Discover more from Johnny B. Truant's Clockwork Unicorn
We Are All Broken
Whether we choose to show or hide the pieces is what matters.
There are two ways to be creative. There’s the safe way, and then there’s the courageous way.
After writing something like 120 books as straightforwardly as some people assemble widgets, I’ve finally realized I’m just as fucked up as any artist. I never thought I was. I figured I was one of those creators for whom creativity was safe. I thought, “I just tell stories, and I can do it without Hemingway’s drinking problem or Van Gough’s psychosis.”
In other words, there’s no need to be a tortured artist. Here’s one creator who’s doing just fine.
I’ve never suffered depression, nor any other mental illness. I’ve only had the natural ups and downs that most people go through, albeit with a bit more panache — a bit more deviation from the extreme normal that my wife embodies. And speaking of her: We’ve been married almost 25 years now. I get along so well with my kids, it’s unnatural. I’ve always found a way to earn money, never lived on the street, never been addicted to drugs, never suffered abuse. I’m healthy, fit, optimistic, and happy more consistently than most people I know.
And so I thought, There are exceptions to every rule.
But something changed recently. My career shifted. My entire world shifted.
There are ways in which change is terrifying. There are ways in which it’s exhilarating. Nothing is static. Everything is at least a little bit uncertain. My eldest just moved off to college, and my youngest has started looking. I’m staring down the barrel of age fifty and an empty nest, and meanwhile the path I thought I was on has completely upended. The details don’t matter. What matters is that it’s made me rethink everything. Everything, including the inner workings of my mind.
Maybe this is where you expect me to reveal some big, tragic crash: a huge eye-opening experience that sent me into a crisis, into a mental tailspin. Maybe I’m about to reveal some repressed memory, or a discovered betrayal, or a come-to-Jesus where everything turned upside-down.
But the thing is, it hasn’t been that big a deal. I’m still happy. Still healthy. Still doing just fine on the surface. If I hadn’t looked closely, I’d believe that just-fine applied all the way down.
But it doesn’t. I saw in my introspection that I’m broken … and just when I was starting to think I was above it all.
The way I’m broken hides, the way most people’s brokenness hides. That’s what makes breakage so insidious. We’re all porcelain dolls slapping hands with other porcelain dolls, never knowing how near we are to shatter.
Creativity is the act of learning that truth, then opening your wounds for the whole world to see.
Nobody likes me
That’s not actually true. Lots of people like me. Lots of people don’t like me, I’m sure, but I don’t care about those people because they’re wrong and they suck and they’re jealous and nobody probably likes them, and that’s why they have problems with me.
I’d say it like a joke. I’d believe it. Because I had to.
People who know me by reputation think I’m bulletproof, or at least that I think I’m bulletproof. This was especially true back when I first started online circa 2006, when I was writing posts that punched people right in the face. Posts with titles like “The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You.” I met someone during that phase who said, “You seem so normal. I thought you’d be ten feet tall and breathing fire.”
I learned soon after that people I worked with were afraid of me. I didn’t think I was mean. I tried not to be harsh, but apparently it wafted off of me like heat. The joke with my co-workers became, “Johnny is intense.” It was a hard-edged sort of intensity, softened only with are-we-allowed-to-joke-about-this? sideways grins. Looking back, I get it. I don’t take frustration well. I’d be pissed off that something didn’t work out just right, and people would be nearby when I expressed it. I never understood why they thought I was yelling at them.
What? It’s the drawer that won’t shut that I’m mad at, not you. It’s just a coincidence that you happen to be standing right there, and it’s coincidence that I can’t stop telling you how much of a grand injustice this drawer thing is as if it’s your fault, or as if I expect you to hurry up and fix it.
I come off as confident. Cocky. I’ve been described as “a real egotistical asshole.” I figured those descriptions were 1) coming from haters, 2) quietly affectionate, 3) mistakes, or 4) misperceptions that always went away once people got to know me.
That’s how I lived my entire adult life. I was just misunderstood, was all. Yes, I wanted things a certain way, and yes, I had a lot of rules about how other people were supposed to behave and act whether they knew it or not. But no, those things weren’t problems. I’m just fine, remember? Crazy dysfunction was for other creatives … not for me.
I’m not sure why my perspective started to change. I’m not sure what caused me to start looking a whole lot closer at all the thoughts I’d felt were inevitable, and automatic, and justified, and universally true. It’s been a very long, very slow process, but it seems to be speeding up. All my recent change — all my recent reconsidering of things I’d thought were immutable and forever — has slammed a foot on the gas pedal of self-analysis.
