I had a fairly lengthy discussion with my pal Ed Casey the other day. Ed and I experience a lot of the same terrible issues with our brains — we’re both very much ADD, and we both suffer from some degree of chronic depression. (Mine is bipolar; I’m not sure off the top of my head what he’s dealing with, exactly. I do know that he’s fairly open with this stuff, so I don’t feel bad calling him out by name here). Because we pretty much think alike (which, in itself, is a horrifying thought), we tend to get into these lengthy discussions about coping mechanisms, medications and so forth. Last time we spoke, we touched on the whole motivation thing.
I have spoken at length in the blog posts I make here, on the occasional “serious” podcast and in public, about my ability to get things done. It is, I am fond of saying, the only talent I can fully acknowledge that I have. I can’t be entirely objective about the quality of my content, but I can say with confidence that I know how to get it delivered on time. I can also, at this point, admit that the content itself is improving — but again, I can’t tell if it’s actually good or not.
Anyway. So Ed was taking the very sensible, and as far as I know, fairly successful “one day at a time” angle. I thought it was weird that he was using noted maintenance man Dwayne F. Schneider as a role model, but who am I to judge?
The gist of his approach (would it be appropriate to use “cut of his jib” here?) is, I think (and again, I don’t want to misquote him here), that you try your best to get through each day. If you have a bad day, you don’t beat yourself up over it. You don’t let it send you into a spiral where you start thinking “fuck it, yesterday was terrible; why should I bother trying today?” This all made perfect sense to me, and there was a time in my life where I tried to look at things that way.
But it’s a bit different for me now. The way I look at things now — and I had never put it into words until we had this conversation — is effectively that everything that stands between me and my goals are obstacles. I don’t think of that in the way that you probably think I do. I mean that I have committed to delivering one podcast on a biweekly basis and another on a weekly basis (as well as a handful of other projects), and that anything that prevents me from doing those things is, essentially, in my way. I try my best to make room for things like my wife, my friends, my job… but sometimes even they just seem like obstacles too.
Obviously this is not the most healthy way to live, neither for my mental health, nor for the overall health of my relationships. I have tried my best to pace myself, to set aside time for things and people that are important to me, but I don’t always succeed.
I don’t let myself have bad days. If I have trouble focusing, or if my mood starts to dip, I do my best to rally what energy I have and do something. The best way to get back on the horse is not to fall off in the first place. Clearly this is not an infallible plan — I fuck up a lot, just like anyone else. Probably more. But I do beat myself up over it, because I know I’m capable of more. Failure is unacceptable. More importantly, it’s a waste of time. It’s another goddamned obstacle.
I mentioned to Ed that seeing Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop was a revelation to me — while I don’t enjoy even a fraction of the success that Conan does, I can completely see my personality in him. Ed told me that he found it kind of depressing, and never finished watching it. I was a little confused by this, so I asked my wife to give me a second opinion. And she came at it from a similar place. “He’s so driven,” she said, to rhyme with “he’s not well.” I always thought “driven” was a good thing. I’m not sure I want to give up my driven-ness, nor am I sure that I could, even if I did want to.
I spent so much of my life in a haze of incomprehension. Being medicated for ADD cleared away some of that haze. Learning some solid coping mechanisms — to use my mental tendencies as an asset rather than a liability — pushed it away even further. I’m driven because it’s the way I am, but also… because it’s the way I wasn’tfor so long. I feel like I wasted over half my life not really focusing, not really understanding, not coming anywhere close to having the tools to achieve my goals. I’ve always wanted to be a comedy writer. And now, little else matters beyond that. Everything else — anything that isn’t directly connected to that goal, apart from the few exceptions noted above —is just something that’s preventing me from doing that.
There’s a bit in a Simpsons episode where Bart’s at a carnival and he steals Hitler’s Death Car. With the unique combination of naive eight year old and prepubescent hell raiser that is Bart Simpson, he plows through the unsuspecting crowd, shouting “OUT OF MY WAY, I’M HITLER!” That’s kind of how I feel sometimes. I’m thinking that probably shouldn’t say that out loud.
It comes down to those cliches that you’ve probably heard from a hundred other people: I do this because I have to. I do this because I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s obvious I’m not doing it for the fame (ha) or the money (HA!). I’m doing it because I love to do it. I’m doing it because, if I didn’t, I’d have a gap in my brain the shape of This Thing I Do. It fits. It took me about thirty years to work out what fit in that gap, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to stop now. It’s not healthy, but you know what? I’m surrounded by people who do unhealthy things, and none of their habits result in something that they’re proud of. So I’ll take the hit.
