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.