I Want to Tell a Story: An (Alleged) Exercise in Knowledge Production

By A Adams

For the record, this is an attempt at engaging knowledge production through non-academic means, produced for a Feminist Knowledge Production Seminar taught by Richa Nagar at the University of Minnesota in Spring 2023. In it, I ask: how do we produce knowledge from precarity? What actually generates the means by which we come to know ourselves? Here, craft essay (a subsection of creative nonfiction) is the method by which I attempt to engage in knowledge production that escapes capture by the university (as well as a PhD student can) and also engages the work of folks like Lauren Berlant and Remi Yergeau. How do we write being? What does it mean to write disability and autism into being, and how does one author identity? This is an attempt at answering those questions in three parts.

Part 1: An introduction to introductions

The core of my intellectual pursuits is the belief that we communicate our identities through the stories we tell ourselves and each other. I could cite a slew of communication studies and English scholars here to back that argument up, but I am not entirely convinced such an approach is actually useful. Knowledge production will happen, eventually, anyway even if I do not cite them. Instead, I choose to focus on the moments in which knowledge is produced between you and I. “You,” here, is anyone. It could be you, reading this paper. Right now. You are listening to me tell a story, you know. Maybe it’s Dr. Richa Nagar. She’s grading this, after all. She decides if this is at all useful. She is, in the traditional Western academy, the arbiter of all knowledge production. But what if knowledge production happened here? In the moments where my life touches yours, and yours touches mine? Maybe it happens when we share a story, and I listen and talk and interrupt and laugh and lose eye contact and nod and trail off and say goodbye and think about your story for the next six days. Cera Sophia makes a similar argument in HOW CAN I COMPETE? (the dangers of grinder brain). It’s really similar to what Kenneth Burke or Tony Adams would say, really. It’s just infinitely more fun to read. We make sense of our lives through narrative, rebuilt and reconstituted through how we package and consume those stories.

This argument is not novel. Communication scholars have made this exact argument for decades. But Cera’s argument is wrapped in a tender eulogy for a beloved local game store, Eudemonia in Berkeley, that fueled a gambling addiction, provided space to come out, enabled a toxic relationship with a game’s professional scene, and made the woman we see now in Cera. Eudo, as the store is lovingly called, was the home of Cera Sophia, a trans woman whose online handle is “@ciswoman” and “Stacked Boymoder,” who fell hook, line, and sinker for Magic the Gathering’s “Play the Game, See the World” marketing for the professional tour grind. I have met many Ceras. I, at one point, was a Cera. And so when the Stacked Boymoder argues that stories make meaning, I tend to believe the Stacked Boymoder. She reminds me of when I was young and dumb, grinding to make the Magic Professional Tour. She reminds me of the time that Drew Buchanan told me I was “cracked” at Magic, or the moment Eric Schwamberger asked me about my pronouns in the lobby of Pulp Comics and Games in Mankato, Minnesota after we had been friends for two years. When I read Cera’s work, stories and names you do not know generate meaning. Pulp, Atlantis Hobby, The Dork Den, Chicagoland Games: Dice Dojo, Level Up Games–Minneapolis, all of them are my Eudo. Meaning is made when you know what Eudo means. (Or what a stacked boymoder is, I guess.) Your Eudo is not a game store. Maybe it’s the University of Minnesota. Maybe it’s another school, in another city, in another place, in another time. Maybe it is home. But you have one. That’s the story, after all.

This is how I approach every paper, every assignment, every thought. There is a story here to tell. Autoethnography is just a craft essay. My thesis was a craft essay that just went for 90 pages, and the aftermath could easily fill another ten. This project? It’s a craft essay. An experiment in the ways in which knowledge can be produced and interrupted, the means by which we attain access to who knows what. But I think you know that by now, don’t you? And now I am thinking about craft. Writing. The craft we’re supposed to be getting good at, here. Turning words into narrative and argument and meaning and knowledge and history and space and pain and catharsis and joy and loss and that time I turned the lights off in my childhood bedroom in Chicago for the very last time ever. And now I am thinking about you.

What’s your story? What stories justify you? What stories would you tell, if I asked you who you are? What about if I asked how your bodies worked? Do they work? What does that question mean? I could cite Bumiller and Yergeau and Puar and Griffiths and I don’t want to cite any of those people but I have great recommendations if you want to read their work. It’s all good work. It’s also all work. It’s great for getting published and it’s all valid work to do and I would love for you to read it all. But also, it all just means we have similar narratives to spin, similar stories to share, similar symbols to define. What’s a body? What’s your body? Why’s my body work differently and sometimes hurt so bad that I don’t sleep for two days straight? I like my body a lot. Does that make sense? It should. Don’t you love your body? If I had another body, I’d love that body, too. All this to say that I just use smarter people’s words to tell a story you all might believe because it’s got enough fidelity, which is the dog whistle word I put there to signal to graduate students and Dr. Nagar that I understand theory and am not just some hack, though I know she knows. And she knows that I know she knows. Welcome to the insecurity inherent to knowledge production.

