Life Stories

Lou didn’t need another coffee, but she needed to see her reflection again. The café’s insides were a meshwork of devil’s ivy and Matisse-inspired line drawings. Aesthetics at the end of the algorithm, her sister would call a place like this. She ordered a takeaway and found the bathroom. Her shirt looked okay tucked in like that. Her cheeks were flushed with anxiety.

Lou didn’t know why she felt nervous about a job she wasn’t even sure she wanted—maybe because she’d already had three interviews and signed three NDAs. “Sunk costs,” her sister had reminded her as they’d breached all three the night before.

She had also reminded her to keep her eyes looking alive in the interview. Sometimes, when Lou was thinking, dreading, or waiting for something to happen, they would go a bit dead, her sister had said. Lou blinked twice into the mirror, wondering if they looked dead or alive today. It was hard to look alive under fluorescent lighting.

She sculled the coffee and made it to the gallery with a minute to spare. The recruiter had said that Life Stories had no physical offices—instead they rented out spaces that “don’t suppress creative minds.” As she walked through the doors, Lou wondered if she felt less suppressed than usual.

The gallery was white on white. It was empty except for a sculpture of a festival carousel made from a patchwork quilt—and Geraldine. She wore a silky black tracksuit, a neat middle part, and the same semi-approachable, vague expression as the LinkedIn headshot Lou and her sister had scrutinized the night before in the comforting blue glow of an incognito tab. Her bio had read Professional Storyteller.

Their small talk was brief, and Lou noticed that a lot of Geraldine’s statements sounded like questions. She signed another NDA.

“Let’s jump in,” said Geraldine. She unlocked her tablet and began navigating the touchscreen with subtly manicured nails.

“I’m going to show you two profiles. I want your feedback on whether they’re each worth pursuing and, if so, what Life Story angle you would suggest. It’s worth mentioning that we pay our contractors a living wage. Our contract states that they can’t work with brands, as we need to keep their narrative as pure as possible. We recognize the responsibility of subsidizing that loss of income.”

“How much is a living wage?” Lou asked.

“It’s basic. We know that some of the best art and most important narratives have been born from sites of struggle, so we need to be aware of the potential value loss that comes with excess comfort.”

She clicked a remote and gestured to the gallery wall.

“This is James. He/His.” A projected screen showed an asymmetrical face, a blonde perm, perfect winged eyeliner, and a relaxed half-smile. Projected James seemed a lot surer about why he was there taking up most of the wall than Lou was about why she was there evaluating him.

When she had sent her resume in response to the vague ad recruiting for a Narrative Consultant, all she had known was that Life Stories was a publishing company. Their website had seemed intentionally bare.

Lou’s first three interviews had been virtual and filled with personality tests. They revealed almost nothing about what Life Stories did. Her sister had compared their recruitment style to Scientology. “By the time you know one of their secrets, they’ll have harvested all of yours. You’ll already be drinking the Kool-Aid.” Lou had pointed out that she’d mixed two unrelated cult references.

According to The Manifesto, they would be immune to the emerging anti-brand movement, as they were not brands themselves, but storytelling platforms—meeting an authentic need for stories that celebrate the innate ability of humans from diverse backgrounds to experience love, generosity, survival, and life-changing personal growth.

Periodically during their contrivedly casual conversations, the recruiter had fed Lou tiny portions of the context she craved. She discovered that they had recruited a screenwriter she’d heard of; that they’d sold the life story rights for a series she’d seen about a rags-to-riches biopic of a street artist. This information drip fed Lou and the small drops of dopamine it produced were enough to keep her accepting the calendar invites to each new interview.

At the end of Lou’s third interview, the recruiter announced she was to be allowed access to the Life Stories Manifesto. This was announced with a solemnity that reminded Lou of the time her university tutor had used his own short film to teach a class on memoir. Along with an invite to meet Geraldine the following day, Lou received The Manifesto and a document labeled as a case study.

She read The Manifesto to her sister that night.

“Life Stories is an un-corporation and boutique publisher. We are the pioneers, co-producers, and custodians of exciting and authentic Life Story IPs.

“We secure the rights to strong character-driven narratives featuring inspiring humans from diverse backgrounds who show deep personal growth in the face of adversity.”

According to The Manifesto, a new social landscape was emerging: as the world continued to warm, the culture of mass-consumption wasn’t just becoming unsustainable—it was becoming uncool.

“Progressive social movements that are pushing for cultural recognition and climate justice are already beginning to untangle themselves from neoliberalism’s chaotic web of brand partnerships and creative strategy.

“We can no longer separate a brand’s materiality—the microplastics, the supply chains, the carbon emissions—from its public relations strategy. The previously socially accepted paradox that encapsulates sponsored activism posts or fine artists collaborating with mass-produced streetwear labels is about to become the new plastic.

“In a post-consumption world, the greatest resource will be authentic stories.”

