The storytelling series Oral Fixation is giving North Texans a live platform for personal essays. KERA’s Lyndsay Knecht followed series founder Nicole Stewart and D magazine writer David Hopkins through the editing process before his performance in November. She found it focused much more on personal discovery than dangling participles.
Nicole Stewart knows a lot about strangers.
She’s labored over more than 50 very personal stories — stories of people she’s just met, or people she’s never met. They send her first drafts that stumble through rape and recovery, the cycle of addiction, and reluctant confessions of ambivalent parenthood.
And there’s always more behind that first submission. That’s what Stewart is after.
“When you put into words an experience that you’ve had in your life, it dissipates energy,” a newly wed Stewart tells me, as we sit in her brand-new home in northeast Dallas. “If it had been holding some kind of power over you, it can release. And that’s the catharsis that comes.”
The Oral Fixation series is in its second season at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. Stewart chooses her “cast,” seven tellers of true-life stories. She helps them reshape their drafts, completing an average of 4 rounds of emotionally-intense, character-prodding edits.
“I’m really interested in the before and the after,” Stewart says. “Okay, so I know that this happened to you, this either moment or series of events, but who were you before this happened? Often times I’ve found that when people go through a significant time in their lives, it’s preceded by also a juicy time, it’s like things are kind of percolating and there may be chaos, and then something breaks through.”
Each show has a loosely-defined theme, and November’s was “Baby Steps.” One story Stewart received was titled “One Request Before You Leave: How a road trip, the Beatles, and a motel in Missouri made me a better ex-husband.”
David Hopkins submitted the piece. He’s a D Magazine contributor and former comic book writer
In his Arlington living room, he explains why he entered. His friend Sarah Hepola, D columnist and decorated essayist for Salon and other outlets, put on a red dress and performed a passage from her upcoming memoir about drinking last season. If she did it, he knows it’d be good for his career, he says.
David is that universally known writer type, charmingly self-depreciating from his first email. He wrote that I’d know his house by the overgrown lawn in front. He wanted to tell his story on merit of its anti-drama.
“People have often complimented me on my divorce which feels really weird, that someone would say, ‘Wow, you had a great divorce.”
He laughs, and then I get a glimpse at the story behind the story. “It’s like, ‘Thanks, I’m good at failing,’” he says.
Nicole’s early exchanges with David via Skype go something like this:
Nicole: You get to saying that your first baby step was acknowledging that [your wife leaving you] was happening, and I want to make sure that I see you before you acknowledged it.
Nicole: Like right now, I see you as lonely, unloved and unable to provide —
So here’s David, sitting in his home office, being asked by a relative stranger on a computer monitor to take himself back to the couples counseling appointment when his wife said she no longer wanted to be married to him.
“Admittedly I rolled my eyes a bit when [Nicole] asked me to go deeper. But I know where she’s coming from,” David said. “With her background in theater and also being an outsider, she’s wanting to see an emotional arc in this. I’m almost a little too separated from it.”
A week later, he will almost pull out of the show – he’s dreading even going to the keyboard to complete more edits, he says. Nicole wants him to use six Beatles songs to chart his road trip instead of letting more subtle references to “I’m Looking Through You” and other songs ease the main character through his transformation. Because, he says, that’s truer.
“It would be a little too Hollywood for me, where everything kind of has the correct moment and the correct answer, when everything kind of fits. Reality is kind of a lot messier,” he says on the phone.
There’s a knock at David’s door after the first round of edits I’m observing. He says to hang tight, he’ll be right back. It’s his ex-wife Melissa and their 9-year-old daughter, Kennedy, who finds me in his office and smiles sheepishly. She wordlessly traipses back up the hall, her tiny backpack bouncing.
David tells me there is one thing of emotional consequence he wants to get out of telling his story.
“What I really hope that I gain from this experience is a better way of organizing how I talk about something that for me was a very significant moment in my life,” David says. “I tend to ramble when I don’t know where I’m going, but particularly when my daughter, as she gets older, asks me more about, ‘Why did you and mom separate?’ and those simple answers like, ‘Well, we’re still friends, we’re just not together anymore’ – those kinds of answers won’t satisfy her as she gets older.”
I’m able to overhear Hopkins chatting casually with his ex, Melissa, about the Skype edit that just concluded. He’s giggling about the way Stewart has been pressing for more feeling. So I ask him about it:
“You very easily said, you know, ‘She keeps asking me how I feel about it.’ What is that about? Is that the kind of relationship you and Melissa have, or what?”
“Yeah, my ex-wife and I are really friendly with each other. She was the one who pointed me towards the online dating site, where I eventually met my wife. So the big universal coincidence is, if I hadn’t met my ex-wife, I wouldn’t have met my wife.”
It’s a cliché to say that hearing other people’s stories make us feel less alone, maybe even hopeful. But how does Oral Fixation matter beyond the experiences of individual growth?
Catherine Cuellar has lots to say about that. She’s another established writer with a voice in the “Baby Steps” show. Her story is about something much simpler: Walking. Reading her story feels like moving on in a way after digging in to Hopkins’ piece. I meet Cuellar at Klyde Warren Park, which just opened days before we sit at a café table on the lawn.
As a longtime supporter of Dallas’ literary scene, she understands why giving writers a platform is important. But, she says, Oral Fixation’s value lies in how the stories challenge perceptions of what Dallas is, and who lives there. All these stories will happen anyway. But Oral Fixation is a space for them to grow.
“And I think that the local flavor is what makes it stronger because, you know, Big Tex has burned. We’re not a town of cowboys anymore,” Cuellar says. “And here we are sitting on top of a freeway in this beautiful urban greenspace, and we’re writing a new story for this city.”