I joked above that nobody likes me. It was a joke because plenty of people like me.
So why, I’ve started to wonder, do I live my life as if trying to prove that’s true?
I’ve mentioned before that my daughter plays volleyball. I played volleyball, but she’s much better than I ever was. Her club team was in the national top 20 for her age group two years running. It’s incredibly fun to watch. “Volleyball Dad” easily became a facet of my personality, and you wouldn’t believe it if you saw me cheerleading on the sidelines.
Then that club team fell apart. Key players left and the whole thing imploded. The next team won’t be as good. The falling-apart really bothered me, but it took me a long time to understand why.
First, I’d lost a lot of friends in the old parent group. I guess they don’t like me.
Second, the new team won’t be in the top 20. I guess that means my daughter has been disrespected. Which means I’ve been disrespected. And obviously that means that nobody likes me.
We were at a varsity game the other night, and she didn’t get enough playing time. And I thought, Why? She’s awesome. She has to be, because she’s my kid, and obviously we are awesome. Which means I am awesome. It was disrespectful, not playing her enough. Disrespectful to her. Hence disrespectful to me … even if she didn’t feel disrespected at all, and wasn’t bothered by any of it.
And then I thought, Hmm.
I knew something more was happening than met the eye when I had to get up, leave the gym, and go outside for a while. I was furious. Too furious. It didn’t make a damn bit of sense, to tell the truth.
I’d spent years by then carefully looking at my own thoughts and responses, so it didn’t take long to find the problem:
This is all about me.
Because everything is about me.
I know this because without realizing I was doing it, I’ve spent my life guarding against possible insults. When insults came — when something happened that my psyche registered as “disrespect” — I became irate.
I wasn’t invited to speak at a conference where people less talented than me were speaking. Why did they leave me out? It’s insulting.
Other authors sold more books despite mine being clearly better. Stupid world, not seeing my superiority.
I’ve always had a huge problem with people thinking they were better than I felt they were. I’d say things like, “He thinks he’s so great. I wish the world would show him that he’s not as great as he thinks he is.” What that meant was, I’m better, but he’s getting all the attention. That means I’m being disrespected, because this is all about me.
Looking back, the list goes on and on. I always flinch when my facade is challenged. I always react when anything, in any way, threatens to mar my image. When people outperform me, I figure there’s either an extenuating excuse or a great injustice has occurred.
I never saw any of this as noteworthy, abnormal, or a distortion of reality. Not once. Not until the night of the volleyball game, when I found myself sitting outside alone and thinking, “What the fuck is going on here? This isn’t my game. This isn’t anything more than mildly inconvenient to anyone. So why do I feel like breaking down walls? Why was I so bothered that I had to opt out entirely?”
I found the answer in childhood. In my own, unique brokenness.
You see, Ol’ Johnny B. wasn’t a badass as a kid. Nope. He was the nerd who everyone picked on. He was the boy none of the girls wanted anything to do with. He wasn’t in any of the cool groups — not the popular kids, not the fathers of the very best volleyball players on the very best teams … something that was all about him, of course, rather than anyone else.
The point isn’t that I’ve got childhood bruises like everyone else.
The point is that even with all my introspection and work and study and sincere desire to understand myself and the world over the past few years, I still came very close to never even knowing those bruises were still with me.
Almost nobody sees all their old wounds, and yet those wounds shape our realities.
We’re all broken. The problem is, we don’t even know brokenness exists.
I’ve very recently become a huge fan of Welsh songwriter Ren Gill.
Do yourself a favor and watch the video below. If you’re one of those people who usually just sees visuals or hears melodies without really noticing lyrics, try to turn that off for a second so you can hear what Ren has to say. So you can hear how devastatingly and beautifully he opens up and turns his pain into art.
But not just art. This is art with the ability to help others. Art that might be exactly the right lifeline, thrown at exactly the right moment, to save a suffering human being:
Now, pay attention. Not only is Ren talking about himself in that video; he also knows just how self-centered it seems to be — how wrong he is for even speaking up in the opinion of the doubting, critical, evil voice that lives inside.
Nobody wants to hear another song about how much you hate yourself.
And you know what? It makes sense. I’ve thought the same thing every time I’ve considered opening up enough to speak about myself, honestly and truly, but in my case the internal voice usually wins. It wins because of the same argument: Who the hell are YOU, Johnny? At least make your point about someone else, if you must make it … because why would anyone want to hear about YOU?
