Discover more from Johnny B. Truant's Clockwork Unicorn
Stop being normal
To be an artist or creator, you must reject the ordinary and GET WEIRD.
I’m not sure when my wife gave up on me, exactly.
Maybe it was during the Ohio winter I spent getting up at 3am to train for the marathon I decided out of the blue I wanted to run.
Or maybe it happened at age 35, when I was suddenly inspired to learn gymnastics. My instructor’s brilliant idea to combine her “two individual students” into one class meant I ended up doing handsprings alongside a 10-year-old girl.
It might have been before that, though. Like when I threw away my genetics doctorate to become a barista who wrote magazine articles on the side. Or when, after building article-writing into a successful business, I threw that away to become a blogger who made no money. Or maybe it was when my blog started making money, so I quit to write books about unicorns and vampires instead.
That last one — plus some bad investments that had been very exciting at the time — led to a full-on bankruptcy. The bankruptcy would have been a good time for Robin to throw her hands up in complete and total surrender, but I’m not sure that’s when it happened.
Who knows? Maybe she gave up when I got it in my head to dye my hair so blonde that it turned translucent. Or when I decided our kids didn’t need to go to school. Or when I changed my mind and decided maybe school was a good idea after all. I know things really fell apart when both kids inherited my taste for the bizarre. At that point home was no longer a safe place for Robin’s sense of normality. These days she’s outnumbered by whackos.
I’d feel bad for her, but hey … she married a creative person. She had to know what she was getting into.
Because let’s face it: Creators are freaks.
We don’t follow norms. We’re too dazzled by the lure of doing something new to even consider the fact that we might be terrible at it. In truth, ignorance about our failings (or abilities) is half the reason we’re able to accomplish anything. We don’t trip over the obstacles that stop normal people from expressing themselves, like modesty or embarrassment or the fact that we’re often not half as clever as we think we are.
In truth, our being too strange to know better is the reason we’re creators in the first place. Another way to put it? Weirdness is the fertile soil of true creation.
So if you want to be normal — if you want to fit in, and make sure nobody looks at you funny or laughs at you — then I kindly suggest you get the fuck off the stage and make room for those who are prepared to get freaky.
We just don’t know better.
I should clarify that Robin hasn’t actually given up on me. Not even close. It’s more accurate to say she’s accepted my foibles while also accepting the fact that I’m as chaotic as a speeding train. We make a good pair, even if sometimes for her own safety she finds it necessary to duck, cover, and dive out of my way.
Part of that is eye-rolling good humor: the kind of thing you do when a kid is definitely going to do something dumb, but it’s okay because he’s wearing a helmet.
Part is confusion. She’s an accountant and therefore able to fit into society, unlike me.
But the main reason she usually steps aside and lets me do whatever incomprehensible thing I get into my head is because she trusts me. She doesn’t always understand me … but never once has she told me I’m wrong.
It took me a long, selfish time to realize how unusual that was. Until recently, I figured this was how all partnerships worked: Each person did whatever, and somehow things fell into place. So every time I said, “Yes, this work I’m doing is feeding our family, but it’s boring me so I’m going to stop and do something poor-making instead,” I took for granted that she’d just let it happen … even though I know now how much it scared her.
That right there is how I’ve been able to do every creative thing I’ve ever done: because the people around have always enabled me. It wasn’t just Robin; it was my parents and some great teachers, too. They didn’t tell me that what I was about to do wouldn’t work. That’s a good thing, because if Robin had told me not to leave every paying gig I’ve had in favor of something more exciting, I probably would have listened. If I had, I’d be doing something mind-numbingly normal today.
But because she said nothing, I had no idea I was doing everything wrong. I had no idea that what I was doing would almost certainly fail … but because I didn’t know I was supposed to fail, I didn’t fail.
Who knew you couldn’t make a living as a fiction author? Not me. That’s probably why I was able to make it work. It’s exactly like when Wil E. Coyote runs off a cliff, but doesn’t fall until he looks down and finally learns there’s no ground under him.
It would be normal to fall.
But we oddballs don’t live in the world of normal … and so sometimes, we don’t.
“Normal” just means what’s already done and what’s already known.
After a few decades spent doing what I do, I’ve become convinced that the biggest thing that stops potential creators from creating anything is believing in advance that it’s not possible, because the lure of “normal” is so strong.
I get it. I really do. Humans are herd creatures, and herd creatures have a whole set of safeguards in place to make sure the herd stays intact. Any group — be it deer or stockbrokers — comes with a set of unspoken rules and norms. One rule is that we’re not supposed to stand out much from the others. Herds don’t work when they’re made up of a bunch of distinct individuals. They work when they’re homogenous, with every member more or less the same.
