Live Through This

The Art of Waiting

There’ll be plenty of time for inspiration after high school. Right?

Illustration by Cynthia.

Illustration by Cynthia.

There is a book that sits on my desk called The Shape of Design. Frank Chimero wrote it in 2011 after raising money through a super-successful Kickstarter that I excitedly followed. I looked forward to the book for months and couldn’t wait for it to arrive; when it finally did, I opened it, flipped through its pages, admired its cover, and put it down. Three years later, I still haven’t read The Shape of Design. I have time to read it. I know how to read. I’m sure it’s great. But it still sits on my desk, where I put it down three years ago.

There are other things I haven’t read. I have a gigantic Instapaper account full of stories I know I’ll like. Every day, I add new links to it, ignoring the massive abyss of similarly interesting stuff below them. Music gets the same treatment: Bands I love put out new records; friends whose taste I like tell me about great old ones. I listen to a lot of music, but more often, I make lists of music to listen to. Perversely, I always seem to save the ones I’m sure I’ll love for last (which in practice means never).

When I’m not avoiding enjoying things, I’m avoiding making things. In an average day, I might come across anywhere from zero to 78 billion things that inspire me. I keep a little log of phrases that I think are cool or meaningful, along with questions and tiny ideas for things I want to write about. But most of these notes are born and die on that page. (Some of them have even been transferred to more than one new phone.) Of course, I can’t act on every little nugget of an idea, but at some point, old notebooks become dead weight. There are things worth remembering in there, but I haven’t gone back to look at them.

Why do I shelve books I think will become favorites, stack records I’m likely to love, and hold on to ideas I believe could be big? What am I waiting for?

***

In 2008, I was in seventh grade. Most of my friends were older than me, so they went to high school before I did, they got bummed out before I did, and when they would come back to elementary school to say hi, we lowly middle-schoolers would gather around to listen attentively as our elders laid it all out: High school sucks! It’s so much harder than middle school. But it’s actually, like, so easy. Dude, you have no idea. It’s crazy. You’re not gonna like it. But it’s, like, awesome.

I had imagined that high school would be like Willy Wonka’s factory, except with girls instead of candy and chemistry class explosions instead of Wonka’s machines. I was overly optimistic (and kinda silly), but still pragmatic: I knew I was too excited for my own good, and that I was headed for disappointment. But that’s not what scared me.

Not caring scared me. Apathy scared me. I was afraid of being jaded, over it all, before I’d even experienced very much. I could deal with high school being less than I had imagined, I thought, as long as I didn’t stop caring.

By that point in my life, I had experienced anxiety disorder, which caused me to cling to optimism like it was my lifeline out of hell. I had seen kids unhappy with high school and adults who seemed anything but thrilled with life, and my worst fear was that what (I assumed) happened to them would happen to me–that some new feeling would take over and force me to stop liking life.

I bundled myself in defense mechanisms like a toddler wearing 15 layers of winter clothes. Thanks to my great parents and a great teacher and my fortunate life, I used relatively healthy things to cope with my fear (overworking, over-apologizing), but still, I thought a lot about this “disease” of apathy and dreaded its inevitable takeover of my life.

Then, because it was inevitable, it happened—but not in the way I thought it would.

I started catching myself trying to be less excited about things. These moments happened more and more frequently over time, until every moment of joy was succeeded by anxiety. I didn’t want to read or watch or listen to great things because I didn’t want to be inspired, because I didn’t have time to do anything creative, and when I did, my work sucked. It became easier to hide inspiration behind endless lists, to tuck it safely away into notebooks, than to take advantage of it. I still loved life, and I was still my normal optimistic self—but I started to wait.

That’s why high school, or a crappy job, or any other restrictive circumstance can be dangerous: They make dreams too painful to bear. To avoid longing, we hunker down, wait, and resolve to just survive. Great art becomes a reminder of the art you want to be making, and of the gigantic world outside of your small, seemingly inescapable one. We hide from great things because they inspire us, and in this state, inspiration hurts.

I tell myself that I’ll have time to be inspired after high school. In the meantime, I keep shelving books, stacking records, and collecting notes and song ideas. By squirreling things away in lists, I ensure that I’ll always have more to enjoy, to feel proud of and to love—as soon as my waiting period ends. It’s like saving the best bite for last: You don’t do it because you’ll enjoy it more later—you do it because you want to know that it will be there for you to enjoy, later. It feels like I’m building an arsenal of curiosity, but I’m really just afraid of life after hibernation.

