Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On Taylor Swift, Otherness, and Passive-Aggressive Writing

Earlier I was reading this article over at the Paris Review that I later shared on Facebook. It had a bit to do with Taylor Swift and her style of songwriting -- the way she draws from real life experiences and real people she's known to write her songs. Particularly people like exes that she feels have wronged her or experiences that left her hurting. As anyone familiar with her music already knows, she does it in such a way that it's never spelled out in so many words who she's writing about, but enough clues and hints are given that it's not terribly difficult to figure out.

Miss Swift was merely the framework for what the article was really about though. The author went on to address the way this type of writing is something like therapy for writers and artists that feel like they don't (or didn't) fit in for whatever reason. At one point, such writing was confined to paper journals and personal diaries. However, here in the Internet age, each of us has a public platform from which we can say what we want about whomever we want and a lot of us choose to do it the Taylor Swift way -- passive-aggressively. 
Writing is first born of a need to explain oneself, and it is comorbid with the desperate loneliness of an ostracized, chubby middle-schooler, like she was and, well, like I was. The popular kids can explain themselves to each other. Only the lonely are left to their writing.
It’s through the tools of observation that we learn to hone an otherness…we begin to define ourselves from the way we are different. And slowly, slowly, we spend so much time pretending that someone is listening that we often don’t know how to change modes once people are.
I wasn't a chubby middle-schooler the way the author of the original article may have been, but I was most certainly someone that didn't fit in. I was one of those kids that was miserably awkward and unattractive when I was younger. I was painfully shy and had no real idea how to talk to people or make friends. I was also mixed race at a time well before it was considered cool to be so and certainly before you saw a lot of diversity in the media you consumed, so I had the added challenge of  literally feeling like a freak of nature -- something that many actual people I knew at the time felt shouldn't exist at all.

My writing was really the first thing that gave me any kind of peace as far as how much it hurt to feel so universally rejected at such a vulnerable time in my life. I'd come home from school, open my diary, and fill it with all the pain, fear, and resentment I felt because of all the bullying I was experiencing. I'd tell it all about my issues with my family, my worries that I'd never have a boyfriend, my hatrid of school, and my real feelings about all of the people I knew.

I'd also fantasize about getting to enjoy my revenge on all of the people that hurt me one day. Some of my fellow outcasts saw themselves becoming wildly successful, going through a drive-thru in their Ferrari, and being handed fries and a shake by the very person that bullied them throughout their childhood. My fantasy was a little different, but only as far as the details. I pictured myself growing up to be drop-dead gorgeous and ridiculously witty. I imagined literally everyone wanting to know me, having all my former tormentors come crawling, and then metaphorically spitting in their faces. In the meantime, my writing would provide me with a place to live out some of those fantasies in different ways.

Sometimes I just cried things out Dear Diary style in my journal, but I also wrote Taylor Swift-style stories and poetry that directly addressed some of these people -- not by name, but by nuance and implication. I liked being able to actually show this writing right to the people I was so irritated with (or let them find it on their own) without them being sure it was about them because of how vague it was. It was especially gratifying if they seemed worried it might be about them -- doubly so if they were actually worried enough to ask. It was nice to feel like other people might be worrying about what I thought for a change. That was probably the only time I did feel like my feelings mattered to others, so it's not surprising that it was something I stuck with.

I continued to use that type of writing as a sort of therapy -- a way to not only get certain poisons out of me, but to make other people consider certain things about their own relationships with me or with other people they knew. I didn't just do it in regards to ways I was hurting either. I used the same methods to express feelings of love, attraction, or admiration that I couldn't quite bring myself to express in plain English. I'm sure a lot of other writers can describe similar experiences.
Taylor exists as our id. She alone possesses the chutzpah to play innocent as she boldly winks at what she’s done in a forum more public than even the most viral article. But it’s also through her that we can continue to fantasize about a revenge most perfect, an aggression so passive that no one sees it coming, that no one can confirm it once they’ve been hit. 
That day might be around the corner, and it’s Taylor who allows us to dream of it: dream of a time when the stings of the past are made better through the public hanging of dirty laundry, a time when we say the perfect thing in the moment when it most counts, a moment when we finally get the last word. It’s on that day that we, too, will have our most perfect aggression realized. It’s on that day you will find us shining like fireworks over their sad empty towns.
In a way, I did get to live out my elaborate fantasies of becoming someone everyone wanted to know. I was one of the lucky ones in that I eventually grew into my looks. The wonky mixed race features that had gotten me pelted with spitballs and tortured daily when I was a kid developed into a brand of beauty that most people considered not only unusual, but very alluring. I learned how to talk to people and use my wonderful mind to hold their attention. People started paying me compliments all the fucking time. I was not only being stopped on the street so I could be told how beautiful I was, but told pretty much daily that I was funny, smart, and cool -- things I never thought I'd hear from anyone.

