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Stockton Lake (A Creative Nonfiction Essay)

I wrote the following essay in spring 2012 in my university creative nonfiction workshop. Every year, my family and I go to Stockton Lake to celebrate Independence Day and watch the fireworks over the water. This year is especially important to me, as I am not sure when I will be able to participate in this tradition again — one of the bittersweet components of moving. I wrote this piece from a similar perspective — how I felt upon moving to college. I hope you enjoy it.


Stockton Lake

All of my childhood summers can be combined into one scene: a Friday night sunset over Stockton Lake. To me, sunsets always looked prettier from the bow of a Crownline speed boat. I would sit on my knees, crouched down so my dad could still see to drive, and grip the metal hand railings until my knuckles turned white. I would gaze at the shoreline, where tan rocks gave way to leafy, green trees. Over the trees hung the sun, looking to me like a giant orange, framed in pink and blue and yellow sky. Its light created a golden trail along the glassy water, from the rocky shore to the bow of the boat.

As the boat turned, I would let go with one hand and reach for the spray of water along its side, relishing in the cool mist soaking my hand. I always hoped there would be enough sunlight left to paint a rainbow streak across the spray, but there never was.  When I straightened and looked across our cove, I saw before me a sleeping playground. Darkness was coming, and as the sun dipped below the trees, they turned from green bodies to a solid black mass. But I knew that when I woke up on Saturday morning, the cove would be alive again.

I was right, every time. On Saturday mornings, after devouring a double chocolate chip Otis Spunkmeyer muffin and a taking quick detour to feed stale bread slices to the two-foot long carp at Mutton Creek Marina, I always found the cove alive. Jet-skis zoomed along at the entrance, jumping the wake of passing speed boats. Pontoon boats blasted Aerosmith and Motley Crue from an inlet on the left side of the cove. Where the cove forked in the back, anyone who knew anything about Stockton turned left for a place to splash and drink — or right for a place to fish and teach cousins how to ski.

My parents and I settled in one of these inlets, leaving the body of the cove for boats pulling inner-tubers or wake-boarders. Once my dad secured the anchor in the cove’s muddy bottom, we began our routine. My mom took over the front of the boat, stretching out along the white leather seats to tan; my dad hung off the ladder at the back of the boat, easing his way into the cool water. I jumped straight in, splashing him, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

My dad and I spent hours in the water. We played tag, chasing each other in circles around the boat and hiding by the propeller. We cleaned the boat with our feet, scrubbing with our toes until the dust and grime from the gravel roads were completely washed away. Sometimes Daddy pinched my calves with his toes and pretended that I had been bitten by a fish. I believed him, until I realized that the water was so clear that I could see his monkey feet reaching towards me under the green glow of the surface.

Eventually, my parents traded places, Dad soaking up the sun in the boat and Mom swimming in the water with me. If she just wanted to relax in the waves, Mom wore her lifejacket upside-down, like a diaper instead of a vest. But if she wanted to stretch out and swim, she grabbed a lime green, foam noodle from the boat’s storage compartment.

Instead of playing, my mom and I always talked while we swam, drifting further away from the boat as the conversations grew deeper. We counted the little, cerulean dragonflies that landed on our wet arms. We talked about the next competitive trail ride, and how my beloved mare refused to side-pass over logs. As I grew older, we began to discuss my transition to middle school and then high school and then college. The summer after my junior year of high school, I listed the majors I was considering: English, psychology, journalism. I named the colleges at which I might pursue these degrees: Pittsburg State, Emporia State, Baker University.

Eventually, every summer weekend came to an end. When I was little, these ends consisted of shaky muscles that desired stable land and sun-burnt skin that thirsted for Ocean Potion Aloe Vera Gel. I watched anxiously as Mutton Creek Marina grew closer, wanting nothing more than to scramble onto the dock and climb the hill back to our motor home. I was tired. I was burnt. And I was ready to go home.

Every time my dad steered our motor home across the Y Highway Bridge, which stretched over our section of Stockton Lake, and we took one last look at our playground, with its smooth, blue waters glittering in the sunlight, my mom began to cry. As a child, I never understood her sadness; I was always ready to move on to the next adventure. However, the summer before my freshman year of college, with nothing to look forward to but four more years of school, a stack of textbooks, and a cinderblock dorm room, I finally understood her grief.

