This past Sunday, I was quite sick. Had probably the worst cold of my life. At least one of the top 3; and as if that wasn’t enough, I also had to catch a flight back home.
So it was around 7.30pm, at the Mumbai International Airport lounge, that I found myself pressing “play” on one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking documentaries I have ever seen – McQueen.
For those of you who thought that this would be a doc on Lightning McQueen (the protagonist from Pixar’s Cars franchise), you’d be wrong; And if you thought it was a doc about Steve McQueen (the super famous actor from the 50s and 60s), you would also be wrong.
McQueen is the story of the life and death of one of the most controversial fashion designers of our lifetime – Alexander McQueen.
I’m not a fashion guy. I don’t really care about clothes and ‘looks’. But after watching this doc, I had a newly-found respect for the people who choose to spend their life creating and inventing these very ‘looks’. Why? Because just like any other art form, clothing is about self-expression; And Alexander McQueen is not just a fashion designer – he was (and will remain) an artist, like Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Lady Gaga – and just like them, McQueen is one of the greatest of all time.
So in this article on the art of storytelling, I’m going to share three things I learned from him; about creativity, expression and the cost of being an artist.
Art of storytelling – Create The New
If you googled what McQueen looked like and you knew nothing of his career, your first guess about what he does would not have been ‘fashion genius’. Why? Because that’s not the story we’ve seen growing up. Designers look like Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, Tom Ford. McQueen, on the other hand, was ‘new’. Which made everything he made ‘new’.
Many times I hear people doubt themselves, because they believe that what they have to say may be nothing new. I would be guilty of feeling that too when I was younger. But when I saw McQueen’s work and how much he cared about his creations, I was reassured that there is always room for ‘new’ in this world.
Every idea that has ever created any change, was ‘new’ when it began. McQueen created the ‘new’, which inspired so many more, to a point where his ‘new’ is now part of culture itself.
So, do something, make something, imagine something that you want to see exist – without putting any doubt in your mind about whether people or the world will ‘get it’ or ‘accept it’.
Art of Storytelling – Express Inside Out
When asked about what inspires the ‘unusual’ looks he creates (just Google ‘Alexander McQueen show’ and you’ll see what I mean), McQueen said that all his clothes and designs and even his shows are very personal to him – he creates what he feels. His designs – whether it’s the concept of the show or the production design or the clothes themselves – are his thoughts, personified.
When I write, that’s exactly what I feel like I’m doing. Even if it’s fiction, everything I write is something I’ve felt or am feeling or am curious about feeling. My words are my thoughts… in words.
It may sound too easy a connection to make – of course my words are my thoughts and feelings – but now imagine this…
Do you ever say something – or even communicate something in some non-text, non-verbal form – that isn’t you?Find yourself doing something because you believe it’s what the ‘outside’ (society, family, friends, etc) expects you to do or say? Do you ever find yourself creating from the outside in?
I’m guessing you do. But that’s okay. Sometimes, it’s all you can do. Just make sure that you invest in finding some outlet for ‘inside’ you – whether it’s writing or performing or any sort of creative work.
The outside world needs to see the inside you. The art of storytelling gets better with it.
Art of storytelling – Balance The Cost
McQueen struggled throughout his career with several things – his commitments to two separate brands (he was creating his own label ‘Alexander McQueen’ while he was also the Creative Director of Givenchy); the ramp shows (he directed every second to perfection); the multiple collections he created from scratch multiple times a year; being broke for a good part of his early career, the fame and money; and the subsequent alcohol and drug abuse post-fame, anxiety, depression. He lived a regular human life full of light and darkness, while also being a visionary. All of this ended up being too much eventually, as he took his own life at the age of 40, back in 2010.
I can’t assume to know what he was going through near the end, but the documentary does a great job in showing you exactly who McQueen was. As close as any other person can get to knowing another.
What I learned was that there is a cost to being an artist. There is a cost to self-expression. There is a cost to understanding the darkness within.
With my own limited experience with life (close to 30 years now!), I can say this – the darkness… it can be overwhelming!
However, sometimes, the darkness is something you can’t avoid. But remember this – every ‘dark’ thought you have, is only a small part of you; And just because you think it, doesn’t mean you become it.
Sometimes, I even find myself choosing to seek the darkness because I want to understand it. I don’t have all the answers when it comes to figuring out how to deal with the darkness – but what I can tell you is this…
You can find a balance. Something that helps you keep your mind at ease. Write. Listen. Watch. Read. Whatever brings you joy, invest in that.
It is the Second Skin of the Storyteller
Clothing is skin we choose to wear. But there is another kind of skin we add on top of what our body already has – a personality; of the person the world sees and touches and hears, a person who may be just like us, but sometimes doesn’t say everything we actually think.
McQueen was a different kind of an artist though. He made the outer skin, sure, but he made it for the outside, based on what he felt on the inside.
I think sometimes that’s what we as storytellers do. We’re just people trying to share what we feel and who we are, on the inside; And sometimes, as it may have for McQueen, that takes a toll on us. While I don’t have a definite answer for how to manage that toll, I can tell you that it begins and ends with being honest – first to yourself, and then to the people around you. Whatever happens after that, well, I guess at least you put it all out there and it’s not hidden anymore.
As storytellers – or as artists, if that’s something we can call ourselves – we wear lots of skins. One for our family. One for our friends. One for our colleagues. And one for everyone else. But there is this one that we’re always wearing, the second skin – our story. Pure, honest, raw.
Let your story out. Even if sometimes you may not find it beautiful. I promise you, once you let it out, the beauty will find a way to come out too.
Lakshya Datta is the founder of Launchora, a creative writing site that invites all storytellers to write.
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