Wanted: an audience

Before I begin, a tangent.

Last time I got wordy, you may remember, I wrote about geek feminism. Or feminist geekism. Either way.

Three weeks after writing that post, I went to the Sunday pre-release event for Battle for Zendikar (the latest Magic the Gathering release). As I was early, as the shop was quiet, and as I’d almost finished my current creation on the way up, I got out my girly-decorated game box, my play mat … and a sewing box, a Barbie and a Barbie-size skirt I’d made out of an old bandanna that needed a hook fastener to finish. If I can sew on the train and on the platform, heedless of what people think about my stashing half-nude Barbies in my bag, I can sew in a game shop, right?

The first thing I was asked by an arriving player, one who knew I was there to pre-release (it’s a verb): Did you bring any decks with you?

Yes, that’s right: despite the fact that it’s practically impossible for a Magic player to leave the house without a deck, never mind the fact that nobody halfway serious goes to a pre-release without sleeves and dice, never mind that someone with my hand issues can’t actually shuffle without sleeving cards and will therefore bring a kit, someone who knows me pretty well thought this was an appropriate thing to ask me, despite the fact my box and my mat were on the table.

I had to open up my game kit to prove I was ready to play. (The fact I’m that person with spare lands, sleeves, dice and tokens, not to mention my Abzan and main Commander deck, makes me the most “ready” player in the room. I’m still not a great player, but you fucking bet I’m prepared.) I sassed him about fearing the pink, and he said he’d mistaken my game box for another sewing box, but it’s a question no cis guy armed with Sharpies and and a sketchbook would ever have been asked.

On the plus side, a young girl asked me about my dolls’ clothes, so it’s a tiny victory in the war of making game shops safe places to be geeky and girly.

Because, damn, you have to be a great fucking geek to sew Barbie-sized bandanna skirts before you play in a Sealed tournament.

(If anyone cares, my best card was an Endless One and my deck was fucking awful. But at least that’s a rare that will fit in my Anafenza Commander deck.)

Now. Audiences. Ironic, given that I’ve just prattled to an assumed audience about the Battle for Zendikar pre-release, right?

I’m not talking about me, for a wonder.

I actually have an audience, when I can look the anxiety in the eye, go fuck you, you perfectionist wanker of a fucking brain and practice a whole bunch of de-fusion techniques I learnt in my ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) group in order to go about the process of, well, doing something. Yes, believe it or not, having an open dialogue with one’s brain is both sane and recommended: it’s certainly preferable to responding (in terms of behaviour) to my anxiety without acknowledging it or seeing what it does to me.

(And, because I’m Aussie, it’s a national requirement to throw in the word “wanker” here and there. I’m pretty sure it’s in the constitution – wait, that’s just what I call John Howard when I reach the part that defines marriage. My mistake.)

You may have noticed that I’m talking about me when I’m not talking about me (that I haven’t not talked about me yet). Hold on. When a psychologist asked if I’d mind talking about my experiences and myself to a group of psychology students, my unthinking response was simply, I’m a writer; it’s an occupational requirement. She thought it was funny, but I was deadly serious. Somewhere, even if it’s buried under layers of neurosis, is still the core belief – always at war with my self-esteem – that I have something worth listening to and can say it in ways that make people want to listen. My crazy and weird life has lead to me knowing shit that pushes me to create (in this case, narrative via words) and share (by doing something with those words, even if I’m taking up arms against my own brain). Oh, I might write about a zombie hunter called Steve Nakamura who has a conversation with nir grandmother and nir grandmother’s trans girlfriend in which the phrase “geriatric threeway” is uttered, which bears exactly no resemblance to my lived experience … except for the fact of being non-binary, and my yearning to have had an older trans person to help and advise me, and every trans person’s need to have a close, loving, accepting family who give you shit over your smart-arse mouth and your refusal to use a gun safe but never over your gender or gender expression, and that’s before I look at Steve and realise that ney is the ridiculously-vivacious person I might have been if I’d been raised in a family where my only concerns were feral zombies. I’m writing about me and what I know. I always am.

