On Stories/Some Thanksgiving Thoughts

So, I plan on reflecting on the experience of attending and speaking at New City Players CitySpeaks towards the beginning of this month— procrastinated a little on this one since it wasn’t as urgent as the play reviews I’ve been working on, but it’s kind of a good Thanksgiving fit nonetheless!

I also plan on seizing the broader topic of “storytelling” as an opportunity to ramble about some of my writing and some general experiential stuff, so get ready for a pretty wild ride!

New City Players’ CitySpeaks is a monthly gathering that offers community members the opportunity to share and listen to each others’ powerful true-life stories, in the spirit of more well-known storytelling events like those hosted by The Moth.

Now, though I am an introvert with an absurd amount of social anxiety, I’m also a bit of an adrenaline junkie and can have quite the exhibitionist streak — does any writer or actor not? Plus, there was at work the same force that routinely draws me to improv, a kind of exposure therapy ideology: me thinking that if I just force myself into enough uncomfortable situations th discomfort might eventually start to fade. So when a New City Players member asked if I’d be interested in telling a story at the next CitySpeaks, it was a relatively quick road to: well, why not?

In contrast to NCP’s more formal Forums, City Speaks is a pretty freeform affair; storytellers are actually encouraged not to have something strictly prepared, only a loose idea of the story they are going to tell onstage.

 But since I wasn’t sure if I could handle quite that much impulsivity, I decided that, instead of working off the top of my head, I was going to try and condense the ideas in the 300+ page memoir I’m basically-finished writing into a pre-written 8-minute speech.

I put together this speech the day of the event and ended up running slightly over nine minutes, so I’d say I did pretty well, especially considering that I felt a bit overwhelmed by the task, partially because a defining thread of that memoir is the fallibility of narrative itself.

To quote its opening chapter, “Stories can be our prisons and our motivators, our elixirs and our poisons, our diseases and our cures. They can help us make meaning and sense of tragedies that first appear vast and random and indecipherable, but they can also distort the simplest of things to the point that they are unrecognizable. The stories we tell ourselves can save, but they can also, quite literally, kill.”

There are times when our stories can strengthen us, help us hold onto who we are and what we believe at times when all else seems lost. Yet if we start believing the wrong story, get sucked in by some sort of flawed dogma or even just start thinking the wrong things about ourselves—not good enough, not strong enough, not pretty enough—the walls of our stories can close in around us and start to cut us off from the world, from truth itself.

For example: if an otherwise rational person genuinely believes a “story” in which they will not be happy unless they are thin, they may take some pretty absurd or even dangerous actions in an attempt to achieve that goal.

One of my fatal flaws is my tendency to make things and people into more than they are. Letting my obsession with being a certain weight entirely eclipse my capacity for rational thought on and off for a good 10 years is one example of this (semi-starvation also has a way of physically precluding people from thinking rationally, especially about food and weight, but that’s a 40-page tangent for another time); getting so attached to my view of how things ought to be and how people ought to feel that I completely disregard their actual feelings is another.

In a way, I think my tendency to see unlikely connections between unrelated things, my capacity for passion and obsession, and my inclination towards experiencing the world at such a high pitch is part of the reason that I ended up a writer, since writing is both an unexpected application of these traits and a surprisingly useful coping mechanism for them.

After all, the very act of telling a story can be healing. In addition to the anecdotal reports of artists worldwide, many formal studies have shown that expressive writing can have significant positive psychological effects.

Some of this evidence was in fact so strong that it spawned a whole field called “narrative therapy,” which helps patients “rewrite” their life stories and revise their self-conceptions in a way that helps them envision a better future.

Which brings me to the bizarre point that I think my journey from my most eating-disordered moments to my current state of semi-sanity was defined less by any sort of conventional mental health algorithm than by a long winding road of making sense of it by writing stories, first in the form of a slightly autobiographical theatrical script and then in the form of this aforementioned memoir.

Weirdly enough, I wrote the bulk of both of these things during periods where my behavior ranged from incredibly disordered to… well, still pretty disordered. Yet I found myself writing strangely hopeful, strangely radical, and strangely impassioned anti-eating disorder and anti-diet-culture manifestos before I ever consciously allowed myself to consider that I might actually believe what I was saying; that perhaps I’d been arguing in favor of health so unambiguously less for any as-of-yet abstracted reader than because some part of me wanted to justify it for myself.

