Painful, Beautiful Individuality

by Kathryn Craft, author of The Art of Falling

ArtOfFallingSmallI was fifteen, and I had a legal problem. I stood facing an official representative of the Department of Motor Vehicles, whose role was to fill out my learner’s permit application.

“Last name.”

“Graham.”

“First name.”

“K-a-t-h-r-y-n.”

“Middle name.”

“I don’t have one.”

The woman peered at me over her half-glasses and spoke with the tired expression of one who has heard it all. “No one likes their middle name, but you have to tell me. It’s the law.”

Apparently it hadn’t been illegal for my parents to fail to give me one. How did they know they wouldn’t get their desired boy until child five? They’d run out of girl names they liked.

I shrugged. “Sorry.”

She started to write in the space. I read upside down, hoping not to see the word “Sorry.” She wrote: NONE. This made me feel like a ZERO.

I had a good long heart-to-heart on this matter with my best friend, Ellen, the next day. We were on the upper deck of our neighborhood swimming pool, making fudgies. We’d opened a pack of brownies from the vending machine and rendered plucked-off sections pliable by rolling them between our hands. I was fashioning the body for a little fudgie pig while Ellen and I tried to think up a middle name for me.

I needed something that would make me fit in with all the other three-named people in the country, but at the same time distinctive enough to stand out. When I’d told my mother what had happened she’d been unconcerned; she figured her daughters could use their maiden name in the middle once we get married.

I did not think I should count on that.

It was as if this portion of my identity remained elusive. If I could rename myself by the time I got my real license, it could be official. So I sought Ellen’s advice. But she said, “I don’t know, Kath, you’re the only person I’ve ever met who didn’t get a middle name. It’s kind of exotic.”

“What do you think of Margaret? Kathryn Margaret. I like it better than Ann Margaret, don’t you?”

Ellen thought it over as she lined up her fudge art on the deck railing. I expected Ellen would like the name, because she liked me, and was not the type to lash out with the God’s-honest-truth like members of my family. “Too Catholic. Makes you sound like a nun.”

“Oh.” I realized the huge mistake I could make by renaming myself. If I made a bad decision, I’d have no one to blame but me.

“My dad’s middle name is Weist.”

“Kathryn Weist Graham.” Ellen Patricia tried it on. She didn’t like her own middle name, and never used it. She wouldn’t need one for long—she was beautiful and tan and classy and already had a boyfriend who was nuts about her. “I like that one.”

“But it’s a family name,” I said. “It seems like it should be bestowed, not claimed.” I pressed a little tail to my pig’s behind. “I guess I could just use Nonnie.”

“Nonnie? Where’d that come from?”

“The lady put it on my permit form yesterday: N-O-N-E. You could pronounce that Nonnie, right?”

We laughed. I added my pig fudgie with its drooping tail to Ellen’s svelt snake on the deck railing. The forecasted storm would wash them away, but concerns about fitting in and distinguishing oneself would be themes I’d revisit again in my life.

My artistic aptitude would not end up expressing itself in the realm of edible sculpture—the very next year I discovered dance, then later, writing. But in my choreography and in my debut novel, The Art of Falling, I would continue to explore what defines our individual contribution as an artist—how to be enough like others to fit into the market, and how to be individual enough to be distinctive.

My protagonist, Penelope Sparrow, struggles with this theme in regard to body image. When the strong and resilient body she blames for ruining her dance career saves her life after what should have been a deadly fall, giving her an extraordinary chance to reinvent herself, can she fight her obsessive need to fit in and embrace her individuality boldly enough to leave a distinctive mark on the Philadelphia dance world? Join her, and see!

Kathryn Graham Williams Craft ended up with plenty of names, thank you, but that’s a whole different story. She isCraft_small_photo the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, which was released on January 28 and has already gone back for a second printing, and While the Leaves Stood Still (due Spring 2015). Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she now serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads Craftwriting workshops, and speaks often about writing. She lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.

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Published in: on February 13, 2014 at 6:54 am  Comments (13)  
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