Tag Archives: Self-Doubts


On this day last week, I was up all night finishing up some new stories – an eleventh-hour push before an event.

I have no such deadline today, and it’s hard to tell what kind of thing I want to write.

So I’m musing instead on the oddities of the writing yen. It isn’t exactly mood-based: I can be in a goofy, zany sort of a mood, but want to write something mythic or poetic. I can be in a sentimental mood, but want to write something didactic.

Sometimes, I can’t quite sense what it is that I want to write. That’s how I am tonight.

I can tell enough to know that it’s more introspective. It’s not a desire to hook up my forebrain to another’s and jump-start it with information. Nor even entertainment. It’s definitely not a comedic mode. But whether that means it’d lend itself better to a thoughtful essay, a bit of short fiction, or some roleplaying, I’m not sure.

When I’m lucky, I have specific inspiration. I got An Idea out of nowhere, or I have a couplet lodged in my head. There’s some distinct conceptual particulate around which the writing can condense.

Though this isn’t a sure shot, either. If I let the idea sit too long, if I don’t at least start the process while the inspiration is live, it’s harder to build on. The confluence of mental processes that brought the idea into being may not be in play tomorrow, much less next month or next year. It may still be an interesting idea, but it feels distant. Relic-like.

Obviously, what’s changed is how I relate to the idea.

(This is also why any completed work has about a six-hour shelf life, at best, before it goes from “as good as I can get it” to “utter trash that proves my insufficiency as a human being.” Either you keep writing something forever, never finishing it, never being done, changing it as you change and refusing to show it to anyone… or you do call it “finished” at some point, consigning it to a fixed point in time, after which point you’re forever growing away from it. It becomes a snapshot that reflects the idea, your understanding of the idea, yourself, and your surrounding culture, at that one specific moment in time. Whenever your understanding of any of those things changes, the work is only as good as Past You could make it, but it’s going to reflect on Present You for as long as the work survives. Which may very well be longer than you survive. But I digress.)

That’s why I find it important to at least start on any idea as soon as possible after I get it. If I get a good start, then the nascent work itself can help cue me into whatever mental state I had when the idea first came to me. Not with the exact same fidelity, true. Already, by the second approach, it’s become a bit of a performance: me trying to mimic the thought-processes of a previous version of myself.

There’s a sense in which all writing, and all reading, is an attempt to reconcile the differences between the subjective and the objective, between the self and the other, and between the present and the past and (ideally) the future. The very act of writing can change how we frame an idea, an observation, a belief, or even a fact – and that change in framing can itself change how we engage with it.

It’s like trying to remember a dream, really. You may or may not remember your dream when you wake up in the morning – but it’s less likely you’ll remember it tonight, and very unlikely that you’ll remember it next week. But if you write something of it down – anything, even keywords – you probably have enough to cue yourself to remember it later on. The act of writing helps you encode it into memory; reading that writing again later on, obviously, helps you trigger those memories again. But you do have to keep coming back to it, keep reminding yourself, keep making your present self acknowledge the ideas of that past self. Keep making those past-ideas into part of today’s thoughts. Like a time capsule you never bury.

And there may come a point where you realize that you aren’t remembering the dream as such anymore – you’re remembering thoughts you’ve had about the dream. You’re remembering yesterday’s memory, which involved remembering the day before’s memory.

That’s part of why it sucks to have unfinished works. There’s one story in particular that I always wish I could finish – but, really, I wish I could have finished it when it was more relevant, when the wire was still live. I started it my sophomore year of college, after all, and even then it was a ridiculous, self-indulgent, post-adolescent paean to my high school theater days. But that stub of a story is still such a guilty pleasure, and while I hate to leave it unfinished, I’d hate to start it up again only to realize I’m just too old and too far distanced from that young Thespian self to be capable of finishing the job.

I’m not sure what’s worse, though: the fear I’m too old and too lost to share an artistic empathy with my past self and one of my life’s most cherished experiences… or the fear it would be all too easy, because I haven’t traveled far enough from that self –  because my maturity and sensibilities and skills all stalled out nearly two decades ago.

A week ago tonight, I was writing a poem. I used to write poetry a lot when I was younger. I like words, I like assonance, I have an innate sense of the rhythm and meter of words, and so poetry feels like a fantastic puzzle. “Hmm, I need a two-syllable word or phrase that rhymes with ‘eyes’ and has stress on the first syllable, and that ideally has some assonance or alliteration with this other part of the line…” There are rules and formulas, and while I might fudge things a little, the attempt to create something that’s simultaneously cogent, rhyming, and rhythmic is so much more fun and fulfilling.

And yet I feel that “doesn’t count” as modern poetry anymore. As if “real poetry” doesn’t rhyme, has no meter, and has no particular need for evocative language of any sort, but instead has to be “free verse,”

the coward’s form
where everything
no matter how prosaic
no matter how much its supposed rhythm sounds
like a running unbalanced washing machine
down the stairs
becomes a poem
so long as you refuse to punctuate
or submit to the yoke of capitalization
and so long as you break
your ideas
onto multiple
like framing a random stain on a gallery wall
this format of
gives the reader
to slow down
to reflect
to listen
for one goddamn moment
and when they
are amazed to hear
in their minds
they think
the depth
is in the words
and writer.

I already feel guilty about how easily poetry comes to me, relatively speaking. I come to it armed with a rhyming dictionary and thesaurus, often, but I can make it happen with relative ease. And if my insurance-company coworker’s arrhythmic, mangled, CC’d-company-wide “parody” of “The Night Before Christmas” was any evidence, that’s not something the average Joe has the same knack for. Much like how I can’t move my body rhythmically to save my life – literally; I can’t even coordinate my limbs enough to tread water.

But my regular prose can already trend toward the purple, and if all I had to do was chunk it up onto separate lines to make it “poetry,” then what the hell fun is that to write or to read?  Shouldn’t all of this be harder?  If it’s easy, if it’s enjoyable, doesn’t that mean I’m doing something wrong?

Still, I’d stopped writing poetry when I was 12 or 13 – shortly after I learned the word “doggerel” – and except for a couple required assignments in a Creative Writing class, I didn’t succumb to the temptation again until this past year. (Assuming we don’t count song parodies, anyway. …Which are even MORE fun, because they have even more constraints to fulfill – like rhyming, or at least having some assonance, with the original.)

But, now that I’ve written poetry again, I can’t help wondering if it’s remotely “better” than when I left off. I still like to do it, but isn’t this, too, something I should have grown out of? Is it any surprise I haven’t gained any skills if I haven’t let myself do it for twenty years?

It’s the same old Catch-22 as ever: you can’t get better if you don’t practice, but you’re not allowed to “practice” because everything you do counts and has consequences. Whatever I do is only as good as I can get it, and my instinct is always to sit on it and hide it away and try again sometime when Future Better Me is capable of doing things right.

I’m getting better about realizing that I can’t just quantum leap from here to there, and that I have to do things “well enough” and make mistakes and revise things over time. Though that still feels like a free-verse sort of life, one where I decide that rules and consequences shouldn’t apply to me if I don’t want them to, so long as I’m conceited enough to believe I’m doing something “meaningful.”

Still. If everything is a constant series of mistakes, at least I’m trying to make interesting ones and to err on the side of creation.

But now, tonight, I’m tired.  And while this doesn’t feel done, or interesting, or anything, nothing else compels itself to be said.

I know I should write other things here.  Better things.  More meaningful things.  Things that address all the political absurdity going on lately.  Not that I have anything worthwhile to contribute, but it’s a civic duty sort of thing.  I can emit words in a place where they can be read, so I should probably damn well say some things about some things that may need to be said, even though they’re things that should damn well go without saying.

But, at least I fulfilled that yen for vaguely-poetic introspection.

Tomorrow, most likely, there will be improvisational fiction, and possibly some technical writing, and maybe some life-sciences sci-fi, and a bunch of regular old conversations. And, who knows, maybe some strange synapse will fire, and I’ll end up scrawling something that all flows together, just the way I want it to, just the way it feels like it’s waiting to be, in a way that could practically make you believe in the Muses.

Or maybe it’ll be, like most other days, a day where I have the permanent drive to write, but no direction or focus in mind.  I just have to listen to myself, figure out what seems to be flowing best, and set myself on that task as long and as well as I can.

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Impostor Syndrome

Today – technically yesterday – I’ve done something that simultaneously feels very bold and very belated: I’ve made a profile on a freelancer marketing platform.

I’ve always wanted to be A Professional Writer of some kind, and this is really the most obvious and respectable way of going about it.  But it’s still, to be completely professional and respectable, shorts-shartingly terrifying.

My relevant experience is negligible, and some of my most personally-meaningful accomplishments are so obscure that I feel like I’d need a thirty-minute long audiovisual presentation to even begin providing the basic context.  I couldn’t even bring myself to list the actual paying freelance work I did earlier this year, just because I’m sure the average client would find it unconventional to the point of abstruse. I’m nowhere near good enough or competent enough to do this.  But somehow I’m apparently doing it anyway?

I was somewhat relieved to see that the platform had skills assessment tests, right on site.  I’m one of those few, rare people who actually made Poor Life Decisions by not majoring in English, so I thought it would be nice to get some objective proof of my writing skills without having to spend four years of my life and another few thousand dollars in cash so that I could wave a diploma around.

But I was a little concerned. Sure, I love writing.  Sure, I’m pretty good at it. Sure, I’m one of those weirdos who loved spelling bees and competed on the high school Spell Bowl team. Sure, I’ve somehow cultivated such a strong and practically innate-seeming fluency in the English language that spelling, grammar, and usage errors can make me feel like I’m being stabbed in the brain.  But this is a site for professionals, and I am… not one of those.

So I took a basic English skills test and steeled myself for an “above average” at best.  Instead, I missed one question because it had two valid answers, and I wound up in the top 3%.

My first thought was, “There has clearly been a mistake.”

So I took a spelling test, and I wound up with the top score out of all users.

Rationally, I know that strong performance on an objective skills test is – assuming the accuracy of the test – absolutely strong evidence that the person is good at those skills.  And I’m pretty sure that it would be normal and acceptable for that well-performing person to feel some sort of pride and accomplishment.  If this were anybody else in the Universe, I’d absolutely believe they were really inordinately good at those skills, and I’d say they should be very proud!

For some irrational reason, though, those beliefs are not at all absolute if the person in question is me.

Instead, my brain pulls the Cognitive Dissonance Fire Alarm.

I actually feel intensely uncomfortable about doing well on these skills tests – like there’s something wrong with the test, or like I caused a problem somehow, or like they’ll somehow see my Google search history, see that I looked up a couple of the words after the fact because they got songs stuck in my head, and decide that I had somehow cheated retroactively.  Even if none of those are the case, I feel like I’ve just painted a big bright target on my head, and that everyone’s going to be paying attention to me to find all of my flaws. This is business, after all. AND it’s the Internet.  I’ve accidentally made myself out to be “better” than other people, and that’s absolutely unacceptable.  I feel even more like, from this point forward, I am never allowed to make any sort of mistake.

This is old familiar ground, really.  I’d say I’ve walked it before, but there was very little walking involved.  Instead, it’s a place of complete paralysis: the paralysis that comes of believing that mistakes are both unacceptable and unavoidable, and that, if you can’t be certain of doing something absolutely right, you have no right to do anything at all.

I even took another office skills test, just because I thought I’d do okay-but-not-awesome at it, thus putting myself in more comfortable territory.  Knocking myself down a few pegs before anybody else has the chance to.

I got in the top 3% of that, too, and I am doing to go dig a hole and hide in it.

