Category: Pop Culture and Fandom

Fear or Love?

A couple of days ago, I watched tick, tick…BOOM! For those unfamiliar with the film, it’s an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name by Jonathan Larson, a semi-autobiographical story about an aspiring composer called Jon. About to hit his thirtieth birthday, Jon is panicking that he’s achieved nothing (“Sondheim had his first musical produced when he was twenty-seven!”), and worried that he’s spent eight years working on a musical that will never see the light of day. He’s haunted by the ever-present sense that time is running out, a ticking clock in the background. Around him, the AIDS crisis intensifies the sense that life is fleeting and that every moment has to count.

Jonathan Larson eventually wrote Rent, which proved to be a major success, winning awards and running on Broadway for years. But he never saw it happen: he died suddenly and unexpectedly the night before it opened. In the end, he was right that the clock was ticking and time was short, though he couldn’t have known how true it would be for him.

I thought it was an excellent film: unapologetic about being a musical, while still making the songs make sense in the real-world context. Some musicals go too far with explaining why people are singing, while others don’t bother at all, accepting it as a conceit of the genre; this one walks a middle ground. The music makes sense because we’re in Larson’s head, seeing the world his way, and he makes everything into music. It’s a film by and for people who love musicals, and it isn’t trying to be anything it’s not; I appreciated that.

I also thought Andrew Garfield was great as Larson — incredibly convincing. I’ve only ever seen him as Spiderman, and had no idea he could sing, but it definitely feels like a role he earns. I don’t think it’s the kind of film where you have to have seen Rent to enjoy it (or, if you have seen it, you don’t have to like it), but there are definitely added layers if you have: little details that echo the lyrics or dialogue.

So: it’s a good film. But it also felt incredibly targeted towards all my own fears and insecurities. I, too, am haunted by that ticking clock, that sense that time is passing around me and I’m stuck in a loop, never progressing, waiting to actually start living the life I’ve been working towards for years. By the time The Butterfly Assassin is released, it will have been eight years since I started working on it — the same length of time Jon spent on his musical — and while this one will see the light, there are more than a dozen other novels that won’t. And I’m haunted by the constant threat of loss, though my own anxiety about the mortality of loved ones is far less justified than that of somebody living through the AIDS crisis and going to funerals every other week; it’s very much just how my personal species of brainweasels manifests.

It was probably inevitable, then, that a few hours after watching the film, I got caught in an anxiety spiral about the future. What am I going to do? What am I going to do? Why aren’t I already doing it? I made the mistake of accidentally reading a friend’s post about the things they were learning in their current postgrad programme and was struck by the irrational sense of being left behind, the kind of instinct that has me second-guessing my decision not to apply for a PhD straight away. I’ve missed my chance for this year, I found myself thinking, and if I apply next year I won’t start until the year after that and they’ll all be so far ahead of me and I’m wasting time I’m wasting time I’m wasting time — all for a path I haven’t actually decided I’m going to go down.

I thought: I’ve got to start working on my Irish again. I thought: I have to write another book. I thought: I have to do something, why aren’t I doing anything, what am I waiting for? I could hear it myself: tick tick tick tick. Time trickling away, counting down to the inevitable explosion — implosion — destruction. No matter how much I tried to tell myself that I’m already on my way to making progress, it didn’t shake the crushing sense of urgency.

And then I remembered the question somebody asks Jon in tick, tick…BOOM!: fear or love?

Why stay? Why keep working towards a distant dream — because you love it, or because you’re too afraid to let go of something you formed your personality around? Are you being led forward by your passion and enthusiasm or are you being chased by your anxiety? What’s the real driving force here: is it fear, or is it love?

I decided not to apply for a PhD yet because I knew doing so would be driven by impostor syndrome instead of passion, and I was right about that. But it seems I’m going to have to keep reminding myself of that, because it’s too easy to let the fear talk me into urgency, to point me towards the ticking clock instead of the world of other possibilities. If I go back to academia, I want it to be because of love for my subject — not fear that I’m being left behind, that I’m not good enough, that I’m somehow inferior to the friends who have done / are doing PhDs already.

