Personal growth

Proudly Look Stupid

Let’s get one thing straight: when Jefferson Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” comes on the radio, I will be turning the volume up. I will start singing along, at the top of my lungs, and I don’t care who sees me. Sure, it’s the epitome of 80’s cheesiness. And yes, I always think of Andrew McCarthy as I’m singing. It’s a pretty ridiculous song, and any music snob would likely snort their macchiato through their nose if it came on and I refused to change the station. Why is it that I insist on letting this song run the course of its entire 4 minutes and 26 seconds, singing along until the last chorus fades? Why do I get annoyed if a radio announcer starts talking before I’ve had a chance to shout out, “Hey baby!” as the song ends? I’ll tell you why. Because as I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered a very important ability in life: learning how to proudly look stupid.

I actually Googled the phrase “proudly look stupid” and got a whole slew of images fit for purpose: George W. Bush with dreadlocks; Vladimir Putin with a man bun; a mug shot of the Queen; and a whole lot of images which caused me to honestly experience, for the first time, being “nonplussed.” Oh, and then there was this guy: Weird-crazy-funny-people-6

I don’t know about the rest of humanity, but when I was growing up, my thoughts focused very much on the concept of not looking stupid. Fitting in, as it’s known. This was so important to me that I actually remember sporting a six-inch-high 80’s bang that took a half can of hairspray to stay in place. Why??? (No, seriously, why — not why did I do it, but why did anybody do it — this was not a hairstyle that occurred naturally anywhere in nature nor did it have the finesse to necessarily be called “art”. It was just goofy.)

Sometimes, not wanting to look stupid actually leads you to look stupid, doesn’t it? It’s the reason my bedroom was decorated with photographs of members of New Kids on the Block. I know many people might say that about NKOTB – “it was the 80’s/90’s; everyone was doing it!” but this is exactly the point of my post. I’m more ashamed of having photos on the wall of a band I didn’t especially like, than the fact that I listened to their music. I remember feeling a little bit weird at the time, like being afraid to say anything about how the whole idea of New Kids might be a little… well, dumb. But no… my friends were into it, so I made myself learn their names and life stories, what brought them together as a band and what inspired their music. I spent a lot of time investigating this topic, and I didn’t even like them very much. In the end I probably managed to convince myself that I actually cared about them.

It’s a form of inauthenticity. I’d be more impressed if I met someone who said “you know what? Yes I listened to NKOTB back in the day, and I actually still put the album on sometimes, because I love it.” That’s how I feel about the Jefferson Starship song. I think for awhile, secretly in my head, when it came on the radio I’d be like, “YES!” while I tried to stop my head from moving along to the beat. Sometimes I would even change the radio station, telling myself this was poor excuse for music. Then I got a little older, and dared to allow myself to leave the station on. Add a few years to that, and I was sheepishly admitting to myself that I did indeed like this song, while somehow wondering if there was a support group for bad music lovers that I might need to start anonymously attending. Eventually I got to the point where I’m at now, which is “screw everything else; I’m turning this up and people can think what they like.”

Sorry, we just ran out of lovers. But, we still have each other.

No, it’s not the musical equivalent of King Lear, but you know what? I’m gonna sing my heart out to it, because if I ever did find that special person who filled those lonely crevices deep in my soul, (even if they did happen to be a mannequin) I imagine that I, too, would feel unstoppable. The fact that it was the theme song for “Mannequin” makes it even more useful for my thesis, because here is a movie all about a man looking like an idiot and learning not to care. I remember a point in the movie when Andrew McCarthy’s character goes from being this lowly back-room guy sweeping the floors, to the guy who becomes responsible for the store’s most successful window displays. It’s a transformation, certainly — at the start of the movie he is failing at every area of his life; but then this crazy thing happens to him and he learns not to go against it but to move with it. He starts experiencing a sort of clarity in his life, even while knowing that everyone around him thinks he’s crazy. In the scene where he exits the bathroom holding the mannequin under his arm, passes the crowd of eavesdroppers with that knowing twinkle in his eye, I learned then a very powerful secret: we’re all a little bit crazy. Being crazy is being human. Those who learn to shrug off their so-called faults are the only ones being honest with themselves. And with honesty, comes freedom.