For my mom, and now for me, Stockton Lake is not just a summer vacation spot. When we are nestled away in our cove at Stockton, protected by a wall of trees and a 25,000 acre mote, work and school and all of life’s stresses melt away under that big orange in the sky. Stockton Lake is our safe haven, where life means being serenaded by a Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits cassette tape and rocked to sleep by a Crownline speed boat. But more than that, Stockton is the place where my mom spent her childhood, the place where we shared mine, and the one place where we will always regain the peacefulness of those years.

The last time I left Stockton Lake, I didn’t watch anxiously for Mutton Creek Marina. Instead, I looked over my shoulder and gazed at our cove, watching as the tree line grew smaller behind me. The sun was setting, turning the sky pink and creating that streak of shimmering gold up to the stern of our boat. As we took our final turn out of the cove, I leaned over the side of the boat and let the mist fly through my fingers. And on that last Sunday afternoon, I found there was just enough sunlight left to hit the silver spray and create a rainbow.

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Why We Have Chickens: My Family Will Survive the Apocalypse While Your Family Starves

I was raised to be apocalyptic. I never knew this, of course. Does the guppy know water? I didn’t realize that I was groomed to face society’s doom until I was eighteen. By that time, it was too late for me.

You see, while other little girls played with Barbies, I sat on the floor next to my dad, an unplugged PlayStation controller in hand, and pretended to blow the heads off zombies. While other girls spent weekends at the mall, I spent them with my dad, shooting Christmas Coca Cola cans until we could hit the polar bears from 30 yards away. When other girls refused to associate with their fathers, my dad and I were getting matching pentagram tattoos to guard against demonic possession – just in case.

Don’t worry. I’m not a romantic. I know that when the apocalypse comes, there will be no monsters: no undead, bloodthirsty scapegoats. There will be no sounding of angelic trumpets. No devils crawling from black smoke. It will be humanity that unravels civilization. The global economy will collapse and people will do whatever is necessary to survive.

When this happens, my family will be prepared. You see, in the end, the rifles mounted on the wall won’t be enough to sustain us. The concrete, one-way-in/one-way-out panic room won’t save us from the rumbling in our stomachs. Civilization or not, we’ll still need to eat.

This is where the chickens come in.

Chickens are self-sustaining protein factories. They eat the scraps from our meals, everything from rotten grapes to corn cobs to watermelon rinds. If left to their own devices, they slurp down worms and dig meat out of buggy exoskeletons. They, themselves, consist of meat: delectable meat that all other meats strive to imitate. After all, everything tastes like chicken. Of course, I will never (circumstances permitting) eat our chickens. The very idea repulses the pseudo-lacto-ovo vegetarian in me. I am content to devour their eggs, the most plentiful product the protein factories manufacture.

Originally, my parents bought six chickens. They were supposed to be Bantam hens, because they are small and easily domesticated. The more likely reason is that my parents think the feathers around their legs – or “the boots with the fur,” as my mom calls them – are adorable. However, we made the unfortunate mistake of buying chicks at Easter. By the time we reached Family Center, dozens of grubby-handed children had snatched up the chicks and moved them from one aluminum tank to the next, scrambling the breeds into indiscernible chaos. Therefore, instead of six Bantams, we have three Bantams, one Wyandotte, one Rhode Island Red, and one bird resembling a pheasant. Oh, and two of them are roosters, which incidentally, do not lay eggs.

Due to these unexpected complications, my dad took it upon himself to acquire six laying hens from the local Farmers’ Co-Op. While the other chickens all have distinct colorings, making them worthy of individual names (Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hestia, Persephone), the six, identical laying hens are known collectively as “The Dinosaurs.” These hens are a testament to evolution. They have gangly, scaled legs, long necks, and wide, black eyes. If I stripped them of their feathers, they would look like Velociraptors. The only excuse for their ugliness is the large, white eggs they lay: the eggs that will keep us alive.

I’m not crazy. I know that the odds of an apocalypse – be it pandemic, demonic, or economic – are slim to none. I know that, if an apocalypse arose, I would not have the guts to shoot a zombie, let alone a human. I know that, even if I became a ruthless sniper, my family’s tiny flock of chickens would not be enough to feed us forever. But you know what they say…

Better safe than sorry.

This creative nonfiction essay is from my Multi-Genre workshop from Baker University. If you cannot tell, it was written in 2012, when the Mayan apocalypse and doomsday prepping were insanely popular topics. It was featured in the 2013 edition of Watershed Literary Magazine.

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Kate, Warrior Princess

I am a warrior.

I suit up, teddy bear pajamas covering my torso, red cowgirl boots protecting my feet, and candy bracelets wrapping around my biceps. I cut out the middle of a paper plate, creating a large circle, and wrap it in aluminum foil. This is my chakram, the signature weapon of the warrior princess, and I tie it to my waist with yarn. I grab Jelly Bean, my magnificently white, stick-horse steed. I am ready.

