On Being a Fraud: The Perils of Success as an Artist

I’ve had a remarkable year.

Tens of millions of people have read my work, which has appeared on the frontage of Reddit, in the NYT Now App from the New York Times and on the social media timelines of Big Boi and Greenpeace. I’ve had the privilege of covering some of the biggest science and technology stories of the year, and I’ve met some of the brightest minds of our generation along the way. I landed principle roles in digital shorts for an Emmy Award-winning primetime series and the longest-running cable television event in history. By some accounts, I am likely one of the most-read shark writers on the web right now.

At times, though, the successes feel hollow and undeserved.

I recently found myself at a very intimate press event. I sat in a small room all evening overlooking the capital of the free world, surrounded by the brightest minds in climate science and respected writers from the world’s top news outlets. For many people, it would have been an “I’ve made it!” moment, a realization of their hard work and a reminder that it really does pay off.

The first thought that crossed my mind was that I didn’t belong. As I let my feelings of inadequacy percolate, I kept telling myself that there was no way that I’d accomplished enough or was important enough to even sit in the same room as these people. There must have been some mistake — did I walk into the wrong room? Where is the kids’ table?

It’s strange, because I’m actually extremely confident and self-assured in pretty much every other aspect of my life, perhaps to a fault. In any other setting, I have no problem speaking to my achievements and and recognizing my accomplishments. I know that I’m talented, and nobody whose opinion matters has told me otherwise.

It’s in my own head, though, that my inner demons shroud me in darkness and self-doubt. As I’ve racked up successes, I seem to have accordingly amassed an exhaustive collection of crippling insecurities. This newfound planeload of baggage weighs constantly on my mind, seemingly getting heavier and heavier with each additional victory.

I would be remiss not to acknowledge the obvious: there are times when other people’s words tear me down. I’ve been lambasted on social media and dragged through the mud by strangers online. I’m getting better and better at dealing with that, though, and it feels like most of my present insecurity now comes from within.

There’s an innate strength in being vulnerable enough to even entertain the thought of sharing yourself — your words, your photographs, your dance, your voice — with the world. By writing and publishing anything at all, I know that I’ve made it farther in 23 years than many people will in a lifetime. Not everybody has the courage and, perhaps, the insanity, to take the stage and rip themselves open for public consumption, but I had always thought that getting started was the biggest battle and that it would only get easier from there.

Not so. As it turns out, to keep going is just as difficult.

The struggle persists in a different form. Just because the casting director or the buyer or the agent isn’t telling you that you’re not good enough doesn’t mean that you haven’t started to believe it after all these years of rejection. The absence of external aggressors turns the struggle inward, and you begin to lend credence to what you’ve been told all along but tried to brush off. The most destructive lies are the ones that you start to believe about yourself.

I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way. I’ve been in the entertainment industry in some form  for literally my entire life — I’m surrounded by other artists, and it seems like all of us go through the exact same thing at all stages of our careers. We bond over it and try to make light of the relentless fight against one’s self in an attempt to understand the darkness hidden deep down inside of all of us.

I’m sick of letting the voices in my head bring me down. During yoga last week, my wonderful teacher defiantly announced that it was time to “open yourself up and tear all that shit out.” There’s no doubt that it’s easier said than done and, like many things in life, it is a journey, not a destination. Until the day you die, things are going to bubble up and try to tear you down, but part of living fully and authentically is to let the negativity bubble up and then let it go. I’m sick of holding on to things that are weighing me down. For the sake of my art and my well-being, it’s time to move on.

Here’s to tearing all that shit out.

Reflections on 22

Danny horizontal headshot

If you had asked me a year ago where I would be on my next birthday, never in a million years would I have guessed that I would be here.

In August 2014, I was preparing to launch myself headfirst into a radio career. After a life-changing internship working on a syndicated morning show, I was head over heels in love with broadcasting. I walked away from that experience with countless mentors and a passion to do whatever necessary to get myself back into radio professionally.

However, as we all know, even the best-laid plans often go awry.

