Nanette: When Your Voice Needs to Change

What happens when the way you've gotten used to writing can't say what you need to say?

Like a lot of people, I was moved by Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special, Nanette, a show that starts out as your standard stand-up comedy hour but gradually shifts, by way of a feminist critique of art history and a deconstruction of the entire premise of stand-up comedy, into a passionate attack on… well, when I say “patriarchy” or “Western civilization,” that makes it sound grandiose, but “the way things are” sounds too vague. Let’s just say Gadbsy has been enduring the effects of misogyny and homophobia pretty much all her life, and a key element of Nanette is her excavation and explanation of just how deep they’ve penetrated into her psyche.

It’s a powerful hour of television, and if you have Netflix, and you haven’t pulled it up yet, you should make some time for it in the near future.

One of the things I found fascinating as I watched Nanette was its “meta” aspects—like, as I mentioned before, Gadsby’s deconstruction of the stand-up form. It’s about creating tension and then dissolving with a joke, over and over again. The audience feels anxious, but a funny quip gives them an escape hatch, an opportunity to relax… but, as Gadsby points out, the comedian is the one who’s making them feel anxious in the first place. “I made you tense,” she tells the crowd. “This is an abusive relationship.”

She’s fed up with that. And she’s fed up with telling jokes about herself that reinforced the negative self-image a homophobic society had drilled into her. (“When I came out of the closet,” she say, “the only thing I was allowed to do was to be invisible and hate myself.”) And so, less than halfway into her performance, she announces that she’s finished with comedy, and then, over the course of the next half-hour or so, she begins to strip away the jokes. Oh, there’s still laughs to be found for a while, but they taper off, until the last quarter of the show is completely serious, denying the audience any cathartic laugh lines.

As a writer, one of the things that captivates me in Gadsby’s performance—beyond the things that she’s actually saying, which are compelling in their own right—is the way she dramatizes the realization that she had something to tell the world, and the way that she’d chosen to do it wasn’t working. Now, a big part of that is Gadsby figuring out that the version of herself she had been sharing with the world through her stand-up routines was no longer who she wanted to be, who she wanted to present herself as being—that it was a self-destructive persona she could no longer afford to be.

But then, as she comes to understand who she really wants to be, the message that she really wants to share with her audiences, she comes to understand that stand-up comedy doesn’t provide the framework to adequately communicate that new identity. She needs to come up with a new delivery system, a new way of speaking—even at the risk of it being a format that audiences might not find welcoming.

Think about that for a moment. The concert hall-sized audience for Nanette comes expecting a stand-up comedy special, and they get that for a little while. And then they find themselves in something more akin to a Spalding Gray monologue, which in turn gives way to something with the topical urgency and earnestness of a TED talk. In the hands of a lesser speaker—a lesser writer—it’s very easy to imagine the audience rejecting this unfamiliar, unwelcome new thing. But Gadsby holds it together by, among other things, sheer force of personality, and she keeps them with her, all the way to the end. And, in the process, transitions in the public eye from being an accomplished comedian to something even more distinctive and still slightly undefinable.

Some writers find their groove early on, and they’re able to work comfortably in that zone for the rest of their lives. For other writers, though, a moment may come when the story you want to tell next just doesn’t fit into your familiar genre. I know a fantastic romance author, for example, who’s recently started writing psychological thrillers, and it’s opened up whole new avenues for her to use her protagonists to talk about society from a feminist perspective.

(Without sacrificing anything in the way of character or narrative momentum, I might add. The novel’s called Jane Doe, and it’s by Victoria Helen Stone. I’m biased, because she’s a friend, but it’s excellent.)

So, if you find yourself in a situation where the old, familiar ways you’ve honed of telling a story are no longer working for you, you can try to figure out how to force the story into working in the usual way… or you can sit with it a while longer, see if you can find another way to tell it. Maybe even realize that the story you thought you wanted to tell isn’t really the one you want to tell. It’ll mean a lot more work, and you may have to push yourself into some uncomfortable places to get it done.

If you have any doubts about whether it’ll be worth doing, though, just take a look at Nanette.

I’m always on the lookout for new editorial development clients, so if you’d like to get detailed professional feedback on what’s working in your novel (or nonfiction manuscript) and where you should concentrate your efforts in the next draft, take a look at the various options I offer writers. We can start with your first fifty pages, or dive right in to the entire manuscript. Drop me a line with any questions you have about the process, and let’s see about getting your manuscript on my calendar!

Thanks again for reading, and look for the next all-access newsletter at the end of August or just after the Labor Day weekend!