Making it up as we go along

SPOILER ALERT: The first couple of paragraphs give away a crucial part of a terrific essay by Outer Life. If you haven’t read it, do so before going any further here.

The best essays hit you sideways, just when (and where) you least expect it. Outer Life’s got a doozy about growing up in Texas. He’s one of the gifted memoirists we’ve got in the blogosphere, and here he writes openly about, in part, one of his first forays into autobiography. Written in the first grade, the essay discussed his early years in Texas, his move from the state to California, and how much he missed it.

Apparently, he showed promise early on, as his teachers “plastered it with gold stars and awarded [him] the honor of reading it at the next parent-teacher school assembly.” So, he did. No one in the audience was more surprised by his precocity than his parents.

I don’t remember the applause, but I do remember my parents frowning in the front row. It must have puzzled them, this autobiographical essay of mine, for I’d never lived in Texas, I’d never been to Texas and, so far as I knew, my parents had never been there either. I’d been born in Southern California and, except for one brief trip to my aunt’s house in the northeast, I had never left Southern California.

Initially my big lie triggered much mortification, both for my parents, who had to deny a hundred times to teachers and parental peers their Texas roots, and for me, revealed to all as a teller of Texas-sized tall tales. It wasn’t until years later that the kids stopped calling me Tex.

I know the feeling.

For reasons now unknown, I convinced most of my high school class—admittedly, this is less than 40 people—that I had been born in Chicago, and moved to Dallas as a tyke. I didn’t visit Chicago for the time until June 2003, but there might be one or two people who still think, ten years later, that I grew up in Hyde Park. I also convinced people that, for a time, I attended the elite St. Mark’s Episcopal School in Dallas, but left because my parents didn’t want me to go to a school without girls for twelve years. The jig was up when not one, but two of my close friends transferred to my high school… from St. Mark’s. They quickly and curtly let folks know that I had not attended the school at any time.

I wasn’t a pathological liar. In most of my affairs, I was as scrupulously honest about myself as you can reasonably expect a teenage boy to be. In fact, I blurted out a great many things that I probably should have kept to myself, which is why I never had a girlfriend in high school. I didn’t exaggerate in my diary. I almost never lied to my parents. I can remember clearly, after a fender bender (my fault, entirely), my trudging footsteps up to my parents’ bedroom, and stammering out what happened—and that it never occurred to me to try an outright lie.

So why did I decide to create from whole cloth fictional details about my life that could be disproved, and were disproved, with ease? (The Chicago outing came as I waited in line for a rollercoaster at Six Flags Over Texas. Ernesto and I stood behind a family who turned out to be from the Windy City, and who proceeded to ask me excitedly about where it was, exactly, that I lived and where I loved to eat. At the time, I couldn’t have even named one of the city’s streets.)

Part of it was the danger. How long can I get away with this? It was thrilling to lie, to complicate the lies further, to extricate myself from a self-contradiction, and to wonder when I would finally slip up. Teenagers get hooked on thrills—I didn’t commit my first big prevarication until 9th grade.

The more significant reason, however, was simply that, like most teenagers, I wanted to reinvent myself. I did so with impunity, often to the frustration of my parents. Cut me a little slack. In junior high, I was a dork. This was my first experience with public school, and this was made worse because my expectations were high. I’d spent the previous eight at a nurturing, private Montessori school. I acted “too white” for the black kids, but wasn’t “black enough” for the white kids. (The Hispanic kids were coolest—they cavalierly ignored both subsets.) I was an über-nerd. I had exactly two friends, and neither of them were close ones. So, I was desperately lonely for two years.

Suddenly, I hit high school. It was a new place, with no one who knew me previously. My first thought was probably “Let’s make it anew.” So, I did. For the most part, I didn’t need to do so. I was the same geek I always was, but now I was in a school full of geeks. My love of Tolkien, comics, and They Might Be Giants were not taken as signs of social ineptitude. The fact that I couldn’t name a single member of U2 or N.W.A. wasn’t a problem here.

Unfortunately, it took me a few months to grasp all this, and by then the lies were in motion. When they were revealed, I was a trifle mortified, but mostly relieved. Beyond little white lies—“No, really, that wavy perm looks good on you”—I haven’t told a major whopper since then.

But, even now, I’m still re-inventing myself. This site—filled with nothing but odd tidbits, critical appraisals, and moments of truth—is nevertheless a truncated, fragmented version of myself. I’m not giving you the whole me; no blogger gives that much. Perhaps no artist or writer ever does give his audience the full picture. But I’ve stopped worrying so much about using a set of aesthetic and cultural tastes to define myself, to set myself apart. I don’t feel a strong pull to invent myself to suit others. Of course, that means this place will sometimes bore the hell out of you. But at least it follows my whims. You’re seeing a truer version of my train of thoughts than I would have been comfortable broadcasting a decade ago.

I’d like to think this is all because I’ve finally grown up. But the blog has certainly helped.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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5 Responses to Making it up as we go along

  1. Lynn S says:

    Interesting. I never thought of trying to re-invent myself. For my first 6 years of school everyone hated me, then we moved and no one knew me and being a nobody was great so I didn’t mess with it. The summer between 7th and 8th grade we moved again, farther away, and being a nobody was still okay. I finally had a few friends starting in the 10th grade but not really close friends. I was just a peripheral member of a small group – still a nobody and still okay with it. I think that’s probably why I developed some odd tastes but I’m not sure why I’ve never really had any friends.

  2. Lynn S says:

    I don’t like the way I worded that last sentence. Friends but never close, more what you’d call acquaintances.

  3. winter says:

    I have known QB since we were both 3 years old, and while such a long friendship invariably has its ups and downs (I think I was too dorky, even for him, in junior high), I may be able to provide insight on one point here:
    I moved to Texas from Chicago when I was 2. For real. Could that have been where the seed was planted?
    BONUS CONTRIB: Massive lies I told at about the same age:
    1) After eighth grade, I wrote my “What I did last summer” essay about my three-week trip to Ghana, Benin and Togo.
    2) On a college semester spent in Spain (at 18, a little late for such reinventions?) I told people that I went by my middle name. A horrid experience. I kept introducing myself as “Hi, I’m Br— uh, Benjamin!” People suspected me immediately. What a dork.
    3) After another summer trip to Chicago in sixth grade, I came back to school speaking — with a British accent. That lasted half a day. I’m surprised I am not permanently disabled because of that lie.

  4. QB says:

    Winter, I’d completely forgotten about your being from Illinois, though it may have crossed my mind at the time of the lie. I’ve always had this love affair with Chicago; even now, after having visited there, it holds more appeal for me than any other American city.
    I never tried out a new accent, though. Wow.

  5. rdl says:

    This is a really great post is all I can say.

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