I’m My Own Kind of Messed Up, Thank You
“What about this surprises you?” my counselor asked as I flailed my hands like Billy Mays with a waffle iron.
“It’s not a surprise she lambasted me with insults. It was that she could’ve been talking to anyone! We’ve been friends for two years, and she doesn’t know how to hurt me?”
Analytically speaking, I’m scared of the deadness: the apathy from the last four years of my life. I blame everything wrong on the void—the lack of optimism, the lack of yearning, lack of impulsivity. Emotions hurt, but their absence, feeling the biting cold of where passion should be, killed my body far worse than what anger or rejection could do. It was scary how little her words bothered me.
But these generic insults of “You’re shitty” had more to do with her fears than mine. She said things that glanced off me like marshmallows, and fresh ones at that; a frustrated mourner taking out her pain on a stoic stranger. Maybe it’s that I misinterpret her reasons behind blitzing me with broad judgments, but at the time, it not only seemed she couldn’t step in my shoes, she didn’t even know me well enough to hit me where it hurts. And we were close. If she didn’t understand how I saw myself…
Last April, I woke up to the announcement my script, To Waste, won first place in Riot Act’s New Play Festival. A reporter came to interview me. He pulled out a recorder, enthusiastically asked deep, intelligent questions, and morphed the strange gut punch from when I heard about my win, twisting it back into the tickling, butterfly-filled queasiness I had come to know and love. (Look, I don’t like change.)
Then the paper arrived. And misquoted me. Slapped my verboseness around until the reporter came up with a simpler viewpoint. A naive viewpoint. The greenist viewpoint a greenhorn could ever gleam.
It’s not the first time a newspaper messed up. Typically understandable. An interview earlier this year was with a peer and me over the phone. Quotes got misattributed. I didn’t see the world like my companion, and I certainly didn’t want the world to see me like my companion. But it was what it was. C’est la vie.
I called up my friend in shock of my distress, and she quickly jumped to her story: Emancipated, she managed to move halfway across the country at 18, receive a scholarship, and grow from a troubled teen to a disgruntled artist. After graduation, her story gained the attention of a national newspaper, and thus one day, my friend’s mother picked up an article explaining in gory detail the horrible monster she was. Yet, my friend claims she never said any of that. She never even believed it. The interviewer already had a narrative of what happened, and she wasn’t listening to the view of the person experiencing it.
What surprised me was my reaction. The misquote in the newspaper wasn’t even the first-time people assumed I was unprofessional or inexperienced. Possibly, earlier events were what caused my pain.
When my depression eased, a colleague pulled me aside to inform me he didn’t like who I was becoming. I felt more like myself than I had in a long time. My apathy, lack of interest in attention, lack of humor, lack of drive, lack of opinions, made me pretty malleable. Now that I started to care about things, well… Now I was morphing into a square peg. How dare I?
But I was always a square peg, really. I was just so tired I couldn’t hold my shape. I didn’t see the point in having a shape. I could fit into any hole because I simply didn’t care about where I went. Put me where you want me. Now that I’m a person again, I’m changing for the worse? Fantastic.
On top of that, the play writing group I founded was imploding. Two members were at each other’s throats. Against my insistence that no one was getting kicked out, they still didn’t want to end the conflict. Problems spiraled, making every one of us look a gaggle of schoolgirls trying to green-light our own Desperate Drama Queens of Atlanta.
All of a sudden, the reputation I built was gone. Not only was my group’s name losing respectability, I (and our other member) became “one of them.” The man I just started dating made a comment about how the problem was we were all difficult to work with, even though the only time he’d witnessed how I act was one critique reading I headed. It went extremely well. He had no reason to think that outside of the rare drama then around me.
Too easily, people shifted their view of me on par with the two members who notoriously burned bridges. Individuals I’d created with successfully for years, people who requested me often, people who couldn’t work with anyone else but me, even people who had several negative experiences with these women still talked to me like I was another emotional amateur letting my ego ruin everything. Everything I had done to be trustworthy, the effort I’d put in for someone specifically, projects they personally witnessed going well, didn’t matter at all, it seemed.
When you walk into a room, people start developing a story about you. Their perception is not always defined by what you say or do. This is terrifying, even for a white girl. I just turned thirty, but to some, I look sixteen. They don’t know why I speak like I’m not. They smile at me placatingly as they tell me the ways of the world and wait for my youthful wonder. I’m not only plastered with doubt because I look like I’ve never seen a flip phone—even those who know my age still presume my 60-year-old counterpart has more experience than me, even when… they just don’t.
There’s aspects like my posture, my high-pitched voice, my empathetic-oriented style of speech, that detract from my respectability. We all know that inexperienced egomaniac who people have faith in simply because he announces he deserves it. Because he struts like John Travolta, because he speaks with certainty, because he is older, therefore wiser, right?
Since I find my natural intensity scares people into not telling me their opinion, I trained myself for years to encourage everyone’s ideas. To be sweet. Yes, I’m an opinionated asshole, but the existence of my thought does not detract from my interest in hearing yours. At the same time, just because I listen to you doesn’t mean I think you’re a genius. Yet, when in my diplomatic state, I’m seen as submissive, passive, naïve, insecure, ready to learn, and apparently, have nothing of value to say.
