Grandiose Little Me

I participated in a digital storytelling workshop yesterday, in preparation for next week’s group photo exhibition, and it made me very emotional in all sorts of ways: what surfaced included excitement, choking ambition, perfectionist tendencies, and desire for praise. I was yanked out of my contemplative little cell, faced with the world inhabited by other people – under the most benign circumstances – and shaken.

One of the things that struck me most was how actually uncomfortable I felt in this group setting. I worked as a teacher (i.e. leader) for a long time and found out that being on the other side was extremely difficult, especially since we were working on a group project. I want to say that I hate group projects, but hate is not the word. I just panic because I have no control over their results. No control! Even though I sit in the first row, trying to communicate to the teacher, in this case a sweet-tempered and witty young woman from Vancouver, that I indeed am the best. “How do I get your job?” is actually what I wanted to ask her, but didn’t. And while I realize how ridiculous my controlling impulses are, I want to see them clearly, without condemnation or justification.

The idea for the exhibition and workshop came from a young woman,  recently graduated from journalism at Concordia University, whose goal is initiating more citizen participation and involvement in public affairs. She searched for people coming from varied backgrounds, selected about a dozen, furnished us with single-use cameras and asked to document a day in our lives.

I followed her instructions to the letter (I am certainly well schooled), and even though I can shoot pretty well and own a decent camera, I stuck to the disposable one and to the project’s raw, documentary purpose. I used to play with disposable cameras years ago so I knew that the key to getting anything out of them was using flash all the time (except in sharp direct sunlight). Anyway, I told myself, the point is not to look good in this. The point is, in my case, to say something honest about living unemployed in Montreal.

At the workshop it turned out that most people’s pictures did not turn out well, or that they hadn’t even picked up their single-use cameras at all, so they worked with digital photographs. The day-in-a-lifetime frame was not respected by anyone but me, and so I felt a pang of irritation, thinking, man, if I made a slide show of the best pictures taken over my time in Montreal, I would blow your minds. I felt like I was being unfairly limited in my output just because I stuck to the rules. I also went for a very basic narrative of my day, including revelations such as “In the morning, I do yoga, and have breakfast. I like to cook and eat well, so the BIO label really gets me going.” Others mostly went for philosophical and poetical treatises on Montreal, in French – I was the only one doing it in English.

Then there was the audio recording. It was the first time I’d ever worked with iMovie and I couldn’t make it do all the things I wanted it to do… I almost punched the computer at some point, at the same thinking, whoah, whoah, what’s with all the anger? What is this? And I realized that I wanted it to be perfect, but I was given only 4 hours to write the story, select, edit, and time the pictures, and finally record the voiceover. The vision engrossed me completely and made me feel like I was actually fighting for something real. I had to remind myself that I was not there to make my name known, but to represent Montreal’s diversity. The project really was about humility, but even though I feigned this quality in my amateurish pictures, I couldn’t bring it to the creation process. To me, it was mostly ambition and stress and anger. Interesting, eh?

The end result is far from good. If I had more time, I’d change the narration in a few places, choose better soundtrack, add a few final strokes. I’d stick to the choice of photos though.

I am a bit apprehensive and worried about the exhibition, even though it is going to show at a university gallery, and is not about me, really. But when I think it will be available online later on, with my name tagged to it forever, I squirm. Here I am, showing off a bunch of pretty bad pictures with a dull, halting voiceover. But hey, I did it and I am glad.

Thing is, I actually like the punk rock aesthetic of these stills – they just seem out-of-place in this particular context.

Also, I know more about myself now. I’ve learnt about digital storytelling and iMovie. Nothing stands in the way of me making my own stories and not worrying about the context someone else may place them in. If I want to control it, I will, but didn’t I want to let go of control? There goes, that’s how it feels. I used to spend hours editing pictures, a long time ago when I was still shooting film, and I remembered it yesterday. Except in the past, nobody would rush me. Yesterday I was rushed and it made me impatient. Pictures are dear to me. I’m serious about them.

Then again, why so serious? Why was I so solemn about it all instead of relaxing my shoulders and having a bit of fun? I think it was partly because I found myself in an environment where I would actually want to work, and so I purposefully set myself up for a test. In the end, I don’t think I passed it – I tried too hard.