I spent my final semester of college cutting demo after demo, sending out countless resumes and name-dropping at every possible chance. After telling myself that I would only work for a large-market station, I conceded that, despite my experience with a top-rated show in a major market, I would need to start small.

Desperate to have a job by the time I graduated no matter the cost, I started applying for on-air jobs in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Boise, Idaho. In hindsight, it was borderline delusional to think that small town USA could handle Danny Clemens. Nonetheless, I continued applying full speed ahead, desperate to take radio by storm.

Unsurprisingly, my December graduation came and went without any job offers. The holiday season was bittersweet — I was proud to have (finally) earned my college degree, but struggled to find meaning in a world where my grades no longer mattered and I felt I had no professional prospects. To make matters worse, a relationship with a close friend imploded suddenly, leaving me wondering how to continue without somebody around whom I had spent years building my life.

As I found out, however, there is something remarkably liberating about your life seemingly collapsing around you. Halfway through January, I finally came to the realization that, with my radio career in the toilet and my personal relationships in flux, I had a rare opportunity to reinvent myself.

I had expended so much energy crafting a specific future for myself and building certain people into that future that I had lost my ability to be flexible. With that manufactured destiny seemingly out of reach, I was no longer constrained by the boundaries that other had imposed on me — or, perhaps more frighteningly, the boundaries that I had placed on myself.

Absolved of the confines of my former dreams, I decided to recognize the beauty in not knowing what was to come.

Of course, not everything was left up in the air — I was fresh off of sinking $40,000 into a college degree. I still had a particular set of skills that I wanted to utilize, but I opened myself up to applying those skills differently than I had envisioned.

Suffice to say, things fell into place pretty quickly after that.

Funny how things work out…I got my college diploma and my first big boy job offer on the same day! 🏆🎓💰 #UMBCGrad

A photo posted by Danny Clemens (@danny.clemens) on

By the end of February, I had landed a job that I wouldn’t have even considered applying for a few months earlier. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was walking into, but I needed to work and was excited to face something new head-on. My gamble paid off: I’ve been lucky to be stretched and challenged in ways that have helped me grow immeasurably as both a writer and a person. I’ve met fantastic people along the way and, through it all, have always felt that I landed exactly where I needed to be.

Did my dreams come true? Not by a long shot — but in many ways, I’m now doing exactly what I wanted to do on radio: telling stories, engaging an audience and injecting my own flair of signature Danny humor. The only difference? People are reading my words on a screen instead of listening to my voice over the air.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the past 22 years, it’s that life is unpredictable. Despite your best efforts, things fall apart or never come together in the first place. To be successful, however, is to roll with the punches, play the hand you’re given and create your own happiness. In other words — make it work.

Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Here’s to 24*!

*Please note: 24 has always been my lucky number — I’m going to skip 23 and be 24 for the next two or three years to (hopefully) extend my wave of good fortune.

On Race

The first girl who I thought I sincerely loved was black.

She was also my best friend who had been by my side through thick and thin during middle school, three of the toughest and most turbulent years of everybody’s life. We were inseparable; after spending all day together in school, we would go home and talk on the phone for hours about absolutely nothing. We knew each other’s family and frequently went over to each other’s houses  on the weekends and hung out. Prepubescent Danny misinterpreted this jovial camaraderie and platonic devotion for romance and pounced: When I felt the time was right, I sent her a long, thoughtful email (that’s how 13-year-olds rolled in 2004) declaring my passion.

Guess what? She turned me down. She kindly and astutely informed me that she just wanted to be friends, and, although she loved me as a friend, she was not in love with me. Dejected, I wrote her another long-winded email begging her to reconsider and once again expressing my deeply rooted love for her. She steadfastly insisted that we would be better as friends. Spoiler alert: She was right.

Heartbroken, I recounted my dramatic, turbulent sojourn of love and loss to the entire school. I wrote about my feelings on my Xanga, posted AIM away messages with sad Fall Out Boy lyrics for weeks and moved to another lunch table to avoid an encounter with the one who got away. Within a week, the entire seventh grade knew about my plight, but, luckily, she and I were able to make amends and pick up our friendship as though nothing had ever happened.