This begs the question: how much should you change to look like you are who you feel like?
I feel like someone who loves other people’s ideas helping them. Yet, if I speak naturally, so fast and loud with energy and frustration and excitement and big words, I make so many people feel stupid.
I feel like my actions—producing other people’s projects for no reward other than the vicarious excitement, for one—and my experience level—two decades of writing, drawing, acting, a life’s commitment to the arts—means nothing because there are people who see me as they want to, based off my looks, or technical resume, or their own insecurities, or even others who I remind them of.
This reporter—a smart and friendly, good-natured person who paid more attention than I think I’ve ever seen any reporter give a show—saw me as he did, saw me as he wanted, and didn’t question it. When I told him anything that contradicted his view of me, he didn’t hear it. Despite my excessive workload, despite any quality of my work, despite what I said, he saw me, a young-looking woman from a small town, and something, something told him I hadn’t written much.
When he asked, “Did you write the show specifically for the Riot Act Festival?” I praised the contest:
One of the beautiful things about the New Play Festival—something other people have told me as well—is it gives you a deadline; it’s short, it’s achievable. For many I work with, it is excellent motivation to get something done when you’re struggling. I was dealing with depression, and I wasn’t writing as much as I wanted to. Annually, I try to create something new specifically for the festival, which can help me get back into the swing of things, and this year it forced me through my block.
To be fair (and you possibly noticed this), I’m a long-winded Mother-Mocker. I said a lot. In his attempts to summarize the thunderstorm of words, he crafted a quote he considered the gist of what I wanted—one that completely misrepresented what I was trying to say, to the point of extreme embarrassment. Impressive, actually, in my zombie-like state. It showcased his view of me, and that view was not a driven, experienced playwright:
“I felt encouraged to submit something because writing a short piece seemed reachable,” Daveler said. “Completing it was a personal victory, and being able to share a piece of theater created from my experiences might not have happened without the contest.”
Who am I?
I am not a short writer. Most of my scattered manuscripts range between 100,000-200,000 words, which is a shit-ton. Too much. My common goal for the first three drafts is to cut my word counts down by half because I have a hell of a time being concise. In fact, we probably wouldn’t be discussing this if I didn’t. Writing a short piece is not so simple. Not for me.
As for the whole, not being able to share a piece of theatre… I produced a hell of a lot of plays while I was living in Los Angeles. My plays even.
I am, regardless of my anonymity, a prolific writer.
I am grandiose. I am a risk-taker. I am driven! The test that diagnosed me with three kinds of ADD even said so.
Does this quote come across as me at all?
I didn’t want to be seen as an aspiring writer who finally made a piece because it was “attainable.” I wanted to be seen as the depressive, manic genius filled with neuroses and hordes of mysterious scripts no one was allowed to see. (For very good reason.)
And so, despite my tendency to turn the other cheek, despite my knowledge, no one reads corrections. I sent him a (very diplomatic) email. The idea of telling this guy that I despised the piece after he took so much care bites like a rapid monkey, but there was an online version, and I really needed that statement out of the ether-world and buried dead, dead, dead in the ground.
It occurred to me. It was not the embarrassment of how people would see me on reading that quote in that bothered me so profoundly, but rather that the reporter saw me that way from the jump, that he ignored my actual words and told a conventional narrative based purely on assumption. He assumed I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t hear any signs that possibly I did. I know I had told him about my other writings. Something about me made him think of me like that. Nothing I could do would have fixed it.
BoJack Horseman once asked, “Well, do you? Think I’m a good person? Deep down?”
“I don’t think I believe in ‘deep down.’ I kinda think all you are is just the things that you do.”
It stuck with me. I wish.
Sure, there are times are your intentions are good, and the results didn’t happen the way you expected; stupid things happen to tired people. But what happens when you’re continually making others miserable, regardless of why?
More to the point, what happens you do something respectable and no one sees it? When they define you not by what you’ve done, not by results, not even by intentions, but by something that tends to happen to people “like” you? People seen as being like you, even when they’re not?
How much do you fake it until you make it, or do you ignore how it looks and hope that someone will understand what’s really happening? How much time do you spend worrying about giving off the wrong perception?
While my depression has lifted, and I have moments of authentic joy, real excitement, sometimes I feel desensitized. I don’t necessarily feel like I exist, it’s hard for me to be flattered. What I do changes nothing. They saw me positively because they decided to. I had no say. What do I care?
When I heard I won first place in the festival, I was in pain. Something was very wrong. At first, the win felt hallow, and I waited for the other shoe to drop. I knew that some would scrutinize my play—a script I considered some of my best work—simply to prove that I didn’t deserve to win. That I wasn’t better than them. It didn’t matter if I had written gibberish or genius; it was about expectation. There would be those who thought it was good simply because it was a winning piece. My skill, my efforts, and the parts of me I put in the writing simply weren’t relevant.
How can you be seen for you, rather than memories of others? Stereotypes? Projection? Proximity? How can you be defined for all your good actions unless you run around narrating them like a lunatic? You better hope to God you’re what you think you are, in that case.
How can you fight being defined by a narrative that stemmed from something outside of you?
If you liked this post, want to support, contact, stalk, or argue with me, please consider...
Become a patron on Patreon
Liking Charley Daveler on Facebook
Following What's Worse than Was