frames Elsa directly from behind, but when her powers accidentally discharge, the framing cuts to a diagonal echo of Anna outside her door.

When characters are emotionally off-kilter, so is the framing of their world.

Note the repeating triangular shape to the window panes. And consider the way that Elsa’s accidental ice discharge creeps up the windows, reminding us of the similar appearance between ice and glass.

And pay attention to how we’re seeing this window from the inside looking out. It’s isolating. A barrier, even when it’s transparent, is still a barrier.

Throughout the song, we get more of these shots where doors and windows are prominently featured in the background, highlighting the characters’ isolation and how they’ve been sequestered away from the rest of the world.

As she gets older, Anna continues talking to Elsa’s door, trying to lure her out. Again, the shot frames the wall at an angle, using that off-kilter diagonal.

When Anna begins talking to the art in the gallery, note the closed door behind her. She’s bouncing off the walls with energy, but kept contained in the space.

The room is framed at a slight diagonal, which mirrors the way she describes her actions and emotions as feeling off center and irregular.

As Elsa’s parents try to calm her down, the ice creeps up the wall onto the locked door behind her.

And there’s that diagonal framing again, with the corner of the room placed almost center in the frame.

We should have a quick sidebar about mise-en-scène (the arrangement of actors, objects, and the camera within a shot).

All these arrangements of characters and objects within the set are intentional, and the choice of where to frame them is intentional, as well. Think about how when working in a computer-generated environment, the possibilities of how to arrange space are nearly limitless.

You can’t run into a room that already exists and throw down a camera haphazardly to get the shot quickly and move on. Each element is created for a purpose.

So the choices about what to leave in focus near the characters, like the doors and windows, or how to arrange the characters and the “camera” in the space (including the angles of the shots) are done with what appears to be deliberate attention to keep the closed/locked doors on the periphery of the action as much as possible. There’s a desire to remind the audience of how these characters are kept apart from each other and the rest of the world.

And over the passage of time, Anna has come to accept the idea that this door will remain closed. Years have passed, and nothing will convince her sister to emerge.

Her intense energy as she slides past the door is cancelled out by the static shot and the straight-on framing. She’s full of motion and energy, but she’s trapped in an orderly, unchanging box.

And the framing of this moment is now directly pointed at the door, balanced with the rest of the frame. It tells the audience that Anna realizes the closed door is what counts as normal now.

Also note the direction of her slide: from the right side of the frame to the left. Think about the way that the way a culture’s language reads on the page influences the way they “read” an image.

When language moves from left to right on the page, like with the English-speaking culture that produced this film, the progression of objects within a frame from left to right feels more effortless and fluid. Moving from right to left feels like it takes greater effort; like it’s going against the grain.

This strain highlights Anna’s thwarted desire to make Elsa go against her established pattern and come out. Anna doesn’t even try.

The only thing that forces her to make one more attempt to break through to her sister is the death of their parents.

The tight focus of this shot gives way to a shot framed further away, drawing attention to the shadows in the room, but also a source of light behind her. Anna is isolated in the dark, reaching out to her sister.

The next shot reveals the source of the light —

It’s the window across from Elsa’s door. The outside world is trying to let a little light in to the moment, but they’re both trapped inside, in the dark, apart from each other.

And then the cinematography and set design sets us up for a dramatic, heartbreaking moment.

Anna slides down the door, bracing herself against it. It’s an unnatural choice for support, since a door could technically open, but she knows this one has been shut to her for so long. It’s as solid as a wall to her.

But it’s also the closest portal to her sister, and the closest she can come to actual contact with her.

Notice how the camera drops down with her as she slides to a seated position. She curls up into a near fetal position and makes herself small.

Just like when she was a child outside this same door. She brings herself down to that child’s view of the space right before her song reverts to a child-like plea for connection.

By moving in close at this moment, the audience is moved from the impression of reverting to a child-like attitude to confronting the raw despair on Anna’s face.

She’s confronting a future without her parents as well as without her sister. She feels more alone than ever before, and she’s desperate for any connection.

Which brings us to this amazing tracking shot —

The camera passes through the door to reveal to the audience that the sisters are closer than they think.

