Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Digital Storytelling: The Importance of Context and Understanding What Your Story is Really Saying

Today I watched Hannah Gadsby’s hour comedy special “Nanette” on Netflix and it was so heartfelt, and a lot of the act spoke to me. One of the things she spoke on was the current romanticism of mental illness, and as someone that has ADHD, anxiety, and depression, this related to me a lot. She also spoke on her experience on coming out as a lesbian, and one phrase really spoke out to me: “You learn from the part of the story you focus on. I need to tell my story properly”. What she was discussing, was coming from a conservative Christian area in Tasmania, where she says “70% of the people who raised me, loved me, who I trusted -  believed that homosexuality was a sin, that homosexuals were heinous sub-human pedophiles” and how this affected her view of her self-worth. She goes on to speak about how she turned her coming out story into a comedy routine - as many young gay comedians do - and how it caused her to compartmentalize and minimize the pain she’d felt, instead of dealing with it the way she should have - the way she wished she had. While this is a very deeply personal story, and a very personal analysis, it made me start thinking on my stories and what I focus on.

My latest book, Dandy, had a very challenging main character for me. When I wrote the rough draft of my first book - Allaha of the Mountain - it was from a very depressed place. My cat, Zane - my first pet that had been my pet and not a family pet - died. And I largely felt that it was my fault for being a young, inexperienced owner. (You’ll also notice that the dedication is to him, and one of the main characters - Karejakal - is based on him.) I know now that that did play a part of it, but the larger problem was that Zane had somehow contracted feline leukemia (despite having been vaccinated) and so when one thing went wrong, everything did. The same thing happened to his brother, Ramses, whom Dandy is dedicated to. So at the time I wrote Allaha of the Mountain for the first time, I was in a depressive state. And while my ex thought that the title character, Allaha, was based on me, I would say it would be more accurate to say that she is my depression personified. It shows in her emotional detachment, the way she seems to have a hard time connecting to actual feeling - good or bad.

So my goal with Allaha has become accurately portraying someone with depression, and in her story it’s the support of her friends and her responsibility for other people that helps her to reclaim herself. Because initially she turned to religion as her support system, and I don’t mean to discredit anyone whose faith has helped them - but I was raised in a Christian household, and I needed more than faith. Faith itself is not wrong; but oftentimes, and usually well-meaningly and unconsciously, it is postulated as a cureall - anything can be fixed with enough faith. So when your problems - when your pain, your feelings of isolation, your feelings of being not quite right - when they don’t go away, it’s because you don’t have enough faith. And you don’t seek outside support, because you’ve been taught that all you need is faith, and maybe you’re ashamed that you don’t have the faith you’re supposed to have. Because how can you, when your problems still exist?

Allaha focuses on a woman who buried her pain in blind religious faith, and found that if she just made herself enough of the perfect model of the ideal practitioner of this faith, she could pretend that the hurt wasn’t there. In reality, she was suffering from a prolonged depressive state, and it made her emotionally unavailable. Not because she relied on faith, but because she only relied on faith. Throughout the series, I want to be able to depict her journey back to herself through confronting her pain, rather than burying it. Through relying on the people who love her, rather than blindly following doctrine. And it’s a personal battle that I’ve experienced - the fight between faith and personal beliefs, and what to do when the two stop matching up the way you thought they used to, and how sometimes faith can isolate you instead of give you a place to belong.

Circling back, if Allaha is a representation of my depression, Dandy is a representation of my anxiety. From the outset I knew Dandy would be a complicated character to portray. I wanted to accurately portray someone who was using extremely unhealthy coping mechanisms for their mental illness (PTSD) without making her entirely unsympathetic. Dandy is crass, and mean - sometimes it’s clever, but most of the time it’s just mean. There’s one particular scene where she crosses a line with a friend because she’s in pain and wants to push them away so that they don’t recognize she is (even though they already have) because she has come to believe that she is the only person she can rely on. There are other times that she can really be outright vicious.

Now, I have never gotten to the point where I have crossed that line - but I have been more cutting than I meant to, and I can sometimes be mean. Especially to myself, if I’m being completely honest. And while I have never abused any illicit substances, I have wondered what it would be like to use them. Fortunately for Dandy, she also has a support system of friends that are there and ready to catch her when she falls. They forgive her - now, they don’t brush it off like what she said wasn’t legitamitely hurtful, because it was - but they know it was coming from a place of pain and make the deliberate decision to forgive her because they know she needs help.

Coming back to Hannah Gadsby - “You learn from the part of the story you focus on. I need to tell my story properly.” What do I focus on in my stories? I focus on people who bury their feelings in different ways instead of confronting them, and how it negatively affects them. I focus on the pain - but I also focus on relationships. I focus on people in dark places getting help from the people who care about them, and eventually how confronting their feelings helps them to be better people. More confident people who are more accepting of themselves. The kind of person I am and I strive to be more.

Gadsby, in the beginning of her show, talks about a man who almost beat her up because he had mistaken her for a man and thought she was flirting with his girlfriend (she was). But because he realized she was a woman he apologized and left. It was funny, lighthearted delivery, and a comical situation in general.

