Excepted, Not Exceptional

Of the many wonderful things the internet has brought us (porn and… y’know, other stuff, NOT porn) my current favorite is the social media “humble brag”. This is when you post or tweet a seemingly innocuous or even negative thing, but it contains a really audacious bit of self-celebration. “The MTA fucked me AGAIN, and I’m late for my third audition today,” says the actor, who wants everyone to know his career is going great. “One more cup of coffee, and this novel is gonna be set in Brazil,” says the novelist, who’s writing a novel and getting his novel done. “Marlena just poured juice in her boots,” says the high school dropout, desperate to prove that he got married and had kids just like he was supposed to, and is living a totally reasonable life with adorable pitfalls…

So, it’s hard for me to figure out how to talk about some of the stuff I see and feel without feeling like I’m doing the same. In a way it’s insidious, because the guy who’s writing his novel is probably struggling, and he’s reaching out to the rest of us for some sign of support, some sense that this lonely horrible thing he’s trudging through is meaningful to someone, anyone. To accuse him of the humble brag is to attempt to humiliate him for even subtly claiming that his work is important.

So, when I talk about the people I know as being “strange” or “singular” or “unique”, you have to know that a big part of *being that* is just horrible. The defining aspect of the small group of people that I adore is our total lack of definition. My community is defined by our inability to form a community. The club that we belong to requires, for membership, a complete inability to be a part of a club. We try, we open our hands to one another and we form loose bonds and when we see each other at a bar or a reading or something, we run over and hug each other and drink in the jokes and one-ups-manship, and we bemoan our inability to land any grants or get into grad school and then hours later or days or something, we retreat back into ourselves, we roll over in bed with the covers up over our ears.

But that… loneliness, is the only word I can use, is apparent in everyone’s work. It informs everything we do. The isolation, the independence, and that information colors the work in such a way that we recognize it in one another. I see great looking people with awesome shoes and easy smiles, so I go out and get awesome shoes and go to the gym and try my easiest smile for everyone I see, but there’s not a SINGLE PERSON who buys into it.

And here’s the thing, how do I put this? Do I write down the fact that I love deeply and easily? That if you’ve ever seen me smile and it felt genuine, it’s because I genuinely adore you? That if it ever seemed like I was forcing a smile, it probably was forced, that I can’t seem to be kind and gracious? Do I try to describe this pathology, this horrible life long gun pointed down that will shoot my feet as some kind of *gift*? Am I going to say that this loneliness, this isolation is what makes “me and my friends” wonderful artists? Do I craft this humblebrag in such a way as to make yet another Seanrant into some kind of celebration?

Because it’s awful, for all of us. I’m under no illusion that there is a Duran-Duran-video yacht somewhere covered with beautiful people in bikinis sharing cocktails, and that I’m not invited. But I do believe that there are people who walk around without a crippling sense of regret and shame for all the times they *didn’t* say the right thing at the right time, the people who figure – that moment came and went and they may as well just let it go and keep dancing. The people who think what they write is probably pretty good! It’s at least good enough! When they’re on stage, they’re probably great! When they go into a party, they’re probably gonna have fun! I know there are people like this.

But man, I sit down with a friend I haven’t seen in a couple of months and we start talking shit and there’s a moment, early on, five minutes in, when we’re cracking jokes and there’s a weird… pause, we’re not sure who should be talking. We can crack each other up on email but in person we’re just. sentence ending. in some – paragraph editing, punctuation problem with – what, no you- oh no, I was just gonna say, actually that was just, like, a minute ago and –

And that’s the moment when I think “this is where I live, in this moment, when we’re lost, when we don’t know what the next moment is supposed to be and this is why God made pockets, so we could do a thing with our hands…”

And then I’m talking to someone and I’m trying to tell them about a moment, about a thing that someone said to me or something and suddenly I can’t talk because I think, fuck, I think I’m actually kinda crying and what the fuck does that even mean? Why would I do that now, and then I stop because it’s fucking humiliating and then it feels like an affectation and… we’re all okay if we’re behind a sheet of white paper because we can read this out loud a couple of times before anyone else reads it, so why the hell am I here, why am I AT this place, why am I carrying all this godawful ME around with me everywhere I go, like a giant fucking elephant suit I have to wear to a black tie party?

And I remember being at a concert in college – one of four colleges that I barely attended – and I was watching a chamber orchestra doing a handful of pieces, modern pieces that I wasn’t gonna know but for some reason in the middle of it they did Elgar’s Nimrod, and it shouldn’t matter that it was my dad’s favorite composer because what am I, an asshole? And it shouldn’t have mattered that I had an LP of the piece that I used to play and switch out with Adagio for Strings or whatever…

It doesn’t matter, because everyone else at that college was DONE with Elgar and Barber, and there’s only two opinions you can have, you can not know who they are and not care, or you know, you know the whole thing and you’re DONE, but for my rattlesnake brain, just responding to stimulus like “beauty” without any kind of information or context, I was overwhelmed and I sat there in more and more pain and when the timpani rolled at the climax I cried in what I thought was silence, but it was obviously not as silent as the people I was sitting with, including the woman I was with at the time, who looked at me with crooked smiles as if to say, “surely not *this*. Surely you have better taste than *this*.”

Man, I don’t. And when I talk to someone and they phrase their opinion as if they are speaking, with authority, as a member of a large contingent, I just shrink into myself. When someone says, “Well, my friends and I have BEEN skydiving and what you need to know is …” and I’m just like “okay, you belong to the subset of aviation experts, that’s you, that’s your group and you speak for them and my group is, and always has been, just me and my incredibly limited experience. My larger group is comprised of disjointed individuated circles who’s venn diagrams intersect but don’t overlap, at least not with more than one color…”

I take comfort in the fact that some of our greatest poets and playwrights were men and women just like me. And I’m terrified because so are the lone gunmen, and so are some terrible poets and playwrights. Even worse, so are brilliant poets and playwrights who become so uncomfortable with the accolades of joiners that they sabotage themselves to reaffirm their sense of loneliness. Because in a world of cliques and ethnicities, of soldiers and terrorists and survivors, of artists and engineers, for some of us, who can’t tell where those groups start and where they stop, our only sense of identity is that loneliness. We may be capable of greatness, but we live in that awkward pause and no matter how much I may want it to be something to brag about, it is, more often than not, just awful.