I want you to see me; but I want to be left alone. I want you to call me; and I don’t want to answer the phone. I want you to knock at my door; and I want to hide under the covers. Invite me to your party; so I can tell you I have other plans. Give me a job; so I can spit in your face and tell you I’m entitled to more. Let me talk to you through a computer; so I don’t have to look you in the eye. Let me forget what it is to be alive; so that I can escape into a lush dream where I can control when the sun sets.
I admit I had to take a break without knowing if I’d ever come back to writing these posts. I enjoyed it at first, but then quickly found myself checking the WordPress stats all day. I developed a Pavlovian response to the little dings in my inbox that signified a new follower or like; the immediacy of viewership creating in me a dopamine high that is utterly dangerous. It tells me I’m on to something, I’ve figured it out. It’s that feeling when Edmond Dantés discovers the map to his soon-to-be uncovered buried treasure.
I soon found myself trying to hack the system, reading articles that sounded like: Minute-to-Minute Instagram Posting Metrics, How To Gain WordPress Followers and Influence Twitter Trends, So You Want To Be A Blogger? and even watching YouTube videos with tips and tricks that tell you to post at least twice a day, use hashtags, be honest, be yourself, be patient and soon you’ll find yourself with a loyal brand following! I admit that it took no time at all for me to try and write and post what I thought you wanted to read and how best to get you to read it.
And what began as a great feeling quickly became an obsession.
So I stopped and took a breath. This is the civil war that routinely cycles through my body; the war between the mind and the heart; the need to impress versus the need to express; the ego versus the spirit. It is an ancient war and one that doesn’t belong only to me and the problem is: it will happen again. It’s happening right now. Some days I’m aware of it, other days not so much.
So how can I disrupt this pattern?
Is it possible to be completely authentic to one’s own artistic integrity when literally everything can be measured by some sort of statistic? Is it a matter of living in an acceptable ignorance? Is it swearing away social media forever and becoming an eccentric street painter?
There is something that happens to my brain when I see friends of mine getting hundreds, if not thousands of likes on social media. At first I am in disbelief, followed by jealousy and sometimes anger. “Why don’t I have thousands of followers?” I ask myself routinely, “What am I doing wrong? Am I good enough? Maybe I’ll never measure up? They’re lucky because they have [some magical power]. They’re hot and travel the world and of course they’re going to get followers. I just need to find my audience. I just need more time. If I didn’t have to work so much, then I’d figure it out.”
I’m being embarrassingly blunt here, but let’s be honest, can any of us escape the digital rat race at this point? Or am I the only one with an inflamed ego?
What are the questions I need to be asking? Would I write if only I read it? Would I shoot photographs even if I never posted them Instagram? Do I make films because I need to tell my stories or because you might see it? Does creative work have merit on its own, or must everything be subjected to the public shaming of the digital chorus? And why can’t I simply be happy for my friends that have found success in the public forum instead of jealous?
We’ve made great works of art successfully throughout human existence and we still do. Except now we have focus groups.
Even though I know it, I can’t stop. I’m addicted to it: the image of myself. And even though the image itself is not static but fluid and evolving, I still dig my nails bloody and grind my teeth dull until it makes me sick.
One moment he is a writer somewhere in Westchester wearing an old charcoal cardigan, collecting baby dreads of lint, sitting at an old oak wood desk in the middle of the night tapping away at his typewriter smoking Marlboros and drinking Oban. The next he is a talented writer-slash-director careening down Topanga turns in APC jeans and a black Steve Alan dress shirt and vest helming an entire set of crewmembers and actors destined for top tier festivals and after-parties. And yet he is also a world traveler in cargo shorts and an old plaid short-sleeved button-down, a Nat-Geo freelance photographer living in small villages in South Africa and each photo he’d take would be laced with a thick cream of social justice. And yet still he is a farmer in thrift-store couture watching the sun come up over the mountains in Montana drinking coffee in the early morning standing over his crops and admiring the milky layer of fog between the ground and the horizon.
Someone asked me what I was doing here in California earlier today and I didn’t know how to answer him. I never do. How can I subscribe to one path or ideological destination if even my own ego won’t agree with itself? And how can I possibly make sense of that lack of clarity to anyone else? In my head I often compare myself with other, more “successful” creatives and I wonder if they have a similar fractured understanding of themselves or if they see one clear, concise image.
But maybe yet the question lies elsewhere. Maybe the question is can I transcend those images? Can I let it all go? Can I drop the need to fulfill my ego? To not worry about what you might think of me? Can I not impress you? Can I be imperfect? Can I be messy? Can I always just be “figuring it out?” Can I live without judgement on how I’m living? Can I take me as I am and know that is enough? Can I love that person beyond the constant striving and trying and aiming and goalsetting? Can I look him in the eyes and say, “it’s okay, you’re exactly where you need to be.”
I wonder. I certainly wonder.
Featured image by Joseph Marconi.