For someone who is attempting to become a freelancer, this reaction is incredibly non-optimal.

This freelance platform I signed up on has gone through three name changes since I first learned about it.  I’m not even sure how many times I’ve gone to the site – whatever it was at the time – thought about signing up, decided I was nowhere near good enough to even try, and closed it again for another year.

I know it’s stupid to even consider it significant, but the fact I’ve signed up at all feels like a milestone.

But it also feels like a millstone.  So much is going to be expected of me.  Can I carry the weight of this?  What if I can’t? What if I’m promising more than I can fulfill?  What if it doesn’t matter because I don’t get any clients? What if I do get clients? What if they hate my work? What if I’m not actually educated enough in writing to do it correctly, and this seat-of-my-pants, doing-what-sounds/looks/feels-right is going to make me a complete failure? Because, seriously, I know what a grammatical sentence looks like, but I still forget what the pluperfect is, or what a subordinate clause is, so what do I really know?

And then there’s all the other practical stuff. What if they don’t pay me? What if I’m asking for too much money? Or not enough? Between this, the dayjob, my book, and that craft project I intend to have ready by mid-January, what kind of unholy mess am I making of my taxes?  What if I’m doing something terribly wrong as I start out that’s going to chaotically branch forth into uncountably many more mistakes with every step I take?

What the hell gives me the right to act like anything I do should be worth anything to a stranger?

The thing that bothers me most is that I know exactly why this reaction is happening.  Given the set of assumptions I have in my brain, it’s a logical, justified, and even necessary conclusion.  So it’s incredibly hard to make it stop happening in any way that feels equally logical, justified, and necessary.

Let me give you a little context about tests.

I did well at school, growing up.  As I’ve said before, it was the only thing I did well at.  I didn’t have any more practical skills or talents, I looked like a third-rate Muppet knockoff, and I had all the coordination of a newborn foal, but at least I could conquer a standardized test.  The most nervewracking part of any test, for me, was trying to keep my #2 pencil marks inside the circles while trying to make my mark heavy and dark. I got along with my teachers better than I got along with my classmates – they, of course, subscribed to that same value system.  But I was an eager participant in it all.  I wanted to listen quietly, hands clasped, and learn.  I was excited to learn new ideas.  I felt validated when something I said or did impressed an adult.  So I saw my grades as a clear, objective evaluation of my merit – the evidence for how competent, valuable, and worthwhile I was as a human being.

In second grade, I took a placement test for the gifted and talented program.  I remember sitting in the brown-brick cafeteria in an uncomfortable plastic chair at a round, beige table, looking at a question at the top of the right-hand page of my test booklet.  The test was nearly over, and I’d thought I’d been doing so well.  The math problems had bothered me some, but all the word problems had been easy, and the pattern-problems were fun.  But this innocuous multiple-choice question was confusing:  to my great discomfort, it had a word I did not know.

I squirmed in the ugly orange seat.  They’d said this part of the test booklet wasn’t like the rest of the test, so I raised my hand to risk asking a question of one of the milling adults – feeling like I was trying to cheat, not sure if they’d be allowed to answer.  But one of the adults came over to me, and I awkwardly asked the shameful question.

“What’s this word?”

The word, she – smiling – said, was opinion.

It meant your own feelings and thoughts, and so there was no right answer!

“But how do you know what to pick?”

The right answer is the answer you think is right!

“…But what if that isn’t any of these?”

Just pick whatever’s closest, or whatever you feel like picking!

All of this was profoundly uncomfortable.  I complained about it at the dinner table that night, feeling like I’d been tricked.

My new classmates, however, also gave clear and objective evaluations of my merit, and they were significantly less glowing. The more I tried to assert myself and my interests, the worse it got. Some refused to talk to me, some just tried out their favorite insults no matter what they were, some tried to mislead me or build up false hope.  A few brimmed with that carefree, pure-hearted cruelty that only a child can know.  The only reason I wasn’t actually beaten up was that anyone who touched me for any reason was just as shunned as I was – at least for a little while.

Adults, of course, did little to help or to teach me whatever social nuances I lacked. Instead, they recited that dreaded litany: Ignore Them And They’ll Go Away.  Forgetting, somehow, that they don’t, and that this only makes bullies try different and harder-to-ignore things. Forgetting, somehow, that nobody else was ever going to speak up for me besides myself.  And forgetting, somehow, that they’d instilled in me one core belief: that being wrong and doing wrong were equal, and equally prohibited.

Learning wasn’t as valuable as knowing, and improvement was only as good as an apology: it was expected, and it was even noble, but it was never as valuable as as never having made a mistake to begin with.

I couldn’t understand why, when it came to Statements About Who I Was And What I Was Worth, being incorrect no longer mattered.

Ultimately, I just couldn’t sanely sustain this belief that everyone – everyone but me – was allowed to be wrong, wrong, wrong.  I was supposed to be A Good Student, a gold-star stellar nursery in the nebulous fug of a thousand scratch-and-sniff stickers.  But I was nothing but the sum of a thousand red check marks, forever unbalanced against a straight-A+ ideal.   I wasn’t even truly good at the only thing I was good at, and no matter how good I was, it wouldn’t save me from all the other awful things about me.

The only way I could make any sort of peace with myself was to assume that everyone wasn’t wrong – that only the logically-consistent things people said about me were true, that I was simply too stupid to even know which things they were, and that my insistence on asserting myself – and even on having a sense of self – was the direct cause of the problem.

Early on in school, I simply couldn’t wait until I became an adult so that my fellow adults would take me seriously, appreciate my work, and even give me whole hundreds of dollars for it!  I was going to be a writer, and I was going to say really interesting things that would even teach the adults, and people were going to be proud!

Before elementary school was out, I was trying to go entire days without speaking or being spoken to, and wishing I simply didn’t exist.

I still did well on most schoolwork – when I wasn’t hamstringing myself by forgetting assignments or turning things in late.  But I no longer had the idea of doing well in school and getting a career and having a future.  That was hubris.  I was just trying to do whatever would be least noticeable, least bothersome, least remarkable.  I still hated the thought of making mistakes, still feared getting in trouble, still saw decades of horrible consequences spiraling out from my every smallest flaw – but I was so overwhelmed by it all that I couldn’t see the point of trying, sometimes.  Nothing good would make up for all the bad, and I’d only find a way to ruin it.

My best was never good enough, because it was my best.

Now I’m many years removed from school, trying to keep my head above water in the Real World.  But some of those old, bad lessons linger on.

Every time I venture into any new territory, no matter how small and well-calculated that step, I fear it’s a world full of classmates – now older, craftier, and more powerful – who not just might but will try to make my life terrible. People who do not need any reasons, who do not care about being wrong, who do not care about being punished, and who are serving me my rightful punishment for having the stupid, selfish gall not just to exist but to call attention to myself.

But I learned, not so long ago, that it’s really just a world full of adults: people whose answers often rely on ignorance, artificially limited choices, and carefully-filled circles.  People who, somehow, don’t know yet don’t feel wrong, don’t care yet don’t feel cruel.  People who legitimately don’t expect anything out of me in any way, because they will never even register my existence.  I learned that I am not, somehow, the focal point for everything everyone dislikes.  Not everything is my fault.  Even some of the things I could, in theory, have helped or have prevented, are somehow not my fault, and aren’t even mistakes!  People are not going to automatically blame me for everything just because it’s easy or funny. People do not magically know how awful I am.  They somehow don’t even realize I’m awful at all until and unless I tell them so, strangely enough.  Even then, they often say I’m wrong!  Regardless, whatever they know about me is based only on what I show them, and it’s not dishonest or necessarily even selfish to share the things that I personally find more appealing.

I wish I would have realized this a long time ago, in all those years of deer-in-the-headlight paralysis.

But, to this day, some part of me feels like the word opinion is a nasty trick.  Yet another setup by someone trying to get me to say wrong and ridiculous things about myself, trying to get me to assert anything about myself at all.

There are still times I wish I could be some anonymous, formless cipher. That someone could need work to be done, and that I could do that work, and could receive some sort of compensation and vague appreciation for having done that work, but without anyone giving me any actual attention or scrutiny. Something with personality and experience enough to make work that’s lively and interesting, witty and engaging, and worthy of the occasion, without in any way conveying the false idea that it, itself, is interesting or witty or worthy.   Something still so ultimately immaterial that IT, itself, is less than an afterthought.

A friendly ghost, only without all that unpleasant-sounding “being dead” malarkey.

Instead, I feel more like Schroedinger’s cat: not dead, not alive, unduly affected by the simple act of observation, and probably better left as a thought experiment.

But here’s the thing: I went through so much of my life trying to be a nothing, or trying to be whatever my observer wanted. And it was always out of fear that they’d be something more like a classmate.

The amazing thing is, though, that there are surprisingly few classmates out there, and a hell of a lot of adults, but there’s truly an incredible number of teachers.  True teachers.  Patient, compassionate, knowledgeable people of all ages and backgrounds who know wonderful things and are glad to share, who accept my interest and participation, who support my work as it stands, encourage me to develop, and even help me redeem myself for my mistakes. People who don’t just give me a checkmark, a gold star, a number, but – bizarrely enough – seem to want to learn things from me as much as I want to learn things from them.  People who let me work with them to help create something more amazing than either one of us could have accomplished alone.  People who see other people as they are, and as they can be.

It’s understandable that I formed such terrible expectations of other people, and it’s understandable that I tried to dissolve myself.

But it’s also understandable that I was wrong on both counts, and that that’s okay.

So I am stepping forth into freelancing, and maybe ghostwriting, and maybe things I can’t even expect – or maybe nothing at all.  But it’s a very me-ish thing that I’m doing. I’m putting myself out there with the one-and-only thing I’m good at, the supposed best of myself, and crucial, company- or even life-affecting assignments could be on the line. I’m going to make mistakes, and things are going to be imperfect, and there will probably be clients who are insensible or cruel or downright criminal.  And, yes, this is terrifying, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to live up to any expectations.  Especially not the expectations someone might have of anyone who, however accidentally, is showing themselves to be objectively high-performing at something. They will expect their perfect ideal, and I may or may not be able to fulfill that.

I just have to try to remember that most-incredible thing I’ve come to learn through all of this: that no matter how bad I’m doing compared to any objective measure, no matter how bad I know I am as a person, no matter if my very best just isn’t very much…

…Sometimes, maybe, it’s good enough to help someone today.

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Day 28 – A Song You’re Embarrassed To Tell Other People You Think Is Good

Once again, if nothing’s else has been made evident throughout these 30 Days (har!) of Songs, it’s that I don’t readily subscribe to objective ideas about the “goodness” or “badness” of music.  Maybe it’s that I don’t know enough about music theory to truly understand the hallmarks of good composition.  But, even then, I know I enjoy things that turn those conventions on their ear – and my make other people want to cover up their own ears.  Audio collage, glitch music, mashups, even the occasional bit of musique concrete – though I’m first to admit that I don’t exactly enjoy the sounds themselves, I enjoy thinking about how those sounds were collected, arranged, fixed, copied, distributed.  Why these sounds, why at these times, why in these conjunctions.  It both satisfies and frustrates my pattern-seeking behavior.