Now kindly get the fuck out of my way. I have things to do.
Matt and I recently discovered the incredibly brilliant Superego podcast, which is doing all the things we wish we were doing. (They do sketches, but there’s a lot more improvisation involved — only they’re so good at it, it seems like they’re performing written material.) As I dove through their archives, I found myself experiencing an unprecedented emotion. I was laughing my ass off at some of the best comedy I’ve ever heard, but I also felt this profound sadness upon the realization that I could never be this funny.
It occurred to me that there must be a word for that — an incredible feeling of inspiration combined with the soul-crushing realization that you, the artist, will never be able to produce something this good yourself. Amanda came up with “Salieri,” which is pretty damned solid. But I knew there must be an actual word — probably in German — to express this complex melange of emotions. So I consulted my friend Irene, who is currently in the process of defending her Masters thesis in a specialized area of German literature. She consulted with her fellow academics and came up with “überwältigt.”
She says it literally means something like “overwhelmed,” or “awesome” (in the original sense of the word). That seems about right to me. Every now and then, I feel a bit of the old überwältigt about something, and it inspires me to do better. I think that’s probably a good thing.
“There are too many comedy podcasts” is a sentiment I have read in several places lately, most notably in this piece from the AV Club. Naturally, as a comedy podcaster, this forces a bit of a defensive reaction in me. Unless they’re saying that everything that came after I planted my flag in this soil some three years ago has now been rendered superfluous. But I suspect they’re not saying that.
I’m hardly being unusually insightful when I say that media – pretty much all media – is in a huge state of flux right now. Publishers of books (and the bastard half-sibling they try to ignore, comics) are freaking out over the possibility that people can obtain their products without entering a store or waiting for a box from Amazon to show up in the mail. Record stores… well, I assume they’re dead now. I haven’t set foot in one probably in this entire century so far, and I imagine not a lot of other people have either. And even my mom is watching her favorite TV shows on an iPad now. The times, they are not only a-changin’, but they’re slippin’ into the future. And since the Rule of Threes demands that I make one further time-based song reference here, I’ll end the paragraph with this: time is on my side (yes, it is.)
Because, here’s the thing: the means of production, so to speak, are now in the hands of the workers. Again, I’m not really telling you anything you don’t already know here: anyone with a modestly-priced computer, a few choice pieces of software and a stable Internet connection can be a record producer. Or a movie mogul. Or a comedian.
Which brings me back to my original point. Apparently the thing I spend most of my free time doing is a waste of time, according to people who also do what I do. (Not just the AV Club; I’ve heard the sentiment echoed by a number of comedians, many of whom I respect tremendously.) Granted, they do it better and they do it more successfully. But it seems odd to me nevertheless that they wouldn’t want to encourage people with a glimmer of talent and a fuckload of determination. Otherwise, they kinda come off like a multi-platinum rock act dismissing the whole notion of garage bands.
I’m pretty sure it’s been scientifically proven that 98% of garage bands suck, and the swelling ranks of half-baked, home-spun podcasts probably enjoys a similar hit-to-miss ratio. Sarcastic Voyage and Post Atomic Horror almost certainly belong in that 98%. But you know what? We’re a hell of a lot closer to breaking out of that ghetto than we ever have been. We show up every week (or in the case of SV, every two weeks) and we keep trying to make each show a little better than the last one. We’re constantly looking at other, more successful examples of what we do (and I think we define “what we do” in fairly broad terms) for inspiration. We regularly interact with our audience. And we never stop trying new things.
Maybe we’ll always sound like amateurs. Maybe, to extend my metaphor, one day we’ll wake up and discover that we’re those 60 year old guys who secretly rock a decent blues set out in the car-hole every Saturday but never had a chance of “making it.” Or maybe we’ll continue showing up every week, practicing, analyzing, experimenting… and one day we’ll get better enough that people will hear us and like us. Hell, maybe one day they’ll pay money for what we do. That is the dream that we and the humble shitty garage musician share.
I am fully prepared for the very real possibility that this will never happen. The odds simply don’t favor it. And I’m fine with that. Of course, I would love nothing more than to one day quit my day job and make people laugh for money. I’m trying everything I know to make that happen, but I don’t expect it to happen. I do it because I love to do it, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.