They’ve both lowered themselves to the floor — Putting themselves at a child-like height from back in the time before they were separated.

They are both hurting, but mirror images of each other, looking in opposite directions.

However, given the orientation of objects we’ve previously seen in this sequence, we know that they are both sitting with their backs against the door and facing out toward a window.

This placement of the two of them creates a declaration of the tension for the rest of the film:

How do we break the barriers between each other and the rest of the world?

Then the camera pulls back to show Elsa’s room, frozen in anguish. Flurries drift down in the frame, and ice radiates along the floor and the walls from her body. Her grief made manifest.

And as the camera pulls back from Elsa, it dissolves to a similar framing of Anna.

Two sisters sharing an emotion, but not sharing the same space.

And after we fade out, time passes, and we move ahead to the next major event in their lives that forces them together.

For The First Time In Forever

That’s right, Anna.

And what’s the first thing we see Anna do after she realizes that it’s Coronation Day?

She bursts out of her bedroom door. We get to see the door open, signaling a change from doors as a static presence to doors as an active portal.

Also, look at the way the dark hallway is brightened up as light spills out from Anna’s room when she opens the door. The pool of shadow is erased on the floor. It’s already suggesting the possibility that openness and connection are a way to erase despair.

In fact, the act of opening doors and windows is so important to Anna that she’s going to sing about it!

The subtext of the previous song becomes the text of this new song: There’s a tension between things that are open vs. things that are shut.

And there are just so many doors and windows to open in a castle.

As the castle staff marches in with plates, where I they coming through? Why, it’s a doorway!

And how has the camera been framing these moments? Lots of diagonals at first, but also pans that change the framing between diagonal and head-on. And then the shot with the plates comes in, and we’re locked down in a straight-forward composition.

A new order is arriving for this castle, disrupting the solitude of the past.

Anna runs past a hallway full of shut doors as she sings about lonely halls, then slides through a doorway into a ballroom. Her kinetic frenzy is in sharp contrast to her earlier moment where she ground to a halt in front of Elsa’s locked bedroom door.

Think about how many lines of this early part of the song are devoted to a reverie about opening doors. Anna has internalized the idea that a shut door is a bad thing.

And as she sings about how excited she is for things to change? She sticks her head out of an open window —

— and then climbs right out through it. She’s breaking through. Crossing over the threshold of what used to be a barrier between her and the rest of the world.

She moves from this off-kilter, diagonal framing into —

A head-on shot framing her swinging in front of a window.

She’s on the outside, looking further out. This is what feels normal to her, and she’s relishing every moment. She’s Swinging, as if to build up momentum to launch herself away from the castle and away from her lonely past.

And again, look at the way a door opening up brings light into a space:

Anna’s portrait gallery, full of her “friends” from her childhood, now brighter than before as she swings the doors wide open and lets the light in. Now the room is shot straight-ahead, highlighting the orderly corners and framing of the door and pictures on the wall.

The end of Anna’s confinement connects to a return to her sense of order and ease, and the framing of shots while she sings reflects this.

But what about Elsa? How’s she dealing with the excitement of Coronation Day?

She’s still on the inside, looking out.

Not only is she separated from the rest of the world in this shot, but the window pane frames her in within the frame. She’s boxed in; constricted. Even her body language and hair suggests someone tightly squeezed into their role.

And while the shot pushes in toward what looks like a straight-on composition, it’s still slightly off-kilter. Vaguely skewed.

And as she looks out the window at all the people preparing to enter the castle, she sings about not letting them see.

We get her reflection in the window, creating a double, divided image of Elsa. There’s the Queen-to-be who must be in view of her people, must be among them, and there’s the Elsa frightened of her power and her secrets, wishing to stay inside.

And then comes a lighting round of back and forth shots of the sisters.

The same line (“It’s only for today.”) delivered in two different tones: Elsa’s resignation as she stays locked up inside her room contrasts with Anna’s joy as she bursts through yet another door.

Elsa prepares herself for going out in public by putting on her gloves. She’s replacing the security of hiding behind a door with the less complete security of hiding her hands, believing that this will keep her powers locked away.