A tangent, but I sometimes wonder if that’s not a thing I do rather often: intentionally expose my brain to some source of unnecessary conflict so that it has a problem to solve.  Take my room, for instance. Never in all my life have I been able to keep my room clean.  Sure, part of it is the fact that I get tired easily when cleaning – but wouldn’t that be all the more incentive to clean small bits every day?  Like a responsible person?  No, instead, I let things pile up to atrocious levels, so much so that finding anything, including the basics like my wallet, my keys, my shoes, and even my goddamn pants, goes from a straightforward act to a half-hour mystery.  Where did I put them last?  What have I moved since then that might possibly have buried them?  Did I move something on top of the thing that I moved on top of the thing I’m looking for?  It’s obvious that my life would be easier if I just used shelves, drawers, and closets for their intended purpose, so, seriously, why the hell don’t I take that little extra effort — unless it’s actually the case that I enjoy making things difficult for myself?

Of course, it’s more the case that I just don’t see small amounts of messiness as problems at all  – especially not compared with the pulsating Junk Shoggoth that has inhabited most of my rooms for most of my life.  So you take that high tolerance level (a few dirty dishes and empty packages aren’t worth bothering with,) compounded with frog-boiling (so a few more dishes aren’t worth bothering with either,) perhaps compounded further with some lingering low expectations (if I’m awful enough to have made this much of a mess, I obviously deserve to live with it,) and there you go – a nicely self-perpetuating problem.  I could save myself a lot of time, effort, and frustration if I just expended trivial amounts of energy on a more regular basis, obviously, but I can never seem to calibrate my giveadamnometer such that it actually registers these small problems as anything worth expending effort over.

I guess that sets up an interesting challenge, then: try to get my room completely clean, maintain it for at least one month, and see what problems I solve (or create) elsewhere.

But!  We’ve established that, both in the abstract and the real, I have a high tolerance for low rigor: for dissonance and disharmony and mess and flux.  In short, for all the things that arguably make for Bad Music.

So, as with so many of these prompts, this may come down to another game of Define Your Terms.  What’s meant here by “good?”  Technically proficient?  Enjoyable?  Catchy?  What’s supposed to differentiate this from Day 03’s “A Song You Know Is Horrible But Love Anyway?”

Perhaps it’s just that Day 03’s songs are supposed to be technically faulty, discordant, or insipid, but I like them anyway… and today’s songs are supposed to be musically sound, but unpopular and widely derided.

That still doesn’t make much sense, though. If it’s only about being technically sound, what’s the point of saying it’s a song you think is good? Even if we handwave that, and assume it really is about being technically sound… where’s the embarrassment supposed to come from?  I mean, sure, I know I’m incredibly pedantic, fond of overanalyzing things, and moreover fond of sharing my pithy little insights with anyone who makes eye contact for too long, often well past the point where I should be feeling socially awkward.  But, honestly, once I start evaluating whether or not I should be embarrassed about anything I’m liking, saying, or doing, it just results in me holing up in my room for a few days, talking to nobody, just reading books and eating junk food.  And not cleaning up the wrappers.

I guess the difference here is that Day 03’s songs are ones that think are horrible, and today’s songs are ones that I believe other people think are horrible.  And that’s where the embarrassment comes from.  It’s the difference between saying “I like this stupid song,” and between saying “I like this song” and hearing someone else call it stupid.

Of course, I don’t really have any good sense of what other people would find stupid. And, having grown up in a fairly small town with relatively little access to media and even less to do, extracting every last bit of enjoyment from even the most tepid, boring, or outright insipid thing wasn’t just a way to get more for your money, it was an outright survival skill.  If the world around you is trying to bore you to death, find something interesting in it.  So some of these aren’t songs that I’m really “embarrassed” to say that I like – they’re just ones that I suspect your average Joe would laugh at me for, and the ones for which I might throw up my hands and say “Look, I can explain…”

I suspect I should probably be embarrassed about liking “Raise Your Glass” by P!nk, if just because it’s one of those upbeat pop anthems.  They always have the same problem, these anthems: there’s a wonderful span of a week where the song is new to you, and you read yourself into it, and you feel like it’s, in some way, Your Song, inspiring you to defy convention. But then it gets overplayed, and it gets familiar, and it becomes convention, and it seems to become as toothless as anything at a high school pep rally.  But the message is still good, though, and it does still remind me of my beloved Weirdo Contingents through the years.  Besides, it’s already “cool” to defy convention; maybe it’s even cooler to keep enjoying things even when the mainstream tries to sweep it away.

Also, I should be embarrassed about liking the song just because she sings “What the dealio.”

Similarly anthemic, similarly poppy, similarly reminding me of my weirdo friends:  Aqua’s “Cartoon Heroes.”  Avatars and cartoons have their similarities, after all.  But, come on.  How can I resist those beginning drums? The way it slows down in the middle and speeds back up again?  The sing-alongable refrain? And no matter how nonsensical the rest of the lyrics are, I can’t help loving the line “What we do is what you just can’t do.”  As someone who spends a dang lot of time doing creative things, coming up with characters who are uniformly more capable than I am, there’s something stirring in that – this idea that our fictions can be more powerful than our realities, and that imagination really can save the day.  One can hope, right?

But if you want storytelling and bombast – and I sure do – and a shameless pulling of the emotional strings, I can look no further than Meat Loaf.  I’ve already mentioned how Bat Out Of Hell II was, in many ways, the soundtrack of my precocious adolescence. It’s basically what puberty sounds like.  And if that’s not a little awkward, nothing is.  It’s the soundtrack of a time when every feeling seemed to fill my entire body, when nothing was ever a half-measure, when the intensity of everything was cranked up to 11.  Everything louder than everything else.

I suppose the embarrassing thing isn’t that I liked that music then, or that I’m still fond of it now.  It’s that I actually miss feeling so emotionally overwhelmed.  Sure, I was far too sensitive; sure, it was incredibly counterproductive. It was hard to relate to other people; it was hard to be myself.  But I can’t think of many times in recent years when I’ve had such a powerful depth of feeling as I did when I was young.  Little joy has been so joyful, and even grief – despite actually having experiences worth grieving, now – has rarely seemed so profound.

Sure, this is maturity: the competent handling of one’s emotions, the ability to set aside your feelings and do unpleasant things, the understanding that your subjective experience of being yourself is not remotely important to anyone but yourself, and the only thing that matters is what use you are to other people.  But, selfishly, I sometimes miss it.  I miss being able to get hopelessly wrapped up in sentimentality and that strange, strangled selfishness that thought I was special somehow, important somehow, magical somehow. Even when it was just my firm belief that I was absolutely worthless and disgusting, it was still a feeling of specialness: I was THE most worthless, THE ugliest. Number One at being number none.

Of course, even that burned out for a long time, and I tried to be as devoid of feeling and subjectivity as possible. And, as I tried to figure out how to be a people again, there was a sort of second adolescence, another time when everything felt almost unbearably vivid, when every nerve seemed raw, when every experience seemed heightened.  And now?  Now I have a general sense that, even though a lot of things suck pretty hard, everything’s still going to be sort of okay on average, just because I’ll adapt to whatever the hell happens.  That’s probably the most even-handed approach you could practically have: not so much optimism you believe everything will just work for you, not so much pessimism you believe nothing will ever work no matter what you do, just the general notion that you have agency over some things, and not over others, and you’ll probably come through okay no matter what, but it really doesn’t matter either way.

It’s rather dispassionate, really – not as dispassionate as I’ve been in the past, for sure, but arguably still less engaged than I’d prefer.  I don’t necessarily want to wear my heart on my sleeve again, and I don’t want to keep it buried.  It’s there, and it beats, and I know I can’t ask for much else.  But wouldn’t it be nice if, just a little bit more often, I could really feel something deeper, warmer, more sincere, without having it be ignored or eyerolled at or turned into a joke? Without being embarrassed? Wouldn’t it be nice if I could share that feeling with someone else, and have it shared with me?  I don’t think the world works like that, though; we’re all aliens to each other, and nobody can trust anybody enough to try.  Meaning isn’t something Out There, it’s something we make – but, even with flawless communication, you can never be certain that anyone else even understands you, much less shares your feelings. When you say a word, can you be sure the other person knows what it means, or knows the nuances around the reason you chose it?  When you don’t say anything at all, but try to express things through body language, facial expressions, the ways you show your moods, can you be sure anyone is picking up on those nonverbal cues, either?  Maybe not.  Which is nice, I guess, because even if they do judge you or make you feel embarrassed, there’s no way to be certain that they even understood you well enough to judge you for the right things.

Even when I was little, I never thought I’d be anything but an outsider. I desperately wanted to fit in, to belong, to have people care about me as much as I cared about them, to matter somehow, despite knowing deep down that I didn’t.  I wanted to do something bold enough, brave enough, emotive enough, magical enough, that everyone changed their minds about me and let me in.

I watched this movie a lot as a kid.  An obnoxious lot.  And, for a good long time, I could relate to that desperate drive to be accepted by this alien society – so desperate that I’d give up anything just to have a shot.

Of course, looking back on it now, there are a lot of flaws with that movie.  Ariel signs the contract; it’s in English – but she doesn’t think to write Prince Eric a note at any time?  Ariel gets married in the end, sure, but she still barely knows anything about this foreign culture or its customs.  It’s still unclear what Eric sees in her besides a pretty face and a pleasant voice. She’s given up everything she’s ever known – her home, her culture, her voice, her anatomy – and I’m just not sure that he’d have done the same for her. If King Triton had zapped Prince Eric into a merman, I’m not sure he’d have been so keen to get married and go along with it.  I doubt their happily ever after actually lasted very long.

I guess that’s the ultimate bitter realization of adulthood, the one that makes every other feeling so brutally embarrassing, but also so brutally meaningless: the realization that, no matter what you do or who you’re with or how much you care or what you say, you’re ultimately always alone.  Maybe the best you can really hope for is somebody who doesn’t judge you or begrudge you your feelings, someone who doesn’t make you feel embarrassed, no matter what you share.  Someone who maybe helps you feel more okay with feeling things and sharing things, whether that’s because they care and will protect you, or because they really don’t care at all and will weather your feelings like a rock weathers the wind.   Someone who reminds you that there’s no need to be ashamed of anything you feel — not necessarily because it’s understandable or forgivable or even endearing, but maybe just because feelings are meaningless in the first place, so having feelings about those feelings is even more absurd.  I’ve been lucky to have that, and more than that, at a few times in my life – but the first time fell apart in a truly fantastic fashion.  The depth and sincerity of my feelings had no bearing on how well anything worked out in the end.  And while I’ve got something far, far better than that now… in my more reasonable moments, I still know it’s more than I merit. The world isn’t a Disney movie; love isn’t magical.  It doesn’t heal anything, it doesn’t change anything, and maybe it’s just overwhelming emotions that make you believe it means anything. Happily ever after just doesn’t happen, and even understanding-each-other ever after is probably rare. So maybe that ceaseless search for acceptance and belonging and support is prettymuch bullshit – maybe all you can do is find somebody to be alone and confused with.

Or maybe that’s ridiculous, and maybe someday I’ll look back on this and laugh at myself.


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Day 19 – A Song That Describes You / Your Personality

I’ve written at least two drafts of this post, then scrapped them.

Like everything else in this 30 Days (hah!) of Songs prompt, this just wants an example of a song that reflects some facet of your life. But ye gods and little fishes, “A Song That Describes You / Your Personality?!”

First, I tried to describe myself and define my personality, which involved trying to break myself down into each of the so-called five factors: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism.  Of course, having broken things down so particularly, it only made it more difficult to find songs that described each element.

Then I tried to think of songs I’ve ever considered anthemic.  Which seemed promising, right up until I realized that many of the songs that were anthems at some point just aren’t so relevant anymore.  They describe me-as-I-was-at-a-time, but that isn’t the me that I am now.  It’s not as if those elements aren’t part of my life at all anymore.  They’re just… not at the forefront.  I hate to call them smaller or quieter, in case they’re truly just as large, possibly even bigger, only appearing so small because of foreshortening.  Perspective is a killer.  Still, the fact that they aren’t first and foremost in my self-identification… that’s something.