I choose to write like this, though. I choose to play in the mess created when knowledge refuses to be categorized. You could call my writing style disabled, crip, or any of the other critical terms in my or your or our fields, but reality is I just write the way I wish others wrote. That said, I’d rather hear your story and then we can compare notes and work and bodies but maybe not bodies per se because that sounds weird. Or maybe I’m a prude. After all, what is knowledge but the moments in which we share pleasure in and out of the body? What is knowledge production without the meaning generated when a person or two people or more people or all people feel good? Otherwise, this is all just about bodies of work, and that’s depressing, isn’t it? And then somewhere along the way, we’ve created knowledge together.

So that’s me! Or a part of me. But not all of it, because all I did was tell you a story. Don’t believe me? Let me tell you the plot. It’s a story about an academic who became disillusioned by the constant need to cite smarter people to make arguments that we make to ourselves all the time. So they went ahead and started writing about what we already know: our bodies. The core conflict is that they’re in academia, and so that gets hard because there are so many other people who talk about narrative. So they found a middle ground: writing about disability and asking uncomfortable questions. But now they’re here, and the stories that made navigating Minnesota State University and Louisiana State University easier are gone, and they want to know your stories. And now we’re here. The end. Of this story, at least.

Primarily, I write about me. I write about my body in relation to other bodies, and my brain in relation to my body. I write about being autistic (not having autism. Call me a person with autism and we fight.) and being in pain a lot. I write about academia and ableism and craft essays and I write about writing. But I write about you all, too. I write about the academics I’ve met, and the moments where we create something neat. Maybe not always beautiful. Maybe not coherent or even useful. But always always always neat. This is a craft essay. This is also an autobiography. This is a project and an experiment. But this is also very well-tread ground. Maybe I don’t belong in Communication Studies, and that’s a fair criticism. But this, whatever this is, has gotten me pretty far, and frankly I don’t feel like changing. Dr. Lisa Calvente told me in 2017 that my job in the academy is to steal what I need and get out. She was later denied tenure for being Too Much, because the white progressives at DePaul thought she was too loud and too brown and too mean. Those same professors also have Black Lives Matter stickers on their office doors! I know because I have seen them!

My core belief is this: meaning and knowledge are created in the moment that you all realize why I told you that story. And maybe we can make more knowledge in discovering together why I will tell you the next one.


Part two: I hate typing.

I do not remember the last night I went to bed and my fingers did not hurt. I fail to recall the last time I walked outside in the rain and my knees did not ache until I nearly cried. I do not remember the first time I woke up and realized that chronic pain means forever and ever, amen. (Pronounced “ah-men,” not “ay-men,” according to my grandmother.) Knowledge is not produced in the origin of the thing. It is produced in the mess left behind from remembering. The noise made in the breach, where I force these fingers to fly and scream and creak across a keyboard to make a cogent point, a coherent point, to attempt to crystallize what coherence even is, all of that is knowledge. This is also disability. This is the moment in which I become disabled, and the moments in which I become whole. Or something like that.

When I was in high school, I used to play a lot of video games. In particular, I loved playing the Super Smash Brothers series. I played a highly technical Falco in Smash Brothers: Melee. You don’t need to know anything about what this means other than it was hard on my hands. At this point, my fingers were mostly okay. They did not creak with every movement, nor did they burn at the knuckles. They simply were. I simply was. I was also okay at the game. My hands would fly across the controller, clicking and grabbing and pressing and half-pressing and sliding and jiggling buttons and joysticks. I was happy. I wasn’t as good as the other players; I would routinely win two matches at most before bowing out of the tournaments respectfully. Usually, I would beat two other bad players, and then get absolutely destroyed by a good one. I had fun. But at some point, my wrists and fingers began to ache too much for Falco. The clacking and clicking of controllers had become too painful to bear, and so I put away the bird, then the game.

