by Carlos Antonio Piñón
May 12, 2017
I'm sitting at the furthermost seat to the right of the microphone. My legs are trembling and my throat is dry, despite this being my sixth public reading. Jeremy starts to read my bio when the crowd chuckles. "His work has been featured in several recycle bins throughout the city," he continues, "most often with a better draft already in progress. Please welcome Carlos." The crowd bursts into laughter and applause as I walk into the spotlight.
Worried I had already gotten the biggest laugh I was going to get from the crowd, I adjusted my papers on the music stand and pretended I wasn't talking to a sold-out room at the Steppenwolf Theatre. "A couple of years ago, I bought a pair of red pants for my Carlos from the Magic School Bus costume." The crowd, making an instant connection between my outfit and my essay, wasted no time laughing. "I know," I replied, and the crowd roared as if this was the first joke they had heard in their life. Less than ten minutes later, the spotlight was no longer on me and I was back sitting at the seat far away from the microphone. I was proud, but had the sense that my work wasn't done yet.
I started writing the "Red Pants" essay in the summer of 2015. My friend Luis Mejico suggested I submit something for his upcoming series, Lecturas, which would discuss issues surrounding the Latinx community for the Chicago Public Library's celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. At the time, the essay spanned a mere page with an additional paragraph. I thought I had it all: wit, humor, and many, many puns. This, of course, would be a crude version that I would never wish to read aloud again. Though my three minutes on the stage would prove to be a successful performance, I had bigger, more ridiculous plans in mind.
Ever since my high school English teacher, Andy Fine, invited me to a comedy show run by his husband, Jeremy Owens, I fell in love. You're Being Ridiculous became the only show I cared about. From new-to-writing amateurs to storytelling veterans, You're Being Ridiculous would feature absolutely hilarious, positively touching, but most importantly, completely honest stories told by real life people. Furthermore, Jeremy's show explicitly encourages marginalized people to submit. In writing that first draft, I aspired to be the next You're Being Ridiculous storyteller to make the crowd laugh with me, to tell my story on stage while a whole audience listens to me.
And it worked! I went to every reading I could; I paid attention to which storytellers told the most compelling stories; and I figured out what interested me the most from these readings. I liked the stories that dealt with struggles in identity the most. Though all stories deal with this to a certain extent, I was especially drawn to the stories of individuals whose identity played an important role in the story at hand. For example, as a gay Jewish man, Jeremy would have a different perspective on anything from family issues to Girl Scout cookies simply because he is Jeremy Owens and not anyone else.
After my reading at the Steppenwolf for You're Being Ridiculous in 2016, I knew I wanted to keep writing personal essays to perform. I very much aimed to write essays that people could relate to, but also told my own specific experiences as a person. As with any other project, I had to consider the following: What should I write about? How should I write about it? Most importantly, why should anyone care?
When planning the different themes, I started broadly with different aspects of my identity. With this prompt, I hoped to explore issues on sexuality, heritage, and religion, amongst other topics that would arise naturally. Opting to stick to nonfiction essays, I wanted a frank voice that could not be misunderstood like my attempts at poetry and fiction have been. I mean, my essays didn't need to be full of #meaning or reveal the triumphs of the human spirit. While what each audience takes from each essay can be left to their interpretation, I decided that what I talked about would be clear. Furthermore, unlike most essays I've read and listened to, my essays are comprised of much smaller stories that speak to a single topic. Even though any one of the essays could be split into several longer essays, it seemed more honest to string these intimate vignettes together in relation to the bigger picture. I could write a whole essay on basketball and have that be the focus, but "Husk" is about something more complicated, and the shirts versus skins story becomes part of a larger conversation that I wanted to have.
When it came to actually choosing stories to include, I didn't know what would be relevant. I wrote my first draft of "Something to Fear" while taking the train to my friend's house late at night. In actively writing through the fear I was experiencing, I kept picturing what could happen at any given moment. When I finally sat down to choose more concrete stories of things that actually did happen, I found myself with too many stories to include. Anything and everything seemed relevant, but what was important to include? I found it difficult to cut unnecessary things when everything felt necessary. In some regards, I haven't figured this out. I'm still trying to accomplish too much, but I've limited myself to stories that have made the biggest impact on me and removed anything that didn't warrant a whole section.
For example, last year a car blew up in my neighborhood. The explosion woke us up in the middle of the night, but instead of making a big deal about it, we just went back to sleep. The next morning, we saw the windows of the car broken. There's really nothing else to add here other than that the people who were explicitly targeted for this don't live here anymore. I mean, yeah, this isn't normal for a neighborhood, but it isn't for mine either. It was a one-time thing, and ended up being more of an anecdote than anything. Instead, I chose to tell the story of when my friend and I were robbed, which was the first time I've had to handle that fear myself. I was an active participant who had a stake in that situation. All of the stories I have included would be ones that come to mind when I was alone in bed and lost in thought.
Other issues arose in writing this collection as well. For example, initially, I did not struggle with writing about myself as a "character," but in writing other people, it became increasingly strange to consider family members like this. In all four essays, there is no great villain I must slay before saving the princess from the castle. Rather, it is only I attempting to slay an audience with charm alone. Dealing with real people who live real lives, it's harder to objectively identify motivations and how they relate to the "plot." This became especially peculiar when essays like "Something to Fear" and "Grace, Us, Adíos" became less about me and more about the people around me. In a way, the essays become more about my relation to the world. In that regard, I let the essays evolve beyond me. After all, how we understand ourselves is how we understand the world.
At times it has felt like I was being asked to remember something that I have no way of remembering or even to make something up. In "Husk," the entire story surrounding Nate, which isn't even his real name, is an extremely small moment between me and this boy who I would only know for a few months over a decade ago. I may not remember exactly how he looks like or anything about his personality, but I remember this exchange. Above all, I kept this story as true to my memory of it because its lasting impact on me is far more important than if he sat at the lunch table with me.
I sometimes thought it self-indulgent to focus an entire project on myself. What makes my life so important to write about when other people have much more exciting lives and more meaningful things to talk about? Why is anyone going to care about my red pants, me playing basketball, or the time my neighborhood got prank calls? At times, I thought that maybe I'm not old enough to be writing about myself like this. I haven't nearly experienced enough of the world. Although this is still true, I came to the conclusion that my worries were foolish and should be none of my concern. As long as I kept my essays honest, the audience will either pay attention to me or not. And that's okay. When I go off script and reply, "I know," I'm engaging with an audience who is listening to me. I have something important to say, a specific story to tell that can only be told by me, and it's worth it for that person in the audience who comes to every reading and thinks, "If he can do it, then I can do it, too."