Look at the way she’s framed tightly with a darker background, keeping back from the light of the outside.

Anna rushes out of the castle, skipping and gleeful.

Both of them sing the line “It’s agony to wait.” with alternate, negative and positive takes.

And then a truly big moment —

Elsa finally opens a door.

But notice the difference with this shot versus the many, many shots of Anna opening the doors. There’s no light spilling out. It’s still dim. Elsa is still mired in the negative emotions that kept her locked away.

But she commands the opening of more doors. She’s not going to do it herself, but she’s going to allow it to happen. There’s a disconnect between the new openness of the palace and Elsa’s desire to continue to keep herself at a remove from it.

And this next shot steps back to reveal more of the hallway to Elsa’s room, showing that there is some light coming in from the windows in her hall, but reinforcing this idea that the shadows are still around her. She’s still in the darker world of despair.

Cut to Anna at the gate:

And there’s that contrast again: The shadowy world of the palace sees a crack in that darkness split open by the light spilling in from the giant door in the center of the frame. And Anna is right there, rushing out toward the light.

She bursts through the gate into the bright, open world, surrounded by the citizens of Arendelle.

The composition is diagonal, chaotic, and features two lines of motion. The citizens and guests are moving from left to right into the castle, while Anna moves from right to left, against the flow of traffic, out of the castle.

The people are moving into the castle for the coronation with ease and joyful anticipation, while Anna’s joy comes from escape. Even in a small way, she’s still struggling in this shot to move away from the place that kept her shut away for so long.

And where’s Elsa?

Making a slow procession, in the dark, toward a small sliver of light from a window. The composition is straight-forward, with Elsa also moving from right to left (connecting to the effort she’s exerting to maintain control).

Compare the surrounding people in the two shots, as well. There’s a disorderly crowd surrounding Anna, whereas Elsa’s hall has a few still, silent servants standing at attention.

Kinetic joy vs. restrained order.

When Elsa finally opens a door to a brighter view, she pairs it with the old reminder, based in her fear of failure and revealing who she is:

It’s a reminder that she sees masking her powers as a moral choice.

She’s supposed to be a good girl, and good girls don’t have magic. Good girls follow tradition, uphold rules, control themselves. Her powers are something unruly and that create a sense of difference.

This isn’t just a reminder that she has a duty as the queen-to-be, but that she sees herself as inherently flawed. She fears the world seeing who she is, because she has become convinced that who she is is wrong.

And these shots frame her in straight-ahead, level angles, showing her forcing herself into this mold. She must present herself as part of the natural order. She must present herself as an orderly part of this composition.

And when she steps outside, she stays up high above it all on a balcony. She’s still removed from the people of her kingdom, even at a moment when she’s stepped through a doorway into the light.

She’s removed herself from her captivity, but not from her isolation.

And through this song, we’ve taken the basic thematic elements of doors and windows and expanded on them, going so far as to comment on them within some parts of the song.

But now that all the doors in the palace are open, surely the movie is going to discard this thematic device and move on to something more relevant.

Love Is An Open Door

But you saw that coming, right?

When Anna and Prince Hans begin talking outside of the party, look behind them:

There’s one open door, and a closed door behind it.

Sidebar: Prince Hans Was Always The Bad Guy And This Shot Is Giving That Away

Open doors equal openness and intimacy. Closed doors mean concealing something, either affection or truth.

As Anna opens up to Hans, there’s an open door and a closed door behind them, one just behind the other.

Anna’s openness can only go so far, and there’s something Hans is concealing about his true intentions.

Why have two doors visible in one doorway? One door per person. In a relationship, both “doors” need to be open if that relationship is going to be honest.

“I would never shut you out,” he lies, lyingly.

End Sidebar

This film’s thematic work is being shown in the conflict between closed and open doors. Here we see one of each, prepping us for the topic of the song to come.

Anna starts singing and goes beyond the literal descriptions of action in the previous song into the realm of metaphor.

It’s not just about the excitement of open doors and what that openness can mean, but about how she sees her entire life to this point as being defined by being shut out and locked away.

And it’s not just about the doors being shut, but about how those doors have been shut at her. She, specifically, was being kept out.