Not once did anybody ever mention race. At an age when we were all finally starting to form judgments and opinions independent from those of our parents, nobody noticed her blackness and my whiteness as being either an issue or a novelty.

Fast forward two years to high school: my best friend had moved away, and I was left to my own devices. In a new school, I was introduced to a barrage of new friends and quickly formed a new clique (while still making sure to text her on the bus every morning).

As my friends from the western (more affluent) side of the county were quick to remind me, my high school was considered the “ghetto” school in the county. While I grew up in the fourth wealthiest county in the nation and lived a very comfortable existence, my high school district included both “the 1%” and the families living in government-subsidized housing. I was extremely lucky to attend a high school where, however “ghetto” we were considered, the staff and faculty were quick to embrace difference and instill in us a love of and appreciation for diversity.

As such, my social group throughout high school was comprised of students of all races, genders, sexual orientations, socioeconomic backgrounds and religions. I never thought about the cultural markers that could divide us; to me, it was about who you are and not where you came from. Similarly, I also never considered the differences that make our cultures rich. Realistically, I would contend that the cultural climate of political correctness and unequivocal acceptance taught me to think that I was lucky enough to be growing up in a post-racial world. There was no racism happening before my eyes in Columbia, Maryland and, therefore, it wasn’t happening anywhere else, either.

Fast forward again to my college years: My liberal arts education is beginning to open my eyes, and slowly but surely my rose-colored view of the world is beginning to fade. I distinctly remember sitting in an American Studies course and discussing Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Knapsack” theory. My mind was particularly blown by one of the final entries on the white privilege checklist:

 46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

That day, our scholarly discourse involved debating what was more socially debilitating: belonging to a low socioeconomic class or belonging to a minority race.  I (predictably) sided with the notion that poverty was more crippling than non-whiteness. I was sure that being too poor to afford designer jeans was more of an inhibitor to one’s social mobility than having to wear a light Band-Aid over dark skin. Based on my upbringing, race was so irrelevant that I could not even fathom it serving as an inhibitor in 2014. I argued that, regardless of race, everybody is presented with the same opportunities, but not everybody can afford to take advantage of said opportunities. That is what I sincerely believed to be true based on what I had experienced so far in my life; my family experienced a very frightening year in which we found ourselves in dire financial straits. I had never really lived race, but I had certainly experienced economic hardship.

Ultimately, my American Studies class was unable to come to a consensus about poverty versus non-whiteness. We concluded that race and socioeconomic status are becoming increasingly intertwined and forming very complicated, nuanced identities (a concept known as intersectionality). Despite our inability to agree, my classmates brought up ideas that made me think. I walked away from that discussion with a nagging sense of unease; for weeks I thought about the notion of  the color “flesh”.  While the idea of a bandage defining a “normal” skin tone bothered me, my American Studies course had come to an end, and I was unable to contextualize my feelings within a broader discourse on racial identity.

Little did I know, the discussion about race in America would re-ignite on a national scale in a few short months with the tragic events in Ferguson,  Missouri. I’m going to refrain from commenting on the specifics of the case because, even three weeks after the fact, there are still just as many unknowns. However, I think it is impossible to deny that the shooting and especially its aftermath have brought to light that there are still rampant racial tensions and harrowing inconsistencies regarding our collective understanding of race in America.

Watching everything unfold in Missouri has also had me thinking lately about my personal perception of race, its incompleteness and my misplaced idealism (you might go so far as to call it ignorance). I can’t pinpoint my personal tipping point, but I can recognize that I am taking the first steps toward developing a broader perspective on the notion of race. The reality of racial identity in America is so much more complex than I was raised to believe; I learned to embrace race but also to subconsciously ignore it. There is (and has been) so much going on that I had no idea about. Do I have any answers? Absolutely not. In fact, I would argue that I am more confused now than ever. I sincerely hope that the next few months will serve as a turning point in the conversation on race in America because I, along with the rest of the country, have so much work to do.