In short, my personality just isn’t quite what it used to be.

Not that I’m complaining at all. It’s just… strange, I suppose, to realize how inverted everything has become.

I’d been so introverted before, with no sense of will, no sense of agency, and not even much sense of identity. It’s inaccurate to say that there was a certain sort of person that I aspired to be – aspiration was selfish and the idea of being anything was hubris. But there was a certain sort of person that I felt intense guilt about not being able to be. There were things that I couldn’t really *want* at the time, but could regret not having. Feelings that I couldn’t precisely wish I could feel, but could acknowledge the feeling-shaped holes where they… not “should have been,” not even “could have been,” but a neutral, non-presumptuous “might have possibly fit, in a way that provided utility.”

On a really good day, I could write something creative, make a clever photoshop of some kind, have the wherewithal to do practical things, feel okay about going out in public, and even feel various emotions.  Excitement, goofiness, affection, awe, and possibly something that couldn’t really be considered “optimism,” but an absence of foreboding.  Something that couldn’t be called “pride,” but a temporary failure to acknowledge shame.  It’s not like I suddenly thought I was an okay person who had any sort of potential.  I just managed to not notice or care about how awful everything was for a while.  I’d even have conversations with a friend or two online, and we’d make each other laugh.  On a really good day, I might actually spend time with someone in person, going to get coffee or lunch.

Of course, the next day – or later that same day – perspective would come crashing back with a vengeance, and I’d think of all the time and energy I’d wasted, and what an absolute moron I looked like, and how much more likely it was that people were going to use my every action as fodder for mockery and mistreatment.  For many, many years, whenever I’d displayed any sort of satisfaction, enjoyment, or even minor interest, it was used against me, after all.  Switching off seemed like the best method of self-defense.

So, on an average day, I just tried to do as little as possible, to feel as little as possible, to exist as little as possible, generally trying to keep under life’s radar.  I did the things that were expected, or that I was told to do, or that would make my life blatantly and abundantly worse if I didn’t do them – if just because I was trying to have as completely non-remarkable an existence as possible.  It wasn’t laziness that made me such a doormat, it was my absolute conviction that, if I had the audacity to think or feel or do or want anything for myself, something absolutely horrible would be done to me or the people I cared about.  Because, as I absolutely knew at my core, I didn’t deserve to be happy, I didn’t deserve to be comfortable, I didn’t deserve to feel safe or wanted or welcome or acceptable, and even existing was only acceptable to the degree that it was more convenient for everyone than the alternative.

I had a vague concept that I could somehow earn the right to happiness if I did… something.  If I graduated, if I got a job, if I kept a certain amount of money in my account, if I had a relationship, if my body looked acceptable, if my grades were within certain parameters.  If I failed at those obvious, attainable tasks, how could I expect to earn something so nebulous as “happiness” or “value” or “worth?”  It couldn’t just come out of nowhere; I couldn’t just decide that I was enough.  But no matter how close I got to any of those things, no matter if I actually surpassed them, it wasn’t enough.  It proved nothing.  Nothing I could ever do would overcome the fact that it was me doing it.  Every single accomplishment I achieved inherently meant less – for me and for everyone around me – because I accomplished it.  Nothing I could do could bring me up; I could only drag things down to my level.  And so there was no way to get from where I was to where I thought I might sort of like to be, because no matter what I did, how hard I tried, or even if I succeeded, I’d still be me.

And now…

In the past week alone, I’ve had a meeting for the upcoming RPG for which I’m the editor, I’ve completed my first commissioned writing work, I’ve done my day job, I’ve cooked some dinners, coordinated an event, made its poster, filed my taxes, filled out loan repayment paperwork, spent time in person with my best friend, played a tabletop RPG, made plans to go visit another friend, DJ’d, gone shopping, and spent time with my significant otter.

Very few of these things were even conceivable fifteen years ago.  Or even ten.  Or five.

I interact with more people.  I’m more open to people.  I take more initiative.  I doubt less.  I worry less.  I panic less about making mistakes: I’ve made enough that haven’t ended the world, and I’ve even made some that led to positive things.  I’ve realized that no matter how much I plan or predict, I won’t get everything right: I’ll still mess things up, nothing will ever be absolutely perfect, and everything could always have been better.  But I’ve come to realize that, sometimes, something is better than nothing.  That it’s better to put something into the world, even if it’s not perfect, even if it could never be perfect, than to just sit on your hands and wish it were possible.

How did I get to the point where I was doing all these things?  Really, it’s because I started small.  Taking those tiny steps that seemed so completely insurmountable.  Knowing I wasn’t ready, and would NEVER feel ready, and just doing it anyway.  Deciding to be bold and dumb and stupid, to make ridiculous mistakes. If I started panicking and regretting everything and telling myself I Should Not Have Done This, This Was A Terrible Mistake, I made myself punch through it.  No ragequitting, no ha-ha-only-kidding, no sour grapes.  Just doing the thing, and if I didn’t like how well I did that thing, if I didn’t think I did a good enough job at that thing, if I was embarrassed to exist because of the thing, then I made myself do the thing again next time.  Either I’d improve, or the novelty would wear off, or it would become normalized, but either way, the panic would subside and I would be doing a thing I hadn’t done before.

As a dear friend once put to me, in his blunt but effective way, nobody really cares about these things but me.  That didn’t mean I shouldn’t care, or that my worry was invalid, or that my anxiety – by existing alone – had already made me fail.  And that didn’t mean that anything could take away the past: everything that happened, happened, and he held no expectation that I should change what I felt about it.   The only thing that could influence anything, from that point forward, was what I did next.  I could bail, hide my head, and resolve to never make the mistake of trying something new ever again.  And that would be fine.  Nobody would judge that. In all likelihood, nobody would even notice, and in time, nobody would even remember my attempt.  That’s the option that played to all my instincts.  But, as he said, in a way that somehow made it sound logical for the first time in my life, I could try again.  It wouldn’t take away what happened the first time.  But, assuming anyone noticed at all, they’d have noticed that I kept trying.

And I did.  And because I did, an unfathomable chain of events unfolded, over the course of years.  Uncountable small steps, some broader strides than others, some veering or stumbling.  But, in time… I’ve become who I am in the place that I am and in the condition that I’m in.

In short, I’ve slowly stepped out of the Spotlight Effect.  I’m not actually so magically horrible that average people notice or care. It doesn’t radiate off of me.  I don’t have a universal reputation as something worthless.  Nor am I somehow dutybound to express all misgivings about my worth, lest someone make the mistake of thinking I’m an okay thing.   At some point in the not-so-very-distant past, I came to realize that more people were neutral toward me than antagonistic, and that a surprising number of people were actually benevolent.  I still don’t really know that I deserve that degree of kindness, but it appears to be there whether I deserve it or not, because the kinds of people I’ve surrounded myself with are truly just that incredible.

I still worry that I’ve become selfish, of course.  Doing things, calling attention to myself, taking the initiative to make things happen just because I think that other people might like them.  Upsetting applecarts left, right, and centre.  But I’ve received so much positive feedback that it’s reinforced me to continue doing these things that I happen to like and want, and that other people happen to like and want even more.

And yet there’s an inherent hypocrisy to it.  I can’t believe that everyone who ever said anything awful to me was wrong, but everyone who ever says anything kind to me is correct.  Granted, there’s quite a gulf of years between the times of greatest awful and the times of greatest kind.   The criticisms of the past may feel like they hold true, but perhaps they don’t anymore.  The commendations of the present may ring hollow in the empty halls of that past, but perhaps they are relevant now.  This is the downside of isolation: you lack an outsider’s perspective on who you are and what you’re like.  Have I changed to become worthy of pleasant things somehow?  Was I always so? Am I actually mistaken and selfish, somehow blind to how terrible I am (despite how, by almost all objective metrics, I’ve undeniably worsened in every regard?)  Have I let myself be fooled by everyone else’s kindness, fooled into believing I’m a more worthwhile person than I actually am?  Am I just always going to feel worthless when I’m actually all right, and feel worthwhile when I’m actually a walking ruin?  Which is more ignoble?

I don’t think I have any answers.   But I think that’s okay.

All of that having been said, I’m still not sure there’s any one song that best describes me or my personality.  But this song resonates with me quite a lot lately, and once I actually took the time to look into the lyrics, I think it can be representative of this entire transition.

It sings of the constant clawing of regrets and the clangor of judgment. It sings of recognizing the depth of the dark and having no firm faith that anything will lead to light. Of questioning oneself constantly, forever beating a dead horse, never able to resolve anything.  Of a life confined and constrained, surrounded by dangers personal and impersonal and random, past and present and future.  But, above all else, it sings of an acceptance of that past, and even an acceptance of hope, and, with that acceptance, a shedding of old skins.  It sings of a life confined that moves forward not with great bravery, not with confidence, and not in pursuit of something sure and good and light – but, rather, by accepting that something awful could very well happen, that it could all be a terrible mistake, and Doing It Anyway.

The song that best describes the arc of my personality over the past few years is “Shake It Out” by Florence + The Machine.


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Labor’s Love Lost

Labor Day has come and gone.  Summer ends, and school starts for the kids, marking the end of freedom and the start of a fresh new year.  And, for the adults, the day off is an appreciated but insignificantly short lull in the droning sameness of workaday life.  There’s no real appreciation of labor or the workforce, no reflection on the condition of workers, or even on the condition of work itself.

I tried to write something more profound here.  Something about how hard it is to find work that affords even a simple life.  How the full-time job with reasonable pay and benefits is no longer basic, no longer standard, but a promotion.   How so many of us are temps, or “independent contractors” – frequently in name only – that we can only hope to be real employees at all.  How many of us have to work multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet to any degree.  How we’re saddled with student loan debt, because everyone all our lives told us that we’d need a good education to make it in the real world — so we sought one, paying more than we might ever earn back, even if we were still responsible enough to go to a public school in-state.   How we still get accused of being irresponsible spenders, even though an increasing number of us are choosing to rent homes rather than buy them, avoid owning a car, and even delay marriage and children — some might say out of a prolonged childhood, but arguably because independence is yet another luxury we can’t afford.

But it’s hard to try to speak so broadly.  I’m no expert in socioeconomics; I can’t sum up the changing function and fears of the American workforce.

All I can do is speak to my own experience, as one of those “gifted and talented” kids who grew up to be apparently useless to the world.

I won’t go through my own sordid work history; suffice it to say that it’s consisted mostly of temporary positions, rarely offered any kind of benefits, occasionally resulted in injury, frequently was riddled with miscommunication at the least and outright scandal at the worst, and had no bearing on anything I actually wanted to do when I grew up.

Because I never wanted to be something useful.  I never wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a mechanic or a teacher.  I kind of wanted to be an FBI agent until I learned all the rigors of training, which I knew my crapsack legs would not allow.  I kind of wanted to be an entomologist, until I realized that field work would require endurance and stamina as well.

No, what I always wanted to do, since the first time I pushed a key on my mother’s electric typewriter, was to be a writer.

Of all the things to be good at in the world, I was good at writing — at least, if you asked the adults around me.  They were always sharing the little poems I’d write as a kid, or the little short stories, or saying how good my essays were.  It was like that well into high school, when my teachers would say my papers were already graduate-level — and into college, when professors would say THEY had learned something from reading my essays.  (I’d stopped writing fiction and poetry shortly after I learned the word “doggerel.”)

