This is a personal essay written for Dr. Elizabeth Dodd's ENGL 465 - Creative Nonfiction class in the Spring of 2019.
I don’t remember exactly which day it was, but certainly within the first week of January.
It was either the 3rd or the 4th, but truly speaking, it doesn’t really matter. The weather was warm, uncharacteristic of what a January should be, but standard— I suppose— for what January has become. The only true tell of date was that I had free-time, so it can be said with assurance that it happened over break. David, whom I would call a long-time friend despite having met him only two and a half years ago, and I went down to Westport to get brunch.
Now, I lose my mind for brunch— I’m all about it. I was in Kansas City, ostensibly, to visit my parents. I haven’t lived at home since I began college, and the lengths of my intermittent stays have become even less and less as the last time I truly lived there becomes farther and farther behind. This was a trip to make up for that, but after several self-occupying days of my parents at work and several nights yawned away with them in bed at 9 p.m., this trip became for friends.
Which leads us to brunch.
David and I arrived in Westport at about 10:30. The sun peaked through a sky emerging out of its wintry hidings as we approached The Corner Restaurant, an eatery whose name sounds almost generic enough to just actually be a diner serving as background scenery in a movie happily entrenched in clichés, but I assure you is quite real and worth a try. We had attempted it some wayward Sunday ago, but now on this Thursday Friday Whatever, the restaurant was at nothing more than a light bustle, far less mid-morning meal competition.
We went to sit down, weaving in and out of wait staff whose long, black tee shirts and obviously unexercised Nike shoes made them look collectively ready to step in as the lead singer of X Ambassadors at a moment’s notice, and David and I began chatting. It hadn’t been immensely long since we had last seen each other, but what’s that to stop us from having things to share? New Year’s celebrations were delightful; my radio show had gone well; his home-brew was fermenting nicely; pleasantly compulsory conversation. We ordered food; he ordered a coffee, and I ordered a tea. At least, we were under the impression that he had ordered a coffee and I had ordered a tea.
We sat for a while, watching the middle-aged mothers in vague cheetah prints flirting with the would-be musicians—ahem, excuse me— wait staff. Our drinks arrived mid roommate rant, when it became suddenly clear to us the dire mistake we had drank our way into.
The waiter sat down a full French press for David and a full teapot for me, exuding such nonchalance that I’m unsure if he was toying with our emotions and bladders or if this was just truly the extraordinarily hydrated life of those living in The Corner Restaurant’s world. Both receptacles were filled to their respective brims, the dark liquids taunting our unexpecting naiveté. We pondered in silence the thirst quenching logistics of the best bargain in which we’ve ever accidentally invested.
We began the process of pressing our coffee and steeping our tea, filling the first of many mugs for each of us. I’m not sure if it was laziness or generosity on behalf of our hosts, but what began as our cup of coffee and our cup of tea became a liquid feast, with activity attached.
But that’s the story.
I’ve told that story, I imagine, two or three times by now to various people, it was truly a ludicrous experience in the moment. But now on here, intonationless, it amounts to a few casual scrolls down a screen.
As I thought of this story to include in my personal essay, it seemed so much more significant. Or, if not significant, longer? I loved it more then than I do now that it’s quantified, etherized upon a table of my prose.
You see, I’m a storyteller. Or at least, that’s the story I tell myself (ha). I “work” in radio now, and would absolutely love to work in radio when I’m a real-life adult.
There are a myriad of things you can do in the world of radio. Sticking to just the On-Air work— because who would I be as a straight white, middle-class male if my voice wasn’t being heard— I could talk about music. Sports. News (tried it for a summer—we know that’s off the table). But regardless of what I do, I’m telling a story. How did this music find its way here? What does it mean for you that your team made it within the grasps of greatness? How did an aged veteran with no relatives have 100 people at a ceremony in his honor (this one’s a heartwarmer, let me tell ya)? These are all stories, all they all need a voice to tell them.
But what am I when my story becomes voiceless?
Yes, okay, an author imbues “voice” into their story through diction and imagery and specificity and the quippy little asides I won’t stop using, I get it. But that’s not the voice I mean. I mean the inflections, the space between words that leave you hanging, falling forward for the next word as you desperately approach the punch. Print is interpretive— you can read nearly innumerable meanings onto nearly anything.
As I write these words, I hold meaning behind them. As a storyteller and—though from this essay one may assume, semi-reluctantly—as a writer, I know what words I want to say, what I want them to say, and I certainly hope that those intentionally selected words do just that. But, given all of the literature classes in which I’ve managed to semi-frantically invent authorial intent for texts I may or may not have actually read, it feels, at best, presumptuous and, at worst, foolish to assume that’s what those words will do. And if, at a point, there’s no such thing as authorial intent, the author means whatever I can argue they mean. That is exciting, and opens up a world of opportunity. But it also opens up a world of possibility, especially when the author means whatever you can argue they mean.
What happens when my words mean what is not my own? What happens when “Now, I lose my mind for brunch” suddenly means that I just lose control of my physical capabilities and inhibitions, exerting my body into a brunch induced tirade? What happens when, in a discussion of authorial intent, the reader doesn’t catch that “intentionally selected words” were my intentionally selected words? What happens when I don’t have an italics button at which to grasp at in hopes that I can preserve what I believe to be me in my work?