Like I said, I am now more confused than ever, but with this confusion also comes a desire to understand, to listen, to be compassionate, to contribute to the dialogue and to recognize that this is about something so much bigger than me.

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I Can’t Wait to Get Divorced

My ultimate relationship goal is to play a role that nobody seems to want to play: that of the Liberated Divorcé. Once my failed marriage has amicably ended in dissolution (aided by the pre-nup upon which  I will certainly insist), I will at long last be free to be openly disinterested in love and to do whatever I want with absolutely no strings attached. Perhaps after I go through the motions of marriage will people be more willing to accept my blasé attitude toward love.

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Sadly, I am not quite to that point in my life.

I am on every dating site known to mankind. From the more traditional Match.com to the frivolous okCupid, I have been around the block time and time again to no avail. I have no problem connecting with people; conversation is one of my strong suits. I would even go so far as to say that I love interacting with people – I just cannot find anybody who I find interesting on a  romantic level.

In the interest of full transparency: I am all for casual relationships.  I love meeting new people, going out and having a good time; commitment is where I find myself struggling. I can’t even decide what to wear most days without changing my outfit 17 times so don’t hold your breath for me to make any long term commitments in the foreseeable future.

My dreadful dating skills are compounded by my dislike for people who take themselves too seriously.  If we are just meeting for the first time, especially online, I do not care to know about your PhD,  yacht or dual citizenship (and, yes, these are all things that people have tried to use to impress me). I sincerely hope that people don’t take everything that I say seriously and, as such, there is literally nothing that turns me off more than having to hear about how serious you think you are.

Double standard: I have a career that is Glamorous! and Exciting! so I reserve the right to brag and gloat as much as I see fit.

Despite my indifference to finding “the one”, I nonetheless feel pressure to at least pretend to be looking for love. Everybody else is getting engaged, having babies and buying a home together while I’m sitting in my pajamas at 2pm eating cookies on the couch.

For now, I will continue to dink around on OkCupid. I’ll halfheartedly answer all of my Tinder messages and keep casting my rod into Plenty of Fish (get it? pun intended). Just don’t get your hopes up that you’re going to catch me with a ring on my finger anytime soon.

My mother has said for years that she doesn’t think I will ever get married. Instead, she foresees me impregnating a 20-something when I am in my 40’s and then getting stuck with a gold digger and a bastard child.

Thanks, mom!

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I Have Always Been Embarrassing, Part 2

Editor’s note: this is the second in a series of Throwback Thursday posts that revisit my hot mess blog from middle and high school. Click here for Part 1.

The very first thing that I saw when I pulled up by blog circa 2006 was this horrendous excuse for a biography:

linguisticHi! I’m Danny! I enjoy acting, blogging, jogging, dancing (kind of), Spanish, and photography. I’ve been acting/dancing/singing for nine years. I have about 25 shows on my resume, and trust me, that list will keep growing! I also take voice lessons to help further my vocal abilitiesI’ve been blogging for two years. I guess you could call me a “pro”. I also have studied Spanish for two years and I plan to study all through high school. I used to play clarinet but I quit. I get all A’s and B’s, but mostly A’s. I have a camera but I drop it and broke the zoom/select buttons so it basically sucks. All it does it take pictures. Nothing else. No deleting or changing settings. I need a new one. Yeah….that’s me. Love me or hate me, just don’t whine about it to me.

In hindsight, I was clearly oppressed when I was forced to live with a camera that couldn’t zoom in or change the settings that I didn’t know how to change anyway. I was far from being a “pro” at blogging after two years of posting passive aggressive stories about my friends, Fall Out Boy song lyrics and memes about how difficult my love life was. Also, only a 14-year-old would say “Love me or hate me, just don’t whine about it to me”.