And yet there was one constant refrain:  You Can’t Make A Living At That.

The one thing I was naturally good at, the one thing I enjoyed doing above all others, the one thing that anyone gave me any positive feedback about — the one thing I most loved to do — and the first thing out of anyone’s mouth was You Can’t Make A Living At That.

Nevermind that time and experience have shown that I can’t apparently make a living at anything else, either.

There’s never been anything I’ve loved so much as creating.  Writing most of all, but also music and drawing.  I’ve never been quite as good at anything as I was at writing, but the arts, in general, were my few islands of patience.  I’d get frustrated, as a child, with my lack of coordination in every other sphere of life, but something about Art of any kind was self-soothing.  There has never been anything in my life as wonderful as finding just the right word, playing just the right chord, watching that stirring scene in a play or a film.  Feeling the goosebumps rise, the tiny hairs stand up on the back of my neck, the wave of energy as if my body’s every cell was overflowing with life.   There is nothing like that aesthetic overload.  And if I could do anything, I’d spend my life trying to do things that wreak that same sensation in other people.  (Though it’s insufferable hubris to think I even could.)

I love to create things, but it’s so hard, at the same time.  Because there’s no point if you don’t share them, and yet sharing them is always an abject terror — calling on other people, sometimes even strangers, to judge the thing you’ve poured your time and effort into. Even if you wouldn’t go so far as to call it your “talent,” it’s damning enough to know that you spent time and ATP on it.  It could have been spent on work that makes you money.  It could have been spent on applying for jobs.  It could have been spent on reworking a resume for the tenth time, or tweaking another cover letter.  It could have been spent on something that was really worth something.  And I know that it should be.  Especially during these times that I’m unemployed, and everyone tells me that “your full-time job is finding a full-time job,” as if there are even enough jobs out there for which I’m qualified enough to apply.  All my ostensible “talent” just boils down to a fast typing speed and firm grasp of grammar and spelling — but every job I find is heavy labor or skilled professional or some kind of high-powered executive.  Jobs that I’m not qualified for, and in many cases physically can’t do.  But  America doesn’t believe in the word “can’t,” we just forgive different reasons for “won’t.”

But every once in a while, something just breaks, and I fritter away an entire afternoon writing something, or working on some sort of graphic design thing, or otherwise doing something creative. It hardly feels like any time at all – I’m just in the moment, doing what needs to be done for that task at hand, letting the inspiration guide me, and it’s all deeply appealing on so many different levels.   I’m focused, alert, productive, and yet I’m calm, steady, and persistent, even if I end up having to start over.  For those few timeless hours, I’m not scared or stressed or sad.  And then it’s done, and I have my draft of a post, or my short story, or some kind of photoshopped something, and I have a few moments of relative contentment (you know, where you realize the work is still totally Wrong but that it’s the best kind of Wrong you can make it.)  And while I might not be beaming or boasting, there may be a faint pearlescence of pride.

At least, before I look at the clock and see just how much time I’ve squandered — time which could have been money, had I been working on something valuable.

And yet,  one part of my brain/psyche/ego/whatever is always yelling at me that I can’t afford not to do these creative projects, because with every day that passes, I might be losing inspiration, losing the moment, losing the window of opportunity. I know that if I don’t start writing when I’m inspired, the idea and the mood will be gone and I may never get it back.  And that maybe, maybe, this is the idea that DOES matter.

This is a selfish part of brain, really. It says to me, “YOU are the one with this idea right now. YOU are the one who can do this. YOU should do it, because nobody else is going to do it unless YOU do it. You’ve spent all your life hiding and making yourself feel bad, internalizing every paradoxical insult ever hurled at you, convincing yourself that you weren’t worthy of anything. But after all these years, you convinced yourself that you are worthy of being alive, you are worthy of having a sense of self, you are worthy of having a unique identity, you are worthy of having a will to achieve and incorporate new things into yourself, you are worthy of developing a sense of agency in your life. There is a reason you feel peace with yourself when you’re creating, or contributing to artistic creation. There is a reason that it feels like it’s what you should be doing. There is a reason something at the core of you twists itself up in a knot at the idea of working in an office again. There is a reason the bile rises in your throat at words like ‘proactive’ and ‘webinar.’ You know this, no matter how complicated you may try to make things for yourself.

“All your life, you’ve been hiding your lamp under a bushel, and forcing yourself to see it as a faint little glow under the Chernobyl sarcophagus — and equally as treacherous if freed.  But there are people who want to hear what you have to say, to see what you have to make. Some are known to you, and some unknown — waiting for some mutual creative experience to, however loosely, however briefly, tie your minds together. And you know that, even if there were nobody left on the planet, you’d still be writing. You’d still be trying to make something of it all. This is what you do. This is your nature. And if you’re going to feel guilty about anything in your life, feel guilty about denying these most fundamental truths of yourself. No matter what has happened, you never fully let them go. You never let anyone take them from you. Not even yourself. You think you’ve changed so much in these past few years, but you know the secret – know it and have known: the only change has been in self-perception. You’ve always had this same potential, but only now are you allowing yourself to see it.

“But now is no time to blind yourself for blindness, guilt yourself for guilt or shame your shame; if you think that any time was squandered, then allow it to squander no more. Don’t seek permission or justification to pursue a life where you are what you know you could be: by being and by knowing, you have earned this. Earned this, and earned things that will be beyond your knowing until, reaching upward – however weakly, however slowly, however blindly, with hands however numb, you find them in your grasp. Some you may have already – have but not yet feel. And no matter what anyone has told you, or you have told yourself, it is a goodness to feel. So – for the love of any and all ye gods and a thousand glimmering shoals of little fishes – just let yourself CREATE.”

Meanwhile, the rational part of my brain/psyche/ego/whatever is telling me, “Will you shut your idiot piehole and talk sense? Look, if you don’t work every possible moment your job lets you work, you can’t afford to pay rent and eat food. It’s not that complicated. Not that you exactly need to eat so damn much, and not that you deserve to live where you are, but you have a responsibility to yourself and the people who let you live with them to keep yourself alive and pay your fair goddamn share.  Remember THAT word, Dostoyevsky?  RE-SPON-SIB-IL-ITY?

“I don’t care how burnt out you feel, I don’t care how incompetent you feel, I don’t care how dissatisfied you feel. I don’t care how peaceful or happy or accomplished you think you should feel, and I don’t care what you aspire to, because your feelings don’t matter, and your idea of a future doesn’t matter.  Because the future is just like today with a different date slapped on the tin. I don’t care if you feel bad about yourself, because you should feel bad about yourself.  Because, idealism aside, you ARE the money you make. You ARE what you can afford. You ARE what everyone else sees you as. You are a human in a society, and you need food, shelter, and a certain base level of acceptable appearance in order to stay alive and engage in in remotely successful interactions. These things cost money.

“You like to think you see yourself as better now, but you don’t, because you’re still at least a little awkward about going out in public, and — yet again —  you should be. You’re pining away like you think you’re a Romantic hero, some melancholy soul rejected by society to its own disservice, but you’re just a dumpy unemployed ugmo with bad skin and bad teeth and bad legs and bad hair.  You don’t even deserve to THINK about beauty, much less believe you can craft it. If you wanted to help the people around you, you’d stop believing you could make things that people want, and you would sell all your art and craft supplies for actual money. Nobody will ever pay even five bucks for anything you’ve ever done, because they know and you know that there’s more value in the printer ink or paint than in the “work” you’ve subjected it to.

“And whose fault is all of this? Yours. You could have chosen differently all along, and you didn’t, and now you think you can THINK yourself into the right to a better life than you’ve earned. You are not a bohemian, you are not insightful, you are not important, you are not a thing that matters, and the more you delude yourself into thinking you are, the more you are going to be discontent with the normal responsibilities of adulthood. Nobody gives even a sixteenth of a shit about your life but you, and you don’t even deserve to care about it as much as you’re trying to. Even if I let you do the artsy-fartsy bullshit you think you want to do, you KNOW you’d only be upset with how it turns out, and you KNOW you’d whine about how it could be better and how you’re just not good enough. And guess what — you’re right.

“I’m saving you a lot of trouble and embarrassment. You think you’re at peace with yourself when you’re creating, and you think you’re finally freeing yourself, but you’re actually hiding from the reality of the world you chose for yourself. You could have majored in anything in college – English, or arts, or psychology, or some kind of science. And whatever you majored in, you could have chosen to spend less time and money on that asshole you were with at the time. But no, you majored in Philosophy because you thought the critical thinking skills were more practical, and you still wasted your time, energy, money, GPA, and sanity on an ungrateful alcoholic jerk. Thinking that you could help him, even though you clearly couldn’t even handle your own life well enough to pick a major that’s not a cultural joke. You regret that time now, regret how everything happened, but you know you deserved just as good as you got, and still deserve to be suffering the consequences. Everything matters, every choice matters, and all the choices you have ever made up until this point have put you where you are. And it’s not even that bad, you ingrate. You’re just poor and unhappy, and both of those are logical consequences of those previous choices – or have you completely forgotten the Philosophy major you wasted your family’s money on?

“Listen. Your responsibility to yourself is not to be happy. Happiness is what you can pursue when you are DONE with all your responsibilities, and even then you can pursue it ONLY if it doesn’t come at the unhappiness, botherment, or even mild inconvenience of anyone else. If you manage to climb out of this hole you’ve put yourself into – and good goddamn luck with that, gimpy – then maybe you can start thinking about whether you have needs as a person or not. Until then, shut up, be a broken-toothed little cog, get a job, and do it.  Be grateful when someone chooses to pay you money to perform one of those few services your useless ass is capable of performing. All you ever do is let everybody down – and that’s when you’re NOT trying to do things beyond your limits. I have been telling you these same kinds of things every single day since you were in the third grade, and just because you decide to stop listening to me doesn’t mean I’m wrong. So sit down, shut up, and go back to work.”

Clearly, that part of my psyche is rather a lot more emphatic. And louder. And tends to go on at length. And has more objective evidence behind it. All the hippie-dippie encouraging attitude has behind it is your usual hope/faith/optimism stuff, which is painfully cyclical. If you want to be an optimist, you have to be optimistic that optimism will help you. It’s like most religion, magic, and other forms of faith that way – though, while that paradox of optimism is straightforward, actual systems of faith tend to be convoluted and circuitous enough that you ultimately manage to believe in yourself without your own ego interfering. It’s pretty damn wonderful and heroic when it all works out, but there’s the reason why that’s the kind of thing you read about in fiction. There’s a reason why, when that happens in the real world, it’s news.

And so here I am, on my first day of my latest bout of unemployment, an indefinite Labor Day weekend.  Telling myself that I’ll write things, I’ll create things, I’ll do useful things for people, until I get some kind of job that gives me dollars again. Trying not to be so stressed out and sad that I give up and hide from the world.  Trying not to delude myself with optimism, nor fall too deep in the mire of pessimism, no matter how much that pessimism looks like objective and rational truth.  Trying to make peace with my lack of social value while still believing it possible to redeem myself.

Nobody ever gets what they want in life.  Nobody ever gets to be happy — the hedonic treadmill sees to that, if nothing else.  And so, perhaps nothing has changed in all this time.  Perhaps none of it matters.  I’ll take the next job I’m capable of that opens up, I’ll work it until they arbitrarily get rid of me, or the company goes under, or the work runs dry, or they replace me with someone, or I have to quit before I have a nervous breakdown over the incompetence and impossibility of it all.  I’ll try to do the creative and calming things I can do in what free time I have, if just for myself, if never to be seen by anyone else.  And in every other hour of my life, I’ll feel myself age, feel myself grow stupid, feel myself grow even more slow, and regret more and more all the things that hindsight fools me into thinking I could have done with this time.