At the end of her show, she reveals that he realized she was a lesbian and came back to “beat the shit out of” her. She discusses how ending the story where she did was on purpose, because she knew it was funny at that point - and that her getting beat up was not. You can see the emotion on her face - you can see how much it hurts her that she didn’t report the incident, or go to the hospital because, in her words, “I thought that was all I was worth”.

I really had wondered why I wrote such dark themes into my stories. Why did I feel the need to focus on terrible things happening, instead of happy endings and fun adventures? And it was watching this special, and seeing someone who had felt some of the same things I had - hearing them articulate some of the things I had done in different ways - that made me realize it. I needed to tell my story properly.

My characters start in dark places and find bad ways to cope with them. I fight for education on mental illness because when I tried to articulate my depression to my mother as a teenager, she didn’t realize what the problem was and didn’t get me the help I needed. That is not a denigration on her - it’s a side effect of a society that stigmatizes mental illness. I had realized that I did not feel things the same way as other people early on - and I hid it, because the few times I had been myself, I was told things like “you shouldn’t feel that way”. So subconsciously I just started shutting down the feelings I wasn’t supposed to have and “played normal”. I didn’t make plans for the future, because I didn’t know what I was supposed to want, and I had stopped trying to figure out what I actually wanted.

“I need you to know what I know - to be rendered powerless does not destroy your humanity,” Gadsby says, “Your resilience is your humanity. The only people who lose their humanity are those who believe they have the right to render another human being powerless - they are the weak. To yield and not break - that is incredible strength.”

One of the things I thought of when writing Dandy was how much I did not want it to be about a bounty hunter “with a heart of gold”.  Dandy is just a person - a woman who has been through hell and hasn’t quite left it yet, and while she can be kind and decent that doesn’t make her better than anyone else. The “heart of gold” trope is always used to make it seem like suffering makes you a better person - it doesn’t. You can suffer and turn into a giant asshole. It romanticizes suffering as a prerequisite for sainthood, and normalizes the thought that if you are a good person while suffering you will eventually get good things because you deserve them for being a good person.

You learn from the part of the story you focus on. Where is the part of these stories that focuses on how the other characters, the ones around the “heart of gold” character, living in the same terrible conditions with the same sad backstories, are just as deserving of kindness and human decency? Dandy and another character, Gurujhal, are not “good” people. They both have dark pasts, and both of them have done bad things in order to survive. Both of them were broken and needed to rebuild themselves. Their stories focus on their resilience - but they don’t shy away from the dark places. Because I need to tell my story properly.

I realized that I write from these dark places because I focus on getting out of them. I focus on building a support network of people who love you and are willing to help - even, no, especially on your bad days. You learn from the part of the story you focus on. How powerful is that statement? I could just write happy stories about people with superficial problems going on adventures and being victorious - but what does anyone learn from that? Nothing.

Sometimes you need an emotional rest, and happy stories provide that, and there is nothing wrong with that. But that is providing you exactly what I said it was - an emotional rest, not a lesson. Happily ever afters are wonderful - but the kind I write are earned. Because the kind of stories I want to tell - the kind of characters I want to build - are people who went to dark places and came out to make their own happy endings. Happy endings they had to fight for, because I had to fight all the negative feelings I had internalized. Because I had to fight to stop “playing normal” and realize what I wanted, and stop caring about what I was supposed to want. I write characters who buried emotions instead of confronting them, because I buried my emotions and needed to confront them later.

“What I would have done to have heard a story like mine; not for blame, not for reputation, not for money, not for power… but to feel less alone. To feel connected.” Like Gadsby talks about here, I am writing the stories I wanted to read when I was younger. These are love letters to myself, and anyone else who has felt the way I have.

Throughout her show, Gadsby talks about the real history of Van Gogh and why we misrepresent him, and why he was not successful, and she ends on a note that resonated with me: “Do you know why we have the sunflowers? It’s not because Vincent Van Gogh suffered; it’s because Vincent Van Gogh had a brother who loved him. Through all the pain, he had a tether - a connection to the world.”

My stories have dark themes, and trauma - but they focus on how making connections, and finding people to support you can help you through those dark times. I focus on moving on from the past - not forgetting it, but not letting it turn you into someone you don’t want to be. And I couldn’t tell those stories - at least not as well - without the dark places. So remember when you write your stories, that you need to tell them properly. That you learn from the part of the story you focus on.

I’m sharing all of this because it’s made me reconsider how and why I tell stories, and why both of these things are very important considerations. When people used to ask me what I wanted them to take away from my stories, I used to say I didn’t have anything in mind. After watching this special, I realize that I just didn’t realize how much of myself I really had poured into these stories. And I want to share this revelation so that when others are making stories, they’ll take the time to also consider what their stories are focusing on, and what others are going to learn from it.

So thank you, Hannah Gadsby, for sharing your story - you helped me to realize some things about myself and the stories I tell, and if it makes any difference, you’ve helped me to feel a little less alone.

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