ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: W is for Weirdness

Posted by on Jul 28, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Catherine Kyle summer 2015You are weird. You are. And that’s great.

Your weirdness is an asset. It can be an ally in writing. If I’m ever feeling stumped for inspiration, I retrace memories with an eye for incidents that seem a little weird.

I mean “weird” here in the sense of unusual. It’s amazing to me how many bizarre events are categorized as normal by the people involved in them. I suppose this is natural. It happened, so how weird can it be? I think this is what we tell ourselves. But if you think about it, I suspect you’ll find lots of weird things have happened to you.

Of course, some of this is context dependent. I once found myself staring up at the roof of a tiny purple tent deep in the woods while a secret rave surged nearby. For ravers, maybe this isn’t so strange. But for me, it was unprecedented. How on earth had I found myself in the passenger’s seat of a red Chevy, listening to gravel crunch and crack under its wheels, while my friend covertly gave our names to a man by the side of the road who waved us into the forest and on to a secret rave? None of it had seemed particularly out of place at the time. But as I lay there in the tent with my hands behind my head, brimming with introvert-panic, confusion set in. I saw myself from outside myself and wondered, How did I get here? When I woke up the next morning to the silhouette of a banana slug clinging fervently to the outside of the tent, its backdrop the glow of lavender nylon bathed in Northwest dawn, its soundtrack the dulcet tones of a raver expelling the contents of her stomach in a berry bush nearby, I thought, Yes. I was right. This is definitely weird.

I think it is those moments—the ones where we abruptly behold ourselves from outside ourselves—that hold the nuclei of weirdness. The How did I get here? moments, the moments where we pull a double-take. Alternatively, they could be the Did that really happen? moments—events and circumstances that seem bizarre in retrospect.

Once, when I was a child, my hair caught on fire. My father was taking a class in the creation of pysanky, Ukrainian-style Easter eggs, and he was melting wax used to draw on the eggs’ surface over a small open flame. I leaned in too close and poof, a lock on the left side of my head caught aflame. Before I even smelled smoke, my father calmly reached over and extinguished the fire between his thumb and index finger. His expression never changed. No more than a few inches of hair were singed.

This is weird. Everything about it is weird. The eggs, the wax, the flame, the potential crisis and the placid serenity that met it. I would expect a story in which a child’s hair catches on fire to end in tragedy, or at least a fossil of trauma embedded in the telling. But this is a story in which a child’s hair catches on fire and the world merely pauses for a calm, gentle moment. It was almost peaceful. A happy memory, really. And that’s weird.

My parents were professional puppeteers when I was a kid. That’s weird.

I cleaned a daycare at 3 AM dressed as Alice in Wonderland (one night) and Satine from Moulin Rouge (another) because I had a crush on a boylesque performer in the cabaret I was briefly in and thought it might endear me to him if I helped with his part-time janitorial job. That’s certainly weird.

I sulked in a tree for an hour at age eight because a group of playmates wouldn’t let me be Luke Skywalker in our summer edition of Star Wars. Yep. That’s kind of weird. But it’s also kind of telling.

The value of weirdness isn’t just found in mining our histories for uncommon moments, compelling as they may be. Everyone has a weird story to tell, something unusual that’s happened. So I also mean “weird” here in the sense of otherworldly—of eerie, ethereal, transcendent. What are the moments that take you out of yourself not just because they’re outlandish, but because they peel back the plastic of the world? What are these moments telling you, these instances of self-jolting?

A father clamps out the fire ascending his daughter’s hair and the daughter learns, wordlessly, what it means to feel both mortal and safeguarded, fragile and loved. There is no name for this kind of tension and so neither of them says anything. The father goes back to painting and the daughter goes back to watching, knowing that she could have been badly burned and knowing that the father knows and that yet everything is fine and wondering how there can be no word for this.

Two parents animate their hand-sewn puppets between the scarlet curtains of their hand-built stage. In the audience, their daughter watches, committing the parents’ gold turtlenecks and turquoise sweaters to memory. She knows every word of the script. She knows every note of the songs. She knows that this is imperative to her parents, this mischief, this play. She looks around at the other children laughing and wonders how we are both part of and witness to a family and what that means for belonging. Of course, she does not have words for this. But watching her parents perform, she wonders.

A girl clicks around in heels and a crinoline taking out garbage and scrubbing countertops. There is glitter in her teeth from the glitter in her lipstick. She knows that this is folly, that this effort will go nowhere. But it occurs to her that she is here not out of hope, but rather out of amusement. She looks in the mirror at her glittering teeth and wonders about the lengths we will go to see of what we’re made. She wonders about the ways in which we hold our puppet-selves up.

A girl sits in a tree and wonders about gender. She wonders about the unfairness of boys who tell her that because she is a girl, she must be rescued by boys. She will go on to study this for five years in grad school. She is wondering this in a tree and wondering this in a classroom. She is wondering this at eight and wondering at twenty-eight. Probably, she will never stop wondering. But it is this moment, the audacious robbery of the role of Luke Skywalker, that kicks off the spiral of wondering.

These are small parts of my weirdness. Small parts of me. My WTF moments that unfurled into tapestries stitched with questions I never thought to ask.

I lie in a purple tent and think, Everyone here has a story. The friend in the Chevy. The puking raver. The DJs. The guy on the road. I want to know. I want to know your weirdness. Not cloaked in fiction, but nude on the page. We humans are endlessly fascinated with each other in part because we want to connect and we want to hear truth. Our weirdness, disparate as it may be, can also be a bridge. We are all weird, but you are weird too. The world’s collective weirdness does not negate that fact.

So. Let’s hear about it. 

Catherine Kyle is a Ph.D. student in English though Western Michigan University finishing her dissertation on graphic novels from Boise, where she teaches at the College of Western Idaho and works for The Cabin, a literary nonprofit. She is the author and illustrator of the hybrid-genre collection Feral Domesticity (Robocup Press, 2014); the author of the poetry chapbooks Flotsam (Etched Press, 2015) and Gamer: A Role- Playing Poem (forthcoming from dancing girl press, 2015); and a co-editor of the anthology Goddessmode (Cool Skull Press, 2015). She also helps run the Ghosts & Projectors poetry reading series. Her graphic narratives, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in The Rumpus, Superstition Review, WomenArts Quarterly, and elsewhere. Visit her website.

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