Of course, in line with my penchant for overthinking everything ever, I then went for another meta-loop and made that process of discovery and how it related to my self-invention as an artist part of the narrative of my memoir itself.

(I promise, it makes sense in context.

Um, maybe. Anyone wanna read it and let me know?)

Yet things still are seldom as linear as we’d like them to be, especially not things as deceptively complicated as eating disorders. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that certain conceptions of eating disorders dominate the cultural sphere, while those with less visible or straightforward presentations are less acknowledged.

When someone is asked to imagine someone with an eating disorder, they’ll probably envision the skeletal anorexic, the off-to-the-bathroom bulimic, or the obviously overweight binge eater.

There’s less of a template for someone who, for instance, vacillates between periods of bingeing and periods of restriction often enough to maintain a normal weight but is so preoccupied by these behaviors and compulsions that she cannot maintain a normal mind or life, or a “bulimic” who compensates for binges solely through over-exercise and fasting rather than the behaviors we typically think of as “purging.”

I won’t say that I’m free of every disordered thought or behavior today, but that the formerly maddening extremes have become a lot less extreme, and that I am slowly regaining my capacity to give my full attention to the things and people around me rather than being entirely preoccupied by my neurotic insular world.

I want to believe that this upswing will continue, that I can make peace with my entirely normal weight rather than spend the rest of my life chasing some improbable ideal. I want to believe I can eventually become one of those sincerely body-positive people I so admire and have the confidence to start… posting bikini pictures on Instagram or something. (For that matter, be able to wear a bikini…buy a bikini?)

I want to abandon the physically and mentally limiting beliefs of diet culture entirely so that I can obsess instead about theatre and books and politics and climate change and human rights and animal rights and everything else in the wider world that is more important than goddamn calories.

Now, all of the above is true, but it is also true that I was fully committed to a hare-brained weight loss scheme less than a month ago. (Now, that’s yet another story…..)

So maybe that makes me a hypocrite; or maybe life just isn’t linear, and maybe, in some ways, realizing how much better it feels to be in weight-loss limbo than to be on some stupid diet might be one of my most important realizations yet.

But I was supposed to be talking about Cityspeaks!!!

Perhaps thanks to one nerve-steadying glass of wine before I was called up to the mic, I was able to accomplish my basic goal of reading my full story in a relatively understandable fashion. My four fellow storytellers also happened to have some amusing and amazing stories; I won’t go into detail about those stories here since I’m not sure whether the readers intended everything they said to propagate beyond the evening and that particular audience, but to Rafael Martinez, Nick Valdes, Meaghan Richter, and Shannon Adams; bra-freaking-vo.

So, now, bringing things back to Thanksgiving: I’m grateful I got the chance to speak, and maybe even more grateful I got the chance to listen; got a chance to have my perspectives questioned and my horizons broadened, and to be reminded of some of the ways in which I wasn’t alone.

Hearing stories, after all, can sometimes, be as healing as writing them. It can be a great relief to know that you aren’t the only one who experiences anxiety, or has experienced injustice, or has felt betrayed by their own body or mind. The understanding and empathy that can emerge from stories can help raise awareness and start a dialogue; and that could well be the first step to change.

And so to finish off this sweeping Thanksgiving day proclamation: I’m grateful that the world has so often and so efficiently saved me from my own idiocy, and I’m grateful I have such amazing friends and an amazing family who have consistently supported me despite it.

I’m grateful I live in an incredibly privileged sector of the world and of the country, even if it doesn’t always feel like I do. I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to see some incredible theatre, and participate in some incredible theatre, and learn, over the years, from some of the best theatre and writing teachers around.

I’m grateful that the collective consciousness of my generation is changing, and widening, and exploding, that awareness of so many issues is expanding so quickly, for how much more open things are now than they were even when I was growing up. I’m grateful that I can publicly admit to things like having autism, or being bisexual, or even having an eating disorder without feeling the world will (necessarily) come crashing down around me if I do. And I’m grateful that whenever I’ve almost totally lost faith in the world’s goodness, something—or someone—will most always materialize to restore my hope.

The next CitySpeaks is on December 5th, if any of ya’ll feel like checking it out. In the meantime, everyone, happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy this video of my “story!”

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