Creatives are glorious egotists. I don’t think we should be afraid of admitting this.

(Hold on! This is still relevant to my initial point! You know I’ll lead you down the garden path for a while, but there’s a point in the end. Usually.)

Sure, most of us are creating with an eye to communicating messages about our place in the world, our communities, our experiences in common, especially those of us who come from identities that don’t exist in majority narratives and dialogue, but that just makes it egotism with a message … and that’s why people like to talk about issues that don’t impact them personally, I think. There’s something about the act of saying it myself instead of just linking that gets people writing and invested, the inclusion of the ego in the message. This is good in the sense that more voices saying a message mean more listeners; it’s bad in the sense that we always get men who only listen to men when they talk about misogyny in gaming communities or cishets who only listen to cis folk on trans issues. (Yes, there are some sensible men who say sensible things, but, for fuck’s sake, women and the non-binary folk who have also always been in the community have been saying it since day fucking dot.) So we have to be careful. But most of us create anything out of the feeling that we can improve, change, develop or deconstruct something, or simply say something that hasn’t yet been said by others, thereby possessing that belief in the I behind the creation.

I’ve been doing some work on a workbook for the organisation who developed the ACT group, which is designed to be used alongside the course. Which has been a challenge in terms of battling my anxiety (nausea and sweating paniiiiic) and self-esteem (everything I do is fucking stupid and I don’t know a fucking thing about InDesign), so I’m a little amazed that I’ve actually managed to finish the damn thing. I’ve also been meeting people through the ACT group itself, peer support group mediator training (and next month I’ll hopefully do a safeTALK course through ARCVic, which is basically dialogue around and to people experiencing suicidal ideation – as someone who was suicidal and planning as recently as five months ago, I’m interested in seeing how well this meshes with what I’d have loved someone to say to me) and a peer support group.

The amazing ladies of ACT all have a range of backgrounds and experiences, but most of them have been, like me, somewhat functional, or just functional enough that we pass for it (and all of us have become progressively more so after doing this course).

In the peer support group, I’m sometimes meeting people who make me look – as someone who has gotten back to turning on my phone, checking one email account, sporadically blogging, completing a whole fucking workbook, going to a casual gaming tournament and sassing a dude while sewing – deliriously, ridiculously, amazingly functional in comparison. Sure, I could give you a ten-kilometre list of all the stuff I need to work on – I know that list is an oppressive construct, but it’s not going away, so I’m probably better off to learn to live with it instead of wasting energy on trying to burn the list that keeps right on rising from the grave – but there are actual data points that indicate improvement in K. A.’s quality of life. Even if it’s slow and tedious and nowhere near quick enough for the understanding and patience of people with no mental illness history, and even if they’re drowned out by the data points that say otherwise (ones that better suit the stories I’m used to telling about myself), they do exist.

And this is where audience matters.

Because I’m talking with people, once they feel safe with me/with the group, who just open up … and talk. Sometimes it’s not quite so much talking with me as talking at me. Sometimes it’s a desperate flood of words, thoughts and feelings spilled out by people who have few other social connections and want, so very much, to sit and talk with someone who hears and understands … in a world where society dictates that, to be safe and accepted, we pretend that we don’t have mental illness.

(I’ll be honest: my very minor superpower includes people spilling their thoughts and feelings to me, which is a sacred trust I am being given, to hear and hold other people’s truths. It says something beautiful about their faith in me and my ability to listen; it may also say something about my own willingness to roll up my sleeves and show my scars, another literary occupational requirement. It’s also something easy, for a writer, to abuse. Sometimes I feel like I should come with a disclaimer: I’ll never mention you by name or identifying details, but I write about my life and experiences, so chances are high you’ll get mentioned in an oblique, non-identifying way in my writing. Or, if you’re my family or a transphobic/homophobic wanker, a less oblique way, because you just lost the right to considerate representation by being a douche. It’s also dangerous for me because I can be mistaken for a psychologist: sometimes I don’t fucking want to be a sympathetic ear. Sometimes I want you to be my sympathetic ear, and sometimes I fucking want to just be social in ways that don’t involve nodding and smiling and sympathy … which is why I need to keep on working on boundaries and wider social connections. And I have met people with whom I can have conversations in group and real social interactions based on mutual hobbies outside it, and others who are sweet and kind but will never get my phone number. I’m working on both setting boundaries and reaching out to people and stating I need help/time/attention/distraction/communion, but I’m so used to being everyone else’s support person – being what they need – that it’s not easy for me to talk about what I need. Ironic, that!)

