I had some bad news the other day.
Well, “bad” is a little dramatic, it was more like kind-of-disappointing news.
I applied to this fellowship last fall and found out last Wednesday I didn’t get it. I didn’t realize until I got the email how much I’d been looking forward to it – counting on it, really. And while it’s a good lesson in not putting too many eggs in one basket, and not counting the chickens that may hatch outta those eggs before they actually do so, and managing expectations and yadda yadda yadda, it still bummed me out.
You have two choices when faced with rejection and disappointment, right – you can bitch and moan and feel sorry for yourself, or you can dig in and redouble your efforts. And of course I sat in the former for a few hours, spiraling down into despair and what’s-the-point-anyway-I-knew-I-sucked-at-this-to-begin-with-fuckit. But then I went ahead and moved into the latter and wrote wrote wrote too far into the night too many nights in a row, and reorganized my approach to submitting stories, and tried to figure out how I can squeeze a few more hours of writing out of the week. I was determined to not be dissuaded.
But it was my girlfriend who really turned my headspace around, and talked to me about not just avoiding the blues, but actively using rejection as motivation.
Erin’s a contrarian, in the very best sense of the term.‡ While she has great faith in the basic goodness of people, she also thinks in general they’re pretty dumb, and thinks that just because something is generally held in high esteem doesn’t automatically mean it’s estimable. In fact, she’s suspicious of general renown as a sign that people aren’t thinking very clearly – that is to say, independently – about whatever it is they all think is so great. Once her mind’s made up that something’s worthy of her respect, her devotion and loyalty are second to none and she defends her tastes fiercely, but her initial response to most things is a healthy dose of skepticism.
Thus, her attitude towards said fellowship was, “You know what? Fuck those people.”
“Sure, everyone says that ______ is a great and fancy place, but so what? What do you actually know about that program? It could totally suck. At the very least it’s not going to automatically make you a good or a better or a successful writer. How many people who’ve gotten this fellowship go on to be famous authors? Or even writers who just make a living writing?”
When I told her I didn’t recognize more than half a dozen of the illustrious institution’s 60+ years worth of alumni, she said, “See? And think how many more amazing writers that you do know and who do make a living writing applied and didn’t go there.
“And you know what else?” she went on, “most of them were probably pissed off, too. And they probably used that as motivation, and years later were like, ‘Oh hi, remember when you didn’t like my writing? Well here’s my Booker Prize, how do you like that shit?'”
And she went on in that vein until I was fired up enough to fight Mike Tyson.*
A couple things that Erin brought up have stuck with me, and I wanted to write about them and maybe even get your thoughts on them.
Erin is from Long Island. She grew up on New York gangsta rap, and like the several million people who also grew up on hip-hop in and around the NY metro area (and plenty who didn’t), she loves Jay-Z.
And Jay-Z, in the off-off-off chance you didn’t know, didn’t exactly have doors thrown open to him or opportunities handed to him. He built doors and made opportunities, and built his reputation on being the kind of man that did that, and built songs on rhymes about how haters gonna hate but ain’t gonna stop him taking over the world (I paraphrase).
And now that he’s one of the baddest badasses on the planet and kind of has taken over, he raps about how fucking good it feels to show up all those doubters and haters. Because he didn’t get or need anyone’s permission and because he did it his way (he even covered that Anka song made famous by Sinatra to make his point).
That’s the kind of thing that Erin turns to for inspiration. Stuff like:
When Drake says, “thanks to all the haters / I know G4 pilots on a first name basis” and “everyone who doubted me is asking for forgiveness” and “point the biggest skeptic out, I’ll make him a believer.”
Or when Jay says, “When I was born, it was sworn, I was never gon’ be shit / Had to pull the opposite out this bitch.”
Or when Lil’Wayne says, “confidence is a stain they can’t wipe off.” (Or whenever he’s talking about being a Martian and getting back to his spaceship – Erin loves Martians.)
It’s how her parents raised her – you can do whatever you want, rules and especially ceilings (glass or otherwise) are made to be broken, “No” is not an acceptable answer, you don’t need the world’s permission or its trappings or its clubs† to succeed – and she took it to heart and applies that ethos every day.
And this was the language she used to tell me, “You don’t need them anyway.”
and “This will make you work harder.”
and “Rejection is good for the soul.”
I might not be quite as hardcore as Erin is (and I don’t really want to be a Martian), but I also grew up on the music of men who said – and even screamed, sometimes – a nice round “fuck you” to whoever was purporting to stand in their way: Rancid.
Tim Armstrong especially embodied for me a kind of modern-day Jack Kerouac/Johnny Cash/Walt Whitman type of concrete-jungle roustabouting troubadour. I wanted his itinerant life and I wanted to experience as much as he had to and understand the world as well as he did. Rancid saw through everything that I thought was wrong with the world, and taught me about a whole slate of other wrong things I had no idea about. Bradley Nowell said that he knew what he knew “because of KRS-One,” and that’s how I felt about Rancid for a long, long time. And one of the biggest things they saw wrong with the world was this idea people had about them that they were trash because of where they came from – the broken down and abandoned East Bay.