Wander too far from the group, evolutionarily speaking, and you’ll get eaten by a lion. Break the rules of the group (cause trouble, attack the alpha, pee in the water source) and the group will kick your ass out … which, again, gets you eaten by lions.
In humans, those norms are quieter and more subtle. In the modern world, they’ve also turned idiotic. We’ve taken the idea of “fit into the group or you’ll be forced to leave it, after which you’ll be alone and in danger” and extrapolated “fit in” to all sorts of stupid situations.
Wearing the wrong clothes? OUT.
Driving the wrong car? OUT.
Disliked on social media? OUT.
Standing out? Singing in public? Taking a risk? Talking too loud? Doing something unusual? OUT.
Untold evolutionary millennia of groupthink have taught us that being normal (conforming to the herd) is safe, but that being weird in any way (bucking the herd’s conformity) is unsafe.
It’s not true. Not even close.
So what’s normal, if it’s not “what’s safe”?
Easy. Normal is nothing more than “what’s been done before.”
Follow along with me while I tell a little story.
A kid is at a big holiday gathering. His father puts the family ham in the oven, but before doing it, he cuts off one end.
The kid asks, “Dad, why do you cut the end off the ham?”
Dad says, “I’m not sure. That’s the way my mom always did it.”
So, because it’s a big holiday and everyone’s together, the kid goes into the living room and asks his grandmother: “Grandma, why do you cut the end off the ham?”
But Grandma doesn’t know either. She says it’s what her mother always did.
So the kid goes to Great Grandma and asks the same question. To which Great Grandma replies, “Oh, I did that because fifty years ago when I was in charge of dinner, I had a very small oven.”
Normal is like that. Normal isn’t what’s best (or even what’s intelligent); it’s simply what’s been done in the past. There was absolutely no reason for Grandma to waste the end piece of her ham like Great Grandma’s small oven required her to do, and there’s definitely no reason for the cook to be doing it today. An old habit was passed down without anyone knowing why; that’s what happened in the case of the holiday ham.
But it’s not just ham. “Doing what’s been done before, for no good reason other than habit” is what happens in every other situation, too.
Why do so many people go to college after high school, then get married, then have kids as if they’re on an immutable timeline? Because that’s what all their friends are doing. It’s what Mom did. What Dad did.
Why do people in hot climates wear clothes? Because that’s how it’s been since religion taught the world shame. Now everyone does it without thinking twice even if they’re overheated … simply because it’d be weird not to.
Why, even when we know we’re on the wrong track, do we think we need to finish what we started?
Why does it feel more “correct” for most folks to earn a lot of money and buy a lot of things to use up that money … instead of earning less and owning almost nothing, thus ending up with the same amount of cash but with a lot less effort?
Almost never are these things decided consciously. Usually, they’re entered into automatically. We say Bless You when someone sneezes, we face forward in a crowded elevator, and we become professionals because those are the jobs our parents respect. We send cards on holidays, we obey our traditions, and we don’t dance at funerals.
There are good reasons for some of those things, but it’s not like we’re consulting reasons when we make our decisions. Habits are habits, and we do them rote. Even if we know a better way to do things, rote still tends to happen.
In other words, society doesn’t run on intelligence. It runs on inertia.
Abnormal is the unknown.
Every creative person I’ve ever known is at least a little weird.
They’re depressed. Or manic. Some can solve hard problems but can’t tie their own shoes. They think odd things are funny. They don’t think the things that others find funny are funny. They have niche hobbies. They enjoy weird foods and reject mainstream foods. They wear quirky clothes, or forget which way is inside-out and outside-in. They stay up all night and sleep all day. They’re antisocial. Or sometimes too social. Sometimes they do drugs — or, in the case of one person I know, they can’t get drugs to work because “apparently I’m always high, without drugs.” Sometimes they have a diagnosis, like ADHD. Maybe something on the autism spectrum. Because their minds can’t sit still for the plodding and boring routine of “normal,” medical wisdom says they obviously need to be medicated. They believe things other people don’t believe. They refuse to believe things that everyone believes.
The reason creatives are so weird is because the realm of “normal” offers nothing new for them. By definition, normal is what everyone else is already doing, and what’s already been done to death. Creation is the opposite of that. Creation is poking a hole in the fabric of the universe, reaching through into the domain of darkness and monsters, and emerging with something yet unseen.
Creativity is surprising yourself with what you’ve done, realizing with as much shock as everyone else that it’s never been done before.
