Stop Living Your MacGuffin

When Paul Lagasse, a colleague and wonderful writer, wrote about the demise of the excellent writing in Burn Notice, something began to roll around in my head.

Paul did a fine job of explaining  the term MacGuffin, so I’ll let him do the talking:

A MacGuffin . . . is a plot contrivance that authors use to kick off the action and put the characters in motion. It can be an object that the protagonist wants to obtain, or a goal that he wants to reach, or a threat that forces him to act. But regardless of what the MacGuffin is, its purpose is to serve as a catalyst. Once the characters and the plot take over, the MacGuffin fades gracefully into the background, usually to be forgotten by Act Three. The story has simply moved beyond it by that point.

A famous MacGuffin: the Maltese Falcon, being held by Humphrey Bogart. Read about 10 famous movie MacGuffins

What began rolling around my head like a marble in an empty soda can, was the purpose of the MacGuffin. The purpose is disappearing. It’s not supposed to hang around to the end of the movie. What makes a movie awkward, or a TV show stumble is the MacGuffin taking center stage just as it should vanish.

As youngsters, we adopt a MacGuffin in our life. Maybe we were the youngest and felt we could never be as smart or accomplished as our siblings. Maybe our parents couldn’t afford a great college, so we went to a community college and then to a state university. Maybe one of the popular kids told a lie about us, and we were outcasts for a school year.

All of those experiences hurt, all of those experiences shaped our souls–maybe put a dent in our spirit, a pulled thread in our souls, a bruise on our heart.

And then, like a true MacGuffin, it disappeared. Except, of course, when it does not. When we won’t let it fade, when it becomes the focus of our life, we can’t develop our characters fully. We can’t become the hero of our own story.

When we keep pointing to the pulled thread in our soul, it becomes a focal point of our lives.  Instead of blending into the texture of a well-lived life, it becomes the thread to pick at, to pull. It moves from a pulled thread to a dropped stitch, to a run that zigzags through the pattern of our life.

We construct excuses around it, to inflate the importance until we are more familiar with the pulled thread than the rest of the fabric. “Well of course I didn’t get the promotion. My parents sent me to a state university.” “Yes, it’s my third divorce. It’s inevitable, my sister was the gorgeous one.” What makes this tragic is not the genuine pain, but the elevation of the MacGuffin to the main plot line. (I’m sorry about the mixed metaphors. My mom liked my brother best.)

Most of our MacGuffins should fade by the time our personality grows up. The MacGuffin was meant to shape us, not become the crutch we lean on. They aren’t that interesting. In spy movies, they are often “the papers,” or “the suitcase,” the contents of which we never see.

If you are over 40, it’s time to show your true character, realize that how you solve problems is what people are interested in, and let that MacGuffin fade. It’s not serving you. You are creative, resourceful and whole. Let your creativity serve you.

Quinn McDonald is glad the marble has finally rolled out of the soda can. It was getting noisy in her head.

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19 thoughts on “Stop Living Your MacGuffin

  1. I´m over 40. In fact, I´ve been 45 for the past two hours and a half. I don´t know what my MacGuffin is. I have the firm intuition and the vague feeling that there was one. Maybe it has faded. Now I´m left with a void, which ironically becomes the MacGuffin.

  2. In what ways may I have inadvertently done this? A wonderful post, so much to think about – a long walk on the beach is called for I think.

  3. Until very recently, mine was , well my brother got all the education, and I was never allowed to go to art school, so I ended up getting married and being a secretary. I am over that McGuffin now and am free to pursue my art

  4. I have never hear that term McGuffin before, but what an incredible explanation and analogy you have given. I know many people who do this thing – pick at that ONE thing that they think has ruined their lives – without realizing they could have let go of it long ago and moved forward. Perhaps too many people do this. And now I will pay very close attention to be sure I am not one of those people. 🙂

  5. This is a fascinating blog post. Not only did you write about a new literary term, but a life lesson as well.

    It is thought provoking — I can;t be the heroine in my life story if I have a McGuffin who want to be center stage. and who wants to be upstaged by a McGuffin.

    Lots to ponder from this concept. Ponder and then move into action.

  6. Well maybe, but I’m not giving up my [REDACTED] no matter what. It’s the only one of its kind in the world, and the only [REDACTED] that can [REDACTED] without melting the Greenland ice cap.

  7. brilliant quinn!!! love your macguffin marble – classic! but re the content: i can’t tell you the number of lives that i’ve seen this ruin. they can’t let go of the story they are telling, and in the telling and retelling they distort the reality of their present and recent past. it is so sad. i hope this post reaches some and lets them rethink how they are hanging onto their macguffin. thank you. 🙂

  8. I can’t tell you how often I read your posts only to wonder how it is that you got inside my head and pointed out the flaws in my thinking. You always give me something new to ponder, often on many different levels.
    I just want you to know that what you do is important to me, one of the most pleasurable parts of my day (even as it pains me). Today’s post is going to provide some interesting journal fodder tonight. Thanks Quinn!

    • Thanks, Kristie. Our own creativity has the power to heal us. It can’t do it on our own, we have to do the work. But that work is so very important to our future. I’m so pleased that this is meaningful to you.

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