Content Warning: There is a homophobic slur that I quote from an especially mean critique of my work from high school.
I remember one day in my 11th grade rudimentary psychology class, Mrs. Kuhn (who was a Zumba instructor before instructing Zumba was cool) was teaching the class about a psychologist who theorized that our earliest memory can tell us who we really are. I don’t remember the psychologist — it’s probably one of those deals where as soon as I hear the name I’ll remember who they were, but luckily, I have earlier memories than 11th grade in Mrs. Kuhn’s class. She had us go home and ask our parents about their earliest memories and psychoanalyze them somehow. If I recall correctly, my mom told me about her earliest memory, which was the time she tried to fit her foot into an oversized doll shoe. I don’t know if I believe in the concept of earliest memory fully reflecting exactly the kind of person we are, but the lesson did stick with me.
Twitter had gotten me thinking about that lesson earlier this week. Occasionally on the Great American Dumpster Fire that we call Twitter, someone will write a prompt tweet that sparks like half the people I follow to answer it (it comes with the hive minds of Writer Twitter and Post-Evangelical Twitter — I’m guilty of perpetuating these prompt tweets from both of my tweet communities) and there was a prompt that Post-Evangelical Twitter was circulating this past week. The prompt, from comedian Abby Govindan, read:
“what’s a story from your early childhood that perfectly encapsulates how you are now? I’ll start. When I was 3 my family was kicked out of a museum after I touched The Starry Night painting (yes that one)”
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When I sat to write my own response to the question (after all, since all my friends were answering it), I realized I needed a larger space than 280 characters to express the memory that I wanted to (what can I say, even when I try to be brief it becomes an essay) — and then I remembered a second memory. It’s bothering me because I’m not entirely sure which one is more true to who I really am.
My first memory that came to mind was a time I went to the basement alone in my parents’ house in Bethesda and pulled all the books off the shelf and looked through them and saw the words on the pages, fully engrossed in the words themselves. I don’t even think I could read then, but there were words on the pages. The second memory was of standing on my mom’s cousin’s patio with an audience around me at a fire pit and I was telling a story and I had everyone laughing — I was proud of the story I told, sharing it publicly. Come to think of it, I want to say the story I told was either a shot-by-shot retelling of a Scooby-Doo episode or it was a 4 year old’s version of Scooby-Doo fanfic — both sound equally like me.
Essentially, what I’m puzzled by these two memories is: they both feel like who I am now. And
I’m a storyteller and I have a way with words, so I definitely got that part of the story right. But my question is: have I always been meant to only be a writer, burying myself in the words and creating my own little worlds like memory one — or am I a performer at heart like memory two who, just through the course of life, has lost his self-confidence? I have an inkling that though I am an introvert and recharge being by myself, my answer might be the latter. It’s scary to think about — hiding behind a keyboard and an iPad is comfortable for me. But there’s a not-small part of me that wants to try standup (I’d title my stand special “Dear Peter Fenton” a la Dear Evan Hansen). There’s a not-small part of me that dreams of writing for Saturday Night Live. I think I’d be good at either or both. I have no idea how I’d get there and part of me feels like I missed my chance by not getting involved in improv when it was “free” in college.
Lately I’ve been thinking about self-confidence. Coming out and dating kind of makes you confront your levels of self-confidence head-on (the song “When He Sees Me” from Waitress: The Musical has been stuck in my head for about a month), but so will the job search and the querying process. Putting yourself out there and saying “this is me” or “this is my work” and holding your breath waiting for a response takes guts. There are no sure bets, even in audiences that you think could be an easy win.
I remember one of the biggest hits to my self-confidence came when as a senior in high school I directed the WCVH Holiday Special in 2012 and someone wrote a tweet that read “who put this corny faggot (Fenton) in charge of the Christmas special?” This moment was of course followed closely by the time I directed the sophomore class film at Wheaton in 2015 and we were the only film at the festival to not win a single award. While people have believed in me this whole time and while I’ve certainly seen success (see: Mrs. Fisher’s 33rd and 40th productions, Heuer Publishing, Dadley Productions, Q Christian Fellowship, Philly Fringe Festival), it really is tough to completely put those memories of negative reception behind.
Of course I think it’s healthy to recognize our failures and dissect where we went wrong to properly learn from them, but in the cases of the two failures that poignantly stand out in my story, these are moments of loss and criticism that ultimately mean nothing to me in 2019. I guarantee I was the only writer in that class film festival who has gone pro. I guarantee high school-tier character insults say more about the person speaking them than they do the person they criticize. Self-confidence is not something that we can expect to just happen, but it can.
It’s been a little over five years since I’ve stepped on a stage to perform (not counting singing in the Wheaton College Men’s Glee Club, in which case it’s only been three) — and while I’m not sure I want to act or do standup or sing or dance (let’s be honest, I probably won’t dance), I might just have to get back up on a stage. Maybe just once, to see if it’s something I’ve been *not interested in* or just *afraid to do*. Now that I know myself a lot better and have fewer inhibitions — I might just be better at it than I’ve ever been.