The first time I read Mark Twain, I was a junior in high school, and got about five pages into Huckleberry Finn before getting online and ordering the SparkNotes. It wasn’t so much that I was lazy; I was. It was more so that I was just an idiot, in the literal sense of the word, and as I sat there staring at 19th century American English, I realized I had no clue what he was saying. Of course, you can’t tell your English teacher this, especially when the rest of your class, and generations of students before you, have read the same book and found it wholly digestible. Instead, I breezed through my Spark Notes, feeling fully confident in my comprehension of the text, before getting a B- on the test. I did the same things with the rest of the novels that year: finding Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck equally as inaccessible, and eventually deciding it was best if I just stuck to Harry Potter books. I was certain I’d never reach an adult reading level, when I stumbled upon Jimmy Buffet’s memoir, A Pirate Looks at Fifty. This is my speed, I thought. This is something I can do.
Reading Buffett inspired me to do two things: learn how to make pina coladas and become, much to my parents’ dismay, a country music singer.
This is how I ended up at Belmont University in Nashville in 2005, and found myself in an orientation group, playing something called “The Name Game.” The premise is simple: Go around in a circle listening to people put an alliterative adjective in front of their first names–Silly Susan, for example–then, when it reaches you, come up with your own combination. It might have helped had I remembered what alliteration meant, perhaps also adjective. I might have said something like “Creative Chris” or “Crazy Chris,” but instead, because I thought all that mattered was that the word have a Ch- in it, I went with “Chainsaw Chris.”
Long story short, I terrified the entire first wave of my new classmates, a group large enough to spread the rumor that I kept my victims in my mini fridge to the entire school. I was moments from calling my parents and telling them I was transferring when one of my team leaders, a music and math major named Josh, said to me, “You know what? I’m going to start calling you Chainsaw Chris and, by the end of this week, everyone’s going to start calling you Chainsaw Chris.”
Sure enough, somehow, he was right, and this near-disastrous mistake turned into a nickname that people seemed more than pleased to call me.
Friends, professors, employers, relatives: Even my fiancée, who was in my class at Belmont, occasionally looks at me and shakes her head, saying, “I can’t believe I’m marrying Chainsaw Chris.”
Somewhere in 2007, about two years in my country music career, I realized I couldn’t sing. This, after two years of being surrounded by people who can sing, and made it their daily mission to remind the entire school that they could. Still, though, I was somehow not deterred. Instead, I pivoted, deciding that I could still be Nashville famous, and make a boatload of money, if I become a prominent songwriter. This is how I went to on to write such still-available-if-you’re-interested hits as “Cowboys Make the Best Lovers,” “Petrosexual (The Car Lover’s Song),” and “I’m Strait Like George (But I Ain’t Urban Like Keith).” I was playing a song titled “Declaration of Independence,” that was structurally and lyrically based on the Declaration of Independence, when an industry friend stopped me and suggested I needed to work on my lyrics. “I’ve got a buddy who was an English major,” he said. “And now all he does is write lyrics. He’s co-written like 12 number ones. Has a house in Barbados and everything.”
Seeing as that’s exactly what I wanted, I hung up my guitar and immediately went down to my advisor. “I want to be an English major,” I told him.
Leaning back in his chair, chewing on his pen. “OK. Writing emphasis or literature?”
And because I wanted to be a writer more than anything, I told him, “Literature.”
I think the best way to describe my transition into the English department is to say that I was like a dog that discovers the taste of cheese, and can no longer do anything when it’s in his presence. I basically shouted it from the rooftops that I was an English major. I worshipped at the altar of Ernest Hemingway, and took to telling everyone there was an underlying text behind everything, no matter what they were looking at. It got even worse when I discovered I could finally understand Mark Twain. Understanding him caused me to try to write like him, which in turn brought me into a Facebook status phase I try to forget existed. It all culminated in 2010 with a tattoo–a Mark Twain tattoo, 40 words in length from Huck Finn.
When I brought it to the artist, I told him I wanted it on my left pec, which he proceeded to laugh at, saying he couldn’t write that small. “Well, how big would the text have to be?” I asked. He printed it out to show me, and a week later, after much hemming and hawing, I had a quote from Huck Finn tattooed across my entire chest.
I spent two years writing like a man from the 19th century, before I realized I was not a man from the 19th century. This panicked realization caused me to search for a 21st century equivalent, which is how I discovered David Sedaris, and dedicated an entire summer to picking apart his essays. By the end of 2011, it’s safe to say I was his biggest fan in the history of the universe. I could compare anything to one of his stories, and when I found out one of my professors got to have dinner with him after a reading in Nashville, I was curious as to why I was not invited.
So, when he returned to the Ryman two years later, I immediately reached out to her and began gushing. “He’s basically Mark Twain to me,” I wrote, “but gay and still alive. Is there any way you can get me to meet him?!”
To this, she didn’t respond, and I gave up the hope that it’d be possible, until two hours before the show, she messaged me to say, “You are going to David’s tonight right? Give me a quick call.”
I nearly drove off the road as I read this, quickly dialing her number and listening as she said, “OK, so my friend is going to introduce you to him.”
“Oh my god!” I said.
“But,” she paused. “She wants to see your Mark Twain tattoo first.”
I’d never before used my body to get things, but I reasoned that if there was ever a time to start doing it, it was now. “Sure,” I said. “Of course! Whatever she wants!”
So, an hour later, I was at the Ryman unbuttoning my shirt for a stranger who knew me only as “Chainsaw,” thanks to my professor’s introduction. “OK, so he’s going to come out and sign for about 30 minutes before the show,” she explained, “and we’ll just go up to the front of the line, say hi, have him sign whatever you want, then move on.”
I nodded my head, slightly panicking as to what I was going to say to him. Would I just play it cool? Would I tell him I was a writer? Would I mention how much I loved the last sentence of his “Naked” essay? I was moments from taking a Xanax when he appeared and my professor’s friend all but grabbed me by the arm and tossed me in front of him.
“David,” she said, “this is Chainsaw.”
He looked at me quizzically. “Chainsaw…”
I shook his hand and he took my poster to sign. “Yeah,” I said. “Long story. Sorry.” At this point, I was completely resigned to not say anything to my idol ever again. I’d concerned him enough already; no need to put him through any more. But apparently my professor’s friend didn’t agree.
“David,” she said, “Chainsaw wants to show you his chest.”
In the middle of writing something on my poster, he looked up blinking, as if to say, He does?
I turned to her, also confused, and said “I do?”
“Yeah, show him.”
And so there I was, unbuttoning my shirt for everyone and God and the literary idol who had shaped my entire career at that point. I stood there awkwardly for 30 seconds or so as he read it, waiting for the inevitable moment that he thanked me and whispered to a security guard, “Keep an eye on that guy.” But he didn’t, at least not that I know of. Instead, he just nodded, slightly confused, and said, “Huh,” before sitting back down and signing my poster, “Chainsaw, Nice Tattoo.”
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