#5: On constructing the narrative

I’ve had nothing to do but think these past few weeks about our bloody history. About the mistakes we’ve made. What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.

Game of Thrones, Season 8 Episode 6

These are tumultuous times. I scroll through my Twitter feed and it’s a cacophony of outrage, covering everything in venom from the Alabama abortion ban to the Georgia LGBTQ+ adoption ban to the series finale of Game of Thrones to my very own disgust at my taxi driver hocking a rather large loogie out the window of his vehicle. Occasionally, and very occasionally, there is a ray of sunshine. But all too commonly there is wonder at the downward spiral we seem too set in motion.

And while it could be incredibly deafening to have all these voices speaking out in digital megaphones, the effect is quite opposite in my opinion. It offers us a unique opportunity. We are given the chance to take what is otherwise a void and in its place construct a narrative of our own design — solo or in collaboration — that best reflects the world we would like to see. And yes, some can get lost in the din, but some are offered the chance to break through and make a difference in a way that they otherwise might not have been able to in years before.

About seventeen months ago, I released my first blog post on a public scale about mental health. I shared it on my personal Facebook account and left out no details — profiling the exact lows I sunk to and the medical measures that had to be taken in order to save my life from my own threats. I felt that an explanation on a major platform for the lifestyle changes that had occurred would not only exonerate me from residual guilt but also act as a catharsis. I did not, however, expect the outpouring of similar stories. I received several private messages from childhood and college acquaintances, sharing their own personal experiences with mental illness and their identification with my own encounters. I constructed my narrative publicly and, in turn, it allowed others to construct their own. Tyrion was right: stories unite people.

Today’s post is short, mostly a-political, and to the point: I want to encourage every person out there with a voice — and especially those who feel voiceless — to exercise their right to speak up. Construct your narrative. Make your story. There’s nothing more powerful. It can move an audience — the world — like no other. It has been proven to since before there was recorded history. Stories outdate every other invention, and they stand the test of time.

The magic is as wide as a smile and as narrow as a wink, loud as laughter and quiet as a tear, tall as a tale and deep as emotion. So strong, it can lift the spirit. So gentle, it can touch the heart.

I found the above quote almost a decade ago, and while I have long lost the source material now, I find it remains inspirational on the beneficent power behind true, authentic storytelling.

I hope some of what I’ve written today resonates with people to use their voices. I cannot wait to hear what you have to say, and I will defend your right to utilize your voice until my last breath.

On courageous, daily storytelling

Writing exists (for me) at the intersection of three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self. The first is never wholly mine; the second I can only ever know in a partial sense; the third is a malleable and improvised response to the previous two.

– Feel Free, Zadie Smith

We publish because we are exhibitionists. We publish to be admired. We publish to be part of something that excites us. We publish to feel special, tofeel real, to feel brave, to feel afraid. We publish to evoke emotion in others, to prove Mom wrong. We publish because other people publish, and that’s what is done.

– “Write to Suffer, Publish to Starve,” J. Robert Lennon

For just a few seconds I want you to imagine a world without storytelling. No shared narratives defining political and religious factions of the world population. No human thought — because in essence our stream of consciousness is just our own narrative defining us from the extracorporeal. No conversation. No song. No theater, no film, no advertisements. The world just stops. It ceases to exist as we know it. Storytelling is the crux of the human condition.

Perhaps it’s my own narrative that makes me think this view is so objective. I am, at my core, exactly what J. Robert Lennon frames as an “exhibitionist.” I first started telling stories with my Barbies, colorfully drawing out scenes in preparation for the all-important performance for my parents in my babbling fourth and fifth years. It’s highly likely that I was telling these stories before I could talk; I carried miniature figures of my favorite animated characters everywhere and spoke gibberish to myself while moving them. I, like many children, imitated speech patterns in song. Everything was an opportunity to tell a new story, often to purely my own enjoyment.

I started writing plays and introductions to novels en masse on the cusp of my adolescence. I know this not because I remember the stories but because I find half-filled pages and long-forgotten notebooks stowed around my childhood house and bedroom. Occasionally the script made it to performance, once again my parents the biased audience.

I slowly grew more private with my writings. I kept them in hidden and password-protected files on the family computer. I wrote to make sense of things — of bullies, of friends, of crushes. I wrote to understand myself. And in increasing the stakes, heightening the vulnerability, I drew them into a privatized world.

And in the process of withdrawing my words from the public, I began to discredit their validity.

If you asked me yesterday, I would have told you I’m not a writer. This seems oxymoronic. I clearly write. I am writing right now. I actively write on mental health with #WeAreAlive. I publish on Thought Catalog. I aim to publish others, but that’s another story.

I exercise my voice quite exhaustively.

And that is because I am reclaiming it enthusiastically.

For my Masters thesis, I have been investigating the positive impacts of writer communities on creativity and author fulfillment. To be truthful, I think I’ve rigged the system: my process involves going to cafés with about ten to fifteen writers, sitting in silent work for two hours, and then go to the pub to set the world back on its axis. But I found myself one day sitting with three writers — now friends — and talking about what precisely makes a writer. Their answer: dedication to the task, a willingness to work. What about talent, I asked — that inexplicable, evasive thing? They unanimously agreed that it was a myth, a widely-believed fallacy.

On the last night of my first relationship, my boyfriend turned to me with tears in his eyes and told me he feared I would never reach my potential and simply become an editor, which he ever-so-graciously termed “someone else’s grammar monkey.” Just yesterday, I received a text from a friend encouraging me to engage with the writers I’ve studied past field research — “you have something in common. You all love to write!” Yet until today, I felt certain that I was not a writer. I lacked the gumption, the pizzazz.

In truth, I lacked the courage.

So, today, September 28, 2018, I reclaim my storytelling voice. I never lost it, but I never owned it. Today I own the vulnerability and the courage it takes to call yourself a writer. Today I recognize that I will never write a novel or a bestselling narrative non-fiction. Hell, I probably will never write beyond these blogs. But I own that fiery aspect of my humanity that I’ve so long doused.

I am human and, as such, I am a storyteller.