Monthly Archives: November 2021

The Story Behind the Story, Part 3

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2

Two personal experiences shaped the story that Swing Out of the Blue would become.

The first was an article I posted online in August 2012 in which I publicly discussed my struggles with depression. The responses I received showed me the power of vulnerability: how lowering one’s defences can lead others to do the same, building community, friendships and healing.

An acquaintance from the Toronto swing dance community posted publicly about her mental health struggles and credited my article with giving her the courage to do so.

Another Toronto dancer tearfully confessed her mental health struggles to me; outside of her boyfriend and her family, I was among the first people she had ever told.

Another community member asked permission to share the article with her husband.

Others started mentioning their mental health struggles to me almost casually, adding, “I know you get it.”

The second happened in April 2014, when a Toronto swing dancer hosted a public conversation in which he described the sexual abuse he had experienced in his childhood. He also described how dance had helped him heal: how partnered dancing in safe environments helped him grow comfortable with physical touch again, and how the lindy hop community embraced and supported him, making him feel there was somewhere he belonged.

After the talk, he invited us to share our thoughts, and after expressing admiration, love and support for our host, many of the gathered dancers shared the ways his story resonated with them. Once again, vulnerability fed vulnerability, and courage fed courage. From the depths of pain and horror came hope for community.

In 2015, I began working on the new Swing Out of the Blue. I wouldn’t write about sexual abuse – with my life of relative privilege, I don’t feel qualified to speak to such traumatic experiences – but I could use my own healing journey to centre Sophia’s depression, Zack’s social anxiety, and the friendship that blossoms between them as they grow, individually and together.

Which is not to say that I removed the plot! Pure character studies are definitively not my style. I crave a story that drives ever forward, with unexpected twists and turns, and with challenges that push the characters to the brink. My novel didn’t need less plot. It just needed a different plot.

In the original #gamergate plan, an online troll unwittingly writes something that only a personal acquaintance of Sophia’s could have known. The heroes realize that a fellow Queen’s swing dancer is behind the harassment and set up a sting operation to unmask him. When I dropped the #gamergate plot, I needed to replace this plot point. The same character who would have been the online harasser would now have to do something different, something equally horrible, something like …

Well, I won’t spoil it.

But I will say that the idea came easily. The plot twist in Swing Out of the Blue might shock most readers, but to me, it’s the obvious next step. It’s what happens when toxic worldviews are taken to their logical extreme. And when, after the incident, one of my characters questions whether his sympathy for the perpetrator betrays a moral failing, he is very much speaking with the author’s voice.

Indeed, when I say I’m writing a novel about swing dancing and mental health set at Queen’s University, I’m often asked whether it’s autobiographical. It’s not, of course, but the novel is still deeply personal. The details are different, but the characters’ journeys have been my journeys. Sophia’s expectation of rejection if she shows herself to be less than flawless, and her failure to recognize that her wants and needs matter, or even to identify what they are. Zack’s fear of inadequacy and judgment. Fatima feeling trapped and unable to diverge from an expected path. Dani shielding himself with jokes and sarcasm out of fear that he’ll never belong. Rhea’s struggles with self-confidence. Iftin’s self-loathing. Kyle’s anger. Sophia’s desperate belief that she can’t change, and Zack’s desperate belief that he must change.

But my characters grapple with these challenges and start to overcome them. Their successes are incomplete yet substantial, and hope shines in that. That, too, is my journey.

Because I also see in myself the positive attributes of these flawed and human characters. Sophia’s deep caring and passion to make a difference. Zack’s growing self-awareness, his commitment to personal growth and his capacity for forgiveness. Fatima’s loyalty. Dani’s friendship. Rhea’s quiet determination. Andy’s leadership. Iftin’s love. They are all me, and I am all them. We are on this journey together.

In this sense, Swing Out of the Blue is my “video”. I hope you enjoy it.

The Story Behind the Story, Part 2

Continued from Part 1

I returned to the Queen’s Swing Club characters in 2009. Although Andy had been the protagonist of the 2005 short story, I now saw Sophia was the more interesting character, and I upgraded her to be the protagonist instead. (Back then, I still imagined Andy being a co-protagonist; only years later did I give that status to Zack and relegate Andy to a supporting role.) I wrote a scene and a half before that attempt fizzled out, too. I still had the same problem as I had in 2005. The dance was too joyful, so it wasn’t dramatic.

In 2010, I began writing what would become my first published novel, Gateways. Sophia, Zack and Andy fell to the back burner, but I never forgot them.

Finally, with Gateways completed in 2013 and my mind turning to new projects, I had the necessary insight. I still wanted to write Sophia’s story, but since dancing was too happy, the story couldn’t be about dancing. Dancing would need to be the backdrop, the setting, the stage, for a much darker tale.

What I chose may surprise you.

In 2013, Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the YouTube channel Feminist Frequency, released the first instalments in a video series analysing tropes about women in video games. The videos, and the crowdfunding campaign that supported them, were met with a wave of anti-feminist backlash in the gaming community. By 2014, a campaign of harassment was targeting multiple women video game commentators in a movement known as #gamergate. The #gamergate campaign escalated to rape threats, death threats, and attempts at “doxxing”: publishing the targets’ home addresses online so they could be threatened and harassed in person. Lives were destroyed over men’s injured pride.

At the time, I was fascinated to explore the anger, hatred and dehumanization, the insecurity and self-loathing, the entitlement, and the desperate yet futile craving for power that would lead to such a heinous crime (many of these themes survived my eventual abandonment of the #gamergate plot). I was equally fascinated to explore the impact the crime would have on its victims, and the strength and resilience they would need to persevere through it. I thought I had finally discovered the beginnings of a plotline that would infuse Sophia’s story with drama and heartbreak, but also growth and hope.

And, as with its real-life inspiration, the story would begin with the innocent posting of a video.

In November 2013, I wrote the opening scene of Swing Out of the Blue, in which a group of friends watches Sophia’s viral video about depression. I spent most of 2014 self-publishing Gateways, but by autumn, I had cobbled together several chapters of the new novel and sent them to friends for feedback.

In hindsight, I was completely unqualified to write a novel about misogynistic online harassment. My early readers also pointed out that there’s a big difference between feminists facing backlash for calling out established power structures, and a young woman being harassed over a depression video; the latter seemed unrealistic. (Sadly, years later, I learned that a video game called Depression Quest had actually been among the early triggers of #gamergate, and its developer, Zoe Quinn, had suffered brutal online harassment and threats for it.) What really led me to abandon the #gamergate plot, however, was a telephone conversation with a friend in November 2014. “You don’t need it,” she told me. “The story is strong enough without it.”

At first, this confused me. We were talking about getting rid of my novel’s entire plot. How could the story be strong enough without it? What would be left?

The answer proved she was right. What was left were characters grasping for connection, holding tenuously to a dying dance club, striving to come of age even as they struggled with their inner demons. What was left was a video about depression, and the courage and vulnerability it took to share it … and the courage and vulnerability it would take for me to write such a story myself.

This character-driven version of Swing Out of the Blue was both frightening and necessary, because to write honestly about mental health would require me to remove my own armour: to remove the mask I show to the world.

Continue to Part 3!