Smooth Narrative

It’s always so fascinating to me to find out the hidden details about real stories that move people, that are touching, that are… perfect. Because I’m not sure if it’s always a venture with a positive outcome.

I’ve had an ongoing battle for years in my head on whether ignorance is actually bliss. On whether purposefully not knowing pieces of information can be beneficial to you, or if learning to cope or appreciate that information would make you a better person in the long run. It’s a topic I’ve covered in full-post-length before, I’m sure.

But this idea came to mind one afternoon when I was driving home a week ago listening to a Nerdist podcast with guest Tig Notaro.

If you know that name, it’s probably from last year when she appeared on my and many others’ radars with a This American Life live show and episode about her interactions with Taylor Dayne and then, her now-famous comedy routine (in full here for $5) surrounding the numerous horrible things happening in her life at the time.

In this Nerdist podcast, a year later, she dives into more detail about the tragedies, the set, the aftermath until now, and how it’s affected her today. And some of the extra insight could be described as taking away from the original narrative of her routine. She talks about how long she’d been mentally trying to overcome the audacity of starting her set with, “Hello, I have cancer,” rather than it being a brazen, bold move from its inception, like some may have thought. She mentioned her worry that she would cry, especially when talking about her mother, and potentially ruining the set. She discusses how uncomfortable she felt being called “brave” for simply having a terrible disease and remaining alive, recalling times she spent being “unrecognizable to herself” in her grieving. She mentions breaking up with her partner in the routine, characterizing it as abandonment, but doesn’t mention that she did the breaking up in a selfless act to not have a young relationship be strained by her serious illness.

Now I’m starting to sound like I’m complaining about what is one of my favorite performances ever. Far from it. I’m trying to contrast the slight fiction that we concoct in our heads from what people really go through in their lives. Things are so much muddier with shades of grey. There were other parts that could be construed as enhancing the story, too, but it’s not worth trying to quantify and weigh; I’m really just trying to use her routine and experience as an example.

I think it’s the story of humanity that so rarely are the narratives we see in history and popular culture completely accurate. Spontaneous things are premeditated. Our idols have their vices. The most hated people did good things. For history, we should know the facts. But for the layman, ignoring the fuzzy details doesn’t seem terrible, as long as it captures the essence of the truth. I guess.

I think I end up landing in a space where I can still appreciate pivotal moments in comedy like Tig’s routine even knowing some details that could theoretically lessen the impact. To a much larger degree I can appreciate the work, effort, and showmanship required to put on such an impressive show that rivals the previous value of its pure spontaneity, for example.

When Chris asks her if her traumatic year will change her comedy, she essentially says, “no”. She’s still going to joke about little things, not try to call in grand ideas about life and its value because of her recent experience. And a part of me, and I’m sure others, want that perfect narrative of a person being changed for the better and taking on bigger challenges, like inserting life lessons or important concepts in comedy. (People also want, for example, Jon Stewart to take on the burden he consistently refuses of considering his show a legitimate news source or opinion show.)

But in reality, it was this one-time thing. And her life goes on. To compare it to the narratives of films, books, or television is to lose the reality and humanity of it all. Where things aren’t always so clean and clear. Where motivations, histories, and people are more complex than anyone can write. And I think, perhaps, that has a charm of its own.

The lines between truth and fiction are fluid, I’m finding. At a career training workshop at my job, we were to read an article in the Harvard Business Review discussing the importance of creating a story about where you came from, and where you’re going. And I recalled interviews where I did just that, tailoring the importance of various experiences to what I needed to represent. I leave out the failures and highlight the successes, like anyone looking for a job does. But I worry about the honesty of such practice. When have you left your grounding, drifted from your integrity?

I know to call these techniques into question outright is to cast most of communication in some “impure” light. Which is going pretty far, and practically, I know that! I already said I’ve flaunted this philosophical problem when needed. And I understand and see its usage constantly.

It’s the job of the writer, presenter, performer to streamline and simplify the narrative. To embellish and exaggerate for humor, in a comedian’s case. And it’s what works, what’s expected. But does it represent a dissatisfaction with the happenings of the actual world?

I ponder on this potential conclusion and how to respond to extra information like in Tig’s story. Would her performance somehow have been more amazing it were completely off-the-cuff? If even more pure tragedy had befallen her that she overcame today? I imagine the common experience we all have of hearing an astounding anecdote of a confrontation with someone infuriating that… oh, is likely diffused with a small observation… That asshole driver had a pregnant wife. The creep on the street mistook you for a friend, honest mistake. It’s disappointing that reality didn’t reach the height we moments ago thought it did!

This want manifests itself all over the place. People constantly feel an urge to place their anger in something, for example. These things are often countries, governments, corporations, or groups of people. We want these epic battles of good and evil, and it’s honestly inconvenient when we find out that the thing we decided to hate isn’t so bad! It’s just so much easier to paint something one color.

This is why I’m often so very slow to adopt new positions and tout them as positive, or truly lay into certain ideas as extremely harmful. I’m slow and careful to consider lots of evidence before planting my flag. I’m often the buzzkill, frankly. Or the devil’s advocate.

And now, in the pursuit of creating a coherent piece of writing, I feel an urge to round out this post, to make it cohesive and end positively or intriguingly, even if that’s not how I’m feeling. (Though if I had done that, I would have stopped before the break.) These are some issues I’ve struggled with for many years. Perhaps it’s better representative of my state to not end nicely, but to leave just a bit too much for one post, at one time. Now that’s how I feel.

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