BY COLLEEN ABEL
Among my papers, found while cleaning today: a note on my work from a writer friend. The note was dated nearly ten years ago. My friend and I exchanged manuscripts after grad school, where we’d met, a fact I’d forgotten until this afternoon when I saw her signature at the end of the typed pages, smeared on the “y” at the end of her name. The poems she was commenting on are all dead now, the manuscript dead, poor thing, but I was struck by something in her first paragraph. Your work is quirky, she’d said.
Quirky. Having or full of quirks. Quirk: a peculiarity. Synonyms: idiosyncratic. From Urban Dictionary: “Weird, in a good way.”
It wasn’t the first time the “q” word had been leveled at me. In fact, the first time was in graduate school. I was 22 years old, fresh out of college. It was after a workshop where my poetry was cross-examined, found—as all graduate-level work is—wanting. I was feeling bruised and raw, as if I’d been swimming in rough waters and had been scraped against some rocks. I also loved the poet who had lead my workshop, admired her strange face, her wry humor, her obtuse and deeply intelligent writing. After the workshop, she ran into me in a computer lab. I like your work, she said. It’s quirky.
I went home and cried.
My father’s music guide: a paperback book as big as a Bible, listing all the major music artists of the 20th century, giving a brief write-up of the artist’s career, tackling each album, assigning stars for worth: a five star masterpiece, a one star catastrophe. He kept it in the bathroom. Easy reading.
I read it at age thirteen when I experienced a seismic shift in my music tastes. At age twelve, I was listening mostly to pop radio, buying cassette singles at the mall of whatever was on Hot 102.3: Snow’s “Informer,” Boyz II Men’s “Motown Philly,” Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” The summer I turned thirteen I also started listening to my dad’s music. It’s an odd thing for a teenager to do, I guess, to rebel against peer culture and want to be like their parents: an inversion of the standard narrative. A quirk.
I put on my dad’s records while he was at work. T-Rex. The Sex Pistols. June Tabor. Loudon Wainwright III. Steeleye Span. My dad had wide-ranging taste. He was a former rock drummer, and gave up his band, his record store job, and his long hair when I was born. I taped what I liked from vinyl to cassette and listened in my room at night, strumming a black guitar that I was fated to never learn how to really play.
My favorite group was The Roches, three sisters from New Jersey. Their music was filed under folk for the sake of convenience, because the music was—at first—driven by acoustic guitar, influenced by singer-songwriters like Dylan and Joni Mitchell. But the songs were written by each of the sisters individually, in different combinations, or as a trio, and each sister was wildly different. So the songs skidded out of being pin-downable. They mirrored back the eldest sister, Maggie’s, dark wit and melancholy, the middle sister Terre’s social observations and wry details, the youngest sister Suzzy’s alternately rebellious and lovelorn flamboyance. The press loved them because they were all beautiful, Terre blonde with high cheekbones where Maggie was dark and doe-eyed, and Suzzy always performing in the center as the ringmaster, wearing plastic flowers in her hair or glitter stickers on her face.
Adjectives from a 1979 article about The Roches: “wacky,” “eclectic,” “off beat,” “irreverent,” “weird.”
Something about what the sisters were and said and represented struck me like a gong at the age of thirteen, so I listened endlessly to the cassettes and read articles from the burgeoning internet. I was coming to the group nearly twenty years into their career, so I had a lot of catching up to do. My dad’s giant music guide said this about The Roches: “The group is known for its lush harmonies and quirky songs.”
Even at thirteen, I remember thinking: what the hell does that mean?
From the mission statement of Quirky, a crowdsourced inventing website: “We believe the best ideas in the world aren’t in the world, they’re locked inside people’s heads. We exist to solve that problem.”
There is no language on the site about how the company selected its name, but I imagine them in a Brooklyn meeting room, sipping fair trade coffee, flexing beautifully tattooed forearms as someone young, maybe bespectacled, suggests a reclamation of the word quirky. Let’s embrace our weirdness! I imagine her saying and I envision the table pumping their fists in the air.
