What is your story arc?

When we tell stories, we create characters with clear goals and motivations. But what about you, the storyteller? Do you know where you want to go, and the path that will get you there? Here’s the story arc that has gotten me to where I am today, in the UO School of Journalism and Communication’s Multimedia Journalism Master’s program.

Story by Jeff Collet

At some point, I told myself I wanted to make films.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when the moment was, but I am pretty sure it was shortly after my older brother showed me the film “Reservoir Dogs.”

That film was the first time I ever recognized intent in direction and storytelling. Up to that point, I saw movies as passive entertainment that always followed a linear and often predictable narrative. “Reservoir Dogs” showed me that stories aren’t about an interesting thing that happened to a character, but rather about the change that happens in a character, for better or worse, who dares to challenge a status quo. As long as you can observe this change and derive meaning from it, it doesn’t really matter how the pieces fit together.

Stories like this are powerful because they mirror our real lives. Looking back over my decade-long journey to becoming a professional visual storyteller — a journey that will always be in progress — I can clearly see my own character arc, complete with challenges, changes and lessons learned.

Ever since I can remember, I have had a romanticized view of the extremes of the human experience. This view became grounded in a personal obsession with military history, team sports and the blank canvas of creative expression. Looking back on things, it now seems inevitable that my next move following high school graduation would be joining the U.S. Army as a combat photographer and videographer.

Joining the military and serving in a combat zone was the first experience that taught me the value of being proximal to a narrative. I had a lot of uncertainty about the war in general and, of course, many fears about signing my life over to the government. But in spite of those thoughts, it was one of the best decisions of my life. I couched any ideological apprehensions in the context of seeing and, in my case, documenting it for myself.

I found that, in war, issues and events at the ground level get impossibly strung out and muddled, like a mass approaching the center of a black hole. The crushing weight of all you see around you compels your attention, your critical thought and your immediate actions. Conversely, when you eventually separate yourself from these unique places and experiences, you see how dangerously simple they can appear the farther you are from them.

After six years on active duty, I returned to my home state of Oregon, where I attended college at Western Oregon University. I studied visual communication design because I felt that adding graphic arts, interactive design and animation to my tool kit would help strengthen the skills I had already learned as a photographer and videographer.

As an undergrad student worker, I produced videos mainly covering athletics for the university. I also maintained a full course load so I could graduate as quickly as possible, and I worked more hours in the video production studio than was normally allowed for student workers. Not fully satisfied with just work and school, I took on or self-initiated whatever outside projects I could. I figured that the more work I jammed into a shorter period of time, the more growth I would achieve. But I learned that, to maintain that high level of output, you end up relying on templates and formulas — and if you’re not careful, those formulas become an anchor.

After graduating with my bachelor’s degree, I found work in Seattle producing training videos for King County Metro Transit. I saw value in what I was doing, and I greatly enjoyed the company of my coworkers and supervisors. But I still felt I wasn’t doing enough to get to where I wanted to be. Despite taking on more outside work and chipping away at personal projects, I was just spinning my wheels.

I had to take a breath and be honest with myself.

Communicating true story arcs and recognizing meaning are no small matters. Even though I could see and diagnose them in the work of others, I lazily took these things for granted in my own work. I relied too heavily on style, niche audiences and volume of output to get by and stay relevant, and I am still trying to shake those habits today.

As a consequence, I have failed to mature as a visual communicator as quickly as I hoped. Deep down It’s a symptom of how I see the world: I see more similarities than differences, everything is analogous, everything can be a metaphor for something else, everything is interesting, everything is connected. This way of thinking, while useful, can be a roadblock to specialization and growth if left untamed.

That is why I am here today at the UO School of Journalism and Communication as a Multimedia Journalism Master’s student. If I am going to stubbornly hold on to the responsibility of storytelling, then I better know what it really means to tell a story. I had to be honest with myself about what I have done up to this point and where I want to go. I need to see that change in myself.

Jeff Collet is a first-year graduate student in the SOJC’s Portland-based Multimedia Journalism Master’s program. He has been a content creator for the SOJC Communication Office in Portland since November 2017. Jeff studied visual communication design as an undergraduate at Western Oregon University. Prior to that, he served over nine years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserves as a combat photographer/videographer and multimedia illustrator. See more of his work at jeffcollet.com. Follow Jeff on Instagram @colletasyouseeit.