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.

Overcoming Addiction

They say that every cigarette smoked takes ten minutes off of one’s life. If this holds true, then my battle with addiction has robbed me of approximately 45 seconds of my life. For over 20 hours in May 2011, I struggled to conquer my addiction to tobacco and regain control of my life. Although it was a long and arduous fight, I naturally came out on top and now have another thing about which to brag.

It all started during my Long And Glamorous Career in the Entertainment Industry (see Chapter 8 for more details) where everybody and their mother smokes because nobody seems to have put together that cigarette smoke plus vocal cords equals bad news. I had always felt a certain allure towards the idea of smoking even though I knew it was terrible for one’s health. The media has done a fantastic job glamorizing smoking to the point where even I, an educated, upper middle class consumer and a product of one of the best public school systems in the country, had a strong urge to try it out.

One night I met with an old friend from high school who was a social smoker. We were sitting on the edge of the pier at Lake Kittamaqundi reminiscing about days bygone when she pulled something out of her purse and asked me if I wanted to smoke it with her.

“Is that weed?!” I asked, disgusted.

“No,” she replied, “it’s a Black & Mild. They’re so good.”

Spontaneously and without any peer pressure, I agreed to experiment with this strange new thing to which she began to introduce me. To me, marijuana and crack cocaine are tacky as hell but somehow in my mind I rationalized taking a few puffs off of the cigarillo because I was bored and rebellious, quite a dangerous combination.

She pulled out her lighter, lit up, took a few puffs and deposited the cigarillo into my hand. Unsure what exactly to do with it, I put it to my lips, inhaled grandiosely and was thrown into a subsequent coughing fit. She explained to me that smoking was less “gasping for life” and more “casual inhalation”. Heeding her advice, I tried again and this time was able to take a puff without experiencing pulmonary arrest. Over the next fifteen minutes, I went through the motions of “smoking” several more times until they began to feel less unnatural.

As much as I wanted to pretend that smoking that nasty piece of shit made me feel cool and grown up, it just tasted like burnt meat and a vanilla Tootsie Roll (I love candy but even I absolutely hate vanilla Tootsie Rolls). Nevertheless, doing something grown up and rebellious automatically made me cool so I decided that I should do it again some day. Also, I secretly hoped that smoking that single cigarillo would make me lose 25 pounds like everybody else did when they take up smoking.

Afterwards, I doused myself in approximately fourteen spritzes of air freshener and cologne because I was too scared of walking into my house reeking of tobacco. Not that my parents would have been mad (or probably even noticed) but I feel like I would have disappointed them by doing something so stupid and reckless. Unsurprisingly, I tend to get very worked up in my head over situations that are a) hypothetical and b) unlikely to actually happen so I worried myself into a tizzy about my parents flipping out that I had smoked (another sign that I probably should not have done it). Needless to say, they did not even notice.

My second Black and Mild episode occurred at the the next day with Cara Marie Antico. We met for lunch that afternoon and I excitedly divulged the details of my initial foray into tobacco only for her to excitedly exclaim that she, too, is a gran aficionado of Black & Milds. Ecstatic, we rushed to Royal Farms and purchased a lighter and two more cigarillos. I was not even carded by the cashier which, frankly, ruins the entire idea of being a badass grownup rebel. But, I digress.

We hurried to the park and found a cozy bench next to the lake and immediately lit up – or, attempted to. It only took me about ten minutes to light the cigarillo once I finally figured out that lighters do not work very well when it is windy. In the midst of our conversation, I remembered reading that morning (I did my research!) that one of the main reasons that people smoke is to achieve the “high” affected by tobacco that consists mainly of lightheadedness and also a sense of calmness and detachment.

I tried and tried so hard to feel relaxed and lightheaded. Still feeling nothing more than my regular lucidity and thirst (and becoming annoyed that I was feeling nothing), I lied and remarked how great and relaxed I felt. Cara Marie agreed.

