This essay was a portfolio piece during my graduate work at the University of North Texas.Steven Kilpatrick
Personal Essay: Creative Non-Fiction
I’m a nobody.
These words won’t change that. The conflation of achievement vs. social expectation won’t change it either. I know, I’ve tried that. A sober truth is this: the circle of people who would miss me, should I vanish in an Arizona desert, would likely be smaller than my already meager Twitter following (@themadspin).
Last week I walked through the halls of the UNT Auditorium Building in Denton for the first time in nearly seven months. I’ve been there three times in the last two years. It used to be a second home, now it’s like the home that folklore says you can never go back to.
I passed an old friend in the hallway, one of the hundred victims of a social exodus I enacted back in 2011. I’d taken down my Facebook page, but only after I deleted nearly every Dentonite I’d ever met. It was self preservation. My time at UNT was a cancerous one, and the way you deal with cancer is you cut out the biggest chunks and poison the rest–sometimes killing good cells in the process. But if you’re lucky you live, or at least live longer.
My former friend calls out, “Steven Fucking Kilpatrick, I didn’t know you still existed!”
I didn’t stop to talk, I waved a little, I continued down the hall, I threw, “I barely do,” over my shoulder, I didn’t wait for a reply.
There’s a beauty to glibness, because funny people aren’t usually kidding. Funny people find a way to deliver their honesty in a way that disarms you and then dismantles you. If you could fill a Trojan Horse with little nano-bots, you’d have the basic weapon of poets and comedians. The ideas arrive as a gift, then inhabit you, then transform you. Sometimes violently.
I was glib, yet honest, when I said I didn’t exist. He was glib, yet honest, when he said he’d forgotten my existence. Maybe he thought about the exchange later, maybe he didn’t, but it was just one more reminder that, for me, Denton is haunted.
The very short narrative for my life in Denton is a mixture of the common and the tragic. I dropped out of music school, but didn’t leave. I fell in love, I fell out of love. I failed, I floundered, I battled depression, I lost my father to suicide, I forgot how to interact with people, and in 2011, even after years of therapy, I was in ruins.
I finished my course work, I took a leave of absence to work on my M.I.T. in Game Design at SMU, I moved out of Denton for the first time in over ten years. I cut ties with the things that made me paranoid, I was able to reinvent myself as someone who worked hard, who always had a sense of humor, who was competent and eloquent. The guy that many of my peers in Denton didn’t want me to be, because to them I’m just the guy who writes poems and stories about his dead father.
I get tired of writing about my father, and I have the sneaking fear that people get tired of reading about him. I’ve lived more than the solitary moment of a gunshot, and my experiences before and after that moment are worth their own burdens. Plus, there’s no greater fear for me than becoming a flat, single dimension, one-trick-pony. Especially when it wasn’t even my trick. Especially when that trick was my father making a bullet, and then a man, disappear.
By leaving Denton I was able to make the man I didn’t like disappear as well, I was able to reforge myself as the “me” I was at home, with my wife–and not the character I’d evolved into over the decade I’d spent at UNT. Walking back into the halls, seeing a few people who knew me then–having them treat me like I hadn’t had two years to grow, to change, to be something different and maybe better–it’s a reminder that not all moments of paranoia are paranoia. Sometimes, especially when you’ve chosen words, and metaphor, and humor as your coat of arms, you read the room properly.
My turning point was walking away from the safety net of the UNT Auditorium Building. It was daring to reinvent myself as something other than a poet and a writer. It was striking out as a designer, a humorist and a scientist.
For nearly two years, I stopped writing sad poems about my father’s death. For nearly two years I was Steven Kilpatrick’s reality and not the Steven Kilpatrick built from the detritus of a decade of uncertainty, sadness and failure.
Being a nobody has been one of the most freeing experiences of my life. It’s allowed me to redefine my adulthood, my goals, and my failures on my own terms. I’ve met resistance–friends who hear that I don’t really want to be known as a poet and they think I’m sad about it–they try to talk me out of honesty–as if my changed path threatens their steady footfalls. I’m not sad about it. I’m relieved. I’m more actualized.
Just, not in those halls. Like any adult who’s ever gone home to visit his parents, UNT makes me feel obligated to some other paradigm. I feel uneven. I lose my compass. It’s a dangerous place that puts me ever on the edge of a spiritual wreck. I wish it didn’t. I wish I could carry perspective back into the halls with me, like a protective aura, and transform the air into something less poisonous.
I’ve never had that kind of power. I barely have the power to feel all that yearning without combusting.