It reminded me of another movie, “Serendipity,” which is also set in Manhattan. There’s a scene where Jeremy Piven’s character, Dean, tells his friend Jonathan Trager (played by John Cusack) “You are a jackass. You’re like my oracle. You’re out there and you’re making it happen.” He’s referring to Jonathan’s frenzied pursuit of a girl he met years ago, whose full name he never knew and consequently had no information to find her. Yet, he kept looking, despite the fact that he had a perfectly good relationship with another woman, who he was supposed to marry the next day. Dean quotes the Greek philosopher Epictetus, who said “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” Throughout the movie, Dean is constantly talking about the subject of living with passion, while Jonathan is actually practicing it. And both of them know that looking in every used copy of Love in the Time of Cholera in New York is crazy, but if they ever had any hope of finding Jonathan’s lost love, that’s what they had to do.

Dean insists that looking foolish is admirable, because Jonathan’s “out there,” as Dean says, “making it happen.” In this film, it’s Dean’s character that actually transitions, not Jonathan, even though he is the main protagonist. Being an obituary writer at the New York Times, Dean felt all of his passion leave him, until finally his marriage breaks down. Helping Jonathan find his true love, and not settle for a “good enough” life with an equally beautiful, caring woman who just happens to not be “The One,” is what inspires Dean to begin fighting for his own marriage again. At one point he ends up convincing Jonathan to keep going, despite Jonathan’s doubts that he is on the right path and should just give up. It’s Dean who pushes Jonathan to keep going, because he realizes that there’s something inspirational in his friend’s craziness, and that looking stupid was okay. He understands that risking everything, like Jonathan does, is worth it in the pursuit of authenticity.  “The Greeks didn’t write obituaries,” Dean says, as he buys some flowers from a vendor in the park. “They asked one question when a man died: did he have passion.” He looks up at Jonathan, holding the flowers. “How do I look?” he asks. After a moment, Jonathan smiles and says “like a jackass.”

I enjoy Dean’s references to the Greeks. In fact, aside from the absurdity of the plot (like any woman is really going to allow a gust of wind to prevent John Cusack from contacting her) there’s a lot of philosophy underpinning “Serendipity” which makes it perfect for reflecting on the nature of our existence. Is having faith stupid, or is it important? What if Jonathan never did find the love of his life; could he be okay with marrying Brigit Moynahan? At what point would he have walked out on the marriage, shrugging himself free of the cloak of fakeness? The idea of genuine vs. fake runs throughout the movie, and is visible especially in the scene where Molly Shannon finds a table of fake designer goods on the street. “OOoooh, Prada! I love Prada!” she beams; when her friend points out that it actually says “Prado,” indicating that it’s a fake, Molly Shannon’s character just waves her hand in the air, dismissing that fact. She doesn’t care if it’s fake; it’s the concept that she has something she thinks she likes. It might not be the real thing, but, as she explains, she can use a magic marker and turn the ‘o’ into an ‘a’ and no one would be any wiser (including, it seems, herself). Could the main characters do the same thing with their pending marriages?

A lot of us walk around in a cloud of inauthenticity. There’s a lot of stuff that pads out the lining of my ego… for instance, if I tell a joke and no one laughs, I actually point this out. I need that laughter like a dog salivates over a piece of bacon. A dog will do all kinds of stupid things for that piece of bacon, and I’m the same way. If after such a stupendous display of wit, the person to whom I’m speaking fails to reward me appropriately, I will re-tell the joke, despite the unfailing tendency of it becoming less and less funny the more explanation I give. Obviously, my need to impress overrides my need for enjoyment; if this weren’t true, I would just learn to wave it off. If I was authentic about it, I’d laugh it off in my head, and say to myself, “it’s okay. you are funny.” But I don’t; and there is a sense of desperation, as if the only way I can really tell if I’m funny is if someone else tells me so. Like the dog’s owner, throwing the poor thing the strip of bacon because they feel sorry for it, I often wonder how much people give me pity laughs. Can other people sense how desperate I am for their approval?

That desperation is a source of non-control. Because, like I said above, when you’re honest, then you set yourself free. I believe that, once a person accepts their shortcomings, throwing an uncaring shrug and their caution to the wind, that’s when they become truly powerful. Andrew McCarthy had the power to bring Kim Catrall 2,000 years into the future, and be the greatest window dresser in Manhattan. But actually he wasn’t — he just let everyone think it was him, because by then it didn’t matter to him what anybody thought.