I have a request for you, here. Go to YouTube. Look up “How much work is Melee Falco” and watch any of the first few videos. Pay attention to the movements of the hands on the controller. The sounds of the inputs. This was fun. The exhilaration of a correct input on a 1/60th of a second window, the clack of the directional stick getting flicked downward at most two frames after jumping, the combination of buttons that made my little blue bird move in ways the game engine knew was possible, but didn’t intend. Imagine doing that while your hands burn. While your fingers slow down a little bit at a time, week after week. I was not getting better at Falco. I would will my hands to do what I asked them to. I would silently beg, near tears, that I can just ignore my knuckles stiffening up one time and maybe maybe land this momentum-canceling input called an “L-cancel.” The window was 1/20th of a second, right as a character touches the ground after an attack in the air. As a thirteen-year old, this was easy. L-cancels are for babies. Everyone can do them. If you can’t, why play? You can’t move if you can’t L-cancel. Everyone knows that. If I could just land this one L-cancel, then maybe this move will extend into another and then another. Maybe I won’t win, but I will tread water. I will not lose like this.

By fifteen, I could no longer L-cancel. I could no longer move. My blue bird was combo food, and I went from being bad to being bad. I no longer belonged. More than being autistic, this was the first time I was disabled. I cannot point to the day I decided I was done playing Melee. My Gamecube collects dust in my father’s attic. My disc is still in the system. I have not played in almost a decade. Nobody wants to see the crip go oh-and-two and bow out. Some nights, I dream of fingers that work. Maybe that makes me an assimilationist. Some nights, I dream that I can work a controller like magic, and my little blue bird zips across the screen and there’s a crowd roaring at every combo, cheering for every stray hit, while I compete with Hungrybox, Mang0, PPMD, Zain, and all the other Melee superstars I always adored growing up. Six5ths was my tag, back then. It comes from my grandfather saying I had to be twice the person white folks wanted me to be, because they’d always only ever see three fifths of a man. But inevitably, I wake up. I always do. The crowd is gone. I am not beating PPMD in winner’s semifinals at EVO. I am just at LSU, another crippled graduate student navigating the world. I pack my bags, shower, and go to class. We’re reading Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection. Clare notes that he wishes he could hike again, that his body were not always in pain. An abled grad student calls him an assimilationist, and insists that Clare is exactly who Schulman meant to talk about in Gentrification of the Mind.  If I were to type here what I thought then, I would be on more lists than I already am on. So I will leave that to the imagination.

I no longer play Smash. Any installment. My fingers are too creaky and slow. I tried Smash 4, which helped. The game was slow, plodding. The best option was often to sit and do nothing. And then that changed, and I realized my favorite hobby had left me behind. I play Magic the Gathering, now. On humid, rainy nights, I take a deep breath before shuffling my deck, and I bite down hard to avoid crying. I think a lot of people think I’m just intense. That I am that focused on the game. But no. I am often not focused at all. I’m mostly wary. For a while, the best archetype in the game required an 80-card deck to play, far larger than what I can comfortably shuffle. The game’s rules do not allow for a judge to shuffle for you, with minor exceptions made for players like Sandydog, who is far more visibly disabled than I. Sandydog, or Brandon Burton, often brings his mother to tournaments to shuffle for him. When she was younger, Dana Fischer brought her dad to Grand Prix events to shuffle because her nine-year-old hands were far too small to shuffle a double-sleeved 60-card deck by herself. Both have done well for themselves in the game. Funny how that works. I am aware that my time is coming. Eventually, even Magic will hurt a little too much to play. I’m used to it. I’ll find another, less painful, hobby when that happens. One day, my hobby will be being disabled. I can’t decide if I’ll welcome the day or not. Maybe some brain-wormed graduate student will call me an assimilationist.


Part three: Neuroweird; or it costs fifteen dollars to watch someone kiss me on the cheek.

My father learned I was autistic when I was twenty-four years old, six years after I learned that I am on the spectrum. He overheard a conversation with my younger brother about being on the spectrum, and came to insist that I must have been wrong. According to him, I am too smart to be autistic. Or artistic, to be more specific to the mispronunciation my father often employs. I was merely lazy and a little weird. I laughed. I don’t really know why. I wanted to ask him what he thought lazy means. I wanted to ask him what he thought of me while I struggled through middle and high school, unable to explain why I was so bad in social situations. I wanted to ask why he thought it took me twelve years to consistently be able to tell which shoe went on which foot. I wanted to ask him what was so lazy about getting bullied from age three to age seventeen. I wanted to ask a lot of things. I wondered if he knew that girls would play pranks on me, jokingly asking me to Homecoming or prom, knowing that I would not be able to recognize that they were being cruel. I wonder what he thought of the time a girl in my class was dared to kiss me on the cheek, and I learned the price of such a dare. Fifteen bucks. That’s not a dare. That’s a bet. Nobody wants to kiss the retard. Nobody wants to kiss the crip. But for fifteen bucks and a cheap giggle? That’ll be enough to take those odds.