In July 2015, the CEO of Quirky, Ben Kaufman, said the company was nearly out of money, and “running on fumes.” He said it would now focus its energies not on production of inventor-submitted ideas, but on partnerships with large companies like GE and Mattel.
I think their team meetings must look very different now.
From the lyrics to “Nurds,” by Suzzy Roche (1980):
“When I went to high school
It really hit me hard
I started finding out
That they were calling me ‘retard’
In the gymnasium
I was not a hit
There was something really interesting
About the way my gym suit fit…”
The winter before I began high school, my mother had taken me to see The Roches at a little venue in Milwaukee. My obsession was so critical at that point that she had called a telephone number for the Roches’ management listed on one of their CD sleeves. The number was their manager’s home phone: it was a Saturday morning and my mother woke her up. The request: that I, at 13, be allowed in to the +21 over show. I remember standing hesitantly by my mother as she listened to the voice on the other end of the line. The answer was yes.
It’s difficult to describe the experience of meeting one’s idols; it’s a bit like trying to tell another person about your dreams. It’s painfully subjective—utterly immersive and vivid to you, but hard to render to another. If I can give you a sense of the scope: I took Margaret as a confirmation name because of Maggie Roche, and lied to the nuns to tell them it was as veneration for St. Margaret. (Who, as I have just learned today from a quick dash through Wikipedia, lived in medieval Scotland and was famous in part for reading to her illiterate king-husband, Malcolm III, from the Bible, thus producing an apparently much-needed “civilizing influence.”)
Even now, more than twenty years later, I can still tell you the songs the sisters performed that night more than twenty years ago, can picture Suzzy’s purple velvet hat and combat boots. I have the autographs, my meticulous diary entry. This meeting—and a subsequent concert two years later—were like worrystones kept in my pocket throughout high school, a place where I spent most of my time lonely and angry. At sixteen, I wrote a poem about them and sent it to their fan mail address. I got a postcard back, a painting of a woman reclining on a chaise lounge fingering a strand of pearls. On the back, in the same handwriting as my autograph from Maggie Roche: “Thank you for the beauty of your words.”
From an email today from a new freelance client: “Your work is letter-perfect. It’s not everyone who can nail our quirky style on the first try, but you did it.”
The Roches were like a musical gateway drug to other quirky musicians. I loved Bjork, who wore a dress in the shape of a swan to the Oscars, and Imogen Heap, who wore a dress with lilypads and grass in her hair to the Grammys. I loved Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush, Kristin Hersh. Their faces adorned my college dorm room wall, where I would spend hours laying on my bed reading at nights listening to drunk, happy undergraduates having fun in the halls or sidewalks outside.
I think about these musicians, and whether “quirky” might actually be code for “weird white woman.” There aren’t exactly studies I can refer to about this sort of thing, but when I start keeping my eyes open, I can’t see a pattern. Contemporary lamps are advertised as “quirky” in a design magazine; hotels are frequently labeled “quirky” when they offer a chance for the traveller to sleep in an unexpected locale: underwater, in a concrete pipe, in the side of a cliff. I see the term frequently applied to Asian culture. (According to Ari Shapiro of NPR, South Koreans have “quirky views on electric fans”—itself probably the quirkiest headline I read all year.) I see it applied less to black people, as the result, it seems, of a kind of cultural failure of imagination. In an interview I read with actress Viola Davis, she describes herself in real life as “quirky, shy, guarded” and then says, “You know, who’s ever seen a nerdy, quirky, timid black woman on screen? I don’t know where she is.” She’s got a point. One of the only things that makes us feel less alone is recognizing kinship in others, even strangers, even people in movies, singing on your tape players. But all of this brings me back to where I began.
What does quirky mean, really? Who gets this label, and why? And what are the real consequences?