As a result, I finally got to find out what it was like to be wanted and desired by every guy you work with or go to school with. (College was a much different experience than high school for sure.) I got to be the heartbreaker for a change. I even had the delicious experience of being asked out by some of the boys that hated me so much when we were younger and turning them down. I got to make the queen bees around me feel paranoid and inadequate because they didn't feel they measured up to me while other girls beat themselves bloody trying to become my next best friend. Most of the things I fantasized about once upon a time not only came to pass, but did so while I was still young enough to think those things were the be-all and end-all of human existence. I enjoyed every sinfully delicious second of it too.

And then I got older and grew sick of such games. I started to value substance over form. I met someone I truly cared about and settled down. I built a business. I started getting my validation from my relationship, my career, and -- eventually -- from my spiritual beliefs. The attention of perfect strangers stopped meaning anything much to me to the point where it actually began to irritate me. I stopped wanting to be mean and manipulative to just about everyone around me for no real reason other than I felt like I was making up for all the acceptance, love, and respect I should have had growing up, but didn't.

I never grew tired of that strange variety of satisfaction passive aggressive writing has given me ever since I was a little kid though. I obviously still do it, although it's not necessarily always aimed at anyone specific. (Often, it starts with an actual person or experience I'm bothered by or irritated with, but mushrooms into a much bigger, broader idea.) On the rare occasion it is aimed at someone in particular and they actually are bothered by it enough to generate their own passive-aggressive butthurt writing in response, I still get that old feeling. That naughty little zing of validation that I remember from my childhood. That zing that tells me I successfully tipped someone off their high horse or embarrassed them in retaliation for something they did or said, but shouldn't have.

When you were once someone people threw away, when they noticed you at all, it's hard not to want to roll around naked in the bliss that is finally mattering. Mostly I use that power for good -- to lavish security and love on those I care about, as well as to encourage others who might be where I used to be. But every so often, the urge to use those same powers to put the smackdown on people that tick you off is irresistible. Luckily, some damn good art gets created in the process either way.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

4 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Motivation When I Was Younger

If you've known me very long, then you also know I'm not a fan of all that "motivation porn" you see flying around on social media these days. It's because I'm not into bullshit that oversimplifies the process of accomplishing your goals.

How do I know it's bullshit? Because I used to buy into a lot of it myself. My parents used to force feed me that nonsense as a child -- that all you need to succeed in life is motivation and a can-do-will-do attitude. And then when that turned out not to be enough over and over again, I felt like shit about myself. I wondered what was wrong with me when really there was nothing wrong with me.

That said, I'm going to do you all one better than my parents did me. I'm going to share some actual things I've learned about motivation so far. You can take it with a grain of salt, since I'm definitely still in the process of getting where I want to be in life, but yeah. Unlearning some of the trite nonsense so many of us have been raised on definitely helped me start moving in the right direction.

1. Motivation only counts for so much. 

Yeah, there's something to be said for being passionate about something, as well as super willing to do whatever it takes to reach your goals. However, it's important to realize that that's only part of the equation, especially if your goals are related to one sort of creative success or another. A lot depends on where you're applying that motivation.

Are you actually channeling it into becoming crazy good at what you do and making your work marketable? Great! You're doing it right. Not so much if your focus is on force-feeding half-baked results to your friends or on otherwise trying to cover up for your lack of actual skill. If your work fucking sucks, it's not going to matter how motivated you are to sell it or get somewhere with it.

2. Sometimes your best isn't good enough.

There's this assumption out there that if you're doing your very best and giving something your all, you're pretty much guaranteed to succeed. And you know, sometimes your best is good enough, but more often than not, it isn't.