Over our ensuing casual conversation and my exaggerated lies, she noticed that I was not swallowing the smoke but instead just exhaling it. Subsequently she then taught me how to actually smoke and swallow. I could not quite figure out how to swallow the smoke and without choking so I decided to cut my losses and pretend. After I began to do pretend real smoking, I had to lie even harder about how great I felt and became more annoyed that I was not feeling so fantastically, orgasmically superb.

Nonetheless, with each jogger or elderly couple or park ranger that passed that bench and saw me smoking I felt about ten times cooler and more grown up even if I was fake smoking, lying about it and then laughing really loudly to look cool. For somebody who is image obsessed, this was the ultimate high (even if it was not at all affected by tobacco and completely contrary to societal values of 2011). In that moment, basking in the summer sun and feeling my lingering second degree sunburn intensify, I officially decided to be a smoker.

Later that night after my show, I was conversing with one of my favorite actresses whom I respected and looked up to when I decided to casually bring up my new affinity for tobacco. I shared a heavily embellished version of my glamorous and exciting day spent smoking half of a cigarillo. Her response was emphatic: “That shit is gross and disgusting and you should not be doing it.” Because it is rare for everybody to not agree with me 100%, I was caught off guard and forced to take pause for a moment.

Shocked, I decided to take her words to heart and do some serious soul searching as to why I really wanted to smoke. I then remembered that smoking makes you age prematurely and smell bad and that smokers cannot breathe well and therefore cannot do P90X. Suddenly, I envisioned myself as a fat, stinky old toothless slob waddling around sucking on cigarillos and wearing a white beater and gym shorts (photo credit to twelve years of health education from the Howard County Public School System).

And just like that, I decided to better myself and overcome my addiction.

Would I take it back if given the opportunity? Absolutely not. My struggle with addiction taught me valuable lessons about beauty and self-preservation that I otherwise would not have learned. Additionally, I have been able to share my story and inspire other smokers to kick their destructive habits (I think). People love to hear about things that I have done that make me better than them; I have learned how to effectively use my life experiences as a motivational tool. Because I, after all, am a giver.

Un peu perdu

I have nothing deep or insightful to share today, perhaps because I have been feeling especially confused as of late. As soon as things seem to finally be coming together, they suddenly fall right back apart. I’m not feeling particularly sad or disappointed but rather disenfranchised. I would simply like some structure and comfort.

This quote eloquently summarizes everything that I have learnt during the tumult of the past few months:

Le difficile n’est pas de monter, mais, en montant, de rester soi.
Jules Michelet

Est-ce que j’ai resté moi même? A ce moment, je ne sais pas.

Shaken or Stirred?

Language Scramble

It was Herman Melville who once said, “We become sad in the first place because we have nothing stirring to do.” Perhaps my present general discontent with my existence stems from a complete and utter lack of language education. For six consecutive years of my life, I was in Spanish class every day; I studied to the point of fluency.  For one wonderful year of my life, I was in daily French and Spanish classes with two wonderful instructors whom I enjoyed endlessly.

Now that I am fluent in Spanish, one of my biggest fears is losing my Spanish through nonuse. As with many things in life, it is difficult to attain but painfully easy to lose. Similarly, I consider myself to be conversant in French; I only studied it for two years however I was able to augment classroom instruction with my own personal studies to rise above the curriculum. I purchased several Portuguese instruction books during the winter but have generally fallen away from my Portuguese studies because I have been so busy. My forthcoming trip to Italy presents a wonderful opportunity to jam as much Italian into my brain as possibly in the next eleven months.

In short, I have a lot of language to maintain and no real methods by which to maintain. I do a lot of reading in Spanish but not a lot of speaking/writing. I had a Spanish pen pal several years ago, perhaps it is time to re-examine that opportunity? I don’t yet consider myself adequately versed in French to have an intelligent conversation or make any sort of contributions to the Francophone world but I have been plowing through Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series which is peppered with just enough French that I feel linguistically stimulated.

As for the Portuguese and Italian? Perhaps I would be better off waiting until I can take some classes in the fall. Either way, I am excitedly passionate about picking up both languages. It will happen in due time.

Photo: Language Scramble by magdalar on Flickr