That voice is persistent. It’s logical. It’s always made perfect sense to me, but that’s because it tells me what I already want to hear. Do you know what feels better than opening yourself to the world and being vulnerable? NOT opening yourself to the world and being vulnerable.
And do you know what might work even better? my internal voice would continue — and this is the really insidious part because it made so, so much sense. Instead of making it all about you as the SUBJECT of pain, what if you “made it about you” as an AUTHORITY on pain? What if instead of showing yourself as an example, you rose above the problem and made the exact same point from above it, as if you’d mastered it, as if you’d figured it all out? Instead of saying ME, ME, ME (because HI JOHNNY, nobody wants to read another post about how scared you are; believe me, I know), what if instead you took to the professor’s lectern and said YOU, YOU, YOU?
Because oh yes, there’s definitely some of the real me in “The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You,” but it still doesn’t strike me these days as vulnerable. Good? Yes. Insightful? I think so. But vulnerable? Maybe you can read it and tell me. Do I sound like the frightened and uncertain human being I actually was? Or does it sound like I’m speaking from a place of authority, having more or less figured it all out? Does it read more like “I’m going through this,” or more like, “you’re probably going through this … but that’s okay, because I have some advice for you from up here on high”?
Every post I’ve ever written was really me speaking to me, telling myself what I needed to hear from a place of authority. I just never wrote them that way, because the voice told me to wear my armor.
But there was a time, way back, when that wasn’t the case.
Before the height of my F-list blogging fame in the late aughts, back when writing online was new for me and I did it with gritted teeth, hoping against hope that I could make it work because I had no fallback (I’d planned to be a scientist. Even started a PhD. The work gave me panic attacks, and I had to quit and literally spent a few weeks in my apartment alone just sitting in the bathtub for hours and eating shitty little McDonald’s cheeseburgers because somehow it made me feel better, but I was qualified for nothing and frankly had no clue what to try, so I reached into the aether and said WHAT SHOULD I DO and my better inner voice, or God, or the universe, or something else said YOU SHOULD WRITE, and so I launched a blog and was willing to try ANYTHING, EVERYTHING, if it would just quell the fear) … back then, I wrote about how scared I was all the time. That was before I got my first bit of comfort and the cold voice took back its upper hand, thereafter telling me to be a teacher instead of a confessor, not because I had special knowledge but because it felt so much better — so much safer — to hide that soft belly and pretend I knew for sure what I didn’t know at all.
Nobody was willing to tell me what I needed to hear? Okay. I’d switch roles and tell it myself.
I’d tried a bunch of moneymaking ventures before I started blogging. They’d failed in spectacular fashion, and I eventually went bankrupt. Before I declared bankruptcy, though, I lived through a phase with my brand-new wife that I now compare to knowing you need to throw up but refusing to give in. Finally vomiting up my financial woes in the grand surrender of bankruptcy was nothing compared to the years I spent trying to keep the ship afloat. It was impossible to sleep sometimes. We had kids during that phase, and I remember being with them and thinking how much I was failing their future. This was no longer just my life that I was responsible for. Now, my decisions and frustrations and failures were affecting innocents. How selfish was I?
And so I wrote about it. My first blog (now gone thanks to a software virus, and all the posts I hadn’t written in Microsoft Word along with it) was a leap of faith in more ways than one. The tough-guy “Universe” essay went mega-viral, but it only did so because I’d built an audience ahead of time, in my bankruptcy phase, by talking in much less tough ways about my struggles. About how afraid I was of not paying the mortgage. Of my kids going through bad shit because Dad couldn’t hack it.
When my finances stabilized a bit, my armor snapped right back, ending that icky openness. There’d only been a small window through which people could see the real me, but then that window was gone, and the badass persona of Johnny B. Fucking Truant took over.
Hi there Johnny. It’s been a little while. Did you miss me? You thought you’d buried me, didn’t you?
It’s taken me almost 20 years to realize again that I’ve been wearing armor. To remember that there was a time when I didn’t have to squint my eyes to see through it.
But as something as innocuous as a high school volleyball game taught me, the fear of being left alone, of being abandoned — of thinking that maybe nobody likes me after all — never really went away.
Modesty can be selfish
I love the video above because it not only shares Ren’s struggle honestly and openly (a struggle others face, and now have an example to see that there’s hope, that someone with their same issue is getting through it and they’re not alone), but also because it chronicles the inner argument over whether to share in the first place. We don’t just get the song. We also get Ren’s doubts as to whether or not the song should exist.