(That fear haunts me. Do I really believe that, deep down? Because sometimes it feels like I do — and does that mean I think I’m better than those who haven’t done an MA? My instinct is to say, “No, of course I don’t,” but is that because I know I shouldn’t feel that way? What unexamined elitism am I in denial about, that drives my own inferiority complex? Or is this another of those, “No, of course you’re fine, it’s only me I’m holding to impossible standards” situations?)

Fear or love? Once I asked myself this question about my PhD panic, I realised it was the kind of question I needed to be applying to the rest of my life. I’ve talked before about my impostor syndrome and frustration with a lack of progress in learning Irish, but were my language-learning efforts really being motivated by love of the language? Or was it fear, once again, of not being good enough, and of being an outsider?

The answer was obvious. Fear. Every time, it was fear. My anxiety about learning always increases whenever I see somebody else in my field criticised for their lack of modern Irish, or when somebody expects me to know more than I do, or when my lack of fluency is treated with surprise rather than understanding. And while that anxiety would temporarily motivate an increased effort at changing the situation, it never lasted. I’d have a week of working and then it would fizzle out, my hyper-awareness of all the ways I was failing to meet my goals outweighing any pride I might feel in the progress I was making.

The more I thought about it, and the more things I applied this question to, the more I realised how many of the things making me unhappy were because I’d allowed fear to motivate me, not love. Even silly things, like bookstagram — when I started posting elaborate book photos, it was because I loved books, but over time it became fear of losing my engagement, fear of being inadequate, fear of disappointing complete strangers on the internet. The effort began to outweigh the enjoyment, and I was constantly burned out. I started seeing books as props instead of stories, and where once I’d taken pride in creative photos and setups, I fixated instead on my dwindling likes, trying to figure out what the Instagram algorithm wanted of me, trying to work out what others were doing that I wasn’t.

And so I quit, a couple of years ago, and I don’t regret it at all, but there are other forms of social media where fear (especially fear of missing out) has kept me active on platforms that are otherwise making me miserable. It’s just been less obvious, so I haven’t noticed. Am I there because I love the communities I’m in and the connections I’m forming, or because I’m afraid to leave? Am I there in search of joy, or is it an anxious default setting, a pattern I don’t know how to break out of?

As I contemplate whether or not I have a future in academia, I’m being forced to realise that, all my life, learning has been driven by fear. And while allowing fear of doing badly in an exam to motivate me has historically resulted in good exam results, it hasn’t actually resulted in effective learning: I’m a master of learning exactly what I need to know for the time it takes me to sit the exam and then immediately forgetting it afterwards.

I was never fluent in French because I was learning in order to pass exams, get into university, and otherwise prove my academic worth according to arbitrary standards. And I’ll never be fluent in Irish unless I stop letting fear of inadequacy be my primary motivation.

If I did a PhD now it wouldn’t be because I actually want to. It’s because I’m afraid of not doing it. Afraid of what it means for my identity as a medievalist and an academic if I let my MA be the end of my formal studies. Afraid of feeling inadequate around my more academic friends. I can’t let that happen. Those brainweasels can’t be allowed to win. Because three years of fear-driven study will only result in misery. The reason I was happier during my MA than during my BA was because I was there for love of the subject, and I don’t want to ruin that by slipping straight back into the same patterns.

And while I do intend to intensify my efforts at learning modern Irish, I don’t want it to be because I’m afraid of never being good enough to belong in my field. I’m tired of the ticking clock. I’m tired of fear looking over my shoulder, whispering to me to run faster and faster and faster just to keep up.

I don’t know how to put the love back into language-learning, but I want to try. Maybe it’ll mean, each day, identifying which new word I liked best, and focusing on those small moments of delight. Maybe it’ll mean making a game of it, or finding new ways to apply what I learn to my hobbies. I don’t expect every second of the process to be fun, but I want to learn to love the process and recognise my progress, instead of being haunted by everything I don’t know. I want to stop constantly comparing myself to others, and start finding the joy in my own journey.

I want to apply this to other areas of life, beyond languages. I want to ask myself honestly: fear or love? And if it’s fear, can I stop? Can I put it aside? Or can I reframe it and come at it from a different angle?

