Something from Nothing

I don’t do anything. That is an exaggeration, but a meaningful one. Most of the exaggerations I make are not meaningful. But they are funny. This one is meaningful, even if it isn’t funny. Or maybe it is funny. I can’t really tell. I think everything I do is hilarious. It is distracting when I am, say, folding laundry, or making cornbread, or going to the bathroom. Where was I?

Oh right. I don’t do anything. I go to work, I make food, I play pen and paper roleplaying games. I spend many hours talking talking to my friends about which alterations made to major comic book characters when translating them to film were net positives, and which ones not so much. I live my life, and it is a perfectly good life. But it is not enough. Of course it isn’t. Because I have an imagination. And I live now.

There is an excellent book on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary called The Meaning of Everything, by Simon Winchester. The book, which was written in 2004, posits that the monumental undertaking that was the OED could not happen today. It was fundamentally dependent on leisure. There were a lot of well educated people with a lot of time on their hands with nothing to do. That situation does not exist, in this day and age where everyone has to work, where a lot of educated people have to get two jobs to pay the bills, and where it is nearly impossible to raise children on a single income. Hell, 19th century British aristocrats weren’t even legally allowed to work. What else were they supposed to do? The Royal Society, whatever that was, only had so many memberships. Probably.*

Winchester’s prediction turned out to be enormously, hilariously wrong. It took twenty four years for these “men of leisure” to publish the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary. It contained all the words in English from A-Ant. They missed a lot. As of this writing, Wikipedia has been around for twelve years (half the time it took for the first bit of the OED, well isn’t that nice) and contains over 4.3 million articles in English alone. These articles range in subjects that, and I haven’t checked this thoroughly, go beyond those contained within A-Ant. Almost no one was paid to produce any of it.

Wikipedia isn’t even the sole contender for largest repository of pro-bono stuff. Not when there is YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, and the entire ill-named blogosphere. Am I ever going to get used to the word blogosphere? The fact is, we live in the age of content. Many many people are spending a lot of time and a cartilage-twisting amount of work producing pieces of art and entertainment for no reason other than that they want to. And I don’t do anything.

What I mean is, I don’t produce anything. I fancy myself a writer. I love to write. Or rather, I like to write, but I love to tell stories. I wish I could weave interactive fully sensory tales with embedded emotions and layers of essence of experience out of the pulsing fabric of pure imagination. But prose is good enough. Or at least it was until I wrote that last sentence. Sometimes it’s better not to articulate things like that.

So why don’t I produce anything? The same reasons everyone like me – and there are oh so many people like me – doesn’t, plus one that I think is a little more unique to my individual matrix of neuroses: I’m scared, I’m lazy, and I am pathologically original. It is difficult to say these things out loud, even when out loud just means writing them down. They are demoralizing. It feels like giving up. Also – and I take this particular crime very seriously – it is an oversimplification.

The last of the three points is easy to break down and it informs the others. I am pathologically original. That is a little term I made up, by combining an almost-accurately-applied technical adjective with a commonly used noun. I like this phrase, not only because it is accurate, but also because a Google search only brings up ten results. One or two or zero would be better, but ten is acceptable. Because I am pathologically original. I am obsessed with the absolute originality of the ideas I create or the stories I compose. It is not dreadfully insufficient to have engaging characters and compelling narrative. I want new laws of physics, magic systems utterly distinct from anything that has come before, and motivations for villains that have never been used before in the history dastardly deeds. To the extent that I use pre-existing ideas, they need to be combined in unique ways. It is not enough to combine zombies, superheros, and alchemy. The alchemy has to be derived from an eventually successful attempt by the physical elements of the natural world to communicate their secret language, which is the fundamental structure behind chemistry, to sentient life, which they have only recently realized existed at all. And the zombie phenomenon has to be caused by what happens when the spirits of the dead, who have always existed but been unable to interact with the physical world, learn this language and use it to animate corpses (ineffectively, thus the continued decay and the mindlessness) in an attempt to create an interface. The superhero phenomenon that happens at the same time might be caused by the slightly more complex structures that are biological cells (or DNA? or cell organelles?) being semi awakened by the advent of alchemy and developing their own secret language.