What if I burn out? What if these years are my best, and the rest suck? Ironically, these were almost the same exact fears I had going into high school. The only difference is that, this time, I’m not afraid that my love of life will be stamped out; I’m afraid of leaving it behind. I don’t want these years to be my best. I don’t want to see them as the time of my life, when they’re just a time in it (albeit a really, really special one). Because if they were the time, then I might spend the rest of my life longing for the past. And that would be worse than waiting for the future.

***

I turned 18 in December, which made me happy, because 18!!!, but also a little bit sad, because I knew it was a milestone that I could no longer be waiting for. Next, I’ll graduate, and then I’ll have a choice: I can stay scared of failure and success, or I can relax and choose not to be so precious.

I used to hate hearing that: Don’t be so precious. I thought that it meant “don’t care so much.” But now I know what it really means: Don’t fear so much. ♦

Spencer Tweedy is a musician.

34 Comments

  • TessAnnesley March 10th, 2014 11:30 PM

    this is basically a mind-read of my own pleasure-delaying. so good.

  • Elena March 11th, 2014 12:32 AM

    Spencer, after listening to the music you’ve made and the words you’ve written, it’s comforting to know that you feel this way, too. Thanks for communicating these complicated emotions and fears so clearly… each sentence is accurate and relatable.

    I’ve found that much of my fear of creating stems from not producing the exact kind of art made by those I admire. To an extent, like a personality, we all have an inherent way of writing, making art, making music, etc. It can be really easy to detach from your own methods if you become fixated on someone else’s style you want to emulate. So, getting over the fear of losing creativity is important, but getting over the fear of not having the right kind is also crucial.

    I was writing a poem before I wrote this comment, and I’m just going to go FINISH IT, you know? LET’S GO.

  • llamalina March 11th, 2014 12:37 AM

    “Great art becomes a reminder of the art you want to be making, and of the gigantic world outside of your small, seemingly inescapable one.”

    So perfect, so true.

    http://llamalina.blogspot.com

  • bophieserrill March 11th, 2014 1:34 AM

    So spot on. I would say something in agreement with your article but you’ve already articulated everything I want to say!

  • tbhswift March 11th, 2014 1:51 AM

    ”Because if they were the time, then I might spend the rest of my life longing for the past. And that would be worse than waiting for the future.”

    This describes my fears perfectly.

  • RatioRae March 11th, 2014 2:17 AM

    This is basically the story of my life.

    http://thegirlwhodrankstars.blogspot.com
    http://ratiorae.tumblr.com

  • sfortunati March 11th, 2014 3:49 AM

    wow this is crazy how much this is like me. I literally have a ‘been meaning to read’ stack of books next to me that seems to keep growing taller and about a hundred bookmarks of music, films, recipes, and articles to check out.
    feelin you, dude

    notevirus.blogspot.com

  • ughgina March 11th, 2014 6:14 AM

    “Not caring scared me. Apathy scared me. I was afraid of being jaded, over it all, before I’d even experienced very much.”

    This entire article is so scarily relatable.

    http://black-daisy.blogspot.com.au/

  • giov March 11th, 2014 7:06 AM

    Spencer Tweedy is a musician, but mostly a FREAKING GURU.

  • justine danielle March 11th, 2014 8:15 AM

    this perfectly captures what i’ve been feeling for two years now: that feeling of ecstasy at discovering something beautiful, accumulating so many interesting things, bookmarking so many websites, but never actually getting around to experiencing them. it’s made worse by the fact that almost everything is accessible online so everything just keeps piling up.

  • Berries March 11th, 2014 10:22 AM

    I know this will sound kinda effed up but I tend to have this with people. I always long for the past and think about how awesome this and that lost friend was (always the one who got away, always the one who didn’t loved me), or how good of a lover he or she was (idem dito), or how fantastic that vacation was. It’s like… they creep inside of me, and they never really let me go. So sometimes I meet new people and I am like – THEY ARE AMAZING – but then I think – I will lose them eventually, or this night was so perfect, I will get sad later because it will never be this great again. I got a new friend and I already think like that with her. We are like 15 year old boys together, she is hilarious and badass and fragile at the same time. And I had a lover who was perfect for me (but also a bit a-hole) and I am already mourning him because I’m afraid it will never get better. But on the other hand – I KNOW that NOTHING is perfect. I KNOW that I am just 24 years old. I KNOW that I have had like 7 crushes in my life who all made me feel like no-one could be this sexy and amazing. I KNOW I have had amazing friends and still have, and I KNOW that if I will lose them I will mourn them but I will meet new people whom I will love deeply.

