Working Through 2012

With the apocalypse seemingly averted, and our lives going on as usual and as expected, I’ve found the impulse to take stock of things. I am in an in-between age where I am past my physical prime, but also find that I am not yet so old as to have a right to nostalgia and to looking back and grumbling about one’s youth.

So I guess a project, in the form of a series of blog entries, will be to consider where I am and how I’m doing after 30-some years of walking the earth. I plan to do this over the course of the next few days.

There are a number of things that I have had to work through in 2012. I always think that one year will be better than another, or that I hate the year that I am in, or whatever. And there were definitely times in 2012 when I was cursing the year and thinking it was just a terrible thing. But, and well, here’s a no-shit-Sherlock realization, everything’s got its good and bad. These years among them. I hit some definite lows in 2012. But then it also had some of my best moments. I think that I will be devoting an entry to some of those best moments.

Anyway, for now I want to deal with a personal issue, personal idea, which has taken me a while to work around. Bear with me if I sound arrogant at some point in the entry (or don’t, and skip this thing) but this will be about the idea of accomplishment and how one deals with it.

This year I realized that I have accomplishments. I know that sounds stupid. Like, how could I not be aware. But it’s true. I had absolutely no idea that I was worth clapping for, worth being asked to sign stuff, or any of those other things attendant to some measure of accomplishment.

I had always believed that I had to keep working, had not done enough.

It was my birthday. I was sitting at a table talking with distinguished scholars and professors (one Brit, one American, one Aussie) and we were having dinner at Mansfield College in Oxford. We sat
in a dining hall that resembled those in the Harry Potter flicks. I said, “Yeah, it’s my birthday. It’s great. But sometimes I get the feeling that I haven’t done enough. That I’ve wasted my time.”

One of the professors, Michael Prince, who would deliver this blazingly brilliant analysis of Swamp Thing and Halo Jones the following morning, looked at me across the table and said, “Man, what are you talking about?” When I attempted to reiterate my anxieties and apprehensions, he cut me off. Short of telling me to shut up, he, who had known me only briefly by that time, told me that I had no right going around saying that I hadn’t done anything.

I know this is unusual, especially to people who are used to getting recognition, people who were chasing honors and racking up awards and things like that. But really, I have no sense of these things that I have done.

And this is something I’ve been working through this year.

I was lucky enough to find a copy of Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, and it provided an interesting explanation. It is called impostor complex, where you feel like you don’t belong and that you will be found out. And thus you can never internalize your accomplishments, you feel like you did not really earn them.

I am well aware that in the current circles that I move in, academic and writerly and all that, that in comparison to others I do not have much of a literary pedigree. And while I have dug myself out of the lower classes and sit precariously in the lower middle class, I also am well aware of the class divide that separates me from a lot of other people in my field. It is perhaps because of these, among other things, that I feel that I do not belong, that I will be found out as a trickster or fool (which I do also believe I am).

Still, in recent days, I’ve been asked how many books I have, what other kinds of things I’ve written, and other things to do with productivity. I always thought I was a lazy bastard because I felt that I spent too much time playing video games and getting drunk. But as I have come to answer these questions, I find that little by little, I am coming around to the fact that I have done some stuff. That I can’t really say that I have not done enough in the past few years.

I know, as I type this, that this will sound stupid to some people. And some readers might be tempted to smack me on the back of the head for not being aware that I have done some stuff.

One advantage of not having an awareness of accomplishment is that things don’t go to your head. It keeps me free to struggle and keep trying things. I can’t rest on my laurels, because I don’t believe they exist.

But then I do believe that I have to acknowledge that yeah, those books, and that teaching, and the other stuff, all of it means something. Only in being able to accept this, I think, can I be able to move on to other artistic and scholarly endeavors.

Also, since I’ve started publishing and putting my name out there, I have found that one of the most difficult things for me to deal with is someone coming up to me and telling me that they like my work. I never know what to say. Usually I stammer a thank you and scurry away. But I think once I become more comfortable with the idea that, yeah, people can like my work and I’ve put enough out there to be appreciated, that I can learn how to say thank you properly and engage these fine, kind people who go out of their way to come up to a stranger and say, “Right on, man.”

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