So when we get to the hook of the song, it makes total sense for her to treat the moral of the story this way:

And we not only open a door on the word “door,” but the camera pulls back and up into the air, soaring out. It’s a big, sweeping camera move to echo the feeling of freedom that comes from escaping a space you’ve been trapped in.

Since the text of the song is all about love being an open door, and Anna feeling like she’s falling in love with Prince Hans, their musical number takes them through many doors throughout the castle and its grounds.

But look at how we have a skewed, diagonal composition as they sing “With you” to each other. Something’s up, and the visual language is clueing us in to the potential for shenanigans.

Even when they’re not going through doors, there are doors in the frame with them, like the doors these mechanical figures emerge from in the clock.

Or when they dance on the lighthouse, and we see them on the outside of a window, lit from behind. It reinforces the idea that windows are another type of enclosure, but that when you’re on the outside of them, you’ve passed through. You’re free.

And the light of the lighthouse echoes the bright spaces from the previous song, suggesting that openness and love can erase the shadows of despair.

Even in this quick Scooby Doo moment in the stables, light shines out as Anna opens the doors.

So, we get it. Open doors are about love and intimacy. Closed doors are about concealment and fear.

So what happens when we get a moment where there are no doors? Wouldn’t that mean a sense of total openness and freedom?

Let It Go

This shot of Elsa on the mountain after she’s run away from the castle acts as a reversal of the swooping shot from the last song. Instead of bursting out in joy, it circles around her, swooping in, like a bird of prey.

Watch as Elsa not only trudges uphill, but from the right of the frame to the left of the frame, accentuating the difficulty of her journey.

And while we can see a clear sense of the direction she’s moving, the curving path of the camera keeps things off-kilter. We’re not viewing this from a diagonal angle, but a continuously shifting diagonal, straining toward order.

She’s out in the open now, but she’s also alone and in the dark. This isn’t a positive kind of openness because we’re not seeing the other signifiers that have come along with the open doors and windows of previous songs: Light, vibrant kinetic movement, or other people.

First off, game recognizes game: That was a sick pun, Elsa.

Think about the way in which this moment in the song recontextualizes the way isolation has been depicted so far in the movie. Instead of being shut away, she’s exposed, but still alone.

And here we get a reminder that our focus on Anna’s feelings about being shut out has its polar opposite (intend your puns, cowards). For Elsa, it was never about keeping Anna locked out, but keeping herself locked in.

Being out in the open feels like a failure to Elsa, because her one goal was to stay concealed.

Again, Elsa feels that there’s something distinctly wrong with her; that her very existence is somehow a moral failing. She’s been raised to believe that she is flawed, and that the only way to deal with that is to let people believe she’s something that she’s not.

Normal. Following the rules and traditions. “Good.”

And she’s reached the point, up on this mountain, where she sees this worldview crumbling. There are no doors to hide behind anymore. There’s no reason to conceal her true nature, since she just showed it to the entire kingdom at once.

She can’t take those moments back, and she can’t lie, so it’s time for a change.

And as she removes the glove she’s been using to contain her powers and conceal her identity, the camera pulls up into the sky, soaring away, much like when Anna had a similarly powerful declaration to make.

This is where we need to talk about “Let it Go” as empowerment anthem.

The song is bold. It’s got a meaty hook, built for belting out in sing-alongs. It’s pulsating with 1.21 gigawatts of pure, raw emotion.

But it’s also sad, and ambiguous, and frightened.

Elsa starts by popping little flurries from her hands, and then she builds the thing that Anna begged for all those years ago: A snowman.

It’s like she’s a printer that was just reconnected with jobs left in the queue. She’s rebooting herself, and remembering what it was like to be a child and take joy in her powers.

This is positive growth for her. So it’s all good! She can keep moving forward and —

ELSA, NO. ELSA. STAHP.

Turn away and slam the door

Elsa, you are on a mountain. There are no doors here.

You’re contradicting the visual signaling we’re expecting where this open space is now being verbally tied to the restrictive notion of closed doors that the movie established in its previous songs.

And turning away and slamming the door isn’t necessarily an empowered move, especially when your life has been defined by shutting doors to hide behind them.

