When I first worked at College Humor, back when comments required personalized site accounts, there was a commenter named Sparty80. And Sparty didn’t like me
The comments were harsh. Were personal. Used my full name. Over the course of a few weeks, he’d call out my articles in the comments, call my articles out in the comment sections of other articles, and at one point, I believe he specifically wrote that he was going to name his first born son Lev Novak just so “he could smack Lev Novak in his face.”
He used my full name. I repeat that because that name doesn’t mean much to you, I imagine but it meant a lot to me. It was direct and personal, even behind a screen, to hear somebody call me out like that. Sitting behind my computer, I felt sick- this was a dog whistle. I was eighteen, and I hated myself more than any internet person possibly could. I knew all my imperfections and doubts, and had each cataloged with dizzying specificity.
But to have somebody else write it, to say it so plainly made it feel immutable. All your insecurities were backed up in print, impartial and eternal.
“Lev Novak sucks.”
My greatest fear, circling on a grain of truth, confirmed in print.
And I agreed.
Putting your work online or anywhere opens you up, especially because there’s nothing you can do to stop the inevitability of your failure. And it is inevitable. Your lack of perfection will reverberate across the internet, across time, and across the text messages of well-meaning loved ones who will text you unhappily as though your typos are a personal slight against them, as though you, I don’t know, volunteered for mediocrity.
Again, it’s inevitable.Sure, you can edit, you can practice, you can sharpen your work to its finest point, but you’re going to miss something. You’re going to miss a “you’re” or a “your” in your writing, and it’s going to be a cinch you leave a sentence splinched.
Submitting work publicly requires a narcism that blurs, more pleasantly into reckless optimism.
“You are your own worst enemy.”
Have you ever heard that? It sounds real pretty. It’s almost optimistic. It lets you think, for a moment, that if you are your own enemy, then you have no external threats or fears. Logically,
Here is what it really means. When you are your own worst enemy, it means you are stalked, on good days and bad, by a self that knows your weakness. A self that knows, perfectly, why you deserve your doubt, your fear, your guilt. You are stalked, forever, by a self- or a fraction of a self, at least- that wants you hurt.
So what did I do? I learned, fallibly, to avoid self reflection. You hate yourself? Don’t think about yourself! Live on auto-pilot. Take easy classes, drink too much at parties, and do what comes easily, naturally, because anything else- self awareness, for example- would take a toll, would force me to come to terms with who I was, and the gap that left towards who I wished I was.
I spent years of my life avoiding mirrors.
The reason I’m sharing this, over-sharing this even, is not for sympathy. It is not so you can argue about whether or not I’m being dramatic, or, so help me God, to post on this anonymously telling everyone how you went to college with me and I really do suck.
This is so you understand the way things happened the way they did.
Here is what happened.
After enough anxiety, fear and frustration, you will find yourself angry. It is easier to be cocky and angry, to dismiss your weaknesses, to refuse improvement with the blind, impossible insistence of your own perfection. I sent pieces out riddled with errors because I was so afraid of errors I couldn’t even bring myself to check for them. Criticism, even well meaning, was a knife, a betrayal, a reminder to my worst self that all my fears were true.
It is not logical! Congratulations! You did it! You found a person who is not optimized! People, in practice, are way different than bland “if I were you” theories. If you were me, you wouldn’t edit better, wouldn’t work harder. Because you’d have been me! You’d have had all the same quirks, the same fears and normal faults of laziness that hound me still. And you would understand, truly, the insurmountable gap between what it is and what it should be.
This is why I write with a rap playlist and an attitude on late nights, why I find sentences delving into scowls when I can’t quite stop them.
That is why it took me so long to dress better, to get contact lenses instead of glasses, to begin the process of effort whatsoever. Because effort is risk. The harder you work, the more is at stake. The more you invest in time and of soul in every piece. To dash off a piece was lazy, sure, but it was self preservation, a safety valve built into my life and work. If you didn’t like it, I could excuse the effort- I’d barely tried- and shunt it away.
Even this article is an excuse! Look at that. Even now, writing, I’m trying to let myself off the hook, to justify myself and my weakness, to land on gossamer pillows of comforting excuse and burrow in my own sympathy.
An attempt to improve is not a betrayal of your current or past self. It is not insurmountable or a fixed point. Balancing that with self appreciation, with realistic self-esteem is difficult. It is a lot easier to oscillate in swings between grandiose pride and anxious loathing- that averages, after all, to the average. But to remain balanced, to resist the tug and gravity of pride or fear to improve is something else entirely.
That’s going to be some work, but I can handle it.
And if this sounds familiar, you can too.