I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
How many of you have 1) identified with this poem and 2) secretly thought, “I doubt it’s really all that dreary”? I mean, are we allowed to call bullshit on the old masters? Because pretty much all of us have felt like Nobodies. If being Somebody sucks too, then is the point that it sucks either way?
Well, Buddhists would say yes. Yes it does. It’s called dukka, and it means something like “suffering” but more accurately “the dissatisfaction of knowing you are a being stuck in time with very little control over anything, especially the past or the future, and that everything is always changing.” Of course, Buddhists would also point out that it’s the knowing that creates the suffering, not the fact of having little control or the fact of everything always changing. Which means that there is relief from dukka—to change our own reactions to the world—but there is absolutely no way to eradicate dukka altogether. No amount of money, fame, success, or power will do it.
I admit this is an appealing philosophy to me, and I do try to practice meditation, compassion, and love as ways to modify my reactions to the unfair world. Other people who have things I do not have are not inherently happier, so it is a waste of my time and energy to envy or dislike them.
BUT it would be a lie to say that I “don’t care” about money, career, success. And one danger of the “mindfulness revolution,” as some are calling it, is the potential for people to believe that if we accept the essential suffering of human existence, we must accept the world as it is—we must be complacent.
To paraphrase Jake in the Blues Brothers, Fuck that noise.
Because the companion to complacency is powerlessness. Inaction due to a feeling of powerlessness is despair. And another truth, one of the big reasons for so many people in the West turning to mindfulness and Eastern philosophy, is that we really do live in a world controlled by institutions and ideas that make life worse. These institutions bombard us with messages that—whether they are designed to or not (insert your own theory here)—make us feel both unimportant and powerless.
I had to take a break there because I was beginning to confuse even myself. Philosophy can be argued and clarified for hours, days, years. Let me start again:
I’m going to introduce you to the Fringe Writer. Keep in mind that this could be someone in any number of professions, but this is the one I know. The Fringe Writer has a graduate degree in English/creative writing—MFA or PhD. They almost certainly teach at the college level, but part-time, or at a community college with a very heavy course load, or full-time but not with the coveted status of tenure, meaning they could get fired without notice and they teach more classes but make considerably less money than their tenured colleagues. The Fringe Writer has published in literary magazines, though likely more in small ones than the Big Name magazines cared about by university administrators who make hiring and pay decisions. The Fringe Writer may even have published books—well-written, beautiful books that were rejected many times by Prestigious Publishers and finally taken by appreciative small presses, but that never got reviewed or won post-publication prizes and were largely forgotten.
The Fringe Writer feels like a failure. The Fringe Writer is lonely. The Fringe Writer feels like Nobody. And the constant rejections from publications, the lack of respect from employers, the scarcity of money and time, the sense that one is shouting into an absolute abyss, hurt. The Fringe Writer, after all, LOVES their work—the teaching, the writing. They didn’t go into this field as a way to make money; they may even have dropped out of law school or turned down a job in their uncle’s window frame company because they wanted their work to be meaningful and fulfilling. And their writing is their heart, exposed. So all this unfairness hurts, an ache that rarely goes away, a personal pain of barbed wire and struggle.
Don’t tell the Fringe Writer that life is unfair, money runs the world, we’re all rats in a maze. The Fringe Writer went into higher education because that was the one place where exploring humanity (note: the humanities) was valued. How can that same system now devalue the Fringe Writer’s very humanity?
This is heartbreak, bone-deep, years-deep. I know. I was a Fringe Writer.
It is a tragedy that so many extremely intelligent, highly educated, experienced, motivated, talented people are made to feel like failures. And that’s not merely a tragedy brought on because “that’s the way the world is.” That tragedy has been 30 years in the making, as American colleges and universities flipped from 75 percent of professors being tenured to 75 percent being part time and contingent. It’s been exacerbated by the insane emphasis on “productivity” in America, which has affected every worker in some way or another: no one is supposed to actually take their vacation days (if they’re lucky enough to have any); writers/academics are supposed to publish more and more (mostly without pay); class sizes and therefore workload are larger; with fewer tenured professors, the same amount of out-of-the-classroom work is distributed among fewer people. And we all elbow each other jealously for a little bit of success while an obscene amount of wealth keeps flowing to just 1 percent of Americans.
What I’m trying to say is, if you’re the Fringe Writer, it’s not your fault. It’s not your fucking fault. You didn’t screw up by choosing this profession. You aren’t a “lesser writer.” You aren’t unworthy. You aren’t unimportant. You aren’t somehow a much worse teacher than your students say you are.
Now here’s where it gets tricky. Here’s where you have to connect ideas in unexpected ways. You have to hold in your mind that most things are outside of your control, are in fact luck-based, like your writerly/academic “success.” Accepting that truth, you stop blaming yourself, stop beating yourself up with your lack of success. That should be a huge relief, should make the weight you carry lighten by about half. It’s not your fault. The system is rigged.
But here’s the second idea to hold in your mind: the system is rigged. That’s not ok. All those rules you tried to play by? They’re unfair, unreasonable. They don’t work. The system needs to be changed.
When the balance of these two ideas is right, you can reclaim the energy you lost from blaming yourself and use it to make change.
For the Fringe Writer, what might that change look like? I’ve only got my own ideas to give you here. I stepped out of academia just this past summer, after 23 years of teaching, writing, trying, dreaming of that tenured job. I never got a shot at it—was never tenure-track. I internalized my failure so deeply over the years that I feel like I’m in detox now. But detox is giving me some great ideas—they trip over themselves these days, sometimes coming so fast I can’t even get them all written down.
I want to change publishing so that writers get a fair percentage of royalties—a majority of royalties. If writers are going to have to do their own publicity, they should have an incentive for it. They could even hire young people to help with publicity (it’s mostly social media these days) for a percentage of the royalty profit. But this only works if the current system changes—neither the New York model nor the academic press model is working, and neither is keeping up with new technologies like print on demand or e-books or the new ways readers consume art.
I want to tell and retell the stories of adjunct professors. I want to learn from what other countries are doing in their education systems: Finland, Germany. I want to persuade smart, talented people that they are, indeed, smart and talented. I want to learn computer and design skills. I want to change the way we think about work in this country (40 hours/week, plus constant availability through email and cell phones? Why not 25 hours/week?). I want to figure out how to deal with the addictive properties of technology (social media is so close to gambling as to be the perfect addiction: unpredictable, uncertain rewards). I want to write, and write, and write the things I want to write, whether they’re literary or popular or neither, because writing is how I understand myself and the big weird complex universe of existence.
It’s more than a little bit terrifying out here, in the land of possibility. And yes, I miss teaching. But it’s better, for me, than that stifling little room was, filled with my own voice telling the story of my failure.
Fuck that noise. I’m not to blame, but I’m not powerless. World, get ready. I’m making my own rules now.