Because this is what it is to be an adult.

This is what it is to be a worker.

This is how we make a living.

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Art vs. The Artificial

I’m taking a brief break as I try to power through an all-nighter to catch up on work (since I actually have work available, and since I may well just get canned any time now.) I’ve just cracked open a Rockstar energy drink — making me suddenly and sharply nostalgic for the season I spent as a stagehand.

I spent those days fueled mainly by Rockstar energy drinks, cheap pizza, ramen, and a unique combination of overexertion-adrenaline, panic-adrenaline, Art-endorphins, and acute social anxiety/shame. I was never not working, it felt like, and I was never remotely good at those things I was working at (being too short, too weak, too slow, too uncoordinated, too afraid of heights, and otherwise too terrible.)  But I was backstage again, and helping make theatre happen again. Even though I tended to end up doing the simple gofer oddjobs so that the useful people weren’t wasted, and even though I still think 95% of people there hated my face, even though I was in copious pain most of the time, and even though I wound up wounding myself as well as getting laid off at the end, and even though the pay was a slap in the face.  Especially when we were working La Boheme, an opera all about impoverished artists.  La Boheme, with its brand-new set with ridiculously huge and overelaborate scenery, meticulously designed to look like bohemian squalor.  La Boheme, for which we were paid minimum wage with no benefits, so that the rich patrons and donors could watch it and continue to fund future shows (and the wages of future bohemians.)  You could’ve smothered in the layers of irony.

…And I still think of it as the most satisfying job I’ve ever had.

I remember stumbling home from the bus stop, boneweary, sneezing black from the dust of ancient drops, peering at my arms in the sunlight and finding the day’s fresh bruises and scratches that the stagelights didn’t show.  I remember how my cheeks and ears felt forever burning with guilt and fear of my inadequacies, from all the simple tasks that were so disproportionately hard for me, whether carrying a flat or climbing a ladder or not stripping a screw. Forever torn between a fear of being seen as the worthless weakling and the overly-ambitious tryhard – that is, when I thought the rest of the crew noticed me at all.

So why was I doing it?  What was the appeal?

There’s an ambiance in a theatre that’s not matched anywhere else.  It’s a place where the borders between Art and Reality are both so blurred and so knife-sharp.  Scores of people do nearly impossible things with wood and paint and cloth, with voices and bodies, with lights and gels and props, all day each day for months.  Blood, toil, tears, and sweat.  Dashing ourselves against the limits of plausibility, possibility, and damned common sense.  Against our own fourth walls that divide our perceptions of ourselves from what we might be seen to be.   “It is what it is” was the eternal mantra. Whatever It was, It was never quite enough, never quite right, never quite good, never quite anything. The directors always wanted something else, things never quite went together as they should, something always went wrong, and after a point you just had to throw up your hands and surrender to it.  It Is What It Is.

And I saw myself as the same – never quite enough, never quite right, never quite good.  Never quite anything.  I felt my limits so acutely, and in such fine detail, so self-similar and self-containing that I could swear it took on fractal dimensions.  Finding shallow solace only when I was so tired that I couldn’t care anymore, and all I could do was surrender.  Surrender to the limits of my petulant body, surrender to the absurdity of the directors’ demands, surrender to the drama, surrender to Dionysus or whatever mad muses haunt the modern stage.

But somehow, that very hollowness seemed to make me more fulfilled.  The gulf between expectation and reality seemed miles wide — until the show itself.  And then, even from my post backstage, even though I’d done so relatively little to contribute… that great theatrical Something swept in.  It filled in all the gaps in me, even and especially the gaps I didn’t know I had, until I felt myself brimming with energy.  Cheeks flushed and neck tingling again, but with that ineffable aesthetic thrill, those chills, that invisible electricity that made the small hairs stand up, made the goosebumps rise.   So autonomous and unthinking, so much an animal response, but so much a sublime one as well.

In that moment, It still was what It was.  I was what I was.  A whole and very finite thing.  But the perception had flipped, the suspension of disbelief had been triggered, the aesthetic surrender was underway.  And for those few moments, those limits – that border between Art and Reality, Self and Other, Transcendent and Immanent – could be felt so distinctly, so minutely, that I could feel how imprecise it actually was – how it contained itself within itself, over and over again.  A finite area with an infinite border.  To the point that it didn’t dissolve, but took on a dimension deeper than any simple line could be.  The fractal fourth wall.

Those moments of electric aesthetic surrender – whether they’re from theatre, a particular swell in a song, finding just the right note as I try to play something by ear, figuring out just the right word to write, hearing or reading some evocative speech, whatever – are some of my favorite moments in life.  The ones that I have helped create, even in some small way, even moreso.

For all I know, nobody else feels that, and I sound like some sort of lunatic because this is just more neurological miswiring, and my brain actually short-circuits itself if I let it get too happy.   But that’s how it is, and it’s marvelously affirming – not just self-affirming, and not just giving faith in humanity that these things exist, but an almost completely abstractified Yes.  I want to make things that give myself that sensation.  I want to make things that give other people that sensation, presuming they’re similarly wired!   Since I’m already imagining things, I want to be able to afford to make such things without being evicted or starving to death!  Even if I -were- evicted and starving on the street, I’d be hauling my filthy carcass to the library computer lab and STILL writing every day; still seeking out ways to have, generate, and possibly inflict that sensation.

But you can’t always get what you want.  A song which, I might add, gives me that very same sensation.  Here!  Have some!

But what am I doing now?  I’m taking a break from a job that has me home every day, sitting in a chair in my pajamas, being paid to be overly analytical about the Internet.   A job of strict guidelines, of pedantic distinctions, of interpreting a world of information and expression in accordance with criteria.  A job devoid of all art.  A job where even the analysis is not my own.  A job that leaves me exponentially more poor than I was when I was working minimum wage on stage crew – financially, socially, mentally.  Feeling useless, soul-sapped, and self-reviling, my worth subject to so many factors beyond my control, all of which are almost completely external.  Most of which are arbitrary.

I find the job – find myself – reducing myself to the same kinds of criteria.  Am I useful?  Am I of sufficient quality?  Do I answer what I ask of myself?  Or am I misleading myself? I keep telling myself that this is just what adulthood is – being stressed, being miserable, being bored, being unfulfilled, being tired, being ashamed, being guilty, being serious, being practical, being rational, and putting on the act that we’re all okay.  Feeling artificial.  Feeling guilty for not being conventional enough.

But which is the false self?  Which is the act?  Which is art and which is artificial?

I have an idea of myself as a writer, as a potential creator of some kind.  As a thing that may have Art in it.  But then there’s the idea of myself as someone who could – in fact, SHOULD – be content as a cubicle drone or similar functionary. Playing the role of a Normal Human Adult, striving to work in an office, wear the business casual costume, recite the lines.  Every day the same blocking of bed, car, cubicle, lunchroom, cubicle, car, bed.  Same cast of characters to deal with every day, all of them following their own routines.  All for an invisible audience, and someone hidden in the distance – watching, judging, giving us notes – if we’re lucky.

One act certainly seems more practical than the other – but if it leaves me all gall and wormwood, what’s the worth of me?   Have I set myself up to accept that I don’t have worth, so that I never actually address the questions of who I am and what I want out of my life, and never feel I’m worthy to know, or to seek it out?

I’ve been sitting on this post for two nights now, trying to answer all of that.  Knowing that I can’t; that if I could answer it, I wouldn’t be asking it.  That if I knew what to do about it, armed with that answer, I wouldn’t be asking it.  That if I felt like I was capable of doing it, armed with that knowledge, I wouldn’t be asking it.

For most of my life, until quite recently (and even still I frequently backslide,) I’ve thought myself utterly undeserving of happiness, a sense of self, or any but the most basic and biologically necessary interactions with the world.  I tell myself that I have a duty to other people, and to myself (whatever that’s worth), to be smart and responsible and rational and to never take stupid risks and never make mistakes. To avoid bothering or inconveniencing others at all costs. I tell myself that it’s infinitely better to miss an opportunity by inaction than to pursue and opportunity and fail. I tell myself that happiness is a privilege to be earned only if that duty is fulfilled. That it doesn’t matter if I did get to spend all my time writing or creating – I’d still be awkward and discontent and unworthy and self-loathing because that’s just the kind of person I am, because I’m just not the kind of person who can do things right. End of story.

But maybe that’s all somebody else’s lines. Other peoples’ idea of my character. People long past, who knew and judged a person who isn’t even Me anymore. All an act, in short, and one that I’ve become a little bit too good at method-acting – and one with all the makings of a tragedy.

After all, the times I’ve felt most like myself – and, strangely, all the times I’ve seemed to gather the most friends – have been those times I was intentionally playing around with my identity and behavior. No lies, no bullshit – just intentionally disregarding my old ideas of who and what I “should” be, who and what I think I am, and instead trying to write and talk and behave like the person I wish I could’ve been.

Was it an act?  Kind of.  But, oddly, it seemed to let in more truth.  By acting like someone who was maybe allowed to be happy and strong and funny and powerful and smart and capable, and by not poisoning the well with my honest self-opinion, and by not getting those concepts shot down, I began to feel like I was – or could be – that kind of person after all.  And maybe it’s true.  Maybe I can fake it ’til I make it. Maybe I can eventually earn the right to deserve some sense of fulfillment – if not aesthetic, then maybe just a sense of accomplishment.  Maybe I don’t have to be a drone.  If I try to write more (that is, more things that aren’t emo type rambling like this crap), or try to paint more, or otherwise try to art more, suspending the search for justification and just sincerely letting myself do it anyway… then who knows.

I’m not going to be so selfish as to say that happiness or self-worth are needs, but still:

If you try sometimes, you might find….

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So, this may well be way too reductive.

But I’m still thinking about the issue of my total lack of confidence. Trying to determine whether confidence is supposed to be naturally-generated or if it’s a learned behavior based on enough positive reinforcement. I am totally not able to naturally generate confidence, but this very awkwardness and reticence often comes through in what I do, and actually quashes others’ inclination to give positive feedback. I know it’s only priming people to be critical. So, even if I’m motivated by external positive reinforcement, that very desire is its own undoing.

The deeper concern is that confidence just seems so dishonest. I can’t claim I’m capable of doing something successfully, because Shit Happens.  I can’t claim I’m capable of rolling with the shit that happens, because Shit Happens. And while I feel like it’s far more honest and realistic to be self-critical and self-doubting, it’s also a loop that keeps me from ever acquiring confidence. I don’t get how people can look at themselves and choose to be confident – how they ignore what they ignore, or forget what they forget, or whether they’re just synthesizing some fake-confidence in the form of Pride or outright Delusion that works well enough to get them through life without much incident.

Given all that…. I wonder if, ironically, I need to give up on the idea of having confidence or faith at all.

Just acknowledge the fact that, even though I’ve earned a sense of self, that doesn’t mean I matter.  Or should matter.  Not even to myself.

And then, knowing that I don’t matter, and therefore surrendering any concerns about whether I feel deserving or capable or disingenous, JUST DO THINGS ANYWAY.

The few times I -have- dared to do things without feeling ready, it was scary and stressful – but, with persistence, they really helped make me who I am. Which is odd, since I was originally 100% positive that they couldn’t possibly overlap with my life. For whatever reason (okay, occasionally a booze-related reason,) I just turned my brain off and pushed the Do It Anyway button — and whaddaya know. Things that aren’t part of your life can become part of your life if you just DO THEM.