Pathological originality is difficult. It is frustrating in a world with so much content. “There’s nothing new under the sun” is, itself, not a new idea. With over one hundred hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, we can no longer even see the sun…provided we are somehow looking at it through YouTube. I leave many stories unfinished because they are derivative or uninspired, even when they are not. It is related to the phenomenon whereby writers keep writing and rewriting their work because it is never perfect. Only, my version does not move past the concept stage. It is particularly frustrating because I do not hold these standards in things I read or watch. I like good characters. I love compelling narrative. These are enough for me in works produced by others, just not my own.

Fear is much more common. The fact that it is more common, and that I suffer from it anyway, is exacerbated by my pathological originality. I do not want to have the same hang ups as everyone else, dammit! And they are the same as everyone else’s. I am afraid of rejection. I am afraid of exposing myself. That last is pretty funny, because those who know me well know that my past is full of exposure. This includes both the emotional kind and the kind with the no pants. Hey, it was college, and it wasn’t on purpose. I wasn’t a streaker or anything. If my pants happened to come off in public more than the combined garments of everyone else I know, let’s just say I was on the meaty part of the statistical curve. The no-pants statistical curve.

I am an over-sharer. I tell people my secrets. I talk with relative strangers about my sexual preferences, and admit to everyone when I have emotional issues. Come to think of it, it is probably pretty annoying. Why doesn’t anyone tell me these things? Damn emotionally unavailable bastards. But sharing my work with other people is a whole different can of exposure-worms. Wow, that is a really unpleasant metaphor. Edward de Bono, 80s guru on techniques of thinking and the guy who coined the term lateral thinking, discusses what he calls the intelligence trap. People who have been told their whole lives that they are intelligent often fall into a very specific and unfortunate pattern of behavior. They are very reactionary, and afraid to generate ideas. They become addicted to the “smart guy” label. It is an end in and of itself. It is easy to seem smart when all you ever do is comment on other people’s ideas, and provide factual information in support or critique of what other people say. When you actually have to come up with ideas yourself, those ideas are often shot down. Also, they are often dumb. You have to come up with a lot of dumb ideas for the few that are actually good to make their way out. Smart people do not like to appear dumb.

I grew up with a lot of people telling me I was smart. As an adult, I have had a lot of people telling me I am interesting. And witty. And creative. And hilarious. Did I mention hilarious? Sometimes they tell me these things directly, sometimes it is only strongly implied by their reactions to what I say and do. And I believe. I legitimately do. I believe I am smart and interesting and all of that other crap I just said. They form a very significant part of both my ego and my identity. If this sounds like a self indulgent ego trip, that’s because it is. But it is also very fragile.

It is easy to believe you are intelligent and interesting. These phrases don’t actually mean anything. Not anything concrete. They are difficult to pin down, and therefore difficult to refute. But deep down inside everyone who believes themselves smart or interesting is the same parasitic collection of nanites proverbially (I hope) boring into their skulls: what if you are wrong? It is easy to believe it when you never put yourself out there. When your interesting-ness is never on the market for public perusal and consumption.

Hence the fear. Fear seeps into me like a paralytic nerve toxin. It freezes me up when I write, sometimes, and halts my progress. Its potency is enhanced by the fact that I am a long-range and consequence oriented thinker. It is hard for me to simply write something, or start a blog, or put up a website, because my brain does not let it end there. My brain does not let me take things one day at a time. Even if what I am doing is not exposing myself in any meaningful way, if it can lead to that (and everything can, especially if you are creative) then the fear-gland will release that toxin. It would be useful if someone could isolate that toxin from all the fearful writers out there. Not only might this lead to the synthesis of an antidote, but it could be weaponized and used to prevent our enemies from producing particularly creative and inspired propaganda. Or, I don’t know, introduce it into the water supply of Nashville and kill off country music. Is that an awkard thing to say? Should I have said something about Justin Beiber? It used to be very en vogue to go after country music. Pick whichever low-hanging-fruit you like.

Laziness is more complicated. It appears very simple if you are one of those people for whome laziness is not a serious problem. That could be why it is so difficult for type-A hyper-ambitious workaholic personality types to understand. People who always have projects going on tend to dismiss those moments when they feel unmotivated to work as “just being lazy.” They just don’t want to do anything for a brief period of time, and give in to their base temptations and veg-out for awhile. If you are one of these people, then you probably think that the chronically lazy are doing exactly what you do during your spats of laziness: giving in. This is not true. But since Type-A hyper-ambitious workaholic personality types rule the world (because, you know, they actually do things) then their image of the chronically lazy is the one that wins.