I wonder if he knows that last part happened after I became “popular.” I wonder, often, if he knows that autism is more powerful than any other high school popularity factor. Playing football did not help. Playing basketball did not help. Starting on the soccer team did not help. Playing on the baseball team did not help. Hanging out with the cool kids did not help. Getting in-school suspensions or detention every month for getting into fights did not help. I wonder how many fights he was told about. I wonder how lazy he thought I was when I nearly broke a kid’s nose for calling me a retard. I wonder how lazy he thought I was when I tried to shove another kid down a flight of steps for saying I was slow. Or the time I hit a kid with a stapler for hitting me on the head with string cheese sixteen times on the morning of my eleventh birthday in sixth grade. The third day of school. It was August 22nd, 2007. A Wednesday. I wonder how lazy my father would have thought I was as I chased Caleb Lavigne (pronounced Lah-vin-yay) around Ms. Becky Chan’s homeroom class on the first floor of Perspectives Charter School, South Shore Campus. It would not be renamed Rodney D. Joslin Campus for another few years and more than a few detentions for fighting. I don’t think these two things are connected, but they might be.

I could never explain why I was the way I am. I wish I could have explained as poor Ms. Chan was on my back, trying to save the other student. I wish I had kind words for her as I dragged her across the room, bellowing I’m going to fucking kill you to a kid that may just have believed me in the moment. I did not kill Caleb. I just tried to put five staples into his arm and punched him a lot. I wish I could have explained to Caleb that I didn’t hate him. But I read in Ender’s Game that when you fight a fight you have to win it exactly once and then never ever have to fight it again. I never had to fight Caleb Lavigne again. I wonder how he’s doing, some days.

I wonder what the fifteen dollars Afrodity Johnson got paid to kiss me on the cheek my senior year went to. I wonder how much fun the people who would jokingly ask me to prom had. I did not go. I wonder if it was lazy of me to skip. I wonder why my father thought I was weird. Am weird. I’m pretty weird, I guess. My brother got two thousand dollars for his prom. I went to a convention instead. I got sixty bucks. Weird kids don’t get to spend their Saturdays with other weird kids on their parents’ dime. I wondered then, and I wonder now, if I was a disappointment. Nobody wants an artistic kid. I wonder why nobody told me I was weird. I wonder why nobody ever told me that I was autistic. I wonder why nobody ever told me I was being lazy. That I could just try harder to be normal, to understand why I did the things I did. I wonder why nobody ever told me how to not be weird. I wonder why nobody ever told me what being normal even was. I wonder why nobody told me that it wasn’t normal to have all-consuming interests. I wonder why nobody told me that it wasn’t normal to memorize the properties of the Flywheel Effect for the purposes of playing Beyblades with my brothers. Or to have an internal catalog of anime to cite at any given moment. My mother says she got me tested, and she knew I was autistic the whole time. I was just lazy, according to her. My autism did not affect my life at all. I do not think she is telling the truth. I hope she isn’t. I would like to believe my mother is a liar, not a bad person.

I’m happy being autistic. When I got my diagnosis, things made sense. I didn’t have many questions at the time. I still have questions about my childhood, of course. There was a long time where I teetered on the edge of absolute disaster. Days where I wanted my brain so badly to make sense that I would have happily painted the ceiling of my bedroom with it to see if the patterns would be more coherent than the cavalcade of cringe-inducing memories and incomprehensible demands and interests that I don’t even like that much. I’d lie face-up, staring at the dripping ceiling, picking out constellations of trauma and intrigue and memory and just weird shit. Maybe this chunk will be where my interest in competitive spinning tops came from. This smudge over here might be why the scar tissue on my right eyebrow from when I was dropped down a flight of stairs as a toddler burns when I am embarrassed. That chunk over in the corner is the part that made me slow to realize I am being pranked. Fifteen fucking dollars, man. Like, couldn’t they have at least dropped that price a little bit? Yeesh.

But I don’t ask any of those questions. I don’t know if I can stop if I start asking. So I laughed. He’s right, I guess. I’m weird. I’m somewhat artistic, I guess. I’m not that smart, though. A smarter person would have had the good sense to be mad at their brain a long time ago. Not me, though. I wake up every morning and happily stick my face into the reaping machine, and hope that tomorrow’s a good day. Maybe my brain will do something good today. Lately, most days my brain’s been cool. We’re on pretty good terms now. I still can’t tell the difference between someone jokingly asking me out or just asking me out. I don’t think I ever will be able to. My brain has supplemented this with the experience to not surround myself with people who would pull a prank like that, and the arrogance to believe that all requests to go on a date are serious. Funny how it all works out in the end. I think I’d probably take a dare to kiss myself on the cheek for like a buck-fifty. That way I can get a Sprite after.

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