Are You Smart or Just Crazy?
I was supposed to submit this article on a Friday.
Friday morning comes and there is a blank word document open on my laptop, but I am face down, my arm on a café table, my forehead plopped on top of it, the inside of my elbow creating a sort of eye mask; I look like a tired teenager in first-period History class.
I am physically overwhelmed. Not by the article, but by my current “crazy” path, my recent decision to try to be an artist, a writer—to spend years writing a book.
The article that was due Friday morning was supposed to be about how to “trick” yourself into feeling like your crazy idea is less crazy. It’s a pitch I wrote weeks ago inspired by a podcast where actor and comedy writer B.J. Novak talked on how he thought one of the biggest benefits of going to Harvard was seeing upperclassmen become writers for things like SNL and The Simpsons; he thought that seeing being a comedy writer as a legitimate thing to do allowed him (and others, he assumed), to be able to bypass the battle of thinking your path is crazy. So you want to be a writer on Saturday Night Live? Cool. That’s totally possible. Now get to work.
Possibility is a privilege, one that seems free and equally available to everyone, but isn’t always.
I’ve come to realize that when you try to be what you can’t quite see, a voice starts to creep in that says you’re crazy.
It’s a battle, and it’s brutal.
Recently I felt like I was losing that battle; my own personal project was starting to feel truly impossible. Not because it couldn’t be done, but because I doubted with every fiber in my being that I was good enough to do it.
I’m working on my second book—a big one that synthesizes 120 interviews I did a year ago. From my research, most books like this legitimately take five years. I didn’t know this when I started. I’m about to start year three. Year one was euphoric. Year two was brutal. I’m scared of year three. Year three is making me feel like I’m crazy for doing something like this and devoting so many years of my life to it.
The question that has confounded me during this “middle” of a project is, how do you sit with the crazy? How do you get through the part when you really don’t know if what you’re doing is crazy or smart, or if it will pay off in the ways you hope or just make you feel like an idiot, a fraud, a joke?
Oddly, but perhaps not so (considering what a beacon Lin Manuel-Miranda has been for me during this time), my dealings with these questions came out in a flash one afternoon in musical theater form. (Note: I haven’t written a song since I wrote a country song for my little brother when I was 10 years old and he was about to be born; there’s an embarrassing video of me somewhere singing to the camera and my mom, “Ma’am you’re gonna have a baby…” And I’m pretty sure I stole most of the melody directly from Martina McBride.)
I decided to capture my second-ever song writing piece (and random dialogue/scene that seemed to want to come first) on my phone, not with any intention of ever sharing; recently I had been writing in all sorts of genres just to get out of my own head and take some of the pressure off.
I share this now not because I’m under any impression that it’s good, but because it says what I’m trying to say better than I can say it in my normal writing style. Some things, alas, can only be said in musical theater form, even by an amateur:
[The main character is a young girl with a big idea, art related. She’s with an older female mentor, mid conversation.]
Girl: But how do you know if you’re smart or just crazy?
Mentor: [holds girl’s hand in both of her palms] Mama, you don’t. The only way to find out is to try. And the only way to know if you should try is if you decide that you must know for sure. Only you can decide that, because when things get inevitably terrible, your desire to know either way will be the only thing that keeps you holding on.
Girl: But what if I find out I’m actually just crazy? That I really don’t belong? That my art is really trash?
Mentor: You can try or not try, you can put yourself out there or keep yourself hidden. That is totally up to you. But don’t you ever let anyone tell you what art is! Art is whatever you make that wouldn’t exist if you didn’t, and you have no idea who might need it, even if everyone else says it’s trash.
[More conversation/scenes ensue. Girl starts to really consider making this art she wants to make, bringing forward this “crazy” idea she has and sings this song:]
I’m not crazy
I’m not crazy I’m smart?
Everyone who’s smart’s thought to be crazy at
And what if…
I’m not crazy?
In the second version of the song, the character hits a setback and feels like her story is over, like she tried, and now she knows the cold hard truth. This is when she’s at her breaking point and truly thinking about giving up, wishing she’d never started in the first place.
I am crazy,
I am crazy, NOT smart!
Thinking you are smart only guarantees a broken
Cause now I know
I am crazy [cries while singing this part—cry-singing… is that a thing?]
This is what I was feeling when my head was plastered on my arm, laptop open, trying to write this piece about how to trick yourself into feeling less crazy by surrounding yourself with reminders of people doing the crazy things you’re doing—inspired by that time I wrote part of my book from a nonfiction section of a bookstore, surrounded by all these books, tangible proof of other crazy people who spent years of their lives writing books.
This article was supposed to be about encouraging you to find your version of that—to find the people, places and things that make you feel less crazy and to surround yourself with those things. That even if you can’t go to Harvard you can still find ways to trick yourself that your crazy path isn’t so crazy—or at the very least that you aren’t as alone as you think.
Writing from that bookstore that day really did give me a huge boost, as does following writers I admire on Twitter, conversing with some of them via email and watching countless interviews of Lin Manuel-Miranda on YouTube.
But what happened in between my idea for that article and the morning that came when I was supposed to write it, was that even despite all that, that Friday morning I felt crazy beyond belief—the kind of crazy that comes after boldness, the kind that makes you feel truly dumb and numb and heartbroken and like the only way out is to give up, to stop.
It’s when that other voice says, “Ya, those people wrote books because they’re good at what they do—you are not. You do not belong here. You do not belong with them.”
I didn’t know how to write an article about creative confidence when I was at my lowest point in two years. I don’t even know what set it off. All I knew is that, at least for the time being, I couldn’t bear the light or the blank page.
And I didn’t care who was staring, wondering why this girl has her head down on a table.
This strange feeling of being crazy makes me feel like I can’t breathe, like the only way to find air again is to delete all the files of this book on my computer and instead find the one from a few years back that says “Resume” and start applying for normal jobs.
But instead, I lift my head long enough to write my editor asking for an extension. I don’t tell her why and let her know I will get it done that day if she needs it, but she tells me I can have a few more days. I am glad, because though I would have written something for that day, because I’m a professional, it would have been painful and it would have been just a tiny bit flat. Because I write from my heart and a numb heart doesn’t write very well. Broken, yes. But numb? Nope.
Once I got the email from my editor with the gift of a few more days, I caught my breath and walked away from that café table and directly to a croissant place nearby, because all I knew in that moment was that I needed a chocolate croissant. (I have yet to find the self-help book that recommends this, but I totally do. And I guess really I’m not the first writer to understand this; J.K. Rowling knew all along, didn’t she? That after the darkest Dementor encounter, a little chocolate can make all the difference.)
Oh, and the closing song of the little incomplete musical that lives on my iPhone?
I am crazy
I am crazy
Everyone who’s smart has to be crazy at some
To really know
And now I know…
I AM crazy!!!
All right, now back to writing my book. Just gotta clean this chocolate off my shirt first.