The Internet gives me the opportunity not only to reach an audience from across the globe, but also to build a stable of collaborators from the same borderless pool of humanity. I’ve maintained two regular podcasts, written two books and co-authored a 3-year webcomic with a guy who lives in another country, whom I’ve seen in person maybe a dozen times in my entire life.
There is, of course, something to be said about creating in a vacuum with relatively no outside criticism. The difference between comedy and masturbation is an audience. We can only take this thing so far without truly knowing how it plays to actual, physical human beings. The aforementioned international border makes this difficult, but not impossible. There’s our upcoming live show at Emerald City next weekend, for instance. And if that goes well, I am fully prepared to arrange further events of a similar nature. I recognize that podcasting, while amazing and fulfilling in so many ways, is also quite limited in terms of overall cultivation of material and audience. But it’s a damned fine starting point, as far as I’m concerned. I’m a much stronger writer and performer than I was when we started this in 2009, and so is Matt. We’ve made a lot of new friends (and in Matt’s case, more than that) and we’ve done a lot of cool things to make this thing as good as we can make it.
If you don’t like our shows, that’s fine. It’s more than fine – I don’t like our shows a lot of the time, either. But don’t dismiss what we do out-of-hand. This is a valid medium. It’s not going anywhere. And neither am I.
I copped to being overly defensive at the beginning of this piece, and I’ll say it again. I take it personally because I take it seriously. This is what I do. This is what I love. I want to expand, to broaden, to find success wherever I might, but no matter what happens, I can always look back on this period of my life and be confident that I spent my time doing something that I love; something that I was often proud to be doing.
I’ve been writing lately.
This seems like an odd non-sequitor from a guy who claims to be a writer, I realize, but hear me out here. The one piece of wisdom that’s spoken nearly universally from all my creative heroes is the idea that starting to write is the hardest part of all. Hell, I rambled and blathered about this myself a few months ago, in a piece about creative momentum. Once you get moving, I said, continuing to move is easy. And I was right. That’s some smart thinking, Me of the Past. And yet…
And fucking yet.
The reason I – and people far more talented and successful than I – repeat this assertion so much is (hard as this may be to believe) we tend to forget it a lot. No, seriously. After the apparently mandatory mental illnesses that come with a creative temperament, the second most irritating thing is this tendency to completely forget that only one thing in life can truly bring us joy and fulfillment. Somehow, unlike so many other people on this planet, we’ve actually worked out what we’re here for – or at least, we’ve found activities that make us feel like we have. (This is neither the time nor the place to get metaphysical about this. Suffice it to say that making things scratches a brain-itch that nothing else can.) But the curse that comes along with this blessing is the Memento-like arrangement we have with our own brains. Every morning we wake up with a clean slate and we have to teach ourselves all over again that writing is what makes us happy. Because our natural tendency is to avoid writing at all costs, and therefore be miserable.
Naturally, I don’t speak for all writers here. Some people are well-adjusted, and the whole “write for a specific duration of time each day” thing comes naturally to them. But there’s a certain sub-section of us for whom productivity is a daily struggle. Most people I know, I am sad to say, lose this battle regularly. If I had a nickel every time a friend said they were starting some new project that then never surfaced or (even worse, somehow) only produced a small amount of content… well, I’d have a lot of nickels. And have you tried spending nickels in this economy? They’re worthless.
I do not mean to belittle my creative friends by pointing this out. What I mean to do is point out that the reason abandoned blogs and podcasts with one episode really bothers me is this: there, but for the grace of the self-loathing that motivates me, go I. I’m one shiny object away from joining them in the ranks of the unproductive, and I live every day in fear that that shiny object will finally pull me away from everything I’ve struggled to build over the years. (And with my luck, it’ll be a fucking nickel.)
As I’ve said before, I cannot speak to the quality of my work. It’s impossible for me to be truly objective about that. But one of the things I’m proudest of in my life is the quantity of things I’ve produced – over 150 podcasts, six issues of a comic, two published books, a couple of video games, et. al ad nauseam. I’m intensely pleased that I’ve managed to produce more-or-less everything I’ve ever set out to produce. (Shut up about the novel – I’m working on it, I promise.)
But regardless of all that – regardless of the years I’ve spent working in every medium I’ve ever wanted to work in, regardless of my overall feeling that I’m a better writer now than I was 20 years ago – every morning, I face the same mental quandary I faced when I was 16. I can spend my downtime screwing around, watching TV, playing video games or whatever else it is people do… or I can stop telling people I’m a writer and fucking write something. I chose poorly at 16. At 36, I’ve developed elaborate workarounds for the situation, but it hasn’t gone away. No matter how much I create, it always comes down to that simple binary choice, every single day: I can write, or I can waste time.