Courage isn’t the condition of feeling fearless, but of facing one’s fear.  Maybe confidence isn’t the condition of feeling self-certain, but of facing a challenge to your identity and seeing it through.

Maybe I’m forgetting that there’s no certainty in anything, no matter what you do. That things can become unpredictably complex because of simple changes, but those changes ARE, themselves, simple. For all the hemming and hawing about What to do, Why to do it, How to do it, When to do it, For Whom to do it, the only certainty there can be is that, if you DON’T do it, it doesn’t get done.

Yes, things get complicated later on, in ways I may or may not be equipped to deal with.  But still, it all starts with a choice between Create Something and Don’t Create Something.

Perhaps I just need to remind myself:

Maybe it’s better to err on the side of creation.

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Overthinking Overnalyzing

After the last post, and the general ages-long analysis-paralysis delay in posting anything, I was digging around and trying to determine more about Why That Happens.  I enjoy analyzing things just because it’s intensely satisfying to find patterns and to make things make sense — even, hell, especially when it’s pareidolia.  Whether it’s an optical illusion, a mashup, a metaphor, or a joke, I love implausible juxtaposition that calls on the brain to make some synapse between utterly unrelated neurons.  I don’t think I could still Be Me if I didn’t enjoy that – which means that my tendencies to analyze things and try to seek patterns aren’t, in themselves, problematic.

What IS problematic is how I react – or don’t – during the process.

For all my fondness of weird, juxtaposed, implausible, chaotic things and the strange kinds of harmony they can produce… in most of my behaviors, I’m painfully rulebound.   It might be due to upbringing, to a large degree – one parent thought anything not planned was not worth doing; the other was more spontaneous, but much more fretful about change.  Throw in the fact that the only thing I’ve ever excelled at was school, where everything is Right or Wrong, clearly defined, and any mistake you make carries through your entire school year to affect your final grade or GPA, and I quickly internalized a mindset of If You Can’t Plan It, Predict It, Or Perfect It, DON’T DO IT.  Not doing things was always better than doing them wrong.  And as for “learning from your mistakes,” well, learning didn’t matter.  Grades weren’t based on how much you improved over the course of a year, after all. They were just the aggregate of how many mistakes you made.  Start with a perfect A+, and subtract all the fuckups you made over the course of 9 months.

So, a miserable stasis was always more preferable to making a mistake in the name of ‘progress’ or ‘hope’ or ‘learning’ or whathaveyou.  Trying my best was only adequate if it correlated to an actual objective reward.  Getting a C was as good as an F, a B was a C, an A was a B, and an A+ was “Expected,” not “Exceptional.”

And yet, for all of that, I’ve never been too much of a control freak.  I want to understand things, sure, and plan things when I can — but my crap self-esteem has ensured that I rarely think I have adequate control over anything.  I’ve always been far more inclined to just go with the DON’T DO IT answer by default – knowing that I’ll plan wrong, make bad predictions, and generally fail, which gives the less-practical, more-emotional corollary of YOU DON’T EVEN DESERVE TO DO IT.  And, at times, the doubling-down of YOU DON’T EVEN DESERVE TO WANT TO DO IT.

I’m more than willing to concede the fact that the world works as it works, there’s not necessarily order or structure, our perceptions of such are largely illusory, and “control” is another term for the delusion of confidence and competence. It’s also not an illusion of control, because I never feel remotely in control of anything. Including and especially those things I should feel most in command of. It’s like there’s some sort of psychic maintenance involved – every artificial thing I’ve tried to impose on myself, I have to try to keep functional, all on my own, while being besieged by all manner of external forces that only even feel like a siege at all because I tried to fortify myself against them in the first place.

No, all this analysis and reticence and paralysis isn’t for a sense of control. Just a sense of justification. Just a sense that, in some respect, whatever I’m thinking, planning, doing, not doing, or doing-by-not-doing (to get all wu-wei on things) is Okay.

Even though it never works out like that, and I know it.

The closest I ever get is: “You’re making a constant series of mistakes, and you’ll never be able to fix them. You may or may not have done your best, and even if you did, that may or may not have been good enough, and it may or may not even matter. So… it is what it is. Do stuff. Or don’t. Or something. You may or may not find out, in the end, whether or not it was right, wrong, acceptable, or immaterial. So it’s all on your head, Sparky, and so is figuring it all out.”

I think I just need to make myself a little more aware of when I’m obfuscating myself. When I’m holding myself back. When I’m telling myself that something – whatever it is – just needs A Few More Things or Just A Bit Of Refinement before I call it Done. When I’m caught up in worrying about what other people might think, or how well it might work, or whether what I want to do is acceptable to do or even acceptable to want.

Because I suspect that what I’m really saying to myself is, “This thing is probably actually ready. I feel like I’m not. I will not do anything until I feel like I’m ready. This thing, and everything and everybody else, therefore has to wait for me to stop feeling like a failure before it can be done / shown / shared. The very fact that I don’t feel ready yet makes me feel more like a failure, which makes me feel more unready, which makes me feel more like a failure.  Therefore, this should never be shared.”

And by the time I do feel ready to share something, time and growth have made me just a slightly different person than the person who made the thing.  Which makes it a little too distant to be be relevant to me.  A little too much a relic.  A little too much an anchor. And if I’m ready, in principle, to share, but the thing itself is no longer representative or meaningful or relevant, then how can I claim it should be of worth to anyone else?

So I don’t share things.  Or even make things.  Or try much.  Or challenge myself, since feeling like something is a challenge is, to me, a sign that you are inadequate or inadequately prepared for it. But, because I don’t challenge myself, I don’t allow myself to make mistakes – which leads to poor coping skills when I do make mistakes. Therefore, my parameters for what is a surmountable challenge tend to stay the same – not only because I haven’t made the mistakes to learn what not to do, but I haven’t learned enough coping skills to make the very act of mistake-making feel like anything short of utter unacceptable doom.

When I’ve made a thing, when I’ve gotten myself to the point where I feel it’s done, it still never really feels good or right.  I just feel like there’s nothing left I can do with it, and that this is my own fault. Maybe I’ve made the thing for its own sake, or for others, or even if it is for myself, all I end up seeing is how it’s still not right, still flawed, in ways I can’t fully articulate or fix.  It’s an overwhelming feeling that this would be better if only it were somebody else doing it.

And yet, the more I try, the more I feel like I’m irresponsible.  There’s only so much time and energy, you know, and there I am pushing myself against some essay or poem or story or whatever as if I could EVER be good enough to make it what it deserves to be.  As if there’s not something else in the world I could be doing, something practical and purposeful, that would directly help me or someone else.  So I get torn right  in pieces between feeling energized by the idea and desperate to realize it in some way or other before the inspiration’s gone forever, feeling completely incompetent at this idea that’s burning in my brain, and feeling selfish and pompous for spending time on it at all.

And all of that combined means that even when it’s as Done as I can get it, I still feel like I can’t share it.  Because it won’t live up to the idea, or it will have too much ME in it.  It’s too raw and ill-defined, while at the same time being so dense, so solid, so untouchable.  But I can’t generate my own justification or validation, and I feel instinctively that neither the thing, nor I, deserve it from anyone else.  And yet, if I don’t want others to enjoy it, or even approve of its existence, or even grudgingly accept it, and if I can’t generate those things myself, and if I’m unsure whether or not it really speaks for itself or not, is it really done?  Should I even have made it? Why did I bother? What’s the point?

I guess that’s the appealing thing about faith. It cuts all those issues short. Whatever you do, you’re not doing for the thing itself, or for yourself, or for others; you’re doing it for Insert Metaphysical Entity Here.  Maybe not even a capital-G God.  Maybe just a muse. Maybe anything outside of yourself that you believe in. You don’t have to explain why you’re doing it. Insert Metaphysical Entity Here inspired you!  Regardless of how you feel about it, and regardless of how anybody else reacts to it, you can assume that Insert Metaphysical Entity Here is pleased! And you don’t have to worry about how things seem in hindsight, or all the infinite possible spiraling potentialities. Insert Metaphysical Entity Here decides what happens, so any results – good or bad – are its will. As long as you can justify yourself to Insert Metaphysical Entity Here — a process which, from my viewpoint, appears alarmingly similar to the self-reflection echo chamber — you don’t have to worry. You don’t have to doubt. You don’t have to be afraid. Well, unless you have one of those Insert Metaphysical Entities Here which like you to be worried and doubtful and afraid, and like to be judgmental. But you know what you’re in for with that, too.

It just sounds so trite to say that I should have faith in myself.  Besides, I’ve lived with myself all my life; I know better than that.  And my thoughts on faith of any kind is another heap of blather entirely, though it boils down to an idea that faith is a learned behavior that operates independently of evidence, which can be used as anything from a temporary psychological stopgap to a sort of outboard ego through which one routes some, or all, perceptions, judgments, and thoughts.  One can have faith in a deity, or oneself, or another person, or any other ideological thing.  But, all too often, the thing you have faith in isn’t what you think or believe it is.  And you end up having to have faith that the object of your faith even functions as an object of your faith.  You have to have faith about your faith about your faith, giving up bits of your ego with each iteration until there’s almost nothing left.  Faith is what you have when you are too unaware of yourself, the world around you, your abilities, or your limitations, to have a rational understanding of cause and effect.

At the same time… cause and effect aren’t always so clear-cut.  That’s chaos theory for you – even the most minute changes in initial conditions can lead to vastly different results in later conditions, and it takes superhuman abilities to even guess what swath of possible results might be more likely.

It’s a fact that I love.  And have loved forever, since before I even knew there was a term for it.  And then I discovered Discordianism back in high school, which – for being rather tongue-in-cheek – was still an encouraging and ennobling target of at least some sort of faith.  Even if the faith was just that, yes, there are other Weird People in the world; yes, trying to make things more orderly often fails; yes, it is a Good Thing to be creative; yes, the world is silly, and it’s okay to be silly yourself.

Also, I guess that’s why faith in an external metaphysical entity — even one almost completely fabricated — seems less stupid than faith in myself:  I know enough about myself to know that having faith in myself is only writing myself a check that I can’t cash.  I rationally KNOW I’m not a viable target of faith.  Something that doesn’t exist can’t be such a failure.

But for so long since, I’ve been bouncing back and forth between ruts of destructive order and destructive chaos, forgetting that they’re not really as opposing as I make them out to be.  I’m quite possibly the world’s only lapsed Discordian.  But I’d do well to remember some of these formative things, the things I thought I’d hold to as an adult.  The more I feel I’ve failed as an adult, as a person, as an anything, the more I try to seek order and stability and things that are predictable and known.

But perhaps this is me just trying to retreat into some “safe” and ever-besieged world of known failures,  regularly scheduled crises, and rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.  Perhaps I should be reaching toward those things I’ve always been most drawn to, when I dare draw or be drawn.  To art-ish things, and writing, and storytelling, and gods help us all maybe even poetry.  The things that I try to tell myself are frivolous, pointless, impossible, that require too much of me, that are more than I could handle, that are for Other People, Better People, Funnier People.   The things I bribe myself with — “Okay, just do the things you have to do, and then you can do the creative things you want to do – never mind that the moment will be long lost by then.”  I keep telling myself somehow that, if I get a good stable job, or otherwise earn worth or wealth, then I’ll be allowed to be creative again.  Nevermind that the times when I have jobs like this are also the times when I’m most stressed and sapped and unable to summon the energy or effort or inspiration to create.