I want to love more and fear less. I think, if I stop allowing fear of my own inadequacy to motivate me, it’ll be easier to look outwards. Easier to celebrate others’ success, because I’ll no longer be so afraid of being left behind. Easier to recognise when a closed door is inviting me to take another route instead of locking me in a cupboard. I want to go forwards with curiosity and hope and excitement, rather than because I’m desperately trying to outrun the negative emotions creeping up behind me.

I’m not gonna say that anxiety attack the other night was a good thing (it kept me up until 4am, that’s never great), but I do think I learned something from thinking about life in those terms. I sat there at two in the morning, writing out quotes and thoughts and questions in insular minuscule — I’ve found calligraphy a surprisingly good method for calming down, because it requires such steady, deliberate movements that you can’t rush — and by the time I stopped, I’d gone from spiralling about how to use the next few months “productively”, academically speaking, to realising I couldn’t let myself be chased down that path.

I guess I’m sharing this for three reasons. The first is that I think it’s always comforting, if you’re the kind of person who suffers from impostor syndrome and a sense of inadequacy, to know that you’re not alone. I can give off a totally unfounded sense of confidence in person simply because I’m talkative, but I’m actually a doubt-ridden gremlin, and I feel that’s always worth pointing out, because it might reassure somebody. The second is that people are often asking me about my plans for the future, and while I’ve already talked about my academic intentions, I still feel it’s worth reiterating that I currently have no idea whether or not I’m going to do a PhD and I am deliberately trying not to treat it as an expectation, because that’s how I get trapped in the hamster wheel of academic progress/obligation.

And the third reason is that I think a lot of us, actually, are driven by fear rather than love — especially in an increasingly hostile online world, and especially those of us with anxious creative brains. These days I spend a lot of time chatting to other debut authors, and I think those fearful brainweasels gain power from pre-publication stress. I should be doing this, I should be doing that, I’m running out of time, I’m behind, I’m going to fail. Not to mention all my academic friends trying to decide how much of themselves to give to their institutions, how much to sacrifice, what they’re willing to do. So I’m asking myself this question in public because I suspect there are others of youse who also need to be asking that question, and making choices about what to do about the answer.

Fear might be my default setting, but I’m picking love, and I’m going to keep picking it until eventually it sticks. And I don’t know what it’s going to look like or how I’m going to do it necessarily, but that’s part of the process.

I want to learn to love the process, and forget the ticking clock.

If you want to do your bit to combat my fear of failure, pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin or buying me a coffee will do wonders for my ego.

In Praise of Cold Takes

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I don’t exactly tend to be at the cutting edge of media consumption. And I’m not only referring to the fact that I spend most of my time being overwhelmingly emotional about medieval literature, although no doubt that contributes to the phenomenon. I just… don’t have the hang of pop culture — rarely do I like something before it’s cool, and more often I like it after it’s cool, when everybody else has moved on.

I suspect this is my natural state, which means I’m not entirely suited to the online culture of immediate reactions and hot takes. Back when I used to participate more actively in fandom communities, I found the pressure to engage immediately or be bombarded with spoilers a little overwhelming; I remember racing upstairs to my laptop after every episode of Doctor Who to see how Tumblr was reacting, and I was devastated if I had to miss an episode and catch up on iPlayer later, because I’d inevitably see spoilers before I had a chance to watch the episode for myself.

Now that most people’s TV consumption is asynchronous streaming, there isn’t quite as much pressure to watch a new episode within one specific one-hour slot or risk having every possible twist ruined for you, but spoilers still abound. I didn’t have Disney Plus when the second season of The Mandalorian aired, but within about a day I’d seen dozens of gifs of the big reveal. I’ve never watched WandaVision, but it seemed like the day the final episode aired, my entire Twitter feed was quotes and discussions of quotes.

(I’m not so anti-spoiler as I used to be, and since I had no particular interest in WandaVision and knew it would be a while before I could catch up on The Mandalorian, these didn’t bother me hugely in terms of ruining twists. But I saw enough grumpy tweets about spoilers to know that others felt differently — and there are certainly other things I’d have been more bothered about having spoiled for me.)