So, yeah. I’ve been writing lately.
Today marks ten years since Douglas Adams died.
I don’t really get upset like most people seem to over famous people dying. People die. It’s an unpleasant, but inevitable fact of mortal existence. I don’t know these people personally, so I try to be honest with myself and recognize the emotions for what they are: I’m not so much sad that this person I’ve never met is gone; I’m sad because they provided me with something I enjoyed and now I can’t have that anymore. (Futurama put this into words better than I ever could in an episode in which Bender believed that Fry had died and reacted with “now who will make Bender waffles the way he likes them?”)
Here’s the thing about Douglas Adams, though: he was unquestionably one of the most brilliant and talented comedy writers of my lifetime. In terms of the sort of thing I want to do with my creative career (such as it is), he was as close to a role model as a man gets. People tend to dismiss “the classics” after awhile – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy routinely makes the requisite “lists of nerd things that are great,” and people just accept that as read now. Often without actually reading the thing. It was an amazing book, channeling that absurd Python sensibility through a cultural pathway that few people truly had the vision to see as inevitable: nerd culture.
He was an actual visionary, in addition to being quite clever, funny and (as every account of the man must inevitably mention) very tall. But he was also profoundly, mind-bogglingly, utterly and uselessly lazy. He famously hated writing, and many pithy quotes are attributed to him that reflect this. (“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they sail past,” is one.) I recently read a biography of Adams that made me realize just how little of his life was spent actually making things, especially when directly compared to the amount of time he spent actively avoiding the making of things. It’s not that he was one of those authors who agonizes over every word. Or one of those George R. R. Martin types who plans huge epics which lead impatient fans to demand the next thousand-page tome right now. No, by his own admission, Adams just didn’t like writing very much. More than one of the later Hitchhikers books was literally written in a weekend as he faced a publisher who had forgone deadlines and presented him with an ultimatum.
So, when he died in May of 2001, what I felt was not sadness. As I said, I never knew the guy. And my usual “I’m sad because there will be no more books” sentiment didn’t fit either, because the last book he’d published prior to this point was the pretty much universally disappointing fifth Hitchhiker’s book, Mostly Harmless in 1992. Nine. Years. Before.
I wasn’t sad when he died. I was angry. How could a man be born (blessed, if you prefer; but Adams, a vocal atheist, would not) with so much talent and do so little with it? Yes, of course it was a tragedy that the man was dead at 49. But the real tragedy, to me, was that he hadn’t produced a single thing with that beautiful brain of his for nearly a decade. Were I prone to flights of metaphysical fancy (which I am not; Adams helped inspire a similar level of atheism in me), I would say that he almost deserved to die for wasting all that talent.
No, I don’t mean that. This is my anger talking. Adams was a true inspiration to me, and he didn’t care. Not about me personally, but about any of it. He was content to be so goddamned brilliant and just coast around not using that brilliance. Had he lived to eighty or ninety, I wonder if we would have gotten any more books out of it. I think probably not.
I realize he (nor any other writer, performer, entertainer or artist) owes me nothing. He is a human, prone to human whims and failings and if he chooses never to write another book in his (tragically short) life, this is, of course, his prerogative. My anger – like all grief, no matter what form it takes – is selfish. He was the first writer who really made me feel like I could do something special and unique and amazing with words; the first person who ever made me realize that my nerdish ways and desire to make people laugh were not mutually exclusive. He made me realize that it was sexy to be smart, that it was cool to be funny and that it was the highest of aspirations to be both.
Adams’ death was, for me, the loss of a role model. In terms of the me that exists entirely to make things (as opposed to the other versions of myself I carry around in my brain), he was, I suppose, a father figure. Which gives this a whole weird Freudian spin that I never really intended, but listen: sometimes a role model is just a role model. Only in the years following his death did I realize that he was a horrible choice for the job. But you don’t exactly get to choose who stimulates your brain in the formative years of your intellect, and in a way, his death forced me to move on from anger to a weird sort of inspiration.
I will never, never possess a measurable fraction of the talent he had. But I sure as hell can work harder with the talent I do have, so that I don’t die with a thousand untold stories. Even now, ten years later, I look at a man who would rather take thirty baths than write a book and it makes me angry. I’m only just now starting to realize that this anger might actually be a good thing.