If you're serious about reaching your goals, you need to decide you're going to exceed your best, whatever that happens to mean for you right now. Be realistic, but set the bar high. You need to decide that nothing less than extraordinary (by your standards, not someone else's) is good enough for you. And sometimes it still won't be enough to get you where you want to be, but you'll be way more likely to have accomplished a few things along the way that you can be proud of regardless.

3. Flexibility is your friend.

One of the things that held me back the most and for the longest time were my strict standards as far as what "real achievement" was supposed to look like. This is especially the case with my writing. Like a lot of people, I thought that being a "successful" writer that made money had to mean being Stephen King or Anne Rice. In reality, there are a lot of ways to make a career out of writing, including advertising, copywriting, journalism, critic work, and so forth.

I guess what I'm saying is that stubbornly refusing to bend at all isn't necessarily the best recipe for success. You need to decide which parts of your vision are set in stone and which you can be flexible about. For me, the part that I couldn't do without was the "making money" part. I realized that I was actually willing to compromise a little bit (and sometimes a lot) when it came to what I wrote though.

I discovered I enjoyed more different types of writing than I previously thought I would in the process. My goals for my life and my writing have evolved over the years as a result.

4. If you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong.

One of the biggest, most regrettable decisions I ever made in life was to let other people convince me that actual enjoyment in regards to what I was doing wasn't important when it came to the goals I pursued for myself. Being successful by society's standards was all that mattered. How I felt about it wasn't important, even if what I felt was absolute misery to the point of being suicidal.

Actually, fun is all that matters. When you're having fun, you don't need to be "motivated" or driven. When you're having fun, those things take care of themselves because you can't imagine not doing what you're doing exactly the way you're doing it. This is even more the case if you're an artist of any kind.

I honestly believe that a blissful person that flips hamburgers for a living and loves doing it is more successful than a millionaire CEO that hates his life. And I wish someone had told me that when I was a little girl. It would have saved me a lot of trouble and fruitless detours.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

On Being an Eternal Critic

I haven't been online since the 90's like some of my more computer savvy friends and acquaintances. Instead, I came into blogging and social media when I was a mere sneeze away from my 30's. Naturally the way I present myself and actually use social media has changed a lot since then. So have other people's perceptions of me.

Once upon a time, I was the highly creative person that also seemed to have some marketing sense to her credit. These days, I'm more or less the bag of snark that can be counted on to play the villain instead. If I bother with you at all, I will give you the reality check you probably don't even know you need. This is especially the case when it comes to dealing with other so-called creatives as I've mentioned here in the past. And those people really, really don't like that.

They want me to tell them the same things their mommy told them when they were growing up. That they're special, that they're going places, and that one day all their dreams will come true if they just believe in themselves. The thing is though, I'm not going to tell you your art is amazing if it sucks. I'm not going to tell you I can picture you making lots of money as a freelance writer or whatever if I can see that you don't even kind of have the fortitude, the skill, or the discipline to even get out of the gate. That's just the way it is. If you want a pep talk, ask your grandmother, because I'm not here for that.

A couple of years ago, I just happened to catch a post a fellow writer made about me on one of his platforms. He said I was really more of a critic than I was an artist myself. He obviously meant it as an insult, but for some reason, I took it as a huge compliment because he wasn't wrong. Among many other things, I am a critic and I've always been proud of having the balls to call things as I see them. This world -- especially here in the age of participation awards and "A for effort" -- needs more of that, in my opinion.

When I was younger, I was always considered talented and I was regularly recognized for the things I created... but no one patted my little booty and told me I was a special snowflake "just because". Sometimes the criticism I received was harsh. A lot of it was incredibly unnecessary and some of it may even have bordered on abuse, but it nevertheless made me better at the things I did. It taught me not to settle for being mediocre when something really matters. And that's pretty much what other people can expect to hear from me if they approach me wanting feedback about something they've written or created. I might pay you a compliment (heavy emphasis on the "might") if you're super good at what you're doing. I will definitely criticize you, point out areas where you need to improve, and tell you to go make some adjustments.

And that in a nutshell is why I really don't buy into this whole "support your friends no matter what" mentality everyone has going on these days. I don't support bad art. I don't support half-assed art. I don't care who created it or how friendly I am with that person. If it sucks, don't expect me to stand behind it. Don't expect me to help you promote it. Definitely don't expect me to fund it. Give enough of a fuck about what you're doing to get better. Make your shit so damned irresistible that other people can't hold themselves back from supporting what you're doing. That is what a real artist would do.