I tried, for a while, to be part of that kind of culture, discussing pop culture with a sense of immediacy. I always gave spoiler warnings (at least online; apologies to the friends who had spoilery text messages from me back in the day), but I’d be writing posts about Sherlock the day after an episode aired, trying to capture a fleeting readership; when I wasn’t blogging here I’d be on Tumblr, engaging with meta and discussion and reblogging copious amounts of gifs.

And back then, well, maybe sixteen-year-old me had the energy to go from consumption of media to Opinions About Media in half an hour flat, but these days? Not so much. In fact, these days even Consumption of Media can feel like too much, especially if it’s something new and unfamiliar that my brain has to try and process. Sometimes I just want to reread or rewatch.

This pressure to constantly be on top of The New Thing is why I ended up giving up bookstagram. There, it wasn’t spoiler-based pressure, but there was still an unspoken pressure to constantly post about new releases, buy new books, be able to talk about all the ‘big’ YA books… and I realised I wasn’t actually interested in that. Because, frankly, I’m a contrarian who hates being told what to do. Having to watch something now, read something now, talk about it now, just to stay on top of some fleeting zeitgeist? Everything in me rebels against that.

It always has done, I think, in hindsight. As a teen I had a singular disinterest in ‘fitting in’, to the point of being frankly snobbish about things which were popular. While I could have toned down the latter, the former explains why I was late to the party with a lot of the popular YA books of my teens — practically all of The Mortal Instruments had been released by the time I picked up the first one, The Hunger Games was well on its way to being a film by the time I raced through the trilogy, and I never really understood the Divergent hype.

So why, as an adult, did I try to force myself to behave in a way my teenage self would never have done? Aren’t we meant to grow out of the need to fit in, not into it?

Don’t get me wrong, I like to know what’s happening in the book world. When I used to do reviews, I enjoyed getting sneak peeks at new books, and it was satisfying when I went to bookshops and found I’d already read most of the new YA on the shelves. I liked feeling like I had my finger on the pulse. But I also love rereading. Or finding random books in the library that came out ten years ago. And I’m not always interested in the ‘trendy’ or ‘popular’ books.

So when I only have the energy to do one or the other… the new stuff (being generally expensive and less accessible than older things I already own or can access via libraries) tends to be what has to give.

And it’s not that I’m never impatient and excited enough for a TV show or a film that I’ll watch it as soon as it comes out — while I’m not the ‘midnight showing’ kind of person (tbh, before lockdown I went to the cinema about twice a year), there’ve been plenty of TV shows that I’ve gone out of my way to watch as soon as they were released.

But mostly, I just like to take my time about cultivating my opinions. I don’t want to have to have a hot take immediately. I don’t want to race online after every film I watch, when I’m still trying to decide how I felt about it; I’d rather give my thoughts a bit of time to develop before I try them against anybody else’s. Engaging too soon in the constant online discussions can leave me unsure what I felt in the first place, when all of my opinions have been displaced by somebody else’s.

And, yes, I think part of it’s my fear of confrontation. When everybody’s yelling about a book, I’m scared to throw my thoughts in the ring. I’d prefer to come back ten years later and talk about it then, when everybody else has moved on. When I have a strong emotional reaction to a piece of media, I’m nervous about that response being dismissed or criticised while it still feels new and raw.

Beyond that, though, I do like the perspective that comes with time. Maybe it’s the academic in me, obsessed with rereading, looking for new perspectives. Maybe it’s the medievalist, who thinks anything after 1500 is suspiciously newfangled and should be viewed with caution (although since I keep drifting into 17th century manuscripts these days, I may have to get over that). Maybe I’m just very tired, and don’t have the energy to have opinions non-stop.

Probably it’s all of them. I’m an anxious, tired, thoughtful, sensitive medievalist and I like to give my opinions on pop culture a good half decade to mature before I let them out.

In other words, this blog is a hot take-free zone. All takes here will have been left in the back of the fridge for three years until they grew mould that I had to scrape off and then maybe I’ll reheat them and hope they’re still edible before I serve them up. In six months to six years from now, you might get to hear my thoughts on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but probably not before, and in the meantime I’ll continue to have opinions about YA books from 10-15 years ago.

At least that way, I don’t need to worry so much about spoilers.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying me a coffee.