In life, Douglas Adams made me want to be a better writer. In death, he makes me want to silence that voice that says “just one more sandwich, a quick check of my e-mail and maybe five minutes on Twitter and I’ll get started.” I’ve always held a certain disdain for those people who claim to be writers and have never written a word in their lives, but the death of my first creative hero put a finer point on it. “Don’t panic,” a million people flippantly quote from a book they quite possibly have never read. But really, by avoiding the making of things – the only thing that gives people like us a feeling of fulfillment in life – isn’t that exactly what they’re doing? Wasn’t Adams just panicking a little, every time he let a deadline whoosh past?
So, in a way, while I’m sorry he’s gone, I’m happy for the cautionary tale his death provided. Had Arthur Dent been truly based on his creator, he would have probably remained defiantly in the bath while the world ended around him. Personally, I’d rather brave the odds, stick out my thumb and end this essay on a tortured, awfulHitchhiker’s reference. Hey, at least I finished the damned thing.
A rare serious thought: the most powerful abstract force in my adult life is not inspiration. It’s not idealism. It isn’t even love. It’s inertia.
Inertia, you will recall from your basic elementary school science lessons, is the tendency for objects in motion to stay in motion and objects at rest to remain at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force. (Pardon the hackery of reminding you of that — I’m going somewhere with this.) What this means in my actual life is, when I lie around on my fat ass, I am inclined to want to always lie around on my fat ass. But if I actually get up and do things, a sort of productive momentum is created and I want to do more things. You’d think I’d get tired out, going from zero projects to one project. But you’d be wrong. Apparently I have two settings: no projects or all the projects. And, if you follow my output with any regularity, I think you can guess which setting I’m at right now.
I define myself by what I do — by what I can tangibly hold up in front of my face at the end of a given week and say “I made these things. They didn’t exist before I made them, and now they do exist.” Ideally they’ll be things other people want to see, and things I am proud to show off. But those thoughts don’t enter into the early parts of the process. First, you run. Then you eventually figure out how to stop falling.
Internet celebrity Merlin Mann has been utterly kicking ass lately with a series of essays intended to inspire people who don’t feel like they do enough. He seems genuinely frustrated by the dearth of “productivity software” (expensive widgets that clear your screen of distractions) and, somewhat ironically (though the irony does not escape him) self-help advice. His main advice: “first, care.” If it matters enough to you, you will find the time and you will do it. Because it’s important. Because you can’t not do it. Yes, Merlin. Yes. Fucking exactly.
Occasionally people ask me how I get so much done. (Regularly completing projects is the only actual talent I will cop to having — I do it better than just about anyone I know.) The secret is no secret at all: I do it because I want to do it. I want it more than I want a career or a social life. Ideally, it will not happen at the expense of these things, but that is the priority I place on creative productivity. It matters. More than nearly anything else in my life. (I had to throw that “nearly” in there because, hey — my wife matters more. And my family, a few close friends and my dog. But that’s it. Honestly.)
I could be making a lot of money at this point in my life. This is not some fanciful “what if?” scenario — it’s a fact. I had a very promising career in a very technical and very lucrative field a few years ago. I enjoyed doing it. But it didn’t leave me the time or the mental energy to do what mattered to me. So I stopped doing it. Now I’m in a job (note: not a career) that pays substantially less. I also enjoy this job. I like it more because it allows me the time to write novels and record podcasts and videos and make video games and make comics and do whatever else tickles my ever-expanding fancy. (Note: do not try to picture my expanding fancy. It can only end badly.)
Five years ago I was making a lot of money, but I was deeply unsatisfied. Today I am living well below the poverty line, but I’m feeling more fulfilled than I ever have. Because I’m doing things. And the more I do, the more I want to do. It’s an amazing feeling.
About a year ago, a very old and very dear friend of mine sat down and recorded a conversation we had on this very subject. During that conversation, we hashed out an argument we’d been having for over two decades: is it better to do things right or fast? My opinion was, as I stated above, the thing about running and falling. My friend, who is immensely talented — far more talented than I will ever be — takes the “measure twice, cut once” approach. If it’s worth doing, he argues, it’s worth doing well. And it’s not an invalid argument. But I think it’s important to note that, a year later, this recording is still sitting on his hard drive someplace. I’m not saying my way is better — honestly. But being able to look at the enormous volume of work I’ve produced in that year, even if every one of them is truly horrible, is a lot more important to me than having produced one or two perfect and flawless things.
It’s not just important. It’s the most important. I don’t ever want to lose the incredible feeling of accomplishment and inspiration I feel right now. The trick is to never stop moving. Never.