Opting Out

This blog is a bit of a departure. It’s a more self-indulgent, personal piece borne out of a lot of mulling I’ve been doing lately on how we define “success” and “failure”, and about how the presentation of those two narratives have a great deal to do with external voices with a vested interest in our “buying in” to consumer culture and very little to do with our internal state (are you a mostly decent, fairly kind person who genuinely works hard at what you do? Do you feel okay with not keeping up with the Joneses? Do you not have a new car? Do you cut your own hair? Sorry. You’re a failure. Buy this workbook and figure out how to be a success!). As an eternal perfectionist with a tendency to be my own worst critic, viewing myself as a less-than-ideal version of a human is something I readily agree with, but–what if there’s nothing so wrong with me, after all?

 

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Is it so wrong to love the process more than the outcome?

As a kid I dreamed of getting a doctorate. I come from a working class family in a rural area; my grandfather, a brilliant man, wasn’t able to finish elementary school because he was expected to work on the farm. My grandmother, another very smart lady, was sixteen when she got married, and had been working to help support her family for years before that. My great-grandmother’s family were great proponents of education, all of their daughters went as far as schooling was offered to poor folks in the county at the time: they finished the eighth grade. To me, a strange, creative, quiet, and book-loving kid, the thought of getting a PhD was akin to what some people must feel when daydreaming about being millionaires or movie stars, it was at once deliciously impossible, perhaps even naive, and also supremely tangible. My family were always supportive and encouraging: if I continued to work hard, they praised, and focused on school and got good grades, I could do it. I could do anything. I was labeled as “gifted” in first grade, which translated to being taken out of class twice a week to do extra projects. I loved it. I devoured books. I was going to be a writer. I was going to be an artist. I was also maybe going to be Lisa Frank and an archaeologist/theologian. Then I got to middle school. The funding for the program disappeared. The kids with more money had private tutors and summer camps. The facade slipped a little. Still, there was the library, and the woods around my house. I would do it.

I got into colleges. Several of them. My grades in High School were good, but not extraordinary. I ‘d lost a bit of steam by then. I wanted out. I couldn’t understand my parent’s strained faces when I discussed which school I would choose. I had gotten scholarships, after all! They never said “No”, though, and they never said “impossible”. I didn’t fully understand that a lot of their childhood surety was predicated on the fact that my Dad had worked for the local college in the physical plant, and I could have gotten free tuition. He had left that job, though, years earlier. I wanted to tour Mount Holyoke and Pratt. We couldn’t afford the trip. I went to school in state, but private. A selfish concession.

It was culture shock. I loved the learning. I loved the books and small class sizes and talking literature and art and I was utterly shocked by the money other people had; by the money, for the first time in my life, I felt painfully aware I lacked. Most people there had gone to private high schools, or, lacking that, public schools in much wealthier districts than my own. “Didn’t your guidance counselor help you with your application essays?” My guidance counselor met with me twice, each a fifteen minute session, one of which I scheduled. Who were these girls?

"Serving Tea To My Double" (detail)

Internships were, of course, the thing to do. You had to have an internship. Of course I would have an internship. Only, how would I pay for the plane ticket? Or even the gas? Where would the money for food come from? Where would I stay? Okay then. No internships. No study abroad either (I didn’t really want to go on a plane for that long anyway, did I? I’d never been on a plane and I was just fine). That was alright. I’d work hard, I’d be a better writer. Junior year a professor told me I had a particular skill for editing, the sort she didn’t often see. There’s a few programs you should look into, she said, they don’t offer financial aid, but it’s a good investment. About $100,000, for the whole thing. I managed not to laugh, or gag. I stopped going to that class for the last two weeks. I couldn’t face it: I was a disappointment to my potential. I got a C.

There was no way I could go to graduate school: I couldn’t even afford the application fees. Even the schools that offered a waiver expected payment up front with the potential for a refund later. That was okay, I’d regroup. Go back in a few years, maybe. Pay off my loans somehow (there were more loans than I thought. Loans on loans). I moved back in with my parents. Suddenly I had nightmares, panic attacks, about running into my tenth grade English teacher, the teacher who had said what a great writer I was, that the only equal to me she’d ever seen was in Harvard Law School, so I could do anything. Absolutely anything. Well, I was not in Harvard Law School. I wasn’t even getting any response from the literary magazines.

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Years passed. I gave up on writing, at least seriously, intentionally. If I wasn’t trying to be a writer, I wasn’t failing at it, even if I was floundering in general. I still live with my parents. It’s embarrassing. I’m twenty-eight, and I live with my parents, and I’m beyond ashamed. I help where I can; with chores and cooking and the animals. I stay quiet. I don’t talk about things I am doing, or trying to do, with my art because I don’t want to look frivolous, or delusional. I’m insanely grateful. Grateful to their graciousness and their gift of time and never once treating me like a disappointment, though I’m sure I am.

You see, that’s the thing. I am, and always have been, a person who carries the weight of other’s expectations, even when they haven’t asked me to, even when they would rather I set the load down and feel freer. So, as I’ve started to get more serious about my art, and about carving out of it something that I could feel vaguely comfortable calling “successful” (let’s say, being able to buy the supplies I needed when I needed them), I began to start carrying other expectations. Expectations of people I’d never known or met or, really, honestly, was entirely sure I would have liked if I did. I started becoming overwhelmed by the “Opt-In” culture. Opt-in to our email newsletter and you’ll unlock the secrets to Instagram marketing success! Opt-In to next Tuesday’s Webinar to discover how to gain 2,000 organic Pinterest followers for your art THIS MONTH! Opt-In and you’ll be happy! Opt-in and you’ll finally be able to look at yourself in the mirror for a change, you big fat failure!

But…what the hell? I…I don’t want to be a mogul. I never have. I never once dreamed of being a marketer or a  “strategist”. I don’t want to be a millionaire; if that much money fell from the sky I would: 1. pay off my student loans 2. pay off my family’s debts 3. Fix and vaccinate every feral cat in the three county radius. I don’t want to be Marie Forleo; hell, I’m not even sure I want to be Lisa Congdon. I want to be Charlotte Bronte. I want to be quiet and to work, and to maybe make enough from that work to be able to make some more work. I don’t want to shout and stomp and scream in an attempt to be heard or shimmy myself into some mold of “success” I don’t look like or feel like or enjoy, I just want to be, and do. There’s a phrase I wrote in my journal once a few years ago, and keeps coming to me in my art, and that is “work hard, and wait”, and, I realize, now, that’s all I really want to do. I will work hard at improving myself and doing the best I can, and I will work hard at being better at talking about the things I make, and sharing them with others. But I will not be somebody else. That was never the point. I refuse to believe that being, by nature, quiet and introspective and less-than-comfortable with self-promotion and less than hungry for huge, bloated, monetary success are hindrances to creating something meaningful, or to the ability to share those things with others. I am choosing to think of those things as strengths. Just imagine: what if, rather than blaring about your thing, your creation, your ideas, all jumbled with the other voices blaring away too, what if you just…listened? And what if some of those other people started listening too? Wouldn’t that be nice? I like to listen. I like to learn. I devour books. I want to be a writer, and an artist (and maybe a Polly Pocket who is also an archaeologist/theologian). I am going to try to do a good job. I’m opting out.

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