A couple of events I went to in the last couple of weeks served to remind me about the early days of Jonah, back when it was still taking shape. One was “Fiddler on the Roof,” playing at the Hale Center Theater in the Salt Lake area. The other was the Star Awards at the SCERA in Orem, an event honoring several people who had made significant contributions to the arts over the years.
I’ll get back to Fiddler in a second. But the main award that night at the SCERA was given to an artist whose work I have long admired, Michael McLean. An accomplished songwriter, performer and author, Michael, not surprisingly, gave an inspiring acceptance speech that served to remind all those in attendance who were involved in the arts why we do what we do, as painful as it frequently is.I was able to greet Michael during the evening and thank him for the help he gave me a couple of years earlier, when I was first trying to wrap my arms around how to approach our adaptation of Jonah. I had written a several page treatment, and Michael had graciously consented to read it for me.
Several days later, we spoke on the phone. After being politely complimentary about the treatment, he asked me a simple question: what was it about?
Now I admit I went to a state school, but even I could sense that he didn’t want me to say that it was about a prophet named Jonah, who received a call from the Lord that he didn’t want to hear, so he went the other way and was swallowed by a whale, where he spent three days before finally realizing that he better do what the Lord commanded, so he went to Nineveh and preached and the people repented. And something about a gourd.
So I didn’t say that. But I didn’t have a good answer for him, either. I was about to tackle writing the script, yet I didn’t have a handle on what our take on Jonah was about. Michael shared with me a little about his efforts to discover what various projects he has worked on over the years were about. Once you really know what your story is about, he patiently explained, you can work to make sure that every scene, every song and every character support that theme in some way.
He also shared with me a little anecdote about the team who wrote “Fiddler” grappling with the same issue of what their story was about until they came up with the idea that it was about “tradition,” which apparently led to the creation of the first song of the show and permeates the rest of the show as well.
After we hung up, I spent the next several days pondering what Jonah was about for me. (I figure that the beauty of most good stories, including Bible stories, is that they can be about different things for different people, and even different things to the same people at different times in their lives.)
For me, Jonah was about our longing to feel like we belong. And how if we go where God would have us go, we will eventually discover the “why,” even if it doesn’t make sense at the moment.
As the “what it’s about” was taking shape for me, a little verse uncharacteristically spilled out of my laptop. I didn’t know what to make of it, really. But I called it “A Shiny Piece of Metal.” And it went like so:
A shiny piece of metal
Is how we arrive
Our edges straight and gleaming
And then we are pummeled
We are scraped and squeezed
Little chunks ripped from us
We think we are wrecked
We do not yet see
The key we’ve become
A key that opens
A lock we may not notice
Until after we open it
And marvel for only a moment
Before the pummeling
And squeezing continue
For there are other locks
Some so big and strange
That people think
They will never be unlocked
For many keys come
And many keys go
But the lock that was thought “impossible”
Suddenly no longer is
Because you came along
And unlocked it
And opened up the box to discover
A shiny piece of metal.
So now you know why I steer clear of writing lyrics. I much prefer the comfortable confines of the rigid structure of screenplays. But this helped me figure out what “Jonah” was about, and I came back to it from time to time as I was writing about Jonah trying to figure out why he was supposed to go to Nineveh, why a fish named Humphrey was so big, and why a girl named Chloe was supposed to go to a new school.