Not many people think of themselves as lazy. Or if they do, it’s just because they are being lazy. Even people who sit around all day and play video games rather than working on bettering their lives. Why do they do this? It drives people who listen to motivation speakers and appear on fitness posters nuts. Why would anyone sit around and be mediocre when all it takes to be awesome is just to do it? It is because lazy people don’t care. They have no motivation. And that is inviolate. It is even, in a certain way, intrinsic. You can chose how you go about accomplishing the things you care about. But you absolutely cannot choose to care. How could you? Choosing to care would require caring. I submit that it is literally impossible to decide to have motivation for something. Outside forces can certainly transform apathy into passion. It happens all the time. It is also common for people to be soaked in apathy and then, for no apparent reason, one day start being motivated. Often these people describe the event with statements like, “one day, I just decided I did not want to be lazy anymore. I wanted to take control of my destiny.” That is all well and good, but something happened. It might have happened at the level of neurons, but something changed. You didn’t decide to take control of your life, or else there is no reason it happened today rather than yesterday.

I have never been ambitious. I dream big. My desires for what I want my life to be are huge. Many of them involve starships or arcane summoning circles. But I don’t have that burning drive that is ambition. The reasons for this are myriad, and I do not entirely understand them myself. One of them is that I am easily contented. When life does not actively throw stressors at me, I do not really worry. This makes it difficult to improve myself. Another is that I am not very judgmental. That sounds like bragging, but it is true. I can’t be very judgmental, even when I should be, either of myself or others. If there is an aspect of yourself that you really hate, this is very motivating for self improvement. I do not hate things about myself, or others. Sometimes it really pisses me off. I hate that.

Another reason for my lack of ambition (or, perhaps, achievement) is my ADHD. I know, I know, it is lazy to say you have ADHD. I use the term not only because I have been diagnosed, but as a shortcut to describe a complex set of behaviors with a simple acronym. The fact is that after doing a single unbroken task for more than about twenty minutes I get twitchy, I freeze up, and my brain starts screaming at me to do other things. It prevented me from getting really good grades all through school, from finishing papers in college, and from producing nearly as much written material as I want to.

These are all common problems, and they are a small part of what is usually labeled as laziness. The fact is, they are laziness. But when you are lazy, it is very difficult to be otherwise. It is like depression. You cannot just turn it off. It gets its blunt, apathetic claws in deep, and all the people in your life telling you to just get over it does nothing but reinforce the self image.

All of this thoroughly articulated justification aside, I really hate not doing things. I am utterly sick of it. I have been trying to break this streak for…my entire life. I go through phases of doing things, but my fickle nature and short attention span means the phases usually end before I’ve produced any content. It’s killing me. Even though I am scared to the point of paralysis. Even though I am lazy enough to power a lack-of-energy plant. Even though doing things is so done and I should be able to come up with something more original.

So I am doing something. It’s a tiny, little thing, starting a blog and getting my friends to read it. So very, very small. But then again, the biggest difference between small things and large things are the consequences, not the actions. Spilling a bottle of soy sauce and a bottle full of nuclear material look pretty similar from the outside, but only of of them makes the news. It is right after the piece on how we are now storing nuclear material in small portable bottles that are easily spilled and can be mistaken for soy sauce.

I am going to write some stuff, and post it. I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, but I do not have a focus. I have always been very bad at the whole focus thing. It has stopped me from doing anything about it for years. Guides on writing blogs say that you should not just write journals, like live journal entries. The fact that that is pretty much what I am writing paralyzes me as well. Or, it almost does, because I am writing it, and you are reading it. So that’s a step forward.

I don’t require feedback (I would love feedback), but feel free to give it (please don’t give it. It’s scary.) People are going to say things like “good for you! We’re rooting for you!” But not specifically that, because it’s not 1954 and very few of you are cheerleaders. You will do this because you are awesome, but that scares me, too, because I am putting myself out there. Because it sounds like pity? It’s not. I know it’s not. The people who I have been surrounded with all my life who actually do things, who are successful in any way, don’t worry about things like that. They just do stuff. Why should I be worried about innocuous supporting comments? I do not know. There is probably some cross section of neuroses that explains the reaction perfectly.

Hopefully, it’s called Jesse LaJeunesse Syndrome.

*Of course I know what the Royal Society is. Who says I don’t?


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