I gallop into the living room for my nightly lesson. As my dad turns on Sci-Fi Channel, Lucy Lawless appears on the screen. Dressed as Xena, Warrior Princess, Lucy and I twirl our swords, throw our chakram, and unleash the battle cry, Aye-yi-yi-yi! When the show ends, I am ready to save my homeland.

Racing across the living room, Jelly Bean and I leap in front of Patty, my Chihuahua, shielding her from the Cyclops that lurks in the hallway. With one flick of my sword, I defeat him. Next, we dash outside to protect the trampoline fortress, which has been overrun by Vikings. I fling my chakram, which sails through the air, its sharp edges easily beheading them all. At my mother’s call, Jelly Bean and I ride back into the house. It, too, is overrun, so before I reach the safety of my room, I must slay goblins and savages and beasts.

When all of my enemies have been vanquished, I collapse onto my bed. Despite the adrenaline of battle, my eyes close within seconds. I sleep soundly, knowing that my home is safe, thanks to me: Kate, Warrior Princess.

This short essay is from my Creative Nonfiction Workshop from Baker University. It was published in Watershed Literary Magazine, where it received the 3rd place Moorman Prize in Prose.

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Creative Nonfiction: An Explanation of the Genre

Power of WordsI know what you’re thinking: “Woah, wait! How can nonfiction be creative? Isn’t it all boring, science-y stuff?” Well, get ready, because it is a real genre…and you’re reading it right now!

Do not despair. You are in good company. Several of my PhD-toting, know-it-all (non-English) professors have asked me what creative nonfiction is. As one particularly arrogant philosophy professor mused, “Isn’t creative nonfiction a misnomer? I just don’t believe it can be a real genre. Writing is either creative or nonfiction, not both.”

While I want to scoff at him, dear readers, I cannot. When I first heard of creative nonfiction, I thought the same thing. I remember looking at the requirements for my creative writing degree and thinking, “Oh, great. A whole class about technical writing. This will suck.” In retrospect, this is hilarious, as creative nonfiction is now my best (and one of my favorite) genres.

Now, if you still don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, sit back and relax. Here is Kate’s Creative Nonfiction 101.

What is creative nonfiction?

Creative nonfiction (abbreviated as creative non or CNF) is a genre of prose writing. In creative nonfiction, the writer recounts a true, personal experience, tells about true events from another person’s life, or conveys true information in an interesting way. The key word here is true — nonfiction means facts.

The creative component comes into play in the way in which the prose is written. Instead of writing a technical essay, the writer conveys the experience or information in a way that reads like fiction. In other words, creative nonfiction details actual events or factual information in a form that is meant for entertainment and education.

Emily_Dickinson_daguerreotype“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”

As Emily Dickinson wisely advised, creative nonfiction writers convey truth, but with a slant. In order to make a creative nonfiction essay entertaining, sometimes the writer must creatively explain the truth. This can be accomplished in several ways: skipping over parts of a story with little action, dramatizing events, re-ordering events, or filling in details with the “best guess” when the whole truth is unknown. While the goal is to present nonfiction, a little slant can make the story much more gripping and enjoyable for the reader.

What are some examples of creative nonfiction?

The interesting thing about creative nonfiction is that it is not marketed as “creative nonfiction.” Typically, it is marketed in more specific genres. In the same way that fiction is divided into “mystery,” “literature,” “romance,” etc., creative nonfiction is split into “memoir,” “biography,” “travel writing,” “literary journalism,” etc. On the internet, creative nonfiction is most commonly exercised as blogging, which conveys information but is also meant for entertainment. These myriad categories are the reason why most people do not even realize the genre exists, but it does — it is the umbrella that covers all of these smaller genres.

Here are some more specific examples of well-known creative nonfiction works:

You can also check out one of my many creative nonfiction pieces, Kate, Warrior Princess,” for a micro example of how creative nonfiction manifests in a university setting.

The Bottom Line

Creative nonfiction is an overlooked, but highly useful, genre. While its sister genre, fiction, may be given more literary notice, creative nonfiction does something fiction cannot: it gives the reader this world’s truth in the writer’s voice (as opposed to through a narrator, character, or metaphor). Creative nonfiction is the genre of the factual human experience, the genre of “based on a true story.” Now that you have this knowledge…

Go forth and write your truth.

When did you first hear about creative nonfiction? Is it a genre you like to read or write? Would you add any caveats to my description?