I’m working on a chapter that’s based on a monologue I performed a few years ago at Live Bait Theater in Chicago. Every summer, my friend Tekki, the artistic director of Tellin’ Tales Theatre, curates an evening of solo performance based on a theme. That particular year she titled the show “Potholes on the Path to Enlightenment,” and she asked us to write about an epiphany. That’s not really so hard, I thought: almost every story is about some kind of discovery – some little or big a ha! But she wanted it to be something pretty major, something that could, like, change your life. When I started working on the piece, I became a little obsessed with octopuses. For weeks, I read and wrote about octopuses. (By the way, octopuses is the correct plural – either that or octopodes. Octopi is frowned on by most references because the –pus derives from Greek and not Latin.) I wrote about an octopus I remembered from Sesame Street, which I watched as a kid. A man’s voice said, “And now, the octopus,” then this octopus swam around a tank for a minute, and that was it. Anyway, I was trying to write this piece about epiphany; I thought I should be writing about God, transcendence, the search for meaning, and I kept coming back to the octopus.
Figuring out what my brain is onto is one of my favorite parts of writing. The work is making clear the dot-to-dot of connections I’ve made in my head and finding a way to take the reader along on the journey. I don’t want to make it all too obvious or the reading won’t be any fun. But I can’t make it too obscure either – I can’t lead the reader into the woods and leave them with no trail to find their way back. I want the reader to make the discoveries I made in the living and the writing of the story – in this piece, for example, how the search for God and meaning relates to octopuses (also Clash of the Titans and Esther Williams).
An epiphany is an insight that comes about because of something ordinary. I probably watched my octopus on Sesame Street every day. It was ordinary. But the octopus itself, all rippling flesh and unfurling suckers was extraordinary. The octopus was an epiphany billowing across our black and white TV. It said, wake up! Look at what’s out here in the world. Look and look and look.
Tell me, friends. What is it that makes you wake up and look?
This book writing thing is a long, solitary haul, and it gets lonesome in my living room. So in an effort to take the edge off my self-imposed quarantine, I decided to read something. In public. I investigated storytelling nights around the city, and there are lots of them. I recommend checking some out. It’s a lovely way to spend an evening; it feels so pleasantly classic to be drinking a pint and listening to a story. Anyway, I was offered a spot at This Much Is True, a storytelling series at the Hopleaf.And despite being wicked nervous, last Tuesday night I read an excerpt from a chapter called We Got Spirit! It was fun. They liked it. I’m going to do more. I’ll keep you posted here. Here is an excerpt from the excerpt:
In seventh grade, my desire to play an orphan in a touring production of Annie was supplanted by an ardent wish to become a cheerleader. I coveted the little white socks and beribboned ponytails, the thigh-skimming skirts with those sharp kick pleats and the spankies they wore underneath that were neither underpant nor bathing suit but something far more exotic than either. Cheerleaders intoxicated every boy above third grade. I, on the other hand, was socially awkward and bookish, but I thought I might have a chance of getting on the team because I could almost do the splits. I mean, it was really close. Unless you looked super carefully, you’d probably think I was completely doing them. Also, I could land in the almost-splits from a cartwheel or jump. I didn’t excel at jumping in general; I was largely unsuccessful both at achieving much height and at executing the mid-air herkies and pikes. I was good at that Presidential Fitness flexed arm-hanging test where you had to hold your chin above a bar because I was gritty and didn’t let go of things easily. Anything that pitted grim determination against gravity, I was prepared to kick ass. Jumping, however, outwitted me. I was very sad in seventh grade. Maybe being sad makes it hard to get off the ground.
I wanted to be happy. And there was something about cheerleaders that made it seem like they might know how. It wasn’t just that they got attention from boys – or guys as they were suddenly called, as in, do you like any guys in our class, because I think Matt Hendricks totally likes you. By the way, this new development, among others – like needing to wear shorts under your skirt so no one would see your underwear by accident – was honestly a little bewildering to me. But with their bright colors and staccato claps and their “Ready, okay,” cheerleaders seemed to be truly okay and ready for whatever life intended to throw at them. It was a mystery I didn’t know how to unlock: the mystery of cheer.