One of my first posts in 2006 was yet another “Getting To Know Me!” survey. Highlights:selfie

  • Your Most Missed Memory: The Wix – August 2004 I couldn’t even be bothered to spell “The Wiz” right despite this being my most beloved memory.
  • Have You Been In Love: Yes. I was still in middle school so I absolutely had never been in love.
  • Ever been called a Tease: Yeah I was really slutting it up at age 14 in my cargo shorts and Napoleon Dynamite t-shirt from Kohl’s.
  • Do you belive in yourself: 95% of the time Oddly specific. I would say that I am closer to 100.00% of the time now.
  • In the past month have you Drank Alcohol: Only at church This was clearly written before my unceremonious crashing down from organized religion.
  • How do you want to Die: In my sleep…..just like Rose in Titanic Ugh.

expoDuring my 8th grade year, I was invited to participate in an advanced writer’s workshop meant to hone creative writing skills. As a result, I spoke in similes and metaphors for most of the year:

one of my important realizations today was that i can’t go seeking for love, especially at scool! it will find me on its own. i mean, come on. searching for love at school is like searching for shoes that fit you in the skecher’s outlet in arundel mills! not gonna happen! i’m just gonna lay back and let things happen when they’re gonna happen.

Evidently, the Writer’s Guild failed to teach me conventions regarding capitalization, the correct spelling of “school” and rules regarding preposition usage with the verb “to seek”. I am also horrified that I was not more ashamed about wearing Skechers.

As 8th grade began winding down, I went to the mall with a big group of friends with the intent of finding outfits for our middle school graduation ceremony.

chelesaso i met chelsea at the mall at 5. we had an awesome time! we  got kicked out of some store! the nerve of some people! we were looking at mother’s day presents and the sales clerk came over and said “okay gang, time to mosey along.” wtf? someone will be getting a call from my lawyer!

It comforts me to know that I have always felt entitled to excellent customer service, even in my adolescent years. The store that we were kicked out of closed less than a year after this episode of blatant profiling so it looks like I got the last laugh!

blogspotBy the time I started high school in the fall, I was rattled by the growing trend of school shootings. My Mean World Syndrome was kicked into high gear as I walked the halls of my high school and wondered if I was going to be the next victim to a random act of violence (because those occur frequently in Howard County, Maryland):

All these school shootings (3, 4 in the past week?) have scared the 14-year-old crap out of me.  If there are psychos out there willing to attack schools in other places (Canada, Pennsylvania, etc.), whose to say that they won’t storm MY school?  Whose to say that I’m safe from this chaos? Something horrible could happen tomorrow, and I could become a statistic. My face could be on the frontpage of CNN, with a caption explaining my tragic, early demise.

It’s just like that Weather Chanel series…It could happen tomorrow!

I really wish this was a joke but I did, in fact, equate the possibility of a school shooting at my high school to a short-lived cable program about severe weather events. It seems that my Writer’s Guild training was still serving me well. I am proud to admit that I have since calmed my tits and no longer live in fear of being shot.

In November, the school system was experiencing a shortage of school bus drivers and there weren’t enough drivers to cover all of the routes each day. As a result, one bus would pick up two routes worth of students and many of us were forced to stand up in the aisles and position ourselves in other ways that were very dangerous so that we could all fit on the bus.

CNN had recently launched iReport, a crowdsourcing/citizen journalism website where viewers could submit their photos/videos/etc. of breaking news stories. I saw my opportunity to become a “respected journalist” and sprung into action, submitting my account of the school bus travesty to CNN and other news outlets with similar services.

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Nobody responded except for the local CBS affiliate here in Baltimore. Feeling down but not quite yet out, I arranged for a reporter to interview me at my bus stop after school to shed some light on a serious problem that was potentially putting people at risk. I tried my hardest to tell an engaging and captivating story to guarantee myself air time but instead buckled under pressure and was awkward. When the segment ultimately aired, the reporter neglected to even mention my name and did not credit me for my videos and photographs.

What I had envisioned as a feature story about a courageous young whistleblower was, in actuality, a mediocre local news story about kids who had to stand up on the damn bus. I missed my 15 minutes of fame BUT the school bus problem was eventually solved. I did, however, learn a very valuable lesson from the entire affair: when things aren’t going your way, go to the media.

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