Spilling blood

It would be impossible to estimate how much time and energy we invest in trying to fix, change and deny our emotions – especially the ones that shake us at our very core, like hurt, jealousy, loneliness, shame, rage and grief — Debbie Ford

Last week I tried writing an 800-word personal essay as an assignment for a writing group I am a member of. Quite honestly, I thought I did a half-decent job at it. That was until one of my peers gave me his opinion on the piece.

At our most recent get-together, this peer commented that the essay wasn’t compelling enough. There wasn’t any blood on the page. No ‘oh, fuck’ moment. My peer (and friend) is a good guy. He’s also good at pushing my buttons because I’ll push back.

Quite honestly, I wanted to ask him whose blood he wanted on the page. But, I figured it was my blood, so I didn’t bother asking. Then I realized part of the purpose of a personal essay to not only talk about yourself but to reveal something about yourself. I missed the last meeting due to a prior commitment so I guess that was what the group had discussed.

Here’s an explanation of what a personal essay is by Richard Nordquist from Thought Co.:
A personal essay is a short work of autobiographical nonfiction characterized by a sense of intimacy and a conversational manner. Also called a personal statement.

And here’s an addition to what’s already been said from a blog about the personal essay from grammarly.com:
Personal essays relate the author’s intimate thoughts and experiences to universal truths. They’re aren’t simply a retelling of events, though — that falls more in the realm of memoir or autobiography. They conclude with the author having learned, changed or grown in some way and often present some truth or insight that challenges the reader to draw their own conclusions.

So during the discussion regarding my attempt to write a personal essay, I realized I had a fundamental problem. Here’s my problem: I FUCKIN’ HATE talking about myself in any sort of revelatory fashion. I’ll talk about the writing process. I’ll talk about politics if I feel compelled to do so. I’ll talk about films, music, the art of storytelling. I’ll even talk about gardening. I can count on one hand, the number of times I’ve talked about myself outside of those parameters. I’ve blogged about the disintegration of a friendship that I’m grateful not to be a part of anymore. I touched on the topic of the breast cancer fight I had 10 years ago. Let’s see… I may have touched on past relationships, too.

What they have in common (aside from me) is I never offered specifics. I spoke in broad brush strokes. That was intentional. Why? Who the fuck wants to know that much about me? There are folks who have no idea that too much information is more often than not, a bad thing. They insist on knowing things like who was your first love, what’s your greatest regret and what’s your great vulnerability. What is the value of knowing this? I’m sure one of the responses would be “Well, I’d like to get to know you better.” Here’s my reaction: Fuck you. I don’t know you nor am I interested in getting to know you.

Yeah, I sound like a cranky bitch, but I couldn’t give a shit.

And who are these fucking idiots? If they’re not counsellors, psychologists or psychiatrists, they don’t need to know my shit.

Here’s something that needs to be pointed out. We have three lives — the public, the private and the secret. For me, the secret influences the public and the private. So yes, I hate talking about myself in specifics. I’ll give you broad brush strokes but no details.

Another reason for speaking in broad brush strokes: if I named the subjects in these blogs, one of two things would happened. One — I would be frothing at the mouth over the figurative six-foot deep graves I just prepared for my gagged and bound subjects to be unceremoniously shoved into. I don’t think anyone is prepared for my vitriolic sentiments and actions. Two — if any of the subjects got word that I’ve painted them in less than shining light than what most people are familiar with, they’ll be demanding (publicly or privately) I take back my words. I don’t think they like dealing with collateral damage whereas I’m quite familiar with being collateral damage. They’ll paint me as a vindictive, crazy woman (if they want me to own it, I’ll own it. No worries there.) while they cry over their delusional versions of themselves being besmirched.

I believe that 99 per cent of the so-called civilized society would prefer I not name names or not hear about the people, places and things that would put my figurative blood on the page. For a civilized society, the illusion of decorum, propriety and prudence is necessary. The longer I breathe, the more I find myself raging against this illusion. Deny the hurt, deny the jealousy, deny the loneliness, deny the shame, deny the rage and deny the grief because they are ugly, raw emotions that no one is comfortable in dealing with.

And yet, I’m supposed to bleed for a personal essay?

No one is prepared for blood I can spill.

So, I will leave that for my fictional characters. They will bleed for me.

Having no shame

The one thing that I think we need to reclaim as storytellers is to have no shame because when I see Bernardo Bertolucci tackle the story of The Last Emperor of China and make a magnificent film, I say why can’t I do whatever I want. Because when I went to America after my father’s kidnapping, they kept giving me mariachi, toreador and drug dealer screenplays and I said you wouldn’t send a Royal Mounted Police screenplay to Cronenberg. What the fuck are you giving me this stuff? The first act of racism we can do is against ourselves. So, we should not have it. We should be shameless and free to tell whatever story we want to tell Guillermo del Toro

There are many reason to love Guillermo del Toro and speaking his mind is one of them. I love that he believes storytellers should be shameless and free to tell whatever story we want to tell.

