So, I'm just going to come right out and say it: I, Kelly Barnhill, am a total dork. I was a total dork in Middle School; I was a total dork in High School; and now, at venerable age of thirty-six, I am a performance artist of dorkdom: I ooze dorkiness, radiate dorkosity. In Platonic terms, when humanity sees the shadows on the wall – the flickering hints of the Essential Forms that exist outside of our universe, then I, ladies and gentlemen, am the Platonic Ideal of Essential Dork.
Now, the question is this: Did my history and identity as a socially awkward, self-conscious and terribly shy outsider kid shape my current identity as a fiction writer? Or, to put it more plainly, can dorkiness be of use in terms of life paths, career choices and possible success in either? Or, in more specific terms to you, dear readers: If Kelly was able to put her Inner Dork to good use, could I, possibly, do the same.
The answer is yes.
But before I explain why, let me back up a bit. I want to explain for a minute why and how I came to write fiction, because I certainly didn't start out in that arena.
I started out as a poet. And I loved being a poet – and not so much the writing of poetry, you understand (though I loved that part too), but I loved calling myself a poet. I loved being a poet. I loved my torn black jeans and my combat boots and the nicotine stains circling my fingers like rings. I loved writing love poems for the boys that I loved, the transmutation of passion and longing into rhythmic sounds resting on the tongue and rattling the teeth.
I loved being a poet because being a poet gave me permission to be an outsider. It gave me permission to be strange. Poetry does not require a specific social sphere: Poetry is its own social sphere.
I had spent my entire school career slightly out of step with my peers, always three moves away from acceptance. I had friends who appreciated me, sure, but only after I first unnerved, then exasperated them. After a while, they shook their heads and just got used to me. I was.....odd, you see. But, I was the person they could count on, the person who would listen, the person who wouldn't judge them. Hell, it was conventionally impossible for me to judge anyone. Everyone knows dorks don't judge.
Poetry justified my oddness. Poet, I decided, was just a fancy word for dork. It was a paradigm shift and I ran with it.
The trouble was that poetry, with it's images so sharp you cut your fingers on them, and an economy of language so spare you feel like the world is holding its breath, wasn't providing me with the voice I needed. I needed expansion, nuance, multiple voices and perspectives. I had spent a young lifetime out of step, outside and out of synch: I was close enough to see in, but just outside enough for some perspective and distance. I had been, you see, collecting stories on the sly. Catching bits of personalities and histories and filing them a way the way an entymologist catches and catalogs dead butterflies. And while the label of “poet” gave me all kinds of leeway in my own personal oddities, I was ready for something more. I was ready for narrative.
I started writing stories. They sucked at first. Actually, they sucked for a while. Slowly, though, they got better.
And really, I don't think that the stories that I write would have been possible without my dorky past nor my dorky present. I was a lonely kid; a bullied kid; a strange kid; and sometimes an unlikable kid. My loneliness made me observant: I spent years watching the kids whose social circles were simply weren't expansive enough to include someone like me. My status as a bullied child made me compassionate: I learned how to watch for infinitesimal alterations in behavior and mood, to see who was hurting and who was looking to hurt. I learned how to put myself into the self of another. I did this partially out of self-preservation, and partially out of a need for community – if there were other bullied kids anywhere, I knew how to find them, care for them, seek solace in numbers. And yes, I was strange, and sometimes unlikable. And both of those play out in my fiction now. I delight in the Strange because I am strange. I delight in unlikeable characters because I was once unlikable.
Is all fiction ever writing simply the efforts of the Dorks of the World to find ways of justifying themselves, of finding a place where they belong? Is Literature simply a Dork Cabal?
Perhaps. Perhaps all writers are, were, will always be dorks. Perhaps we do what we do to finally achieve some kind of acceptance or approval or love. Or, maybe, in order to make art, in order to really see the world around us, we have to be out of step. Maybe we chose to be dorks. Maybe I chose. And, just maybe, by choosing loneliness, by choosing to be odd, strange and choosing to not belong, it allows us to create the things that make us all belong to one another: a story, a poem, a painting, a song.
Sometimes I think there is no inside or outside when it comes to art. It unifies. It claims us. Art makes us belong to each other.
(Oh my god, someone whispers. Did she just say that? What. A. Dork.)