Photo credit: Yuki
Many years ago, when I was teaching aspiring singers and dancers to express themselves while producing a television show in Japan, I wrote a blog called "Telling Stories." It lasted about six months, and eventually I stopped writing in it because I wasn't telling the truth.
I yearned to break out of my audience-friendly persona to write about my (often detrimental) relationships, and my fear of dying without ever having a voice of my own (you know, the cheery stuff).
When I write in English, I stop being polite and start to listen for truth. And often, "truth" is the sort of thing that spills out all over the page. Incidentally, when you live in a country where you're discouraged from openly voicing your true thoughts, well, you start to have a lot of them. But I knew those "matters" would clash with what I was doing in my professional life. My feel-good television program (which I actually did enjoy writing and directing every week and always ranked at the top in its timeslot) received daily comments from viewers that ran along the lines of "I'm so inspired." I felt I was betraying them when I wrote on my "Telling Stories" blog in English, not because I was badmouthing anyone in my life, but simply because they couldn't read (and thus know) my innermost thoughts.
So every day and every night, while I was telling my students to be honest, to express, to not keep their truths bottled up inside, I was searching for my own outlet to express my truths. But I was too terrified to be real.
I didn't realize what happens to a person when they're not able to express who they really are, for fear of being ostracized, hated, and banished. I'm reminded of a story of how the Wicked Witch of the West got to be, well, wicked.
For the uninitiated: there's a Broadway musical called Wicked. It's a story about two friends (one is blonde and the other is, well, green) in school, for whom life deals two very different cards. Contrary to their real personalities (the blonde sings about how to be popular, the green one cares about looking after her sister who is in a wheelchair), one girl is fated to become the Good Witch and the other into the Wicked Witch in the Land of Oz. I'm sure you can guess how this turns out.
In the musical, there's a moment where good girl Elphaba (who is green) is pushed to her limit amid the endless taunts and finger-pointing, finally flying off the handle (pun intended), her every attempt to do good ending up hurting someone. She somehow manages to turn her dear friends into scarecrows, cowards, and tin men, when all she wanted to do was help them.
Helpless and hopeless and pushed into a corner, she declares, "No good deed goes unpunished!" and turns into the Wicked Witch of the West.
I think we all know that feeling, of being misunderstood, misrepresented. And not having the means to express yourself - fully.
My Elphaba Moments—moments where I'm not acting out of evil but somehow it ends up that way in the eyes of others—in my teacher-producer role were many and through the years, I began to feel my feel-good weekly scripts were forced, automatic, and catering to everyone but myself. I felt myself slowly falling out of love - with my job, my position, my life.
During this realization, I was back at my parents' house in Los Angeles on vacation. I numbly fingered the books on one of their bookshelves, and stumbled on a classic autobiography The Wind is Howling by bestselling Japanese author Ayako Miura. I stopped. The book looked familiar. Oh yes, I remembered. This difficult-looking book sat on my bookshelf in Japan for years, but I was always too busy to read books that would make me peer into my soul. I sold it to a used bookstore, unread.
As fate would have it, the book appeared in my life again. Books always do, when you're ready for them. Whenever I hear the phrase, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear," I always think, "Yes, they're called books." They always appear when you most need them.
I finished the autobiography in two days, and with an empty box of Puffs by my side, had to peel myself off the floor of my father's office (that doubled as my bedroom when I stayed with my parents). I sat in a daze, feeling a few centimeters closer to understanding the complicated nature of the Japanese psyche.
It turns out I now had the right amount of life issues to understand Miura's stories of faith and the loss of it, and the search back. Aha, I thought, it's not that I don't believe in love, it is that my ideals are through the roof and unrealistic. Nothing will ever be enough.
Problem: my thoughts. Solution: adjust my thoughts.
In another instance, last March (after I had left my job), and days before the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I stormed through all three volumes (in Japanese) of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 and felt as if he were writing My Story (as we do). The mad talk of parallel worlds, escaping what binds you, and two moons at the intersection of fantasy and reality have many readers shaking (or scratching) their heads since the English version appeared in bookstores last fall, but I heard Murakami's message loud and clear: he relayed the risk one must take to tell his or her story.
If you have it to tell, tell it—honestly. This is what the book said to me at that time.
Fast forward a few months to New York City. The earthquake and tsunami have occurred, my values have shifted radically, and with massive loss, both personal and on a global scale, the gradual thawing out continues.
On any given day in New York, inspiration strikes. It's proof to me that real art exists, not just in theaters and museums, but on the subway, on the street, in the bars and even yoga studios. And though I'm not an artist myself (I like who I am more since I stopped trying to be one), I'm invigorated to start telling stories again, on my current blog.
Books and Broadway are there to remind us that our hearts will freeze, yes. Ice cold and rock solid, like Elphie the Wicked Witch. (If Elphaba had a blog, she wouldn't have been so misunderstood.)
How you narrate your story, is of course up to you. The fear and trepidation will always be there trying to stop (and protect) you, but the story will get louder and louder until one day, the first word (or painting or musical note or scene) will come. I've begun my narrating, and this time, it's not for a television show.
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