From Imogen Heap’s blog, on co-writing a song with Taylor Swift: “[W]e tried a few things out. One of which had me going over to the keyboard to suggest a slightly ‘odd’ chord progression as I do like a bit of that on my own records. I played it to Taylor and she quite clearly said ‘I think we are going to lose them at that point’ … and I said ‘wow … that is why you sell millions of records and I don’t!’ She is Taylor Swift and she knows best, so we stuck to the chords.”
From the lyrics to “Big Nuthin’” by The Roches (1989), written about their 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live:
“I was on a tv show that everybody said
Would change the course of my life that night
by the time I went to bed.
Tinkling glass and candlelight,
your look of tenderness
I was full of cozy hope:
sweet taste of success.
It was a big nuthin.’”
I’m not sure when I began to suspect that quirkiness was not a compliment, even when someone intends to use it as one. We have a language in our culture, after all, that urges all of us to let our freak flags fly, to embrace our weirdness. We are all special snowflakes.
But it is also one of the great pains of being human: to feel like a freak, at times, that no one understands us, that we are the only ones in the world who… This is a real, and awful, sadness. But for those we frequently label to the side of what is normal, this is more like a chronic pain, a sensation that throbs uncomfortably underneath our whole lives. Because while we may all be individual, but we are not all strange. There would not be terms like “quirky” or “eccentric” or “weird” without another standard to judge them by, something to hold them up against. The honest truth is that people prefer normalcy.
So you may find yourself wanting to celebrate your oddities, but then you realize that to keep your company afloat, you must jettison all your bootstrapping inventors to partner with corporate giants. You can write quirky songs, but eventually you will soften the edges and straighten the curves at the behest of the mainstream pop star. You can perform on Saturday Night Live and then, fourteen years later, be playing in a club in Milwaukee to less than 300 people, with a thirteen-year-old in the audience as your biggest fan.
You can write and write. You can apply for jobs, for grants. You aim for success, and you fail, and wonder what to blame. Who can say it is any one thing? It may just be your you-ness, the quirk written in to each chromosome.
Quirk also can mean “a sudden twist, turn, or curve.” For those like me or like the women who still watch me from postcards or clippings above my writing desk, we get older, obscurity stalking around our peripheral vision. We wait for the sudden twist, and it doesn’t come.
From Urban Dictionary: “Someone with a lot of quirks might be considered fucked up.”
If I seem overly joyless about embracing quirkiness, consider this, from a WikiHow article, entitled, “How to Be Quirky: 14 Steps (With Pictures)”: “Note that a number of alternative cultures like hipsters, punks or beatniks, etc. could be considered quirky. That's probably accurate but you don't need to lump yourself into any alternative grouping to be quirky. You can even start your own style of quirky. Quirky people often stand well alone of even the ironic attempts of alternative groups to be different while all being the same.” Here is the phrase I’ve kept with me, all of my quirky life, reading alone in my room through college, enduring adult puzzlement and polite distance. Quirky people often stand well alone of…
I have a great capacity for solitude. Nearly boundless. But nearly is not utterly. And well alone, is even more alone than alone. As I am well aware.
At a recent parent-teacher conference at my son’s preschool, the trio of teachers said to me, “Well, he is an artist. He is definitely different.” I thought of my four-year-old boy, who wears a fedora he calls a “cowboy hat” to the park and introduces himself as a “teenage rockstar” to the strangers there. He asks them if they know that the two moons of Mars are gradually being pulled by gravity toward the red planet, and will eventually crash into it. No, they invariably say. They didn’t know that.
Oh, kiddo, I think. It’s going to be a quirky road ahead.
From the lyrics to “Runs in the Family” by Terre Roche (1979):
“I'm holding the bag
Just like my mama did
Just like her mama did
Now there's gonna be
A new kid in the family
Oh no, kid you're gonna
Run in the family…"
Colleen Abel is the author of one full-length collection of poems, Remake, which won the 2015 Editors Prize from Unicorn Press and is forthcoming in Fall of 2016. She is also the author of Housewifery, a chapbook (dancing girl press, 2013). A former fellow at UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, her poetry and prose has appeared in Colorado Review, Southern Review, Phoebe, West Branch, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She lives in Wisconsin.