Yes, he works in the realm of science fiction, fantasy and horror, so yes, it seems he is freer in those genres to do whatever the fuck he wants.

My goal is to be shameless and free as a storyteller. I hate the possibility of being burdened with conventions and constructs that seem inherent in any genre you write in. That is why I believe in the story first. Fuck the idea of genres. They are a way of labelling a literary or cinematic story so it’s easier to market for the publishing companies or movie industry.

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I don’t think of genre when I create and work on a story. It figuratively handcuffs me. There’s no room to breathe. There’s no room to push the envelop past the point of discomfort or unacceptability. Do I envy people who follow and work within a literary construct? No. It feels cookie cutter to me. It feels creatively stifling. It’s boring. It feels like I’d rather gouge my eyes out than conform for no good reason other than ‘that’s the way it’s always been.’ It’s not how I create.

I also hate the burden of the idea of appropriation. To be free and shameless in your storytelling allows you to be anything or anyone. But can you tell the story of someone who is not from your own ethnic background? Yes, I do. If you do the research, if you are respectful of the material, the people and the culture, yes, it can be done. It has been done. Hell, you can throw all the tried and true tropes out the fucking window and create your ideal world where your characters can live the way you see them.

The characters, void of ethnicity and gender, and their stories matter to me. Ethnicity and gender are just ingredients that add colour and flavour to the story. There are many other things that add colour and flavour — location, the characters’ backstories and experiences, the characters’ motivations and intentions.

Will I ever get called out for not telling the stories of my ancestors? I don’t know. But I do have a question for those who would ask the question of how could I possibly write something that I couldn’t possibly know like the back of my hand. I would ask ‘why would I intentionally limit my imagination and storytelling abilities because of my ethnicity and gender?’ I would listen to their response, then tell them to go fuck themselves.

During my field research trip, I had a number of epiphanous moments tied directly to my current writing project. These moments, on a certain level, were deeply personal and I can count on one hand the number of people who are and will be privy to hearing about these moments. It’s not something I care to share with everyone. But these moments will inform, shape and hopefully, add more nuance to the storytelling.

That is something I’m looking forward to.

Something greater than yourself

You’re in service of something stronger than you. Like the story has to be stronger than you. And your certainty has to be stronger than anybody else’s because the story speaks to you. Not because it’s you. (It’s) because you say “Look this is what it needs, not me.” And you actually feel carried on. You go through the difficulties but you feel carried on in terms of faith and certainty — Mexican film director, screenwriter, producer and novelist Guillermo del Toro speaking at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival

As a writer, you are in service of something bigger than just simply your existence. You are a storyteller whether the tales you tell are true-life or fictionalized.

It has taken me a lifetime to definitively conclude that I am a storyteller. Whether through images or words or a combination of both, I am a storyteller. That is something I am most proud of and is the most comfortable skin I’ve ever worn.

There will always be people who expect me to wear a different skin because of the way I look and the stereotypes/biases that come with it. I have to humour them. Or least humour them long enough to figure out what it is they really want from me and make the conscious and pointed decision to disappoint them.

My current writing project has pushed me onto another level of storytelling. It’s something I’ve always planned to do… push myself with each writing project. The field research is a part of this process. This story is so different from the first book. And I anticipate getting interesting reactions about it once it’s done.

I’m a ‘like it’, ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ kind of person. You can’t get more basic that that. I’m not crazy about over-analyzing things. Navel-gazing isn’t all that much fun in my opinion. I’ll leave that to the folks who like doing that kind of thing. Reminds me of dealing with a backseat driver. I’d rather kick them out of the car and let them fend for themselves rather than listen to them tell me what my thought process is. Adiós, amigos.

Those who really know me, respect me, love me and are weirdly entertained by me. And not necessarily in that order. Being weirdly entertaining wins out most of the time.

Four days into my field research, I have met people, with interesting stories, who are genuinely interested in me and the silly things I get myself into. If I sound surprised, it’s because I am. The idea of me actually being interesting to another human being is a bit baffling at times.

As a result, I’ll be walking away, at the conclusion of my field research, with a few more friends to populate my life.

The field research has been going great. A lot of information to process and absorb. I’ve been taking notes. Not everything I’ve been exposed to will end up in my current writing project. But there is always the chance some of that information will appear in future stories. I don’t know if I’ll absorb enough stuff to have a truly nerdy did-you-know moment á la Cliff Clavin from Cheers.

Anyway, there is more stuff to do this week. I brought books with me to read and I haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. Ack. I really should set aside some time to unwind and read. There might be time near the end of the trip. But maybe I should start now. Hmmm.

For now, there is more stuff to process, to absorb and to be greater than the sum of its parts.