Now, if this was a TED talk that’s where I’d end my well-practiced diction, considered pacing, and friendly arm movement. Perhaps I’d sum it all up with accolades so that you’d think there was a direct causal link between screaming “Fuck You” and “Success!” Then you’d leave and buy my self-help book “FUCK YOU! THE GUIDE TO GETTING ALL THE SEX, CASH, AND PRESTIGE EVERYONE DESERVES, ESPECIALLY YOU, FUCKO!”
But that’s not my story. Saying “Fuck you” also had a hellish price tag. Because the only person I actually said “fuck you” to was me. And that’s where things get weird.
At York University in 1995, where I was flunking out of my history major, I came across some bit of wisdom from an academic.
“The only way to become a better writer is to read a lot and write a lot.”
That sentiment is sprinkled in a lot of writing advice, but I can’t attribute it to any single author. Still, those two activities became my mantra. The first step, improve my reading life.
Until I started working at a bookstore in 1994, I was exceptionally ill-read (music was my god until the band broke up). So, I filled my course load with reading-intensive classes on comparative literatures and histories of North America, Russian and German cultural classes with large reading lists, classes on fantasy literature (I wrote a paper on the nature of evil in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion), and, most infamously, a course called “On Love” (where I read Stendhal and Goethe and discovered the rarity of a zipless fuck). These were paired with the reading-insane worlds of my history degree: Fringes of the Medieval West, a class so hard and so compelling that I was happy to survive with a B, thanks to a tough essay I wrote on the Crusades against Latvian pagans!; Spectacle and Society, featuring gladiators and chariot races, where I read about Commodus, the crazy Roman emperor who fought in rigged gladiator matches; Modern Europe (where I learned about Jan Hus and why you should avoid invitations from the Pope), and two of the remaining military and diplomatic classes at a school that cared little for such forms of history (spent a whole year writing about the diplomatic fiasco that led to the Crimean War, a war that “no one wanted,” which seems very timely). And all of them demanded essays and research papers. So, I read a lot, and I wrote a lot.
But here’s what I didn’t do:
I hoped that the most necessary elements of language would enter my brain through repeated and relentless badgering, instead of, you know, starting with “subject + verb = sentence!” But I had some definite holes. What caused them? Frankly, I do not recall being taught the basics of writing during high school. Sounds awful, but I have some evidence.
My eldest sister also went to Earl Haig High School in Toronto. And she talked about how these rules were hammered into her head in English, French, and Latin, of the horror of sentence diagrams, and the power with which these rules became the foundations of her command of language (she worked in closed captioning for years, where you have to know this stuff cold). While terrified, I secretly hungered for that kind of educational ass-whooping. Maybe, just maybe, this was the kind of education that would make me smart!
But it never happened while I was at Haig. Not that I recall. I read Shakespeare, wrote essays, made videos, did book reports, took some Myers-Brigg styled employment and personality test, goofed off, and hadn’t learned a gerund from a groundhog. By my final year, the Ontario government issued a province-wide language and writing test to see how bad the damage was. I took the tests, but the benefits from this Royal Commission were a day late and a dollar short for me. Why didn’t I start simple and learn the basics? See below.
My mom was worried I had some learning challenges with writing. Some ticks that didn’t look right on paper. But our family had bigger problems during my childhood than to worry about me, and the last thing I ever did was express needs or desires because my job was to make people smile, laugh, or otherwise be happy during an awful time. Later, many of my professors rated my verbal skills much higher than written work and said verbal language was a better representation of my actual intelligence (which I assumed was the ol’ Ridler charm working its magic and distorting their perceptions of just how raw-dumb I actually was). And folks who have edited my stuff have noted my perpetual problem with homonyms (See “The Case of the Sizzling Friars!”). I don’t know if I have a specific challenge, and I cannot afford to do the tests available to me. If I’d spoken up and got tested for dyslexia and its kin when I was a kid, I think it might have helped, if only to kill the divided thinking (do I actually have a problem or am I just an idiot?). Instead, I punished myself by studying writing and chastised myself for not being perfect in my execution. Why? See below.
Even though there were deficits in my education and a possible learning challenge, and even though the world offered it, I chose to go it alone. Teachers offered tutorials. I never went. TA’s offered office hours to help with essays. I never went. Even Dr. Kanya-Forstner advised me of resources like the Writing Center that offered help on research and writing. I never went.