What also dawned on me was that I did have a strong work ethic. Sometimes, when I look at job ads and see requirements such as “sense of organization, time management skills, self-starter,” I wonder if there is a place for me in the working world, because I often cannot bring myself to do the above. Not because I can’t, but because deep inside I don’t really want to, or because I feel that the job is demanding too much for purposes that have nothing to do with me, for some high organizational goal which I don’t actually support. But if I focus on a thing that fully matters – lo and behold, I come alive. It was a beautiful realization and it just confirmed that I need to keep on writing, filming, telling stories.

Yesterday exhausted me emotionally but also sowed the seed of something good for the future. I am grateful for having faced the repressed, frustrated artist in me with full force. Sure, I would like to start with a Pulitzer and a MOMA retrospective before getting one thing done and exposed to criticism and ridicule. I thought of what Brené Brown said about embracing one’s own imperfection and stepping forward. In 2010, she delivered a TEDx talk which became incredibly popular, and had this to say about what happened next:

“One of the things that I’ve learned, that I didn’t know before that talk exploded, is how hard I’d been working to keep my career small. And that was a little bit heartbreaking for me, because I usually thought of myself as being pissed off because I couldn’t get my work out there enough. But really I think I was engineering that, because I was afraid of these things that actually happened, like the personal attacks.

For people to look at other folks who are trying to come up and share their work with the world, or their art, their ideas, their writing, their poetry, whatever, and say “You can’t care what other people think” is bullshit. When you lose your capacity to care what other people think, you’ve lost your ability to connect. But when you’re defined by it, you’ve lost your ability to be vulnerable. That tightrope is what my talk is about, and I think that balance bar we carry is shame resilience. I think it’s the thing that keeps us steady. If we can understand that: I’m not the best comment, I’m not the best accolade I’ve received, and I’m not the worst. This is my work.”

Before drifting off last night, I watched a documentary on Krishnamurti, possibly the worst documentary I have ever seen. It starts interestingly enough, recounting the myth of his childhood and beginnings with the Theosophical Society (by which he was “discovered,” like America, like gravity), but the storyline ends with his dissolution of the society and start of an independent teaching “career.” Similarly, all the sources I can find offer more or less detailed accounts of his childhood and teenage years, and then BAM! enlightenment strikes under a Californian pepper tree and he stops being a person! He ascends to another level! The rest of the documentary are excerpts from his various public addresses and dialogues in India, the US, and Europe. He really says the same things over and over (I don’t get the impression that he read much himself) and insists that he does not want acolytes, but people follow him like sheep nevertheless. Just check the Krishnamurti Educational Center of Canada’s website, where he is depicted like a saint and seems venerated in a way he would surely bash. I found this funny exchange in the transcript of a 1967 public dialogue in Saanen:

 “Questioner: I am very conscious of my share of responsibility in this disintegrating world. The rich have even more responsibility for this disintegration. There are rich people who have listened to you, some of them for forty years; they are still more responsible. The presence in this tent of such persons represents a static force in contradiction to what you have been saying for forty years. There is an urgent need for each one of us to understand what you are saying, because of this disintegration. But whose role should it be to denounce vigorously the sabotage which this static force constitutes?

Krishnamurti: I don’t know why we are concerned with the rich or the poor, nor who is disintegrating or not disintegrating; whether somebody is using the speaker as a drug, to stimulate himself and therefore remains static, or those who take actual LSD and remain static. . . . Now I don’t see . . . why we are concerned with another. We are concerned first with what we are – you and I. Leave the others alone! Whether rich or poor, Communist or Socialist, Hindu or Buddhist – leave them alone! You and I are responsible! You who are listening and I who am talking. I am responsible. And whether you use me, the speaker, for your own amusement, enjoyment, as a drug – that’s your affair, it’s your misery. . . .

I believe the speaker has talked for more than forty years. It’s my tragedy, not yours. And it would be a tragedy to the speaker if he was expecting something out of it, expecting people to change, to bring about a different society, a different way of life. If I was expecting it I would be disappointed, I would be hurt, I would feel I had not done what I started out to do. It doesn’t affect me at all! Whether you change or don’t change, it’s up to you.”

I fell asleep musing about change, again, after reading and reading and reading and watching so much of what others have done and thought and invented. At night, all I dreamt about were very mundane things: a friend, a young mother, talking to me about her baby’s allergies; buying furniture; taking a bus, making phone calls, trying to be lovable. I woke up late, tired and sad. Snow storms over Montreal. I am writing.

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