How to find your shape / by Steph Stepan

It’s Saturday night and my living room is full of 20-something art students. A blonde-haired girl is doing the splits, right next to the curated table of cheese. I wish I was having you on.

 

I’m tucked away on the couch with my housemate Bianca. To be honest, we’re actually in my bedroom, half of which I’ve donated to our other housemate, Sonia, for her party. My room is now part coat room, part hiding space for those who didn’t get the art student memo. And I’m worried, because there is no escape when the party is in your bedroom, is there?

Bianca comes from Italy and is about the size of a fairy. A black leather boot and trench coat wearing fairy. She has a job that’s two board room chairs away from the CEO, and at some point (frustrated by her fairy size) she decided there was nothing left to do but dress up. Literally up. She gained a few centimetres in heeled boots and turned herself monochrome. She felt like people would take her more seriously this way.

I think Splits over there might have had a similar conundrum.

Where Bianca went monochrome, Splits is all limbs, yellow check pants and cut-it-myself hair. She looks perfectly at home next to the curated table of cheese. Unlike me being all antisocial (and okay, a little bit snobby) on the couch, she fits right in.

How does this happen? Do we know what we’re doing? Does Splits know she fits in? Just like Bianca knows monochrome makes her feel more capable in some way?

I’m talking to Bianca and eyeballing Splits in my hodge podge of a living room and I don’t think this is about stereotypes and clichés (that would be too easy). No, I think this is about taking form in some way.

You, me, Bianca and Splits, we must take shape. And it’s must because deep down there’s a hunch that if we can’t be seen—and recognised—we might not exist.

‘Do you see me?’ we’re asking, ‘Do you believe me?’ we want to know with our aesthetic and ideas. And of course it’s a relief when the world meets our gaze.

‘I see you.’ it says when you find a community of people who love something as much as you do, or someone hires you to do the work you advertise on your website. You think Phew. I am a writer. Or, Phew, they believe I am a writer. Silly billies.

Here’s what I find bewildering. No one cares what form I take as long as I have one: a writer, a sister, a traveller. As long as I am describable in some way. If I was just Steph Stepan? Well, I’m not too sure what would happen then.

And another thing. There’s an unspoken tension between my draft self (that endless drawing, rubbing out and redrawing of myself) and the more defined outline I make to get by in everyday life—the one that makes me be seen. Do you feel this too?

So I can’t just squeak that I am a writer. It’s more like ‘I am a writer. And by George, I can do what it says on my website.’ Except this is just a draft and I will no doubt have slightly a new spiel on Squarespace next year. Don’t worry, equally as good. Better, even. But how about you tell me.

 

One of my favourite thinkers, Maria Popova, says we must ‘allow ourselves the uncomfortable luxury of changing our minds.’ She’s right. It’s pretty bloody uncomfortable, but I don’t think it’s a luxury. It’s our natural state. To me, this means our only choice is to take on just enough shape to convince the world we know what we’re doing, and then casually slink away to figure out the rest.

Perhaps this is what Imposter Syndrome really is. We simply don’t want to get caught tinkering around backstage while the show is in full swing.

Where oh where, I wonder, does this tinkering actually take place? The location is top secret, a bit like Santa’s workshop, but I just know it’s where Splits hung out before she pulled on her check pants and began flexing in my living room. It’s also where guys go to grow their hair before they emerge as bar tenders with man buns (No one wakes up like that do they?). And it’s where I slink off to before I come up with Steph Version 345.2.

 

All this makes me think that I’m secretly hanging out in an in-between world where I absorb all that I have done and seen. Some bits lodge. Others don’t. And it’s dark, so I can’t really see the edges where I end and half-formed me begins. But I know I’ve changed when I look up and out into the world and see someone or something, a new shape that just looks or feels like me.

When asked to give a commencement speech at the Paris College of Art, American writer Pamela Druckerman offered this advice to graduates: ‘I’ve always liked the idea that somewhere in the world, there’s a gap shaped just like you. Once you find it, you’ll slide right in.’

Her words, like all commencement speeches these days, aren’t just for graduates. They help soothe me too. In my who-the-hell-am-I panic, Druckerman has the kindness to suggest that there’s probably an endpoint. Someday, you, me, Bianca and Splits, we won’t need to tinker. Our shape will slot perfectly into the universe, just like placing a wooden geometric shape into its corresponding negative space.

I hope for this gap shaped just like me. I do. But I suspect it will eventually feel like a bit of a squeeze. I’ll grow, what Bianca calls in her sing-songy Italian accent, ‘handles of love.’ Everything will feel a little bit too tight.

And even though I’ll tell myself it’s just the washing machine shrinking my jeans, really, I’ve simply become thicker and bulkier, a new shape.

It’s 2ish now, the floor is sticky with wine and it’s still a bit of a circus in here. I see an artist, a fairy and people like you and me: We must decide what to wear, who to meet and what to write on LinkedIn. And all the while what we really want to know is: Who the hell am I? Have you noticed I don’t know? Is this me?

The only thing left to do is sharpen your pencils. Go scribble. Give yourself plenty of wiggle room and keep drawing until you find your shape.

P.S. Can I have bedroom back?