All I know is, it sucks to feel simultaneously that you have no purpose in all the world but to Create Something — while knowing that you have to make a living, and you have to earn the right to be alive, and that even fulfilling your purpose of Creating Something isn’t enough.  If you’re particularly low on marketable skills other than Creating Something, there is almost nothing you can do to make you deserve things like food or shelter, or the money to afford such things.  The time you spend doing whatever scraps of things someone will pay you to do, is time you spend not doing what you feel made to do — and, in fact, time you spend dessicating and burning away everything in you that makes you capable of Creating Something at all.

I guess all we can do is choose creativity.  Even as we’re growing old and slowing down and drying up, even as we’re inching further into the gutter, all we can do is keep thinking, keep making connections, keep creating new ideas from the patterns we see (or create) in the chaos all around us.  Accept that it doesn’t matter, and we’re going to die alone and broke and ugly and from something probably depressingly preventable, and nothing but a burden on everyone we’ve ever cared about but maybe, before we’re shoveled under and forgotten, we’ll Create Something that lasts.  It won’t make up for anything – nothing can – but it will be Something.

“To choose order over disorder, or disorder over order, is to accept a trip composed of both the creative and the destructive. But to choose the creative over the destructive is an all-creative trip composed of both order and disorder. To accomplish this, one need only accept creative disorder along with, and equal to, creative order, and also willing to reject destructive order as an undesirable equal to destructive disorder.” ~ Malaclypse the Younger, KSC

And that, if nothing else, is something to stop and think about.

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Persistent Hesitation

I do indeed still exist.

I don’t have an exciting reason for the prolonged failures to update.  I don’t have any clear, solid reason for it at all, honestly. That isn’t to say that I didn’t have murky and nebulous excuses. But, since this blog is for nothing if not for overanalyzing things, I might as well write about that very lack of writing.

While it’s not exactly as if that last post took the Internet by storm, it did indeed get read more than I’d expected.  A lot more than I’d expected.  I’d been content, and in fact outright impressed, by a maximum of eight whole viewers one day.  After all, I knew I’d only sent the link to two or three people I knew, so that had to mean that at least one Actual Other Human Being had read something without having been pressured or obligated in any way, shape, or form!  Astounding!

Then I went and blathered about the Right Reverend Jerkface, and bam – 139 views in a day.

Having never had a Proper Blog before, or even any shambling excuse for one, I tried to do it proper.  Check back for comments.  Reply to everyone.  Read at least one thing from everyone who’d commented, comment on them if I could.  Realize my comments were probably too long; fret about being long-winded and self-important.  Realize other comments might be too short; fret about appearing terse. Watch as the comments died down.  Go about my business.  Wake up the next day.

And wonder what in all hell I should write.

It wasn’t a case of writer’s block.  I had a bevy of things that seemed interesting.  A few bits of new scientific awesomeness, particularly artistic videos, humorous news, personal ponderings.  There were a few drafts that I began and just couldn’t finish, couldn’t flesh out.  Other things that I just wanted to submit without commentary, but after what I’d hoped was a long and nuanced analysis of news and society and so forth — a post which (amazingly) made some people want to follow me — how could I just plonk down something so different?  What if that wasn’t what they expected, or what they wanted?

I felt like I’d painted myself into a corner – that whatever I wrote would have to be socially-conscious SRS BSNS.

“Or what?” said some bold but quiet backend of brain.

And then the Justification Trainwreck occurred.

It went a little something like this:

“If I don’t write something that’s long and thoughtful, anyone who followed me for Thoughtful Things will be annoyed and feel bait-and-switched.  But if I can’t think of something long and thoughtful, anyone who followed me with the expectation of being able to, y’know, read more actual words sometime would feel even more displeased – better something than nothing, right?

But, then again, that’s self-entitled as all hell — if I hold to that, then I could just start plonking down whatever half-cocked ninnyhammery I liked, claiming that anyone who didn’t like it could just unfollow and scram.  And what kind of dick move would that be!  No, no, I need to Know My Audience.

But I have people who like the science posts, and people who like the art posts, and people who like the personal posts, and people who like the social posts, and unless I were to personally conduct a sociological experiment and interpret the data through painting somehow, there’s no pleasing everyone.

But then how do I decide who to focus on?  Who do I write for, who do I try to satisfy?   But then again, doesn’t that make a work hollow, if its sole intent is to appeal to some arbitrary demographic?  I hate to read that kind of writing, and I hate to write that kind of writing, so why would I think that anyone else would want to read that kind of writing from me — even if I WERE capable of having such specific appeal?  However, don’t I basically have to choose between niche appeal and broad appeal? On the other hand, who am I to think that what I’m writing would actually satisfy anyone anyway!  That’s awfully pretentious of me!

But then again, isn’t it better to be pretentious than to convince myself that the best course of action is to write only appealing pablum?   And do I really think that I’m even in touch enough with society to be -capable- of writing appealing pablum?  But if I’m not writing this for other people, then I’m only writing it for myself – in which case this shouldn’t be a public thing in the first place.

But then again, there’s a difference between tailoring writing for a specific and totally-constructed “type” of audience or “type” of reader and just making writing available for any and all audience or readers to enjoy.  Moreover, it’s not like I even have a big sample size to begin with!  If I change my writing now to appeal to my current readers somehow, then what kinds of audiences might I potentially be missing out on by not writing other things?

But then again, if I’m having this bad of Choice Paralysis after a hundred views and a handful of follows and comments, obviously I can’t even handle a wider audience anyway!   It would be selfish to assume that made it okay to alienate current readers OR hypothetical readers – but then AGAIN, if I’m going to be fretful over whether I’m bothering or alienating someone no matter what I write, then shouldn’t I at least write about things I personally want to write about, because there’s no way to ever know if I’ve satisfied anyone but myself?

But THEN AGAIN, if I’m already presuming that I’ll fret over how others perceive what I write and fret about my writing’s objective merits, isn’t it the case that I will inherently never be satisfied by my own work anyway?  And doesn’t that obligate me to instead do my best to serve someone other than myself, because trying – even in vain – to satisfy others is always more valuable than certainly satisfying myself?   But where would that end, because if it’s a utilitarian argument, what if the writing that would please others most is the writing that would please me least?

BUT THEN AGAIN, do I even have any right to care about how pleased I am with my work, because I only deserve to be pleased if my work pleases others?

BUT THEN AGAIN, aren’t more powerful works often more discomfiting?

BUT THEN AGAIN, isn’t my work just amateur halfassed crap, not anything that’s even in the same room, building, or continent as Works Of Art?

BUT THEN AGAIN, if it’s crap and I have no business aspiring for better things, isn’t there no point at all, for me or for anyone, in pursuing it?

BUT THEN AGAIN, since writing is the only thing in my life at which I feel even remotely competent, if there’s no point in creating these writings, isn’t there no point in ANYTHING I do?

BUT THEN AGAIN, isn’t anything better than nothing, because no matter how horrible or vapid or pointless it is, it’s still some small creation spitting in the face of the void?

BUT THEN AGAIN, and this is perhaps the summation of the entire previous mess, AM I NOT JUST OVERTHINKING THIS, AND BESIDES, WHO THE HELL CARES?”

This, or variants of this, is what my brain does whenever I think about doing much of anything.   Moreso when it comes to writing or other acts of creative whatnot that I think about sharing with others, of course.  Writing is one of those few things that has always been important to me, even when I was at my nadir of self-esteem.  But almost any major choice or change tangles up a similar Gordian knot.

But why?  That’s the big question.  The answer to it is something I’m always pursuing.

And, truth be told, I did have a big examination coda thing at the end of this.  Trying to come up with some sort of answer.  And it’s been dangling here, waiting for The Reasons, since the end of last month.  Living up to everything it was trying to analyze.

The core of it, so far as I could find, is that I’m trying to seek justification.  Sometimes I’m trying to control things that I can’t control, sometimes I’m trying to not do anything until I feel certain about the outcomes, sometimes I’m just trying to avoid making mistakes or looking stupid, but it all boils down to the idea that I want to convince myself that whatever I’m doing is okay.

I feel that this is still unfinished. That, even if and when I do post the bit I chopped out, the bit where I explore the process of those doubts and motivations (and failures of motivation,) it will still be unfinished.  That, even if it were finished, it wouldn’t answer anything.  Or help anything.  Or matter.

But maybe that’s okay.



But then again…

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Some Thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Quality of Art”

This Tumblr post of a friend-of-a-friend has given me some things to chew on.

I think it helps explain some of the problems I have with doing anything remotely art-like. I know I lack technical prowess, and whenever I make anything – whether it’s writing or some kind of digital art or the rare painting – it’s driven mostly by passion. But I always have to ask myself if that passion actually matters. If I’m not great at it on a technical level, AND if I’m maybe not completely groundbreaking either, what right do I have to be passionate about what I’m doing?  I already felt sorta crap about my technical prowess, but I guess I never remembered that I should be innovative, too.

I mean, it’s not like I can help it. If I could control what I feel passionate about at any time, or how original my ideas are, I’d be letting a constant sluice of energy into my brain and I’d never let up from creating never-before-imagined things. But it comes and it goes, or channels itself into different projects, in ways I can’t actually guide. All I can do is choose whether or not to ignore my creative impulses. Usually I have to ignore it for practical reasons (I have to do real work, I can’t make it come out right, I don’t have the equipment, etc.)

But sometimes there’s nothing that’s really holding me back — just the question of whether passion alone is an adequate justification for pursuing that passion. Whether pursuing my passion, despite technical failure and unoriginality, is a cop-out.

I want to say it’s always okay to try things, and that you’ve only failed when you give up. But that’s probably insulting to real artists.

This is why I almost never actually accomplish anything. I just have ideas, try to start, remember who and what I am, then give up and go pet the cats.

…I say as I write and publish a blog entry.

Maybe I’m just thinking too much about some end-game, some concept of being “famous” to at least some degree, with a lot of people from a lot of backgrounds all looking at me and my work, and judging me.  I’m trying to figure out how to be acceptable to as many people as possible.  And when that starts to happen, my usual instinct is just to withdraw.  I can’t make everyone happy simultaneously, and my own happiness and utility shouldn’t come at the expense of anyone else, and if I screw something up, I risk failing other people and failing the idea itself.  So it’s easier not to try, and easier to justify inaction.

I realize this is a somewhat cowardly attitude.  I’m letting the hypothetical judgment of a bunch of hypothetical people dissuade me from doing not only hypothetical things, but real actual things I could really actually do.  And, obviously, all those hypothetical things are being hypothesized in my own damn head.  I mean, yes, I might not be able to really actually do the things I want to do very WELL, but it’s usually at least somewhat possible.  And people have liked some of the things I’ve dared to do.  I’ve had good feedback on some of my writing, when I’ve dared to show it to anyone, and on some crafts.

At the same time, I fear it’s an even bigger cop-out to say “Screw it, my audience is Whoever Likes This Thing I’ve Made.”

Still… this is The Internet.  Even if something isn’t original, it can be remixed and recontextualized, used to satirize other things, or even to satirize itself.  And there’s someone out there for everything.   The Long Tail is looooooooooooooooooong.

Maybe it’s worth it to just put something in the world that wasn’t there before. Whatever it is. Do what I’m compelled to do, even if it’s derivative.  Do it as well as I can.  Put it out there.  Whoever finds it and likes it, right on – I knew I was right to pursue it.  Whoever finds it and hates it, right on – I knew it was a bad idea even as I pursued it.  I can’t pretend to be genuine or be trolling when I legitimately don’t know what I’m doing.  I’m just making things, because I can.

Maybe it’s okay to err on the side of creation.

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