And yes: I know what you might be thinking: Hey Johnny — everything’s been done before.
Well, have fun with your lopsided ham, if you believe that. The conviction that “everything’s been done” is the cop-out of someone who wants to be creative but is too afraid to do step out of the norm to make it happen. It’s what would have happened to me, if my wife had convinced me that all those absurd things I wanted to do weren’t going to work.
The truth is that in the grand scheme of things, very little has been done before.
The human ego is an interesting creature. It’s so sure that it’s the center of everything that it negates all evidence to the contrary. Ego is the reason we thought the Earth was flat for so long: because whatever we saw obviously had to be true. (Don’t bother commenting to contradict me, Flat Earthers. I have a delete button for a reason.) Ego is why, even after realizing the world was spherical, we still thought the sun went around us instead of us going around the sun.
The human ego has been dragged kicking and screaming into every once-radical realization that is now considered unquestionably true.
That’s true, in advance, for the future as well. So for instance, most of us believe in evolution … but we also quietly believe that we — humanity — represent the end point of that evolution. Why? What’s to stop evolution’s inevitable forward progress, thereby leaving “modern-day humans” behind like it did the Neanderthals?
Still not convinced? Then tell me this: Why are there so many things that human minds are literally unable to grasp, despite their seeming obviously true?
Example: Humans can’t understand the concept of “infinity.” Same goes for “forever.” We pretend to understand those ideas, but just try to nail down the particulars and you’ll realize you don’t; the idea of “a thing that literally never ends” isn’t something we can grok. We can’t even really know what it’s like to experience the world as someone different from us, let alone as an animal that uses non-human senses.
When you get right down to it, the human perspective is small. Very small. And yet we presume to declare that “everything has been done?” Everything? Really? You think you know about everything?
What a bunch of small-minded horseshit.
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Creativity is reaching into the unknown … and questioning the known.
It’s not entirely true that we’ve been sold a packet of lies, in this world we’ve created together. It’s more accurate to say we’ve been sold a packet of meaningless red tape.
Being a creator in the normal world is sort of like filling out the universe’s tax return. We don’t really know why we need to carry the answer from Line 47 of Form 8894-XV over to the worksheet on the back of Form AL-471. We just know that someone said that’s the rule, so we do it.
We understand that there are rules, but we wonder why those rules turned out the way they did. Maybe we’ve noticed that the worksheet on the back of AL-471 isn’t actually used for anything later, so we could save time and effort by doing things a better way. Most of the time, though, we still do things the “normal” way instead of the weird way simply because we don’t want to be gawked at 24/7.
The status-quo doesn’t like creativity. That’s why authoritarian regimes tend to suppress free speech, writing, and art. Creativity is, by definition, the product of someone trying things differently. Differences create options. They show us that there’s more than one way to do things, and that some of those alternatives might be better.
Creativity is critical. It examines the world and asks why. It dissects the notion of “just because” and instead asks reason to justify itself. Creatives have a way of lampooning the way things are, covertly asking if there might be another way. Art is subversive. It’s the only thing that truly creates change. No wonder the Powers that Be don’t like it.
If you’re creative — if you do things your own way, or say things people don’t say, or wonder things people don’t wonder, or feel the urge to see what hasn’t yet been discovered — then to those currently making the rules, you’re a threat.
Maybe not a big threat. Maybe just an annoying one. Or maybe it doesn’t even go that far, and the only real pushback is a sense of not belonging: an impression given by others that if you don’t stop your weirdness and fall in line, you’re going to be shoved out of the herd so lions can pick you off and eat you.
Don’t blame the people who make you feel that way. They’re threatened by your oddity. It represents change, and change is disruption, and disruption threatens the herd … which threatens every individual in the herd. That’s evolutionary thinking. It’s deep-brain, deep-amygdala fear speaking — the kind that most people feel but could never understand enough to articulate.
Fear makes those people reactionary, but they can’t help it. Fear isn’t wise. Fear isn’t well-considered. Fear is about protecting what already exists. About protecting the comforting feeling of existence itself. Your oddity threatens that. It threatens them. The creative, new-seeking, unexplored-world-delving that you represent suggests alternatives to most people that they’d rather not even consider.
Because as Bob Dylan said: The times, they are a-changin’ … and you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone.
Most people can’t swim. Or are unwilling to swim. So guess what’s likely to happen to them, vis a vis stones?
So fly your flag. Be crazy. Reach into the unknown and create something amazing.
We weirdoes are the only hope, unless we want a boring world that’s unable to change.