Just getting started.
On professionalism, anxiety, the compliment of "real money", and what I'm hoping to do here.
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I am not a professional writer. By trade, I am a software engineer.
I taught myself to code. It started as a hobby.
Blissfully alone for three months of summer vacation, I was in introvert heaven. I slept in until noon, and stayed up until sunrise. Clad in my pajamas as much as hygiene would allow, I glued my little butt to my computer chair, learning HTML and CSS so I could decorate the one space I felt I had complete control over at the age of twelve: a Geocities site.
By today’s standards, I’m sure it wasn’t much to look at. But I loved it: all tiled wallpaper and bright colors, filled with facts about whales and lyrics from Broadway musicals in Times New Roman.
Whales and Broadway musicals? What did those things have to do with each other?
Well, me. I liked them both. That seemed link enough for me at the time.
Despite being totally public on the internet, it was a safe space for me before I had ever heard that term, perhaps before it existed.
Those blissful days of being a devoted amateur—‘one who loves’, to get etymological about it—were over soon enough. I created my own advanced study course in web design in high school, because nothing like that existed at the time. I took freelance jobs building sites before I finished college, and got a full-time job in the field immediately after, even though my degree was in a different field entirely.
The progression was not entirely surprising: I was raised with something of an anti-amateur mindset.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but one way I can concisely sum it up is this: of all the compliments my dad would turn to when reviewing the output of my hobbies growing up—technology, visual artistry, live performance, crafting, and combinations thereof—the one he chose to say the most was, “you could make some real money doing that.”
He still says it to me sometimes, though admittedly not as often, if only because we talk more these days about my job, i.e. a thing I am already paid for.
But when it does return, it’s delivered in the same way I always remember from my childhood: usually preceded with a “hey” and a bodily lean in toward me, in the pleased, proud sotto voce of a co-conspirator: we both know you have to be good to be a professional. We’re professionals.
There is nothing wrong with this as a compliment. Oh, sure, we could get into the fundamental problems of capitalism as a societal underpinning. But taking reality as it is, what I mean to say is: my father has always spoken these words to me with kindness and encouragement, love and support. I know full well not everyone received such gifts growing up—wrapped in any turn of phrase.
But there are repercussions, it turns out, when those words land on the ears and nestle in the mind of someone suffering from anxiety and perfectionist tendencies. In short, someone like me.
I internalized it without even realizing it. It started to form a framework in my mind—being good enough to hire for a thing is the end goal, always; money is the end goal, always.
(Oh, I guess we are getting into the fundamental problems of capitalism as a societal underpinning after all? Insert thinking face emoji here.)
It became not a commendation I would give myself after accomplishing something—wow, I’ve really improved, I feel like a ‘pro’!—but criteria for even starting: how are you going to succeed if you don’t know what success even looks like? How can it be an achievement, a business? How are you going to be amazing at this?
About five years ago, I finally recognized the pattern: I was constantly un-hobbying my hobbies, holding myself to impossible standards as a matter of course.
The moment I realized it, it felt like a ball bearing landing in my stomach after being dropped from a tenth story window. Which is the feeling I get when I discover a truth I wish I hadn’t. Because knowing the truth means I’ll have to Do Something™ about it. (It’s not the last time I’ve had that feeling.)
I’ve been slowly working on driving back my anxiety, which has always fed my perfectionism. Or is it the other way around? Perhaps it’s one big loop: a shitty ouroboros of angst, with me constricted in the middle.
I’ve gotten better. I feel better. Therapy and medication have been life changing.
Doesn’t mean I’m not being squeezed with every word I type even now, but I’m pushing back.
I don’t know what I want to do with my writing. I’ve got ideas for stage plays, novels, short stories, comics, and more personal narratives like this one. Works about queerness. Works about mental illness. Fiction pieces with fantastical settings, and others set in our own dysfunctional world.
I don’t entirely know who any of it is for, other than me. I don’t know if I want to publish all of it under my own name, or, for certain types of material, a pen name.
And most of all, I feel a bit like a fraud. I don’t have a lot of training in this area, and I’m far from an expert in many of the genres I’d like to try.
There’s no clear definition of the end achievement here, but I’m trying not to let that stop me from getting started.
The past year in quarantine has been like a nightmare version of those summer vacations I enjoyed as a kid.
I’m at home in my Chicago apartment, on my computer, coding at all hours of the day. I’m in my pajamas a lot again, but that habit carries an air of hopelessness instead of one of freedom and slightly stinky rebellion. I sleep a lot, but waking up never feels refreshing. I don’t see other humans except as pixelated representations on screens, and, to the surprise of my solitude-loving inner twelve year old, the isolation makes me want to scream.
I think even if you made a devil’s bargain with me where the only safe way of leaving the house was for me to somehow magically revisit some of the more hellish parts of my middle school experience, I might take you up on it.
I have tried to use the time well, as any perfectionist (even a recovering one) would want to. I’ve had middling success at pulling myself together enough to write, or do anything creative.
The only thing that’s really sparked my imagination lately is… cocktails. Specifically, making my own recipes for them.
It seems silly to try to obscure the fact that this new hobby bloomed from something of a necessity: I drank more this year than I have in a long time, and drank more at home than ever before.
To put it plainly, I got bored of Manhattans and Boulevardiers.
I started watching cocktail shows on YouTube, started experimenting with flavors.
And it was fun. It became something to look forward to. I started researching flavor profiles, learning categories of aperitifs, getting ingredients for simple syrups and homemade bitters.
And getting practice in this area has never been hard to swallow. (Ooh, rimshot! Thanks, I’ll be here all week… and every week until I’m vaccinated.)
In all seriousness, this is typically about the point where I try to make something out of my hobby. The intrinsic “you could make real money doing this” part of my brain grabs the steering wheel: make a YouTube series! Start a new Instagram account! Gain all the followers! World domination is nigh!
I don’t really want to do any of that with mixology. I just want to share what I’ve worked on, and keep getting better at it, for myself.
In the last days of 2020, it seemed like the confinement stress had finally gotten to me, because I had a bit of a mad idea.
Perhaps I could share my writing and my cocktail recipes together, in some kind of a newsletter or blog.
My immediate reaction was to drop kick that idea into Lake Michigan: what sort of insanity is that? How unprofessional. Do you want people to think you’re a lush? What do cocktails and writing have to do with one another?
Me. They have me to do with one another. And that’s enough.
So thanks for reading this far, and for diving into this experiment with me.
Let’s break the rules. Let’s combine the professional and the un-. Let’s run toward a goal we can’t clearly see. Let’s feel our feelings and see what comes of them. Let’s mix up some trouble.
I’m excited to get going.