Sometimes a single sentence whispered from the mouth of a misfit can change your life.
When I say misfit, I’m talking about the fact that some of us just never found a way to fit in at all, from the get-go, all through our evolving lives, including in the present tense. I’m talking about how some of us experience that altered state of missing any kind of fitting in so profoundly that we nearly can’t make it in life. We serially flounder, or worse, we drown in our inabilities or mistakes, or even worse—since I’m old enough to understand that sometimes some of us don’t make it at all—we give up. Love and peace to the star stuff that carries those misfits we have lost too soon.
You see, some of us do life weird or wrong, or we do weird or wrong things in life. Some of us flunk out or go to jail or rehab or lose husbands or wives or children or houses or all the money. But the thing is, we don’t all surrender or disappear, though some of us do. Lost secular angels. Some of us manage to invent bodies, voices, and lives worth living even though we don’t fit in to the normative socius.
Misfits know how to see mistakes and weirdness differently. We are differently sighted. We can see portals where other people see roadblocks. Misfits are remarkably good at invention, reinvention. Innovation in the face of what other people might see as failure. We are resilient; we don’t just survive, we invent how to thrive.
There is nothing wrong with us. We are the rest of you. We are useful to our culture and more; we have specific skills born of resistance, reinvention, and resilience that are vital to human existence.
Those kids and teens who veer away from the central be-like-everyone-else path, those beautiful creatures forging weird little roads into the unknown, they remind us that beauty doesn’t always come from mirroring the universal. It can also come from the weird on its way to becoming original and transformational.
If there’s one phrase that I should probably tattoo on my forehead it is this: I’m not the story you made of me. The more people I can persuade to hold that mantra, the more I’ll have been of good use in my life. We don’t have to accept the stories we inherit, the ones that tell us who we’re supposed to be. We can stand up and say no at any point, even if we’ve been saying yes our entire lives. It’s never too late. We can always reject the story placed on top of us, and we can always revise and destroy one story and restore another. It’s a never-ending possibility.
In a way, I teach in the classrooms of American broken-down dreams. And yet in these classrooms, America is secularly born again, the classroom of no choice who you sit next to, no way to separate yourself from otherness, no way to get out of the room unless you agree to be together for a while. It’s like a petri dish of who we are and where we are at, teaching and learning at a community college.
I am the daughter of an abusive father whose house I had narrowly escaped with my life. I have two epically failed marriages under my belt. I’ve flunked out of college not once, but twice, and maybe even a third time. I’ve been through one episode of drug rehab and two brief stints incarcerated. I’ve also been homeless. I’m not a deviant. Or a loser. Or a criminal. I’m someone who “missed” fitting in.
Our vulnerabilities make us most human, most beautiful, most like each other.
We may be misfits, but that’s only if you look at us from the wrong angle. Turn us even slightly, and we brighten like the phenomenal colors inside a kaleidoscope.
What I hope most of all is that we all begin to recognize how much we have to change in the face of our current culture. I hope we all learn to admit that we carry the trace of one another, that all our languages may yet reach one another, even inside our differences.. . .
Books gave me new ways to interpret the world around me. They gave me more compassion.
I truly hate the “suffering makes you stronger” narrative. The truth is, suffering sucks and it can take you to a place of wanting to kill yourself, and there’s nothing beautiful about that. Suffering is not a state of grace.
I feel kindred with fellow sufferers, not because they suffer, and not because of some absurd vortex of victimhood camaraderie, and not because sufferers are in a state of grace, but because they go on, they endure. And because sometimes, the sufferer reinvents themself—and this kind of reinvention is what misfits are so good at.
I read all kinds of books. Inside the books I again saw stories that I recognized, because, well, literature is filled with characters whose lives are so broken they can barely breathe. Literature is the land of the misfitted.
I read every book I could get my hands on, then I’d research the books the author had read and I’d read all of those.
What I saw in literary books was a possible path from suffering and self-destruction to self-expression.
Twenty years later the quality of the suffering took shape and form on pages. The girl I lost became the girl I found inside stories where girls nearly die but then don’t, where girls with their hair on fire invent ways to save themselves, where girls who are incarcerated by family or violence or love or social norms break out of culture and into journeys no one has ever imagined before. What I’m saying is, the more I wrote, the more I understood that my so-called traumas—the death of the daughter, the abuse in my childhood, the rage I carried and acted out as a teen and young adult—were places of storytelling. Realms of expression.
When I tell you that literature and writing have saved my life, perhaps you can believe me when I say they came into my body and lodged in the space that my daughter left open. If you are one of those people who has the ability to make it down to the bottom of the ocean, the ability to swim the dark waters without fear, the astonishing ability to move through life’s worst crucibles and not die, then you also have the ability to bring something back to the surface that helps others in a way that they cannot achieve themselves.
You are not nothing.
You are vital to your culture.
We misfits are the ones with the ability to enter grief. Death. Trauma. And emerge. But we have to keep telling our stories, giving them to each other, or they will eat us alive. Our suffering is not the Christ story. Our suffering is generative of secular meaning. We put ordinary forms of hope into the world so that others, scruffy or graceful, might go on.
All I had to do was recognize the writer already inside me and listen.
You can be a drunk. You can be a survivor of abuse. You can be an ex-con. You can be a homeless person. You can lose all your money or your job or a husband or a wife, or the worst thing imaginable, a child. You can lose your marbles. You can be standing inside your own failure, a small sad stone in your throat, and still you are beautiful, your story is worth hearing, because you—you rare and phenomenal misfit—are the only one in the world who can tell the story the way that only you can.
How important is it for kids to have images like the Misfit Toys, Edward Scissorhands, or Napoleon Dynamite, or characters like those in The Goonies, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid in their lives? I think some of us might say lifesaving. That’s how important.
You could say that Ken Kesey was the epitome of a misfit, if misfits aspire toward such a thing. And we do. Everything he ever wrote and every moment of his life resisted conforming to anything else around him. To be entirely honest with you, if I had not met him when I did, a year after the death of my daughter, shortly after I discovered weird writing coming out of me from nowhere, I might have missed the profoundly important portal opened up right in front of me that brought me to my life as a writer. In several ways that count, he was much more important to me than my father.
Even though it’s a terrific archetype and story line, some bodies don’t fit the hero’s journey. Women’s lives, bodies, and experiences don’t fit the archetypal hero’s journey. Neither do the bodies, lives, and experiences of people of color. Neither Native Americans nor African Americans can track their mythos through this journey, for instance, since they were treated as the raw material through which the hero passed in order to forge a new world. Nor do the lives, bodies, and experiences of poor people, recovering (or not) addicts, people who struggle with mental health issues, prisoners, war veterans, or refugees. When you can be attacked and raped because you deigned to walk outside your door for a run; when you can be shot for reaching to retrieve your book in your own car or your own home or your license from your wallet or reaching for a pack of Skittles; when your sanity or economic status is viewed through the lens of mental instability whether you are mentally unstable or not, your body will not jam comfortably into the hero’s journey. You are, more than anything, coded as a nonhero. Outside the hero’s journey. Worse, you can be coded a villain. A witch. Evil.