This doesn’t map onto my experience exactly – Ventura’s hardly the Richmond Annex – but it struck a chord. I wanted to be something more than what I saw around me, and I needed that drive to have a chip on its shoulder:
“You don’t want me? Then I don’t need you.”
I felt this way for years as a kid, and I felt that way in college, and I felt that way in New York, and I felt that way in grad school, and I still feel that way in a lot of situations. It’s a defense mechanism, obviously, and sometimes it’s detrimental, sure. But a mentor of mine said, when I told him about the fellowship, “Aw, you’re upset – how cute that you’re still not old enough to understand that life is one long succession of disappointments,” and I figure shit, maybe a little defense is necessary every once in a while.
That attitude and that feeling is what I go back to, too, and why I’ve spent the last week balling down the 101 blasting Life Won’t Wait on repeat.
But, as much as it’s important to me to bare down and go my own way, and as much as writing is a solitary pursuit, it’s important to remember that I can’t and don’t do it all on my own.
Jay-Z and Tim Armstrong spent their lives taking a very strong stance against a lot of things and people and groups and cultures and even society as a whole, but they also stood with people and relied on (and some would argue helped create) subcultures and local societies. I can’t really speak to the crews that Shawn Carter leaned on to survive the Marcy projects and make it out of Bed-Stuy to become the Jay-Z he is today, but I do know that the punk subculture can be a very supportive subculture indeed.
Nevermind that I didn’t have the same experiences or the same reasons to feel the way Tim Lars Matt Brett and a whole subculture of disaffected punks did. Fact is I did feel lonely, disconnected, castaway in the same way Tim wrote about, and I did connect to punk rock.
Rancid and a handful of other punk bands – Bad Religion, Bad Brains, Black Flag, to name a few at the start of the alphabet – were the soundtrack to my lonely teenage angst, and both fueled the fires of loneliness and soothed the burns from them, gave me solace for not having a crew of my choosing and perpetuated my desire to break free of those imposed upon me.
But I never joined the subculture, never did much of anything but stew in my disconnection and disaffection, blaring Let’s Go! on the tapedeck of my Dad’s pickup as I schlepped from workout to school to workout, wondering what the hell was going on in my life and in the world.
I took part in a lot of things as a kid – sports, mostly – and while I participated in those communities that I was given, internally I disdained them. On the other hand, I didn’t belong in the punk scene, or the surf scene or the stoner scene or the jock scene or whatever other scenes I danced around the edges of. I came to think of myself as an outsider, and tried to embrace that stance as a free spirit, a wild child (full of grace, savior of the human race) that couldn’t be constrained by the people and the structures imposed on me.
But in reality, I took a lot of strength from them and did really well within them, and once the structure and the communities fell away, I floundered. Big time.
So I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do now that a pre-packaged community of writers I was counting on with that fellowship won’t be handed to me. And I realized that I have no idea how to do this. I’ve never done it before. I had one friend growing up, really. Then college and a college sports team, then grad school. I never saw a group of people and, thinking “I want to be a part of that,” went and made myself a part of it. I thought that plenty of times – more times than I can count, for sure – but never did anything about it. So when I think about finding a group to be a part of, it’s sort of baffling and extremely intimidating.
“The internet, idiot!” people have said to me, as I imagine you’re thinking now.
But there’s just way too much. There are something like three dozen fiction writers meet up groups in the SFV on that one meetup-dot-com site and I haven’t even tried looking in actual LA-LA yet. So I’m going to start wandering around bookstores and going to nerdy booky writery events and do the exact opposite of what I like to do, namely stick my hand out and talk to random people and say, “Hi, I’m a writer. Let’s do something together.”
The whole idea makes my skin crawl. It makes me feel like a kid on the edge of the sandbox, dying to jump in and Tonka-truck it up but incapable of moving a muscle.
I’m gonna try to stop looking at life like a seven-year-old, and instead go boldly forth with the idea that if I pursue or maybe even create a version of the kind of society I think I want, then maybe I’ll actually have a crew of like-minded individuals facing the same trials and tribulations and striving to do the same kinds of things.
I oughta quit now before this descends any further into a full-blown Stuart Smalley mirror session.
Who or what inspires and motivates you?
Who do you read / listen to / turn to when you need to brush your shoulders off?
Who’s in your community? How did you find it? How do you contribute to it?
‡I know not everyone thinks that ‘contrarian’ has any good senses at all, let alone a ‘very best sense’ as I say about it above, but in my lexical compendium it’s a synonym for “[one who is] awake,” and like Tina Fey quotes Amy Poehler in Bossypants as saying, “I don’t fucking care if you don’t like it.”
*That’s a figure of speech. I never was in a fistfight, not once ever, I’m not that punk, okay? And besides what am I, an idiot? I wouldn’t fight Tyson.
† My friend Unk sees the world (the business world, at least) as a collection of frats being all fratty at the big gigantic frat party that is life – and has about as much respect for the whole thing as you’d expect. I’ve got a whole post waiting in the wings of my mind about this so stay tuned and follow At The Wellhead and sign up for alerts!