I have a love affair with Taco Bell that defies the capacity of human understanding. A tub of pintos and cheese is, to me, what the madeleine was to Proust. But it took me quite some time to be able to admit that. Once I did, it felt great! I no longer had to be a closet Taco Bell junkie. Now I make jokes about it (and you’d better laugh at them) randomly declaring that I’d like to be buried next to a Taco Bell, or get married in one. I think for awhile I was ashamed of it, because for one thing, Taco Bell itself is not authentic. I guess real Mexicans barf just seeing their ads on TV.  I’m aware that this does nothing to promote the breakdown of American cultural stereotypes.

Furthermore, I grew up in a place called Redford, which was only separated from Detroit by the boundary line of Telegraph Road (so again, not authentic). Even though I grew up saying I was from Detroit (except to people who were actually from Detroit) I knew I wasn’t. I wanted to be. Being from Redford was like being Jan Brady — the younger, less attractive sister. Not quite rednecks, definitely sans culture of any sort, we Redfordians pined for the danger of the big city, while still being too chicken shit to cross Telegraph Road without locking our car doors. Detroit was the Marcia Brady to those of us from Redford. In Detroit was world-class art and architecture, fantastic food, and an actual gateway to another country — Canada! For us culture-less worms from the suburbs, it was exotic, dangerous and exciting.

But, try as I might, I’m not exotic, dangerous or exciting. I eventually made it out of the suburbs, travelling as far as London, where I found myself wandering through Borough Market with a person who clearly regarded himself as a foodie. He lifted a glass cloche from a small nest of wildly expensive black truffles, gesturing me forward with a smile. I was excited just to be within fifteen feet of such decadence; I’d seen the Barefoot Contessa practically peeing herself with joy over just a bottle of oil infused with them. But when I leaned in to sample the heady aroma, I could not help but grimace in disgust. I imagine this experience to be akin to when someone first tries an opiate. “Keep coming,” as they say in all those anonymous support groups. “It gets better.” I’ve tried caviar — or gritty, bumpy fish lumps, as I call them. I tried to swish mouthfuls of red wine around my “palate,” feeling ridiculous the whole time. (Did you know there are actual kits that you can buy to train your nose for drinking wine? You can buy a case filled with tiny glass vials; the vials contain only scents — tobacco; blackberry; old wood. They cost about $100.)

Much of settling happily into authenticity is a simple matter of separating truth from fiction.  And what’s true for me might be fiction for someone else. Philosophy has a lot to tell us on this subject. Kirkegaard suggests that “One must make an active choice to surrender to something that goes beyond comprehension.” Of course, he was talking about religion. But I imagine it applies to any situation where everyone else around you is extolling the virtues of something or other, which you just feel is damned ridiculous. Sorry, but I don’t want to feel tiny fish eggs popping against my “palate” because they taste horrible. I don’t want to pay an arm and leg just for a fungus that grows underground, that stinks worse than any other mushroom I’ve ever had. Where can I get a burrito (and not a real one)? The truth is, I may have traveled around a bit, but I’m still a girl from Redford; Jan Brady, self-realized.

So I’m going to keep proudly looking stupid, because what is the point of living under a veil of inauthenticity? We will be dead soon. I will die, you will die. The people sitting in their cars at the stoplight who can obviously see me rocking out with Jefferson Starship will also die one day. So what do I care if they witness it? Let them think I’m crazy.

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.
-Theodore Roosevelt




There’s only one you – and only you have the voice to prove it

Today I’m going to discuss, as previously hinted, the topic of your writing voice. To me it’s one of the most important aspects of writing. Any type of writer, whether they’re a mystery, historical fiction, non-fiction, thriller, etc, they all have their own voice that’s unique. In my opinion, having a unique perspective means that you can go ahead and tell that story that might have been told since the beginning of human experience. Sure, you can take that story, whether it’s boy-meets-girl, coming of age, fable-with-a-twist or all of the above, and make it your own. This is good news for everyone, because as my grandmother used to say, “There ain’t nothing new under the sun.” No one is going to be able to write something that’s not been done before, and that’s ok. Readers don’t expect a brand-new plot; they’re used to the age-old formulas that work, and they work because readers are familiar with them. It took me ages to understand that. As a writer, I thought I was expected to produce something that was new and exciting, like a new science fiction world. Some people can do that, and do it well — but I’m glad I never attempted to go that route, because it wouldn’t be my style.