    I really struggle with that but it sounds like such a stupid problem, or even a luxery in some way. I’m afraid of losing people, but even more that it will never be this amazing again.

  • GlitterKitty March 11th, 2014 10:39 AM

    Wow that basically just described my entire life. So relatable and really really great article.

  • honorarygilmoregal March 11th, 2014 1:59 PM

    This article is so well-written and very relatable.

  • Skotty March 11th, 2014 2:16 PM

    Finally someone put it into words! Does everyone have this secret fear?

  • flocha March 11th, 2014 3:06 PM

    I have an endless list of bookmarks and pictures on my computer, of stuff which inspires me but which I have no idea what to do with, because I feel like whatever I do with these things will never be as good as they are themselves

    http://whimsicalprocrastination.blogspot.co.uk/

  • pizzaface March 11th, 2014 4:39 PM

    I recognise myself in this a lot, even though I thought I was the only one doing it.
    I often save up books to read, Rookie articles to read, bands to discover and artists works to see, because I KNOW it’s gonna be heavy on me, it will emotionally do a lot to me and inspire me a lot, and I often feel like ‘meh, now is not the time, i’m not ready for it’. And that way I am basically stacking up all these sources of things that will learn and inspire me, without ever going to feel ready for their gigantic-ness.

    On a sidenote: guys writing for Rookie? I didn’t even know they existed! I like it!

  • mangointhesky March 11th, 2014 4:46 PM

    This is perfect. Even the title is interesting!

    http://theconfettireport.blogspot.com

  • sleepyschoolgirl March 11th, 2014 5:57 PM

    I love this, this is exactly how I am! I used to hate it when people told me “stop being so precious” but now you’ve given it a different meaning I feel so much better about everything, so thank you!

  • taste test March 11th, 2014 9:34 PM

    oh hey! I remember you wrote a few things for Rookie before back in the day. good to see you back! & really great article.

    you’ll have even less time in college than in high school, tbh. but I’m not saying this to be depressing, I’m saying this to be like “no more excuses for waiting, just do things!”

    http://xyzzyzzyzx.blogspot.com/

  • andreja89 March 12th, 2014 10:18 AM

    I totally know that feeling of fear. In fact, everyone has it. And the real art is to deal with it, every single day. I really recommend two books that talk about how to overcome fear and heal as an artist:
    1. The war of art by Steven Pressfield
    2. The artist’s way by Julia Cameron

    Both helped me so much!

    Good luck!

    Andreja

    http://drama-in-my-head.blogspot.it/

  • skullface March 12th, 2014 1:07 PM

    When you get a chance — the Frank Chimero book is a great & relatively quick read. <3

  • Alex S. March 12th, 2014 4:13 PM

    Rookie seems to have impeccable timing in regards to my life relevancy. It’s nice to hear a voice other than my own.

  • alisatimi March 12th, 2014 5:23 PM

    Oh my god this is my life. On one hand I’m waiting to finish school to start living life, but on the other I’m scared that I’ve already had the best time of my life, and that everything from now will just be downhill, or just the same way it is now.
    What I find really annoying though is when some adult goes “well if you really enjoyed writing/reading/making art/whatever you would be doing it right now wouldn’t you.” Well, no. This article is spot on – sometimes, “inspiration hurts.”

  • Dila March 13th, 2014 12:05 AM

    I’m in my senior year too and I know exactly how it feels. Thank you for writing this.

  • kolumbia March 13th, 2014 6:00 PM

    This couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m having a never-ending breakdown feeling like I’m falling apart under the needs of high school vs. the wants of my own creativity. This was so eloquent and organized, and I feel better for having read it.

    Sidenote: I’ve never heard the phrase, “Don’t be so precious.” I thought precious = valuable. What does it mean in this context?

  • Spencer Tweedy March 14th, 2014 1:22 PM

    Thank you so much for your comments. I really appreciate it!

