3 Things Storytellers Can Learn from MacArthur Fellow Alison Bechdel
In case you missed it, the 2014 list of MacArthur Fellows, a.k.a, the genius grant, was announced last week, giving over $600,000 to 21 humans whose work in various areas has helped make the world a better place. And even though there is a filmmaker this year, Joshua Oppenheimer, the person I’m really interested in here is 54 years old American cartoonist and graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel.
Now, Bechdel’s name probably sounds familiar if you are interested in contemporary filmmaking since it also stamps a test she created for a story and that we often quote this day to pinpoint the lack of interesting female character in films these days. What you might not have realized is that “the Bechdel test“ is actually a short cartoon Alison Bechdel wrote in 1985, almost 30 years ago, for dykestowatchoutfor.
I think it is fascinating that a half-page comic that didn’t create any wave 30, 20 or even 10 years ago became a central cultural reference in one of the most mainstream medium in the world, making a real difference in the way professionals think about filmmaking today.
Here are 3 things that, as an indie storyteller on many mediums including graphic novels, I find inspiring in Bechdel’s story:
1 – Say What You Want to Say
When Alison Bechdel wrote this cartoon, I doubt she was plotting for a cultural revolution and, as it turned out, for roughly 25 years, not much happened after she published it. Yet, she said what she wanted to say, and what she had to say made its way through ears and hearts where it resonated enough for it to start a ripple effect. Over time, her comic became the “Bechdel test” but I’m pretty sure nobody is giving her a dime each time they use and/or mention the said test.
I’ve been following Bechdel for almost a decade now and I don’t recall seeing her mentioning anything about society owing her a big bag of dough, piracy or her work being an issue, or complaining about her art being ripped off. All that even though she is a cartoonist. Something tells me that Bechdel was at peace with it because as a storyteller, she did her job: she said what she wanted to say, and for a storyteller, the real goldmine is when what you say reaches an audience.
Another reason why you want to say what you want to say, and not say what you think others would like to hear is that we now like in a world where what you say today can come back at you in the most unexpected ways 30 years later, so make sure you feel strong and solid about your opinions, at least the day you genuinely shared them, because you might need to stand by them.
2 – Keep Working
Another point I find key in Bechdel’s story is that she has been working consistently for over 30 years now. She’s been doing her thing in her corner, and it’s pretty clear that even if her stories hadn’t reach out the massive amount of people they do now, she would have kept doing it. In the last 8 years, Bechdel has published two autobiographical graphic novels and one of them especially, Fun Home, became another cultural reference point after it came out in 2006.
Still, Fun Home came out almost 20 years after what would become “The Bechdel Test”. That’s two decades of hard work to reach mainstream success. And it’s likely that it was because Fun Home came out that somebody dug up Bechdel’s previous work. If she had stopped telling stories 15 years ago, the Bechdel test would probably still have her name -if it ever made its way back to us-, but she it’s not unreasonable to think she wouldn’t have become a fellow. From the interviews I’ve seen so far, getting the grant was not on Bechdel’s radar as a possible achievement in life. In other words, she didn’t do the work to get the grant, she did the work and because of that she got the grant.
3 – Tell Stories Because You Have to (i.e. Forget About Immediate Reward)
I think Bechdel stories is a good example of how much of a blessing Internet is for indie storytellers, and that is something we sometimes forget because Internet also shows us all the success stories that happen quickly, and sometimes make us believe that this is the way it should happen for us too.
As I said in point 1, nothing beats finding an audience for a storyteller, and because we associate finding an audience with success, we tend to think that nobody cares unless we are successful. It’s a funny thing because I am sure we all have experienced reading, listening to or watching a story that had a huge impact on our life even though it might not be considered as a story worth mentioning by financial or cultural gate keepers. Even though we know deep down that reaching out one person can have a tremendous impact on a life (or more), we also expect to know about the impact we are having through the immediate rewards that views numbers and dollars on our bank account can be.
Less than ten years ago, reaching out 300 or a 1000 people with a story you would have produced would have seemed like a huge success. Today it’s peanuts, because the collective consciousness tells you that nothing under 100,000 views is worth attaching the word buzz to. (And the million view is very close to becoming the new “normal”)
To keep our sanity, we should tell stories because we have to and that alone should be what matters. I am not saying that money and views don’t matter, but if you need those two components to feel accomplished or that you are living a fulfilling life, telling stories is probably not what you need to do.
Bechdel’s career is the perfect representation of what being an indie storyteller is about: hard work, consistent work, and favoring sharing personal substance over immediate reward. To paraphrase Ava DuVernay, let’s be here for the long run.
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