The first seminar of my recent MFA Residency at Antioch University Los Angeles—a creative nonfiction exploration called “Stating Your Case”—dazzled and baffled me. I raised my hand to confess I am a newbie; a blind baby bird with its soft-bone beak clapping open and shut. “How do you know what to write about?” I asked. “And why? And what angle to take? Do you have the right? Does anyone even care? What’s the point?”
“That’s your essay right there!” the professor stated, and the class laughed, heads nodding in agreement.
Afterward, a fellow student approached and said, “You should join Blog Team.” At her behest, I applied—submitting, mind you, a fictional short story about a 13-year-old kid, way too hairy for his age, who masturbates to nightly romps with wolves. I was accepted onto Blog Team. I was also asked to be the first essayist, which meant I’d have less than a week to figure it out….
I felt like a desert highway, ridden by lonely cars late at night, black as a lizard’s eye. Even though I knew where I was headed, I was neither sure how I would get there nor what I would find upon arrival.
At the MFA Night Out, I approached the Blog Team Lead Editor and sat down beside her. Christmas lights twinkled in garlands strung across the top of the bar. The smells of crusted shrimp and cheese-plate wafted the air. I clutched my Irish Mule; bubbly, sweet, and strong. “Help me,” I said. “I’m scared. You picked me to be the first essayist. As Editor, what do you want to see right out-the-gate?”
“Well, what do you have for me?” she asked.
I swallowed a lump in my throat to talk of my late brother, an epileptic who passed twenty years ago after a Grand-mal seizure caused a spill that broke his neck, resulting in paralysis. He struggled for a while but did not win the fight. He was only 26. We shared a bedroom when were little. He had seizures in the middle of the night while the room was pitch black and the world silent as an undiscovered cave. It sounded like a demon thrashed and spat and babbled in tongues ten feet away. Frozen with fear, it was all I could do to crawl out of bed after he’d tumble out of his own, head thrashing against the cold floor, to gently shove my fingers in his mouth so that he wouldn’t swallow his tongue. I’d clean up his urine, or vomit, try to coax him back to sleep. His epilepsy came with a severe learning disability, so he was bullied, beat-up, ostracized, pranked, and dismissed his whole life. Blanketed by guilt, grief, and anger for the better part of my life because of him, I still wonder if anything or anyone in this life will ever be the salve I ultimately seek. Search as I may, I cannot find where peace hides. It eludes me, like that kid in the neighborhood who always found the best hiding spots.
Perhaps this is my essay?
“What else is on your mind?” she asked. We stirred our drinks.
I cleared my throat, dry and irritated from the noxious air of the Southern California wildfires that burned all around us. I told her that I’d performed in a world-premiere play earlier this year, in which two men—one the alter ego of the other—searched to uncover the mystery at the heart of his family. I instantly took a liking to my co-star. He was friendly, funny, talented, and he reminded me of a grown-up version of Elliott from E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. As the weeks passed and our commitment to the show intensified, it felt like our souls merged, resulting in so intimate a connection, it was unfathomable. After the show ended, four months after it all began, a great hurt crashed onto the shore of my heart like a rogue-wave, wiping everything out in one fell swoop; salty, weedy, fishy, and foamy. Why? Because my co-star retreated into the fog of “after-show”: the place where artists return to tend to family and business obligations, to survival jobs. The place where texts are not answered, emails and phone calls ignored, where hope is but a little pile of molted snake skin on the floor. It’s an Empty Place, where you wonder, in the fizz of a sleepless night, whether it is worth sharing your heart, connecting with someone, helping them out, only to have them disappear on you. What happened? We were best friends for months. We agreed we wouldn’t fall out of each other’s lives. Instead, “after-show,” like a villain, flung its cape of heartbreak over my head. I don’t blame him, though. If anything, I blame myself—I never should’ve let myself get that close. ‘Occupational hazard’, isn’t that what they call it? That lesson, learned with every new artistic venture, hurts more—costs more—each journey out.
This is my essay for sure.
“Next?” she asked. A Duran Duran song blared.
“Well,” I said, emptying my mule. “There’s always Freeze.”