  • Serena Elise March 15th, 2014 9:58 AM

    Seriously, thanks. This was exactly what I needed right now after just finishing high school. Theres no time like the present!

  • Liyana_19 March 23rd, 2014 3:04 AM

    WOW. This article is so, so relatable. Ever since I became a teenager I’m always trying to “live my life to the fullest” and all that but I end up just piling up the ideas that I have and the things that I wanna do instead of doing it right there and then. Now I’m already in college, and well, I gotta stop fearing so much.

    Thank you for this article :)

  • saretchka March 25th, 2014 3:24 PM

    This piece is really well written and I can relate so so much. Ty to Spencer for writing this and also to the people in the comments who shared their own experiences and book suggestions

  • March 27th, 2014 9:09 AM

    My relatives all the time say that I am killing my time here at net, except I know I am getting knowledge everyday by reading thes good articles or reviews.

  • rawan April 4th, 2014 1:57 PM

    The epitome of how my mind works. I’ve done this so much over the years that I don’t even consider myself an artistic person anymore. I have so much beauty I want to articulate but my set date is after graduation.

  • Shannon Marie April 4th, 2014 6:43 PM

    Aw man this hits so close to home. I’ve finally just started on my “list” of things I’ve been wanting to do for YEARS. I still have a constant feeling of being afraid of missing out/running out of time, but until recently, the fear of failure or inadequacy was stronger.

    As always with Rookie, it’s amazing to have my feelings validated by realizing there are others who have the same thoughts and emotions. Thank you for such a well written piece.

  • April 21st, 2014 4:11 PM

    My first word was “color.”
    I used to boast about this, as if it were a sign of my super-rad predisposition to uniqueness and creativity. It showed my “inner spirit” or some crap like that.
    But, in actuality, I think it was a sign of the opposite.
    My first word was not “color” because I loved all things colorful and bright. No, it was “color” because my favorite thing to do was to fill in the shapes on blank coloring pages with their proper pigments. No creativity involved; I was simply fulfilling a duty of some sort.
    And now that I’m older, I find myself draw to the same sort of thing. I like to follow instructions and fill in blanks. My mind is lazy like that- it’s always hard for me to create things.
    My coloring has evolved into a different form. When I go to draw anything, I simply find a picture or drawing that I like and copy that. Maybe I’ll change it up a bit or add new things, but I still get the feeling that everything I “make” has been plagiarized. I like to accumulate pictures on pin-boards and collect things that I love, but nothing ever comes of them. Even when I make collages, wherein you are supposed to make something new, I find myself preserving each individual piece and simply putting pretty things next to each other on paper.
    But I truly long to make something of my own.
    My sister is the opposite of me- she loves to make things and has a keen inner creativity. She takes such a simple pleasure from it, and I am so jealous. I can’t even image the joy of holding a drawing that is entirely your own, or writing a song from scratch, or saying something that hasn’t already been said.
    Is it possible that I am just not meant to create anything? Maybe my purpose is to enjoy things that other people make.
    But then why does it bother me?
    Can anybody help me?

    • Spencer Tweedy May 12th, 2014 9:02 PM

      Hi anonymous.

      I don’t think that it’s possible that you’re “just not meant to create anything.” I don’t believe it’s possible that you, by some preordained nature, are not supposed to do anything you love to do!

      I don’t believe there are “creative” people and “non-creative” people. The idea that artists are another breed altogether, with different, gifted minds is stupid (to me). Everybody is equal, but everybody is also different, which reminds me of something you said: “I can’t even imagine the joy of holding a drawing that is entirely your own, or writing a song from scratch, or saying something that hasn’t already been said.” I’ve come face-to-face with that doubt a lot and the one thing that always makes me feel better is this:

      Everything has been said but not everyone has said it yet.

      Reading your comment reminded me of what it feels like to be in a rut. I’ve gone through so many times where everything I write (creatively or musically) sounds like a derivative piece of crap, and I start to question whether I’m actually capable in the first place. In my experience, the only thing that will save you is time. Don’t stop making things (even if they suck, except when you need a break), don’t stop consuming things (except when you need a break), and try to remember that sometimes, your/my art just sucks. Hopefully, your good taste, work and circumstance will make things better. I am confident that they will, but it can take awhile.

      Anaheed’s husband, Ira Glass, conveyed that idea really beautifully in an interview once: http://vimeo.com/85040589

      I hope this helps!