Sorry, the button gets me carried away.
I guess what my formatting-laden rants are attempting to approach is, if I’m not present, how can something remain mine? Even if you read my words, you don’t know how I said that, how I say this. You know how, based on a combination of your own personal experiences and a synthesis of who I could be based on potentially limited interaction and assumptions, you imagine I would say it.
But that’s just the thing, that isn’t me. That’s yours, and now it is no longer mine.
And I don’t know what to do with that.
One of my favorite stories to tell— or at least, one of my stories which elicits the kind of exotic intrigue I may hope it would achieve— is about when I was a kid and my family went to go cut ourselves a Christmas Tree.
I grew up in Alaska, and when the holidays began to creep up upon us, we would drive until the road ran out, stop, and then walk until we found a tree worthy of the lavish opulence of our living room. This particular hunt was when I was either in the 3rd or the 4th grade, but truly speaking, it doesn’t really matter. I was young, I was short, and we were trudging through snow tall enough to be my contemporary.
We approached a river with a glimmering sheet of ice adorning its top, what appeared to be a resilient barrier between us and the nearly arctic waters streaming underneath like tea out of a, frankly, excessive teapot.
There was an embankment on either side of the icy bridge which nature or God or Santa had made for us, and after descending it, I followed my sister who followed my sister who followed my dad across the ice. My dad helped my sister and my sister up the embankment we had approached now on the other side, and I— obviously independent and competent enough as an actual child to will myself out of a formation at least a foot taller than me— thrusted up from my winter boots, reaching for the top of the snow.
My hands felt nothing as they grasped at air; my foot, however, unfortunately felt a whole lot. The ice shattered under the combined weight of my body and my pre-pubescent arrogance, punishing my hubris with a boot-full of frozen stream on a wintry, December day.
Now, I like my feet. I’m a decently big fan of either— one could even venture so far as to say both— of them. I was very disinclined toward losing any appendages from this situation.
My Dad walked me back to our trusty Suburban, which was insulated with what felt equivalent to all of the constructive concerns I had given credence to when thinking about jumping off of a frozen river. That is to say, not much.
I huddled there in the front seat I was otherwise not allowed to sit in (at least, until I used mild childhood obesity against the Alaska State Department of Law— but that’s another story), hoping for the best but preparing to be picked last in any future game of kick ball.
Eventually, my family found our tree. They brought it back to the Suburban, strapped it onto the roof and we found our way back to the road. It complemented our living room well through its stay, even leaving us memories of its tenure in the form of pine needles for our bare feet months after it was brought to the yard to rot. Luckily, my foot did not meet a similar fate, as I sit on one foot and tap the other while writing this.
I love this story because it holds so much distance. Do you know how many people I’ve met from Alaska at K-State? Three. I’m sure there are more, but of the people that are going to hear this story, mathematically, almost no one that will hear it will have anything beyond exoticized awe at my childhood wonders. They won’t know that the river was a stream, that I was already picked last in kickball for reasons unrelated to feetlessness. There is nearly no one that bridges that distance. And when I say it, that distance widens.
When you see my stories in print, you can pick up on my second usage of a derivative of “exotic,” a marker of when I can’t be bother to Thesaurus.com synonyms. You can notice how often I qualify myself, tossing an “at least” in at least every couple of paragraphs to add syntactical flavor, but when dwelled upon, may be interpreted as doubt. If I tell you a story verbally, at my pace, in my control, you can’t linger on what you want. You linger on what I want, and the rest melds simply into the weave of the story.
Print is no longer mine. Print is the reader’s, to attempt as fast or slow as they may please. I can pepper in, sprinkle throughout, include various words— ambassadors of diction, fillers of space— to elongate a sentence such as this and to slow the reader (and trust me, when a page count is on the line, I do). But eventually, the reader will reach the story’s completion. And that happened entirely at the will of the reader.
My brunch story, which may range from 5 to 10 to whatever minutes when it’s my brunch story, may become simply those few scrolls now that it belongs to someone else. It feels like it’s been taken away from me, part of myself torn adrift for the consumption by others. What I originally may have typed as “my story” in the paragraph sitting above this is revised to “the story,” because that ownership just doesn’t feel there.
I guess, what it comes down to, is I’m afraid of losing control. Not of myself, not in a wrongfully interpreted “losing my mind for brunch” way.
But control of my story.
I like it being mine, being conveyed within my own agency. It feels so weird to put these stories out there, to offer up my narrative child— myself as a child—to the mercy of, well, whoever. And though I can’t entirely even tell if the control is comforting or if I just like the attention of having a listener, it feels--
To be there, present, in those moments. Safer for my story, for my intent. If it comes to what’s mine, maybe I’m just worried about what the next underprepared kid in lit class will invent. Maybe I’m selfish. Preventing a story from expanding beyond myself. But writing takes time, takes effort, where speaking does not. Maybe I’m just lazy? There seem to be a lot of maybes at stake, and ultimately, sorting, answering, and resolving those will take me in a direction that I’m not sure that I want to go.
I think, either way, the worst thing about this whole essay is that I really enjoyed writing it.