You see, I can talk about how hard it is for me to reach an audience, and that’s all true. It’s a lot harder, for someone like me, writing what I am, to find readers of sufficient quantity that I can get any kind of financial renumeration, and that’s not something to be dismissed. Quite frankly, it’s transphobic, binary-centric and ignorant to tell me you never know when I talk about the likelihood of getting my novel to a mainstream publisher being a tiny bit higher than zero. I know I don’t know, which is why I’m trying to work up the courage to do it, but I’m a realist about it, too. Being a good writer probably won’t make up for the pronouns, the trans-everything characters, the mental-illness-recovery arc disguised as a fantasy novel and my secondary protagonist’s ridiculous tendency to swear every fucking second word. I know the reality of the world in which I’m working – who better to know than non-binary trans writers with mental illness? I’ll try, because there’s always a chance, and I’ve got to operate on the belief that the chance is reachable because that’s the world I want to see, but I know it’s not easy, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

(In all honesty, I think this kind of dialogue is confronting for cishets/majority folk: if they say you never know, they’re not living in a world where I’m suffering the extreme negative consequences of my minority status. The problem goes back on my shoulders. I’m the one who hasn’t had the faith; I’m the one who hasn’t been brave enough; I’m the one who didn’t try hard enough. It is dispiriting to hear someone lay out all the reasons why they probably won’t succeed in something they wish to do and know you’re benefiting from all the reasons that make their goals that much tougher. It’s even more dispiriting, though, to be the one hearing, for the umpteenth time from someone who can’t ever wear your shoes, you never know. So, please, do us all a favour, nod and just say I hear you. I know you can’t change it. I don’t want you to. I just want you to hear my story and my experience of being in the world without dismissing the ugliness in what I have to say.)

But! I do have an audience. I can jump on this blog and type out random crap any time I like, and chances are high there’s one person who’ll read that post. (I’m still amazed that eight people didn’t mind my chattering on about Magic the Gathering and Monster High and geek feminism enough to like the damn thing.) I have the advantage of being somewhat literate, somewhat educated and somewhat practiced, which means I can make my words (somewhat!) readable. Hell, I have the ability to create my own website and self-publish my own books in digital and print formats, and, if I let go the notion of being paid for what I create, the reality is that I get enough downloads of my free books to constitute a fairly substantial audience. (And that audience will be greater when I get back to doing that. I know there are people who want to know what’s up with Steve and Abe and the fucking zombie cow and Lizzie.) There are people who are interested in what I have to say enough that they follow my blog and download my books, and while my brain shrieks self-destructive words about my ability, consistency and legitimacy, not to mention everything awful people must think about what I do that they’re too polite to tell me, again, the data points do exist.

In group, I’m being the audience to people who don’t have that outlet. I’m being the audience to people who have stories and experiences society discourages and squashes but don’t possess a safe space in which to give voice to their narratives or don’t have the means or ability to create that safe space. I’m being the audience to people who don’t get the validation of seeing their stories in print or online (and this is the reason I write: to validate my life, and, by extension, others’ lives) and need, so very desperately, someone to look them in the eye and go yeah, that happened to me or I know what that feels like or just I’m so sorry you’re going through that awful shit. When people are talking to me/at me, they’re simply telling their story, and that is a sacred trust.

