Thursday, January 21, 2016

Barbara Ankrum: Five Lessons from 'The Martian'

It’s award season in Hollywood and I confess: I’m a movie geek. I love film and if I’m not reading or writing, I’m watching movies. Being an L.A. girl, I come from a family full of movie industry insiders going back a couple of generations and, continuing with my movie-geek son, who was just admitted into the Director’s Guild! As for me, I was an actress for many years when my kids were small and it’s no secret that acting was my first love. Then writing came along and handed me surprising control over my creative life. I ran with it and haven’t looked back.

Still, movies are my secret vice. I enjoy them, study them as storytelling vehicles, get lost in them emotionally and strive to write books that feel like them. So when “The Martian” hit the big screen, with (Golden Globe winner) Matt Damon, as Mark Wattney, I was all in.

Now let me just lay in here, that as I saw this movie, I was struggling with a lot of issues, including being behind on my word count on a current work in progress, recommitting to finishing an impossible difficult book– one whose first 150 pages I had already completely rewritten twice and still weren’t working—being on the brink of some major changes in my personal life (more on that in another post) and feeling generally overwhelmed and secretly hopeless about all of it.

In a nutshell, you have my prime reasons for escaping into a movie. 

And The Martian was pure escape: a thriller, sci-fi, man vs. nature blockbuster based on the amazing novel by Andy Weir. For me, it served, unexpectedly, as a much needed attitude adjustment.

So, for your consideration: here are five lessons I learned from Mark Wattney’s struggle to survive. Maybe it will inspire you, too, if you find yourself at the crux of challenges or change in 2016.

1.      Duck Tape Will Fix Anything

There is almost nothing that can’t be fixed with duct tape and a little sticky determination. While Wattney was struggling to survive on a hostile Mars, he improvised relentlessly, using both duct tape and his wit. If one thing didn’t work, he tried again.  He refused to give up. If he didn’t fix it, he died. High stakes, right? When I applied this to my own situation, especially that book that was killing my will to approach my keyboard, I realized it wasn’t the story that was the problem with my book. It was my reluctance to improvise and my willingness to give up the fight. I had quit before the duct tape miracle and I’d set the stakes too low.  After all, what if I was on Mars and fixing it was my only hope? (Hey, I’m a writer. I can trick myself this way!)

2.      Trust Your Own Instincts.
At every turn, Mark Wattney had to reinvent himself and reassess his situation and often take action against the best advice from the brainiacs of NASA. This reminded me that listening to the ‘experts’ who insist you that ‘you can’t’ might merely snuff your dreams. Or kill you, if you’re stuck on Mars. Who are all those ‘experts’ anyway and what do they know about how far I can go? Or you?

3.      Change Is Scary. And Necessary to Survival
Risk vs. Payoff.  Maybe the risks we take have a ceiling, artificially set by our circumstance. Sometimes, it’s easier and seems safer to stay put rather than to challenge ourselves or move forward with something new. Wattney was forced to push himself way past his comfort zone. His survival instinct drove him to do things he would never have risked on Earth.  But the alternative was slow death.  My avoidance/fear of the keyboard has only one certain outcome—the death of my writing career. (Well, if you put it that way!) To change is to adapt. Survival of the fittest, Baby!

4.      It’s Good To Have A Hobby.
All that gardening I did for years? Gold, if I get stuck on Mars without food. Or the apocalypse happens.  But Wattney was a botany genius who also dabbled in chemistry and electrical engineering, both of which helped him survive. That reminded me that while hard work and hyper-focus is good, a broader approach to my life is better. It’s important to feed the soul while doing the hard work. Writers call it filling the well. But many times, those things that I did for fun also fed my writing and life in unexpected ways.  Turns out, all that movie watching was not for nothing…

5.      Hang Onto Your Optimism
This might be the single most important element of survival in any situation. Staying positive can mean the difference between success and failure. Between striving and giving up. Staying optimistic about your chances means you love yourself enough to keep trying.
As director Alejandro González Iñárrutu (The Revenant) said, “You can do things with two emotions in your life. One is fear, the other is love. We choose love.”
Bravo to that.

Barbara Ankrum is the bestselling author of fourteen books, including her latest contemporary romance, CHOOSE ME, COWBOY, from Tule Publishing. Her bestselling western historical series, ‘Wild Western Hearts’ is available on all e-book platforms. Barbara has been twice nominated for RWA’s prestigious RITA Award. She’s the mom of two wonderful, grown children and she lives in Southern California with her sweet husband, two cats and her scruffy Toto-impersonator walking companion, Maggie. 


Shari said...

What a great post! I have not seen the movie yet but planning on it in the near future.

Barbara Ankrum said...

Thanks, Shari! It's definitely worth seeing on the big screen. They'll probably be re-releasing it for the Oscars.

dstoutholcomb said...

My dad taught me about duct tape. ;)

Loved that movie!