In March of 2015 I decided to go camping alone in Joshua Tree. I’d just seen “Tracks” (2013) depicting the true story of Robyn Davidson and her solo “1,700-mile trek across the deserts of west Australia” with four camels and her dog, Diggity. Earlier that year I crossed the United States from New York to California — I employed both a car and a friend’s company for the journey — and felt the need to get back on the road. “Tracks” gave me the motivation I needed plus I was in desperate need of some quiet, solitary beauty.
However, in the weeks leading up to the trip, I developed a great fear over the journey. I was heading into Joshua Tree’s backcountry alone for the first time and I had no idea what to expect. I’d camped alone only once before that — along the sandy beaches of the Outer Banks off the coast of North Carolina — and suddenly I felt completely out of my depth.
I imagined all kinds of things. My mind leapt into gear and found this a perfect opportunity to try and scare me out of going. I spent hours deep diving through horror stories on YouTube. I imagined a desert floor crawling with rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions all out to kill me and by the slim chance I didn’t get bit by something I’d surely get turned around somewhere and die of heat exposure and dehydration. They’d find my sun-dried lifeless body a half-mile from civilization and the Rangers would shake their heads, chuckle and say, “City folk.”
And so in preparation I learned how to use a compass, what foods to pack, and how much water to bring. I researched the animal life in the area and how to stay away from them. I took notes. I bought maps. I was prepared.
Still, the whole drive out there on I-10 my heart was pounding: Why was I even doing? Had I death wish? How had other people survived this ordeal? What would my movie be called? “18 Hours?” Would Danny Boyle direct it, too?
But then something strange happened.
Almost as soon as I’d entered the park and walked into the welcome center, all that fear I’d had simply vanished. My heart slowed and my vision and breathing returned to normal. I was overcome by the incomprehensible majestic beauty of the park all around me and I’d easily surrendered over to the experience of actually being there, fully present for whatever adventures actually awaited.
My mind likes to tell me life is a scary place when, most often, if I just put my feet on the ground, I can see how beautiful it all really is.
And, unfortunately, I never saw any rattlesnakes, tarantulas, or scorpions.
 By “learned to use” I mean generally how to hold, sight mountains, and get vague directional readings.
Wamp wamp wamp…
The morning alarm rips me from my dream and thrusts me into the day with an unfortunate but acceptable violence, like the instant discomfort of a cold shower.
I leap across the room and fumble with my phone trying to minimize the damage to her sleep and even though I told myself I wouldn’t do it, since I’m already holding it, the first thing I do is check my phone for emails, messages, Instagram likes, Facebook comments, et al. So much has happened without my knowledge or approval or understanding.
There is a fire alarm occasionally beeping, in need of a battery somewhere in my building.
Ooh-ooh ahhh oohh…
The tenant in the adjacent building is practicing his R&B scales again. Two years of this shit. It’s time to move.
I put on clothes in attempt to look cool with two-year old Gap Vintage and I leave her in bed and I walk to my car and—
Wee-yo wee-yo wee-yo…
—several sirens pass at high speeds on Vine street.
It’s 7:30 AM and there’s already traffic.
I check my phone again to look at The Times because that’s what adults do and another story on Russ—
Fuck you! You fucking cunt-face motherfucker! A slightly irate driver in an SUV offers another in a Tesla.
I shake off the vitriol, get into my car and—
—my car finds it urgent to beep at me, notifying me that I am five hundred miles overdue for service. Then—
—it beeps again to tell me to fasten my seatbelt. These dings also come with urgent alarm signs, telling my brain that the world is quickly coming to end.
I turn the car on and pull away from the curb and—
My phone rings. Dammit I thought it was on silent. Barclaycard is vicious and by now my heart is now pounding and my breathing is matching that of a high-speed runner and my brain is swollen and pressed up against my skull and every sensation coming into my body sends gigawatts of voltage through my body and I check the time again and—
“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”
– Miles Davis
Is there a way to quantify the moment when someone transitions into greatness? Can we package it up and brand it? Sell it to the masses or create some vocational school centered around breaking personal creative barriers?
Want to be the next Jackson Pollack? Justin Timberlake? Rihanna? Well you’ve come to the right place.
In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell went ahead and tried to quantify it with his ten thousand hour rule. We all know the cited example of The Beatles playing in Germany every night of the week for several years, carefully and painstakingly honing their craft before ever setting foot on American soil and becoming the international sensation forever etched into musical history.
And so, according to Gladwell, ten thousand is the magic number where ordinary transcends into greatness.
I mean it sounds good, comfortable, even “doable” if you’re prone to the occasional manic episode such as myself; amped up on a delicious chemical imbalance, a mental Molotov cocktail of grandiosity and delusion.
Ten thousand hours. That’s all it takes. All I have to do is pick something I’m good at or something I enjoy doing and plug away at it for eight hours a day, every day of the week for three and a half years and I’ll graduate from the Gladwellian School of the Arts destined for greatness.