As creators, it’s the second thing that we should be paying attention to.
From where I stand, “Hi Ren” is brilliant. I don’t suffer the same illnesses he does, but I can still be moved by his struggle through them. Even if that specific set of symptoms doesn’t apply to me, the persevering, doubting-but-going-ahead-anyway attitude certainly does.
It applies to every one of us because even though we’re not all broken in the same ways, we are all broken. Some of us keep that brokenness inside (or choose to believe we’re whole even though we’re not, like I did and often still do), but others fight through the doubt and say it out loud.
Man, you sound so pretentious. Ren, your music is so self-centered.
If he’d listened to that voice (a really sensible one, since we’re taught from childhood to be modest, that it’s not all about us, that the WORST thing you could do to foster empathy is to talk about YOU, YOU, YOU), he would have kept most of his songs inside.
If he’d done that, the people who really need to hear those songs would never hear them.
Some people know me as the voice of hope. Some people know me as the voice that you hear when you loosen the noose on the rope.
Man, somehow I don’t doubt that’s hit some people a little too close to home. Just like I don’t doubt that someone will hear this song — like I did — and realize that after a lifetime spent being called arrogant, sometimes it’s good to be what your internal critic sees as arrogant.
Refusing to be self-centered, it turns out, is sometimes the most self-centered thing you can do.
Our fractures make us strong … if we let them
If you’ve just become a Ren Gill fan like I have, take a look through his discography. Most of his songs are all about him, just like most of Eminem’s songs are about Eminem. The game of psychological Twister that ensues if you start thinking modest thoughts in a situation like that quickly turns into a möbius that never ends.
I’m supposed to think about others instead of myself all the time, right? And now you’re telling me that the best way to think of others is to talk about myself?
Maybe. It all depends. As things stand right now for Ren, being ill and talking about it is the reason people know his name. It’s the reason he’s able to connect with others. It’s the reason he might just be doing what his better self wants: to make a difference in the world, and be remembered after he’s gone. And yet he almost didn’t do any of that, thanks to the internal censor who speaks such sensible things.
He’s trying to do what’s right. The problem is having no idea what “right” is.
Do you “stay quiet and not bother others with your personal shit” … or do you disobey common wisdom, disobey decent rules of decorum, and “make it all about you” because the truest way to bother others would actually be to hide your struggle and let down everyone whom your voice might help — everyone who has the same struggle, and might take heart from your courageous example?
Art comes from what’s real. It does not pull punches. It does not make judgments of value, or right or wrong. It simply is, and it is whether the world cares or wants it or not.
I never understood the paintings of Mark Rothko. To me, they just look like blocks of color: a perfect place for museum guests to say, “Hell, I could do that.” But then I learned about his pain and depression and I understood: Rothko paintings aren’t about anyone but Rothko. He made them when he was down, and that’s why they exist. Period.
Did you hear me? PERIOD.
Forget that he was broke during his lifetime. Forget that these days, people with money and a love of art have decided those blocks of color are worth millions of dollars. It doesn’t matter. AT ALL. It also doesn’t matter if you think you could do what he did, because you weren’t him and you didn’t do it. It doesn’t matter if you think the value of a Rothko today is beyond ridiculous. All that matters is that he made them, and that they became a visual representation — for those who saw them to take or leave, to laud or decry — of who he was and how he felt at the time.
Those paintings, like all good art, are a frozen snapshot of human life and emotion. There is no good or bad. There is no right or wrong. There is no selfish or selfless. There simply is.
I think we all know the adage: After a broken bone heals, the knitted spot is far stronger than the rest. Breaks lead to strength. They’re a blessing, in that way.
The question is, what do we do with our breakage, since every one of us is broken? Do we let it make us strong, or do we baby it and turn away? Some writers become drug addicts with ruined lives, while fortunate others simply harbor secret fears of abandonment that make them put up bulletproof facades until they get unreasonably pissed off over high school volleyball.
My breaks aren’t the same as your breaks, and it’s neither of our business to judge the breakage of others.
Breaks simply ARE. If you choose to be bold and express them, like Ren does, you are an artist. If you choose to hide them and push them down, you are not.
People might love what you say, or build, or do, or create. Or they might hate it. They might even hate you for it.
Like Ren says at the end of his video, our failings — that dance between the light and the dark — is what separates us from angels, demons, and gods. It’s what makes us human.
We are human. Whether or not you choose to show the world how human you are is up to you.
As for me, I know what I’ve decided.
Join me, will you?