This song sends plenty of contradictory messages.

Elsa lets go of a restrictive, concealing cape, shrugging it off and allowing it to fly away, but she does so while singing about letting the storm rage on.

The storm sparked by her fear. The storm generated by her powers when she lost control.

She’s not reveling in the possibility of healing brought about by accepting and acknowledging her powers openly. She’s refusing to be responsible for them.

The cold never bothered me anyway” could just as easily be read as “All this ‘eternal winter’ sounds like your problem, not mine.”

Elsa looks positively joyful, but once again, she’s moving from right to left. There’s difficulty and struggle here.

This line suggests that she’s gaining a sense of new perspective, potentially one that could promote healing by recognizing her problems aren’t daunting and insurmountable after —

And there goes that possibility.

She walks backward, again from right to left, singing about how she’s escaping from her fears. Not conquering them.

She’s literally moving backward in her emotional journey, deeper into the darkness.

She’s balancing these positive couplets that sound empowered and resolved —

With couplets that make her sound like she’s just further separating herself from other people.

Elsa goes full Magneto, declaring herself beyond the moral policing of mere mortals, as she builds a magical staircase to ascend higher than everyone in her kingdom. She wants them to seem even smaller to her.

She wants to be so high above their judgement so that she never feels like she is wrong or immoral again, instead of interrogating those morals that were forced on her by her family and their fear.

When she yells “I’m free!” you need to question the motivation behind the declaration: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

As she runs up the staircase, the song ascends with her, and she makes what sounds like a positive declaration of being “one with the wind and sky.”

She sees herself as a part of the natural world. She isn’t an aberration. She isn’t a defect. She’s not bad and wrong.

At least, that’s what she’s trying to convince herself of.

Elsa still wants to be hidden away. She still feels broken and scared, even if she consciously knows she shouldn’t. She fears the judgement of others.

Again, the camera soars up high on what’s supposed to be a positive, strong declaration of emotion. Elsa is taking a stand. She’s using her power to claim a place for herself.

But the way she claims that space highlights how much further she needs to travel on her emotional journey.

Because what is this business all about?

She’s rising up and building something out of ice for herself.

Something that she’s filling in with doorways —

Oh no.

No, Elsa. Don’t do it.

As the roof freezes into place, it’s entirely clear what’s going on:

Elsa is building herself a new place to lock herself up inside.

She hid from the world in her family’s palace before, but that’s not an option this time. So she’s building a new palace to shut herself away in.

Sure, she’s taking her hair down, but it’s still in a tightly controlled braid.

Everything around her has gone dark again, and all of this reinforces that while she’s singing about letting things go, she hasn’t actually let go of her fear, or her internalized self-hatred.

Because no costume change or fun new hairdo can change the fact that she’s walking through a doorway —

That she’s stepping out onto a balcony, just as she did before on coronation day.

She’s out in the open, but she’s not out in the world. She’s above it. Sequestered from it.

But she’s moving from the darkness toward the light, and we’ve associated that with positive emotions for several songs. There’s still hope that Elsa is going to move away from despair and toward —

Nope. She built herself a door just so she could shut it.

She retreats out of the sunlight, back into the shadows of her freshly chilled castle.

She still has a long way to go on her emotional journey.

So what does all of this matter?

This is how symbolism works when it works well.

The symbolism helps clarify the theme for the audience, and the theme is posing a question instead of making a declaration. The story is there to work out an answer to the question over the course of the full story, instead of using each moment of the story to hammer home a single answer.

But it’s not just the appearance of a single, repeated symbol that does this work in telling the story. All the other elements of craft that go into filmmaking must support the idea if the audience is going to come away with a clear sense of what they’ve seen and what it means.

The door as a symbol doesn’t earn its place until we’ve gotten used to the idea of the door as a natural part of the conflict at the heart of the character’s lives.

Without Elsa hiding in her room from Anna, and without Anna’s persistent attempts to get Elsa to open her door, nothing that follows would work.

The emotions of the characters as they play out the drama of their separation give the door a tangible thematic resonance.