As for my throat, I pulled at it, kneading my Adam’s Apple. After I graduated from college, I spent time in the NYC nightlife scene. I consumed many drugs, wore skin-tight vinyl baby blue pants and gold eyeliner, and befriended very eccentric club-kid freaks—one of whom, named Freeze, I fell in love and moved in with. I planned my future around him. But that blueprint was destroyed after the revelation that in the months before we met, he and his friends, in a heroin and crack-induced haze, had murdered someone, chopped his corpse into bits, and dumped it in the East River. That’s not the best part, though. The best part is that I recounted the gothic tale in all its gory detail during a spoken-word performance at a theater in LA a few years ago, and the top casting directors at the biggest network studio happened to be in attendance. They called me in for an important and exclusive meeting wherein they asked me to regale them again with all the slimy nuances of the very embarrassing matter. It broke me a little bit, I have to confess: I’d been a working actor for three decades and at the time I told this tale, I’d been in LA for ten years and had never been asked to a big meeting like that. By anyone. Not after receiving scores of flattering reviews, a dozen prestigious awards, a reputation for a solid work ethic. No. What got me the attention of the bigwigs, finally, was the emotional retching of the most disgusting thing that ever happened to me.
Maybe this will make the best essay—it’s the most repulsive and embarrassing.
“Yeah,” she said. “But you’ll never write that in 1,500 words.” I nodded. She nodded. We both nodded.
It was time to leave the bar and go to Karaoke.
After singing a rousing but boozy rendition of “Somebody Else” by The 1975, I basked in the afterglow with fellow students outside and somewhat inadvertently took a teensy-weensy hit off of a friend’s joint. I gave up weed eons ago—some of us are too sensitive as it is; my brain is already a power line strung across a pole in some other dimension. I constantly attempt to re-route that current back to earth without being lit.
The high that overtook me was so potent and intense, you can only imagine the surge running through the line that night. I slept not one single wink. Instead, I paced the room at the hotel, listening to the perpetual drone of the 405 freeway, numb, eager, and morbidly curious about what I’d write, and why, and how.
What are these stories, anyway? What do they mean? Life experiences? So what, and why now? Do I diminish their relevance for the sake of insouciance, or sensationalize them for maximum effect? What the fuckballs is an essay? Why did I dump all of that onto my editor earlier? She knows nothing about me. Except now she thinks I’m a walking tragedy, a cursed and exiled sovereign from some dark dumbass fairy tale. It was all I could do not to flee that hotel at 4 a.m. for a bag of Doritos, a pack of American Spirits, and a road trip to that aforementioned other dimension.
Speaking of otherness: I study Writing for Young People. A head-scratcher, I know. In a university renowned for social justice, many of the socio-political warrior-poets and their beautifully rallying words of revolution and resistance cock their heads at me: “So, how does the Antioch mission, like, apply to your genre?” to which I shrug: “Kids. They speak truth.”
But the thing is, I ache to peek from behind the curtain of fiction, any fiction, be it adult or YA. I wonder what my tell-tale heart will rally to convey if let loose in a field of transparency, the way my dog goes wild when we take her to the Tommy Lasorda Field of Dreams near my house, a locked and private park that we are explicitly forbidden to enter.
I am a person with stories to tell, asking if these stories are what make me who I am, or if what makes me who I am are the stories that I tell.
Perhaps I am wrong in assuming my editor thinks the worst of me for what I’d told her; perhaps these are just the stories we amass as we go through life, and it is better to accept them, regardless of the consequences.
I’ve heard it said that the exegesis of the word “essay” derives, in part, from the Middle French “essai”: trial, attempt.
I attempt. I try.
I wonder what my next essay will tackle. Although I feel frightened to share, to pillage the parish of transparency, I am slouching towards the mirror and peering into it, hoping the answer lies within the reflection.
Tim Cummings is a current MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. Recent publications include F(r)iction, Lunch Ticket, Meow Meow Pow Pow, LARB, and ANTHOLOGY: The Ojai Playwrights Conference Youth Workshop, which he compiled and edited for his Field Study project. He holds a BFA in Acting from NYU and is the recipient of two LA Drama Critics Circle Awards for Best Lead Actor and Ensemble, an LA Weekly Award for Best Supporting Actor, a StageSceneLA Award for Performance of the Year.