Writing to Perform, and Performing to Write—By Deb VanSlet

I always go back and forth between telling and writing when I create a story. Below is an audio file and a transcript of that process.

I write a story by telling a story. I started to call myself a writer when I was around fifty. But in the late 1980s and 1990s, I was a video artist, performing stories for the camera. I discovered a Video 8 camera in a university art class. It was small, easy to handle, tape was afforable, but mostly, I was kind of amazed that the teacher thought that it was a great idea for me to just talk into the camera, confessional-style—it was a genre.

So I go for it: telling unrehearsed stories about dead pigeons, barking dogs, late night TV, bus trips across the country, and the insanity of Botox, pet hotels, and plastic surgery. Nothing is ever resolved, there’s not much reflection, and I don’t really know what I’m doing.  But that’s part of the magic: it’s a first, and it’s fun, and so unselfconscious. I’m telling stories like hardly anyone is listening, or watching. The finished video, Sick World, is a modest hit at film festivals. I’m still surprised. I make more videos, but now I know that people are watching.

The last time I told a story on video was in 1996. Sick World 3: the baby. It’s about my girlfriend and me having a baby with a gay sperm donor friend. It’s an unusual story, and it’s even more unusual to talk about it, even though lesbians became very hip in the mid-nineties—the cover of Newsweek, the Ellen show! We got a lot of publicity for being so out about having a child this way. My story practically wrote itself. Practically.

In 2012, an incredible story unfolds in my life. My aunt Christine dies in the hospital of blood poisoning, a few days after cutting herself on a beer bottle in her small apartment. I’d been close to her as a kid, but she’d been gone most of my adult life, struggling with mental health and addictions.

When she finally reappeared she’d kicked heroin, but she was never able to really function again.

Christine’s final year was brutal. She fell three times in her apartment breaking her wrist, her hip, and finally her ankle. Six days after my aunt dies, I get a message from a man looking for a Christine VanSlet. I don’t even have to think about this. I knew right away. This was the son that she had give up for adoption.

I tell everyone the story. The synchronicity is incredible. 

People are rapt. 

“Write it down! You have to share it.”

I know it’s a special story, especially the ending. But so what? Lots of people have incredible stories. And, I’m not really a writer. I just have a beginning, and an ending. What do I put in between? Stories, as I learned over the years, don’t really write themselves.

I spot a storytelling workshop with Taylor Tower at the QWF, and she introduces me to Confabulation, Monreal’s monthly live storytelling event. This changes everything.

I start writing to perform, and performing to write. Working between the two genres is an excercise in finding my voice. My middle-aged voice, maybe I should say my mature voice, even if that’s cliché. I didn’t learn much about putting a story together in the early performance videos; I learned about getting comfortable, becoming acquainted even, with my face, my body, the sound of my voice, and then, of being able to separate myself from that person on the screen. 

Writing for performance is different than writing for page but it also really informs how I write for the page. My voice is stronger, the writing is looser, playful, more conversational. More me. I can’t get to me just by writing it down. I have to perform it first. 

Deb VanSlet is a media artist, videographer, and writer. Her independent videos, including Sick WorldWeather Permitting, and Rules of the Road, explore storytelling, performance, and dance. For sixteen years Deb produced and hosted Dykes on Mykes, at CKUT 90.3 FM. Deb is a producer at Confabulation, Montreal’s live storytelling show. She also produces and hosts the Confabulation podcast. She won the 2015 3Macs carte blanche QWF prize for her short story Self-Serve, and published Ghost Station in the Queer Perspectives edition of The Malahat Review. Deb is the production coordinator at Ada-X, a feminist artist-run centre.

Photo credit: Liz Miller (headshot)

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