Think about it like a magic spell placed on a lamp so that every time the lamp is touched, it burns brighter.

The more times that lamp is touched, the harder it is to ignore whenever you see it. And the brighter the lamp glows, the more its light reveals to us about what else is nearby.

One-time symbolic gestures don’t grow in influence over the audience. It takes a steady introduction and re-introduction of something useful to telling the story for that object’s thematic and symbolic weight to reach its full potential.

After we’ve seen the use of these doors play out over four songs, we get a sharper sense of how they relate to the overall story, and the way that it’s all about a question of if you open yourself up and make yourself vulnerable, or if you instead close yourself off.

The genius of the door as a thematic device is that it doesn’t act as some kind of didactic “Open good. Closed bad.” metaphor.

Anna is all about openness, leaving her vulnerable to Prince Hans and his plot to take over the kingdom. Elsa is constantly closing herself off, but that prevents her from seeing how she can solve the problems caused by her magic and her fear, or from seeing the importance of her relationship with her sister and how the two of them can help balance each other.

And this dual nature of the problems reminds us why a door is such an excellent choice: it can be either open or closed.

A door needs to be either/or. If you just have a wall, nothing can pass through. If you just have an open space, anything can pass through at all times.

The door allows you to choose whether it’s open or closed, but it also allows you to choose to change your mind.

Meaningful Work

While heading home from picking up a pizza, another driver sped up and swerved in front of me.

It’s a fairly busy stretch of road with two lanes going each way. I kept watching this driver weave in-between the other cars in front of me, sometimes signaling, other times not. Moments later, they slammed on the brakes at a red light.

I got to that same light about five seconds later, having stayed in one lane, traveling the speed limit, and leaving ample room between myself and the car in front of me.

This isn’t a story about bad drivers or being considerate on the road.

Think about the number of decisions the driver had to make to change lanes five or more times in that stretch of the road we shared.

Each time, they had to judge the distance between themselves and the other cars to avoid an accident. They had to decide if they felt it was necessary to signal, how fast they needed to go, and how soon they would need to change lanes again.

What were they thinking about as they worked to thread themselves up through traffic, trying to get ahead just a little bit faster than everybody else?

Were they annoyed? Nervous? Focused less on the current moment and more about where they were headed?

For all that effort, all they gained was five additional seconds spent waiting at a red light.

Did that satisfy whatever desire motivated them?

When we worry about optimization

Regardless of their exact circumstances, this driver wanted to feel like they were headed toward their destination as fast as possible, even if it didn’t get them there any faster.

They wanted to put their effort into optimizing speed in the moment instead of looking for ways to get tangible benefit.

Sure, you could race between cars to make it to a red light a little faster than everyone else, or you could find a way to get in your car and start driving a few minutes earlier.

We can’t be certain that any one change will definitely result in a better outcome, but we can try to put our behavior in line with better possible outcomes by focusing on actions that are more likely to matter.

Doctor Strange Looks Into The Future

Because we don’t all have an Eye of Agamotto to figure out the best course of action. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It’s easy to confuse action with progress

It’s the difference between being busy and getting meaningful work done.

If I spend my time color coding a bullet journal, or arranging a cascading hierarchy of tags in a task manager app, how long will it take for those actions to show substantive improvements in the way I do necessary, rewarding work? Are they a layer of distraction, or a tool for focus?

How many passes and revisions can I make on a set of pages, or a blog post before all I’m doing is making things different instead of making them better?

The siren’s song of optimization is like pressing your foot a little harder on the pedal. You’re feeling acceleration, but you’re not necessarily reaching your destination any earlier.

But how do you tell the difference?

The tasks with meaning aren’t always obvious, but they never lie to you after they’re finished.

Busy tasks always try too hard to assert their importance, like a compulsive liar who peppers their speech with admonishments to “trust me.”

They shout at you that these five life hacks will help you finally clear your inbox…

But the time you spend reading that article could be used to answer two or three of those emails, or asking yourself the question about how necessary is it to reach Inbox Zero.

You could look through a gallery of dozens of great new themes for your website…

Or you could grab a pen and some paper and start coming up with new content to put on that site.

