The first question I ask myself whenever anyone assigns me a project is this: what is the real project though?
For some completely idiotic reason I can never seem to work on a project unless I feel like I’m doing something punk and unexpected. Project X might have a rigorous deadline and a clear set of steps to complete but I’ve always found that there’s always a secret project lurking within it that no-one’s seemed to notice. It might be refactoring a ton of CSS in the process or obliterating our icons or documenting the design in Figma for our designers. Or building some new tool that we need. Or advocating for a new hire.
Writing is the same way too. If I don’t feel like this is something I shouldn’t be writing then I can’t. And I wish I could! I think it would be better for my career and my bank account if I could just simply do whatever anyone tells me to do.
And I’m not saying this to brag about how rebellious and brilliant I might be, I’m saying this to moan about how childish this all is.
We were at my tutors cottage huddled in a small room and sat at a round table when I recognized this feeling for the first time in college. Each student was asked what their dissertation was going to be and I found myself growing increasingly upset and bored by the conversation. Neat, this person is writing about feminism in the Yellow Wallpaper huh? Oh! That person fancies discussing Nature vs. Nurture and modernist post-cultural whatever the fucks in The Tempest? How brave!
It feels like everyone has already done this a billion times before; just outside there are a thousand students in a place like us sat at a round table and having precisely the same conversation. Why are we writing about the same gosh darn things as everyone else? And why is my tutor not pushing us to do something extraordinary?
Why are we okay with repeating what someone else has written, but with the words ever so slightly rearranged?
I wanted us all to be courageous and bold and at least a little daring. And so when it came my turn to talk about my dissertation I proposed something entirely preposterous: I wanted to write a 10,000 word epic poem about Nellie Bly. I had somehow stumbled upon a story some weeks prior as to how she snuck into an asylum on Blackwell island in 1887 to reveal the awful conditions in which the inmates were being treated. Except I wanted to move the location to Bedlam asylum in London. And I wanted to write about each of the inmates and experiment with a different style of poetry. The director of the asylum could be this bombastic screamer and he could sing about madness and physical abuse whilst being entirely bonkers himself.
After I finished talking everyone in the room looked at me as if I was unhinged and this made me determined that this was precisely what I had to write. I knew I would rather fail at doing something disastrously bold than excel at something average and commonplace.
Oh and the dissertation? The ashes are currently sealed in a salt mine three thousand feet beneath an unidentified bog in the south west of England.
My dissertation was an enormous, ambitious and entirely foolish disaster that led to an awful grade. But! It made me sort of realize that the work I want to do is always going to make me an outlier to some degree – that’s the work I’m comfortable doing; the work that no-one sees or really gives a damn about. Because that’s the most exciting thing: to do the thing I shouldn’t be doing.
And so what this means is that I can never walk into a room and agree with someone. I can never shake someone’s hand and smile and go away and do the big dumb project. I have to die on every fucking hill I see and I have to use every project as an excuse to write an unexpected 10,000 word goddamn poem.
My point with all this is that I am not a Yes Man, but I wish I was.