This month at ADCOLOR 2019, M. Night Shyamalan and Tiffany R. Warren gave an incredible keynote on how to stay true to your voice as a creator. M. Night discussed how, by focusing on our place in the universe and giving ourselves permission to tell the stories that are unique to our experience, we pave the way for others to do the same. One of his thoughts has stayed with me: “The specificity of your voice is your strength.”
That idea resonated with me because, as minorities, we are taught the language of survival: one of assimilation, discretion and gratitude. Growing up Indian and international, I treasured my culture but never expected people to understand my frame of reference — I believed it to be my responsibility to adapt my story to their lens. M. Night’s words were liberating — he showed me that we owe it to ourselves to tell our stories in full depth.
At the end of the session, I was very fortunate to be invited on stage to ask M. Night a question. As a South Asian creative myself, I asked him how he balances sharing his truth while creating for people who may not understand his background.
“We all have such nuanced narratives [that] it can feel challenging sometimes to open up your full complexity to the world. How have you managed to express your story in a way that other people can relate to while being honest to the nuances of what you’ve experienced?”
His answer was compelling: “I show a story to a room like this and they become one group. They each affect each other and it’s all happening on a subconscious level. That group EQ when they believe in something deeply is something I trust and think a lot about when I’m telling stories. When you go to a different country, you can see familiar faces in different cultures. We’re all so similar, and there’s a universal way of telling that story. We expand our hearts to connect with someone else’s life. You just have to believe that your life is valid.”
Inspired by the truth that he shared, I looked to find evidence for this in my community. Telling the truth is not easy — it can require a level of privilege in speaking without or in spite of consequence and internal bravery to say things that people may disagree with. Despite this, I believe there has been a shift from telling the truth for others to hear to telling the truth for ourselves to realize. To explore this further, I asked my community:
How do you bring the specificity of your story into your creative process?
Mark Pollard: “I’m in the process of gradually exposing my details.”
“I believe that I get to tell stories because I don’t look like a lot of my stories. I talk about things that happened to my family before I was born and as I was growing up. Sexual assault, death, divorce, silly risks and situations we expose ourselves to as teenagers. I’m in the process of gradually exposing my details, but I cherry-pick them for sure.
Truth is, I’m surprised I’ve lived this long. I’ve been around a bunch of violent situations and not had severe consequences from them. I believe part of the reason is how I look. I’m told I have an androgynous vibe. Perhaps a bit effeminate in people’s eyes.
And, yes, I’m a white man. I’ve been able to move around parts of the world, voice myself, and take risks that others may not have done because they’d feel they would pay a bigger price. POC friends have suggested this to me. I understand.
A lot of what I do comes from a bizarre sense of nihilism — of needing to have felt almost destroyed then to work out why to live and what to do with what’s inside my mind–whether or not any of it is real.”
“I’ve been pretty open about my mental health over the years. I’m an expert at melancholy, for example. I’ve operated in public despite a sense of low self-worth and maybe even long periods of self-hatred and of not feeling like I belong in this world or in myself.
I never know what will come out when I tell the stories on a stage, but people tell me they appreciate the vulnerability. So I’ll keep telling them. They need to go somewhere.
Many people seem to think that to be successful is to operate without flaws. My point is to turn the flaws into power without turning yourself into a flaw that will eat itself.”
Michelle Calabro: “When you start from a place of ‘otherness,’ the communicative act becomes an attempt to find the middle ground.”
“I come from a multicultural family — my mom is Filipina and my dad is Italian American. Other than my brother, I’ve never met someone who is Filipino Italian American. That level of individuality can be confusing and isolating, especially for a young person. It took quite some time for me to become comfortable with my cultural identity. No matter where I am in the world, I’m always perceived as the ‘other.’
When you start from a place of ‘otherness,’ the communicative act becomes an attempt to find the middle ground. I use my creativity to explore that middle ground, by making experiences that merge stories with mechanics. If that seems experimental, that’s a good thing. I’m most comfortable combining media and methods in unusual ways, because it feels new. When I identify an area of my life where I’m experiencing tension or confusion, I make experiments in that area, in order to learn more about myself, the people and world around me, and what it means to be human. Yes, there are themes to my work — identity; communication; truth and trust; mediation; love and the barriers to love; the balancing of cultures — and yet every new project feels like a fresh exploration.”
“For the past few years, I’ve been thinking about truth and trust, and our assumptions about how to discern the truth. When you’re building a relationship with another person, you come to realize that you can’t ever really know everything about that person, so it’s important to trust them. I made a board game to explore these themes, called “The Forger” and it’s about making fake art and pretending it’s real.™”
Natalie Kim: “What we think of as singular and specific to us is often felt and experienced by others — we just don’t realize it until we vocalize these stories.”
“One of the most beautiful things I’ve realized in running We Are Next and hearing about peoples’ journeys getting started in the industry is that what we think of as singular and specific to us is often being felt and experienced by others in a similar way — we just don’t realize it until we vocalize these stories.”
“I used to think my brand of Asian American introversion and timidity speaking up and how it manifested in the workplace was my own personal struggle, but have connected with so many who experienced the same thing for different reasons.
By discussing it collectively, we can draw from the specifics of everyone’s story to find ways that we can all feel supported and provide advice to others experiencing a similar hurdle. I think vulnerability also plays a huge role in not only sharing the details of our experiences, but allowing others to relate to and learn from them.”
Emma Chiu: “Where we’re local to shapes who we are.”
“I remember attending a talk where a photographer said his creativity is fueled not by where he comes from but where he is local to. This point really resonated with me. Being a British-born Chinese and growing up in a cosmopolitan metropolis, London, gave me permission to embrace my heritage and traditions whilst exploring and creating my own. I was local to London for over three decades and whilst the city has shaped my creativity, humor (namely, sarcasm) and appreciation for other cultures, I am now local to New York City.
The career I have organically adopted involves understanding consumer behavior, cultural changes and visual trends. I studied Graphic Design. What I do today in New York City reflects the importance of how I want to explore and capture the way people behave today, no matter where they are from — it’s about where they are local to that really shapes who they are.”
How do you use creativity to share your voice? What types of stories speak to you? Is there anything you’re afraid to share, and why?