It’s a tricky answer. Some of it’s the punk rock attitude of being an unacknowledged depressed shit in their twenties: “Fuck you! I don’t need ‘nuthin but old books and essay collections, Narc! I’m going to bend the academic world to my will!” Self-reliance is a good thing, of course, but I felt that if I didn’t go it alone, I was as weak, stupid, and hopeless as the evidence seemed to suggest. Asking for help meant I admitted to the world I had a problem . . . And that, I could not do. It was like an elaborate con or sting operation. If I could hide my stupidity until I could fix it, I’d have a fait accompli, and no one would be the wiser. If I was found out, The Talented Mr. Ridler would be caught and killed, probably from shame.
But when you choose silence over feedback from others, stupid grows wild. And in trying to defeat a weakness, I created a different kind of monster. During those dark days at York University, I spoke maybe six-thousand words in four years, made no lasting friendships, and ignored a growing depression at a campus that looked mock-imperial Roman and Orwellian in the desolate fringes of a metropolitan city (for fucksakes, the region is called Downsview!) You wouldn’t have known it, but behind my silent grin, there a monster seethed with the exhaustion of fighting alone against the stupid for so many years. Instead of corpses, imagine my Frankensteinian creation was made out of the steroid-strained muscles of the Ultimate Warrior, but inside his mighty tanned chest was not a heart, but a perpetual motion machine called “WORK.” From his raging maw, he’d spew a boot camp’s worth of disdain to motivate me at maximum decibels.
“Take the heaviest course load, or they’ll know you are weak!”
Yes, I stayed in school. Yes, I eventually got A‘s. Yes, I went to grad school and got an MA, a doctorate, and learned to write fiction and more. So, yes, my punk rock attitude never let me down. It gave me a work ethic that was scary and a non-conformist attitude that helped me thrive against the odds …
… But it also never shut the fuck up. The con of being smart just got bigger, the stakes got higher, and I had more to lose. And instead of it targeting an external enemy, it attacked me where I was most vulnerable and screwed up a lot of my thinking. It soon infected other aspects of my life (after all, if you go through existence investing monumental efforts to prove you’re not a fraud, imagine the wonders this does for evaluating yourself in hobbies, love, and bad romances!).
When I first tried my hand at fiction, I was terrified. My monster had gone from a punk rock cheerleader (fuck what they say, do it anyway) to screaming like a gunnery sergeant (who the hell do you think you are, maggot?). I remember actually being scared to write a short story. And all of that fear was self-generated by my Anabolic Warrior Monster. No one in the world cared what the fuck I was doing in that basement apartment when I should have been finishing my paper on civil/military relations in the Franco/Prussian War (and yes, I got an A).
Punk rock for the win, yet again.
And I did. And it worked until it didn’t. Eventually, the dam broke. I needed to tell someone I had a problem. And that was more terrifying than almost anything else I did. And again, I said fuck you to the monster and grabbed the phone to reach out.
It was painful. But I was able to pluck out my monster’s eyes and have it go howling into the wilderness, replaced with a much better operating system for who I was. It took years. And no, I don’t want to talk about it. But I will say that getting help took guts, and I wish I’d done it sooner. But that’s just me.
Now, I can’t kill that monster completely. Nor is it all bad. Hell, it came back with much clearer eyes to save my ass when my life collapsed in 2013. It’s part of me, and like Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow self, I had to “integrate” it into the pantheon of my psyche. But holy hell, it makes a better friend than an enemy.
Not getting help until my life was agony was stupid. Believing in all the tough-guy bullshit of going it alone was stupid. It compounded the problem it was meant to solve by creating a bigger one. These days, I try my hardest to work smart, not hard. That there is a wonderful world of just being, as well as doing. But twenty-five years of pushing myself is hard to push back against some days. And, again, punk rock helped. Sometimes I need to laugh, and tell the monster:
Fuck you, I need a break.
Fuck you, I need a hand,
Fuck you, I have done enough.
Fuck you, I’m not stupid.
Fuck you, it’s Saturday, and all that I have built with relentless effort will not collapse if I enjoy “being” as much as doing
So, that’s how Jay Wrestles Imposter Syndrome: A Cautionary Tale.
Next time, back to The Gutters! I SWEAR!
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