Today, as I sit and write this letter, I’ve had to write and rewrite this opening line countless times. I can’t for the life of me choose the right starting place—there are too many options. Do I make a joke about my favorite fantasy novels? A call back to one of the heroes I’ve helped along the way? Or establish common ground between us in our mutual love for books, movies, and all things story related?
But even as I debate how to start this letter, my mind wanders to the topic: the ultimate fantasy. No, not a debate as to which of our favorite fantasy novels is best—I could never settle it. Rather a reflection on a different kind of fantasy, one that is far less helpful. For me right now, it goes something like this: as I sit here trying to write this letter, an epic guitar riff starts playing. Something iconic, heavy, and not too expensive to license.
New life surges through my hands. My quill doesn’t just write—it flies. Scratching ink on scroll in a flurry of activity, insight, and poignant writing. Paper goes flying about my head as a timelapse of my favorite books comes piling up around my desk… and as the music comes to a crescendo, there I am: your favorite mentor, holding his next letter in his hands: this one.
Yet even as I write these words, I know they were never realistic. Those last two paragraphs didn’t come from an epic montage—they came the same way the first one did, by writing, rewriting, and rewriting until it worked.
I think all of us know that the movie montage isn’t a realistic model of change. It’s a highly memorable moment, one that we all remember, but we all know it’s not how real life works. And yet… I think movie montages work because they speak to a deep seated fantasy we all hold about the nature of change. They tap into something close to a wish, even if we know it’s not how life works, some part of ourselves that still wishes the world could be that easy. It’s the idea that I’m calling the ultimate fantasy: the belief that we can have external change without internal change.
In my experience, most quests people accept are always related back to an internal problem those people know they have to confront. And in the long, grueling process of facing the trials of the road and confronting the villain, they really end up confronting those parts of themself. And when a hero falls by the wayside or temporarily abandons their quest, it’s almost never because the external problems were too great—it’s because they’re not yet ready to face the internal problems.
The fantasy that movie montages make us face is the same fantasy that bad advertisements play into, promising get-rich-quick schemes or overnight diets that produce impossible results. Not just that external change without internal change is possible, but that external change without internal change is even desirable! Because even if I’d gotten my movie montage, and was now sitting triumphantly reading this letter, I wouldn’t have gotten the real reward—the internal knowledge that I have once again done the work to write my letters and help my heroes.
May the road rise up to meet you!