You could read all about how people whose success you wish to emulate schedule their day, or what bullet journal notebook and software they use…

Or you could do work with the tools you have and the time you have, and test things to see what works for you.

Better or Different
Busy work turns time into an I.O.U. where you promise yourself that you’ll eventually get around to what matters.

Meaningful work leaves something behind. It transforms time into something tangible that you can point to.

Shout it from the rooftops: I did this. I made this. It is here now where it wasn’t before.

I did this I made this

Celebrate finishing something, no matter the scale.

My Daughter Thinks She’s Getting Better At The Floss

The other day, my daughter started dancing to Fred Schneider’s cover of the Harry Nilsson song “Coconut,” and wanted to show us how she could Floss.

It went something like this:

 

Sprout Sort Of Flossing.GIF

Mid-way through her dance, she squealed, “I’m getting good at the Floss!

She’s kind of correct.

I mean, sure, it didn’t look exactly like this,

anigif_sub-buzz-29832-1542385259-2.gif

but she’s got the right attitude about trying to work at something that doesn’t come easy.

Confidence and momentum build from seeing your progress.

She’s not focused on the distance between where she is and where she’d like to be. She’s looking the opposite direction and seeing how far she’s come from where she started.

If you get stuck in the unending Zeno’s Paradox of constantly getting closer to your goal, but never actually reaching it, you wind up with anxiety, frustration, and shame.

You stall out. You feel like a fraud.

It’s something I see in my students, my peers, and myself.

That pull between the optimism of seeing how far you’ve come fighting the pessimism of the long, unclear road ahead.

It’s easy to let that pull you into the mental trap of contrasting and comparing yourself with others.

But when you celebrate your progress, you focus on your personal bests, not on how far you are from achieving a world record. You can measure what you’ve done and add to it.

And you can make the story you tell yourself about how this is moving forward — This is what getting better looks like.

Non-Duality (For Writers)

 

On my flight back from Boston a few weeks back, I was reading my copy of The Mindful Way Through Depression. A man across the aisle from me asked if he could talk to me about my book, and I did something I rarely do on a flight: I struck up a conversation.

It turned out that he was also a survivor of depression, but he said he could never read a book like that in public. “I’d have to be in my bedroom with the door locked.”

For the next 45 minutes in the air, and then for a few more minutes around baggage claim, we talked about depression, our families, finding community in new places (he had recently retired to Israel after living in Canada for most of his adult life).

And there were definitely times when I could tell we could have had a contentious turn in the conversation. Flash points where it would’ve been easy to veer into an argument. But the sparks never landed on kindling.

We found we had something in common that was worth exploring.

A little over a week later, I found myself in the hospital. Long story short: I was losing blood faster than my body could replace it. Doctors needed to find the leak and plug it.

In-between procedures and transfusions, I spent time in a room separated by a curtain from an older man with breathing and mobility issues. My roommate and I had little in common. This could best be summarized by the time he woke me up at 4 AM, watching a televangelist encourage people to “send a donation; plant a seed of $58 to become one of the eleven-hundred and twenty-eight miracles,” or something similar.

I could have dwelled on our differences, or my annoyance with being woken up at such a weird time. I’d had no real food for almost two days, been poked, prodded, and had cameras peering into every corner of my digestive system. I had plenty of reasons to react with anger.

But I thought about the why. I thought about the times he’d spoken to his visitors about how he wished he could get out of the hospital and get home for some real healing. Some “soul healing.”

He was looking for comfort. He wasn’t writing a check. He just wanted something to take his mind off being in that bed, being woken up for his breathing treatments, and not knowing when the Doctors would finally say he was well enough to go home.

And I could relate to the idea that real healing doesn’t necessarily take place in the hospital, where your sleep is interrupted by new tests, new hypotheses for your care, or just the sounds and smells of illness.

There’s a Buddhist concept of non-duality I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

As best I can explain it, it’s the idea that labelling the differences between yourself and others reinforces false notions of the self.

In Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Henepola Gumarantana describes it this way:

“The ego sense itself is essentially a feeling of separation — a perception of distance between that which we call me and that which we call other. This perception is held in place only if it is constantly exercised…”

With these encounters, I could have focused on the differences between myself and each of these men. Differences of age, religion, attitude, political views, and so on. I could have drawn up many lines between us and left it at that.