Life Stories’ clients were the streaming services. According to The Manifesto, they would be immune to the emerging anti-brand movement, as they were not brands themselves, but storytelling platforms—meeting an authentic need for stories that celebrate the innate ability of humans from diverse backgrounds to experience love, generosity, survival, and life-changing personal growth.

“Pretty convenient that billion-dollar film-streaming companies can rebrand as icons of ‘anti-consumption,’” Lou’s sister had said.

As her mind wandered through the events of the previous night, Lou remembered to widen her eyes. She blinked twice, so they seemed more alive. Geraldine hadn’t seemed to notice anything.

“James has a self-reflexive practice.” Geraldine had clicked to the next slide—a .mov of a dimly lit gallery. The gentle pulse of minimal techno floated through a crowd gathered around an oil painting of farmland, which was scribbled over in a pastel-pink paint-pen with the words Art School Graduate.

“It’s subversive,” she explained.

Lou wondered if this was a carefully constructed trap. Everything she knew so far about the company’s idea of itself was communicated with a stifling earnestness that hardly left room for anyone to take a breath, much less to accommodate James’ pastel pink brand of irony.

Geraldine clicked the remote again and James’ press release appeared on the wall.

Citing brutalism and anarchic undertones as his influences, James’ works act as a sort of laparoscopy of self: an invasive, voluntary, and very public exploration of the patriarchal privileges still rife in the arts. By leaning into his privilege, rather than seeking to evade it, James is active in the deconstruction of his own cis, heterosexual, white, male, masc identity—cultivating a fragility that allows for malleability and exposing the plurality of possibilities for a new self, or selves.

Lou examined James’ bio, which was now on the wall. He was in his late twenties, at most. She skimmed his bio and thought about the living wage Geraldine had mentioned. Even if it was modest, it was still an investment. What if they supported James for years only for him to mess everything up? A lot of the cis white male contemporary artists she knew were almost definitely creeps—or at best, they were reformed creeps with textual artefacts of their creepiness stored in a data center somewhere in the desert.

As Lou analyzed the press release, she imagined herself as a stockbroker. James was a risky investment.

“I think we pass.”

“Why?” asked Geraldine.

“I would struggle to find a compelling angle in his Life Story. There’s also the risk of a hetero cis-male with a rising profile…”

“Great work,” said Geraldine.

Lou felt a tinge of excitement. She was good at this.

“There are so many more stories out there representing diverse perspectives that will meet the quotas of our clients and inspire audiences… with subjects who pose much less risk of getting canceled.”

“Okay, next,” said Geraldine. “This is Tapua. She/her.” The slide now showed a film photo of a young Polynesian woman, smiling at someone off-camera.

“She’s a climate refugee, from an island in Tuvalu that’s pretty much going underwater right now. Her mother died from complications from dengue, which is said to be increasing in transmission because of climate change. So, so sad,” said Geraldine. “Just awful.”

To Lou, Geraldine’s “just awful” sounded more excited than sympathetic—here was a Life Story worth adding to the collection.

“She’s done a lot of activism and citizen journalism using mobile footage. She’s young… and she just seems very authentic?”

Geraldine was reading from notes on an iPad. There was no press release to draw on. That would be Lou’s role, she realized. The next slide was a video of Tapua standing in front of a house knee-deep in salt water, searching amongst corrugated iron and palm tree fronds.

The excitement Lou had felt earlier was gone. “I guess my question is,” Lou hesitated for a moment, “when she’s experiencing violent effects of the ecological emergency, how can we write her Life Story about ‘relatable personal growth’ when her life seems very focused on, well, collective action?”

“I’m going to give you a prompt.” Geraldine looked at her pointedly. “Life Stories are character-driven, relatable, and uplifting. We don’t want to dilute someone’s personal experiences by drowning them,” she gestured to the video, “in politics.”

Lou thought about the case study she had read the night before in preparation, about another environmental activist. Their bio had detailed two decades dedicated to political lobbying under a grassroots advocacy group they had founded as a teenager. The Life Stories consolidated synopsis notes had said:

  • Sister died of breast cancer, bad relationship, still in grief.
  • Boyfriend broke up with them because they were too dedicated to activism—heartbroken.

“Trauma, the last great natural resource,” her sister had said. “The last colonial frontier.”

Lou stared at the video and thought about the best way to interpret Tapua’s mother’s death and her home being swallowed by seawater through a depoliticized, narrative-first formula. Something that celebrated love, generosity, survival and life-changing personal growth. Something that would eventually be filtered through the late-night prism of a half-charged laptop and a flickering attention span that darted habitually between the actor playing Tapua and the endless caress of a phone screen.

“Well?” said Geraldine, and this time it was a question.

Lou blinked twice to keep her eyes alive.

Taylor Mitchell is a writer and arts worker living and working on the lands of the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin nation, whose sovereignty never ceded. She is an editor and facilitator at the experimental arts newsletter, Soooop, and the Arts Program Manager at the Environmental Film Festival Australia.