The Millipede and the Songbirds

8062807862_f7e6c56705_z“Story is metaphor for life and life is lived in time.”

-Robert McKee, author of
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principle of Scriptwriting

One of the ‘homework’ I have to do while preparing to teach a class about scriptwriting is to read Robert McKee’s book on the subject. The book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principle of Scriptwriting, has become the de-facto ‘bible’ of sorts for anyone serious about scriptwriting, but I discovered that the same principles expounded by McKee apply to just about any form of storytelling out there. And I believe, part of the reasons why the certain religions lasted for so long while other have died, is because the truths and lessons they expound are wrapped in great narratives. 

In the last chapter of the book, McKee retells a story that his father told him when he was a kid. He uses the story as metaphor for the journey of the aspiring writer from one who writes ‘unconsciously’ to one who becomes very much aware of the skills and principles required of the craft, but I find that the story also serves as a metaphor of how we can live our lives. This is the story:

High above the forest floor, a millipede strolled along the branch of a tree, her thousand pairs of legs swinging in an easy gait. From the tree top, song birds looked down, fascinated by the synchronization of the millipede’s stride. “That’s an amazing talent,” chirped the songbirds. “You have more limbs than we can count. How do you do it?” And for the first time in her life the millipede thought about this. “Yes,” she wondered, “how do I do what I do?” As she turned to look back, her bristling legs suddenly ran into one another and tangled like vines of ivy. The songbirds laughed as the millipede, in a panic of confusion, twisted herself in a knot and fell to earth below.

On the forest floor, the millipede, realizing that only her pride was hurt, slowly, carefully, limb by limb, unraveled herself. With patience and hard work, she studied and flexed and tested her appendages, until she was able to stand and walk. What was once instinct became knowledge. She realized she didn’t have to move at her old, slow, rote pace, She could amble, strut, prance, even run and jump. Then, as never before, she listened to the symphony of the songbirds and let music touch her heart. Now in perfect command of thousands of talented legs, she gathered courage, and, with a style of her own, danced and danced a dazzling dance that astonished all the creatures of her world.

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