And that’s what voice is. Voice works in two ways; the first way is it’s your own voice that you’re using to craft your story, and the second way is it’s your own voice that’s speaking to you, telling you what you should and shouldn’t pursue. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think that we should challenge ourselves, especially if we are inspired by the way that someone writes or a new technique that we find really exciting. I remember when I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and I was completely blown away by the way she told the same story from multiple points-of-view. It was truly a thrilling experience to see how the different characters reacted to the same events that went on around them, and I imagined Kingsolver at work writing it, thinking how much fun it must have been putting on the different hats of her characters and writing from their perspective.

But I’m not sure that the same style would work in my writing. Maybe some day, if something calls to me to frame a story in that way, I can, but forcing myself to do it just because I saw how well it worked for Barbara Kingsolver would not be staying true to my own voice. Yes, it’s great to have writer heroes that we aspire to. Personally I really admire J.K. Rowling, not just because she’s had commercial success, but because she went from writing Harry Potter to that amazing story of The Casual Vacancy. That was a great book, in my opinion, and I admired that she had the guts to go from the world of Harry Potter to telling this touching story showcasing the fragile ego still at work in Britain’s modern class system. (Of course, the TV version was pigeon poo compared to the book, but ain’t that always the way it goes?) J.K. Rowling listened to her own voice, that said “you know what? write that story you’ve been thinking about for the last decade or so. It’s time to break free from Hogwart’s and show the world what else you’ve got.” And I’m glad that she listened.

It bears thinking about, however, the way a voice can change over time. I’m sure for a long time, while she enjoyed the commercial success of Harry Potter, she may have felt confined to that box; maybe she didn’t believe the public would accept a different story from her, especially not a story of a smack addict and her two kids suffering at the hands of her neglect, all wrapped up in a seemingly non-important framing of a vacant seat on the local council. J.K. Rowling probably wrestled for awhile before deciding that she could show everyone, including herself, that she had more to contribute.

As writers, there are definitely the doubting voices, and everyone can attest to that. Those are almost always the ones we pay attention to, and why is that? Why do we listen to the negative voices and shun the positive ones? Are we just naturally masochists, or is there more to it? Personally I believe that it’s built into the human consciousness to doubt ourselves; even people who don’t write know what it’s like to doubt themselves, which tells me that it’s pretty tightly ingrained somewhere within our historical context. I’m sure at one point in time, back in the caveman days, we had to make decisions thick-and-fast, like whether we could outrun a saber-tooth tiger. In those old situations, it paid to heed our natural warning signals, because bad decisions had probably much graver consequences then. But now, a few millennia later, this doubting has become excessive. Sometimes I also wonder that we feed the doubt because we are stalling for time, because just possibly we aren’t really ready to discover how totally awesome we really are. It’s become unattractive to root for yourself, too (which is another reason we flame those fires of doubt). Sure, maybe it does sound a bit egotistical to say, “Hey, I AM awesome!”

But really, if we don’t learn to say that to ourselves, we’re holding ourselves back. That’s what tapping into your writer’s voice is all about: giving yourself the room to be amazing.

We have to start by responding to that voice that says “No, you can’t!” by asking ourselves: what if I do chance it? It’s not like I’ll die, right? It’s not the saber-tooth tiger coming after me now. If it’s horrible, no one has to see it. What’s the harm in trying? If nothing else, you’ll be returning to that spot of writing just for the pure pleasure of it – not because it could be a commercial success, turned into a crappy three-part made for TV movie that does no justice to the brilliance of our novel. At least once a week, I think we should all just “dabble,” doing that one thing we’d like to do but for whatever reason we’ve not let ourselves. Let’s just do it for the FUN of writing. That’s the first step to developing your voice – you’ve got to give it the room to speak.

The second step is to know that what comes out might be quite crazy. You could write something that scares yourself. Maybe you’d be embarrassed to show it to anyone; you could be staring at the cursor blinking away on the screen, having just written something totally shocking, mostly for the reason that you can’t believe YOU wrote it. And you know what? That’s GOOD! When you let that authentic voice come out, you’re going to learn that you know way more about creating multi-faceted characters than you realized. Dare to only write characters who, when they start talking, only say the things that you’ve never had the guts to say in real life. That’s when your writing goes to another dimension, and you will amaze yourself.

There is only one you out there in the world. It might be hard to remember that, because we are only the most recent in a long span of lives, with a lot of the same hopes and faults as generations of humans before us. And yet, our DNA is unique. Our fingerprints are unique. And the experiences we have been through are different than anyone else’s. So give yourself the breathing space to let all that out, and see what fantastic things come from it.