But both of those times, the value of engaging with the moment came from recognizing that for all the things that separated us, we were all in need of healing. We were all connected to a desire to live and be well.

If I build a wall between you and me, I’m not only establishing a false idea of who you are based on my limited perception, I’m clinging to a potentially false notion of who I am.

This is one of the reasons I stress thinking about empathy with my writing students.

Screen shot from one of my powerpoint slide decks titled All Writing Must Begin With Empathy

When writing, I want my students to remember that every character should be a specific individual, and to remember that not everyone thinks and behaves exactly as they would. In this way, I am teaching them about separating themselves from others.

But at the same time, there is a need to ground your writing with the perspective of that other fictional person in order to make an honest attempt at depicting their actions and reactions.

Part of that process needs to be seeing the center of the Venn Diagram:

How are you not so different from this other person?

Austin Powers 'We're not so different, you and I.'

If you base their uniqueness only on a representation of their difference, you miss the connections they could have with other characters in the story, or potential points of connection with the audience.

A villain is more engaging if we can see something of ourselves in them. The relationships between characters becomes more complicated if they see there isn’t just difference between them, but common bonds.

The X-Men stories wouldn’t be nearly as engaging without the central friction between Charles Xavier and Magneto: two mutants who both want to protect those like them and help them see their potential, but whose difference emerges from how they view The Other (humans).

Or see the potential for comedy in this play between difference and commonality, like in Home Alone where Kevin’s mom, Kate, rides back to Chicago in a truck with Gus Polinski and his polka band. These characters couldn’t seem more different, until Gus talks about how the whole band needs to spend the holidays away from their families, too. But Gus’s attempt at finding common ground also sparks his story of trying to relate to Kate by telling about the time he left his son behind on accident, just like her… Except that Gus left his kid in a funeral home. For hours. Alone.

All of these things combined take a seemingly one-note polka band gag and use that common ground to give it dimension and resonance with the rest of the story.

But non-dualistic thinking can also help with another bad habit of writers: envy

In Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he writes:

We compare our looks with others, our success, accomplishments, wealth, possessions, or IQ, and all of this leads to the same state—estrangement, barriers between people, and ill feeling.

The meditator’s job is to cancel this unskillful habit by examining it thoroughly, and then replacing it with another. Rather than noticing the differences between oneself and others, the meditator trains him- or herself to notice the similarities. She centers her attention on those factors that are universal to all life, things that will move her closer to others. Then her comparisons, if any, lead to feelings of kinship rather than of estrangement.

A writer looks at someone whose work they appreciate, and get disheartened at their own lack of skill or achievement.

A writer looks at people they consider their peers, and seeing their accomplishments, feels frustration that they don’t see themselves matching up.

A writer looks at their own work in comparison with what they’ve done in the past and sees a failure to recapture who they once were, or a failure to progress beyond who they think they once were.

All of these envious moments focus on difference: There is you and there is me. There is me then and me now.

But what if it were possible to focus on something other than those differences? To find those pedal points in both of your songs that resonate deep within the both of you?

Because if we only focus on the success of others, we erase their struggles, which could show us how alike we may be.

If we only focus on part of our past experience, or on part of our desired future, we skip over any number of valuable moments that inform us, shape us, and give us something worth saying.

When you encounter envy, ask yourself what you have in common with this person. What do you share?

Try not to use this as a springboard for the thought of “If we’re so similar, why are they so better off?” That’s falling back on reinforcing difference.

But seeing what you have in common can remind you of the positive things you see in yourself. If you can focus there, you can turn envy into admiration, and share some of that admiration with yourself.

And, especially when dealing with your peers, envy is the enemy of community.

Anything that can highlight the difference between yourself and others that you wish to work with or share something with will start building that wall between you.

That dualistic thinking and envy can spill out in the workshop session, on social media, in your work with others. And these spills aren’t often easily wiped away.

But your actions and your effort to see what unites you with others can also spread. And if you practice that, you may encourage others around you to practice that same kind of radical empathy.