But Gladwell is a master marketer, and a goddamn fraud.
He presents you with something rather benign and then he raises his nasally voice and says, “Everything you ever knew about that thing you thought you had figured out is wrong!”
Your mind is now, effectively and forever, blown.
You lean back in your chair with your eyes wide open and your hand smacks your forehead and you say to yourself, “Oh my God he’s right! I don’t know anything. Please Malcolm, tell me. Tell me now, dammit! TELL ME!”
Gladwell is brilliant at catering to one of the most fundamental characteristics of human nature: the need to know. It’s the essential building block to any dramatic situation in story telling: you present a juicy-enough question and the audience is hooked. Will Ross kiss Rachel? Will Walter White get away with it? What does Jon Hamm have in his pants?
The Media use this device every day, except they ratchet it up with a heavy dosage of fear to guarantee viewership. Is this the storm of the century? What you’re eating could kill you. At eleven.
At the same time Gladwell presents you with something that is utterly preposterous yet simultaneously juuuuuuuust out of reach. If Gladwell had said, “These are people you’ll never be like because you’re simply genetically and mentally inferior,” he’d never get close to bestseller numbers. This is a marketing and mass-distraction phenomena Noam Chomsky discusses in his book “Manufacturing Consent” but unfortunately we don’t have the time to get into that because it’s usually around this point I really start to feel the need for an editor.
“Bring it on home, Joe!” she’d say to me, slightly seizing from mainlining a Venti Triple Shot Mocha and tapping her watch.
Gladwell’s not entirely wrong: There’s merit in taking the time to learn your craft. But my problem isn’t with the hours, it’s the assumption that greatness follows.
I’m not sure I know what it means to be great or when, as a culture, we went from striving to live a good life to striving to be the best at every goddamn thing we do. I do know that I’ve tried my whole life to be great and fell short. Over and over again. And that rift between what I expected of myself and reality created more pain than I’d like to remember.
But maybe it’s not even about being great at all.
Maybe greatness is just another marketing tool, a distraction, something to strive for. Maybe it’s about something else entirely. Maybe it’s just about being the being the best me.
Truthfully, I think Miles said it best:
“Man, sometimes you takes long time to sound like yourself.”
Oh and I just totally Gladwelled you.
My mind often sounds like a hall monitor, sounding the alarm on every decision I try and make (or surrender to) throughout the day. Constantly warning me with little mental jabs, stabbing me in the frontal lobe like a trickster migraine with:
You don’t have the time.
You’re too old.
You’re too young.
No one’s going to care.
You’re going to make a fool out of yourself.
Your friends will make fun of you.
You don’t have any friends.
You don’t have enough money.
Everyone’s looking at you.
You have nothing important to say.
You’re mediocre at best.
Give up. Stay inside where it’s safe.
No one’s ever going to love you.
You’re a terrible boyfriend.
You’ll never have a family.
You’re not worth it.
… and the list goes on but I think you get the idea.
This is the voice of my mind.
It is a critical voice. A problem-solving voice. It is also a crucial voice from an evolutionary perspective. Having an intuitive warning against immediate danger is probably one of the many things that kept us alive as a species. Watch out! That sabretooth tiger can most definitely eat you! was probably a good thing to hear inside our heads eleven thousand years ago. But in today’s fast-paced, high-stress environments that voice can be debilitating.
My problem was I used to believe that voice. I would swear by it. It was so loud and constant and pervasive that it never occurred to me there might be another voice inside me; a gentler, softer voice, one that was standing right beside me, ready to guide me, just waiting to be heard.
But my mind was being hijacked and held prisoner by a very real and powerful emotion:
I hadn’t realized that for so long I was cultivating that voice of fear, feeding it with reinforcements, making it stronger and more prevalent. Maybe some of that was environmental, maybe not.
And if I was ever going to break the cycle of fear-dominated decisions, living my life hoping for something good to happen but too scared to walk out my front door, I would have to find another voice.
This was the voice of my heart.
This is the voice that sounds like the morning sun that just shone through my kitchen window as I write quietly while she sleeps.
It is the voice that tells me to take a walk under the sun.
It is the voice that says it’s okay to take that drive to the beach and enjoy the day.
It is the voice that says to keep going and have faith, you are being guided.
It is the voice that says you are loved, you are beautiful, you are wondrous and powerful and you are worth living an extraordinary life.
It is the voice that says at any moment you can choose to see incredible beauty all around you simply by surrendering into immense gratitude.
It is the voice that says breathe. You are alive.
It is the voice that says smile at someone and give them a hug. Reach out and do something great for someone and keep it a secret.
It is the voice that says, I love you.
It’s important to say that I am afraid. All the time. I fear everything. Even things that have nothing to do with me. But today I do my best to cultivate the voice inside my heart. To build awareness around it when I am afraid, and to not run from my fear but to step inside it and amidst all that terror to confront it, listen to it, and learn from it.
Because on the other side of that fear lies true discovery.