I’ve said it before, I’m sure, but I honestly believe that storytelling is the greatest power in the earth. It’s validation, healing, connection, development, empowerment, communion, interaction, understanding – a hundred things, a thousand things, everything that makes us human, everything that makes it worth being human. Every day of our lives we tell stories, even if the only audience is ourselves. We live stories; we act them out; we hope others will listen and understand and validate our experiences.

(We also isolate others with storytelling: for example, I’ve been at a table with five relatives who all talk about their overseas travel. I don’t have those experiences, so I want to smash my head against the wall to relieve my boredom after I’ve heard talk about their trip to Paris for the fifth time. This is usually when I pull out my phone and start checking Magic prices. Or we isolate others with the stories untold: for example, the idea that talking about suicide will encourage suicide ideation/attempted suicide, meaning that people experiencing suicidal ideation are isolated from the non-professional support networks they need to get to professional support. One day I’ll write the big, heavy post about suicide and narrative, because, oddly enough, the lack of narrative was the thing that kept me from turning my plan into actuality, but that still played into my flickering creative egotism. Not everyone is going to have that motivation, and, quite frankly, the narrative should just fucking exist.)

I’m not going to say that we’re obligated to sit there and listen (with alert attention) to every storyteller. I survive my current living situation by tuning out as soon as anyone says anything marginally racist/misogynist/homophobic/transphobic/ableist. I believe in my heart that some stories are too damaging to be told and we have a responsibility (especially as producers of media) to stop telling them. I also believe in self-care: I’m not a psychologist, and I’ve no intention of spending hours of my own time listening to someone else’s story, outside of group, if they are not capable of giving me something (listening, distraction, connection) in return. I’m not so kind that I want to hear about Paris for the umpteenth time when nobody bothers to ask me about my job, my writing or my hobbies. Seriously. Fuck that shit. We can’t be a good, alert audience if we’re not looking after ourselves; we can’t possibly give all the stories the attention they deserve if we’re forcing ourselves to sit through all of them.

But what if we do listen?

We make someone’s day by just being an audience.

Hell, we might learn something about the world or ourselves by doing so. Why else do we read stories, after all?

Every time, I walk away from group thinking that I am surrounded by people who are finding power in story when they tell me, that these are stories that should be told, that these people need the validation of seeing their story communicated to an audience – that while group is empowering and wonderful, and we participants are engaged in a sacred exchange that should be valued and treasured, we in and as society should be doing more to empower people, especially minorities who are disregarded and unheard so much of the time, to take their stories outside the room.

Because these people, based solely on their enthusiasm when they talk to me, want to tell their stories.

They have a basic, universal human need: a receptive audience.

I don’t like living in a world where people are, with many good reasons, afraid to tell their stories.

I don’t like living in a world where people don’t have access to an audience.

I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do about this, because I have both the ability to tell stories and the ability to produce them, and if someone tells me they like creative writing but have no outlet for it, if someone tells their story with such passion and relief, well, what’s the point of everything I have been learning for the last few years? I know that the workbook project, something that might help people better interact with a powerful story about coping mechanisms and normalisation, was fulfilling in a way my day job often isn’t, and there’s a reason for that. Sure, my anxiety has an awful lot to say about that, beginning with who am I to even think I could suggest such a thing to the psychologists and ending with hysterical laughter at my lack of experience, but I can’t not wonder: what might it mean to these people if someone told them they could put their stories, as they tell them, in a book? How validated and empowered might they feel to hold that object in their hands? Because if I feel it’s important, what might it mean to someone who can’t use a computer and is afraid of talking to people, who feels alone and wrong in a world that operates on the lie that we’re all this illusory definition of “normal”?

Because isn’t that, at the end of the day, why I write and self-publish?

I want, so very much, to see all these stories told. It means I’ve got to believe I’ve got the right and the ability to go up to someone and say hey, have you ever considered a writing program, though … which means I’ve got to get better in believing in the sanctity of my own creative egotism.

How can these people I’m coming to know do anything empowering if they can’t tell their own story?

How can I do anything empowering if I can’t tell mine?

Because my story is that it breaks my heart that these stories aren’t reaching an audience.

And my story is that I want to be the kind of person who does something about it.