32. Tell your own story

Because other people will eff it up

100% is now Supergranular. Maybe I’ll explain why in a future newsletter. And this one is really long. I’m sorry.

In the Earthsea saga, Ursula K. Le Guin’s heartbreaking work of incredible genius, wizards perform magic by speaking the real names of things. Because they carry so much power no one uses their given names, adopting nicknames instead. Just knowing someone’s real name is a terrible burden. You can mess someone’s whole reality up by leaking that name at an inopportune moment.

Where did the world come from? In most creation stories, it’s spoken into being. Take the Bible, side 1, track 1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

That’s not how the Bible starts. That’s the Gospel of John. But it’s good, right? It’s how you imagine the Bible would start. But it doesn’t.

The Bible starts like this:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

I’m not here to copy edit God, but I think they picked the wrong opening. Could it be less enthusiastic? You can practically hear the yawn after “beginning”.

Or maybe the problem is God gave John those other words, saw that they were hella good, and told him, yo, that goes at the front. Those bars are fire! And John was like, I totally agree but you gave that job to Genesis.

Then the Council of Trent rolled up in 1545 and spent the next 18 years debating those first lines. I mean they did other things too, like remove problematic women and get rid of anything that made Satan seem too cool. But they kept going back to the opening verse.

Too poetic, said some. Potentially confusing in a transubstantiation kind of way, said others. A bit gay, thought a few, but kept it to themselves.

In the end, they chose an opening by committee. If you’ve ever had to create something by committee you know it’s a guaranteed way to get the most mediocre outcome possible. You pitch it right down the middle.

“Ok guys, it’s year 18 and we’re still not settled on how this entire book starts! So we’re not leaving this room without a sentence we can all agree on. So far we know it’s the beginning, nothing exists, and then God creates heaven and earth… no Matthias we are NOT going to debate where God lived before he created heaven… will the Leviathan contingent please not chant during session…”

Anyway the point is, you need to tell your own story.

I didn’t call myself a writer for a very long time. Not when I was published, not when I was paid for a weekly column, not when I first applied to be a copywriter, not when I became a copywriter. I just couldn’t do it.

You see, we have very little tolerance for people calling themselves things we think they’re not. Take artists, for example. We have less tolerance for someone saying they’re an artist than we do for unlicensed people pretending to be doctors. You can run a finance scam claiming to be a dethroned European prince and you’ll meet with less resistance than the average person daring to say they’re a painter. A photographer.

A writer.

Call yourself a writer and you’ll get the inevitable question, ever been published? Which is another way of asking, ever been paid to do it? Which is another way of asking, has the capitalist system deigned to recognise your efforts in a way I can understand? A good way to eliminate any desire you have to do a thing is to go to a party and announce you do that thing.

My first job out of school was teaching, which is a noble profession. You know it’s a noble profession because it’s criminally underpaid. It’s so financially thankless I left teaching to go to law school and become a policy analyst, which is not a noble profession unless your sense of nobility runs to taxi license violations.

Now, people with English degrees do a lot of jobs (like making your coffee, har dee har har). But I loved writing and wanted to write, and wouldn’t call myself a writer and so never thought I could. For a living. To survive.

It went something like this:

What if I call myself a writer and never get published?
What if I get published but never get paid?
What if I get paid but only that one time and never again?
What if I get paid more than once but it’s only for bad things and then I’m known as the writer who only writes for bad things?
What if I only WRITE bad things and then someone finds the bad things and highlights them as bad things that I, Thom Wong, a person who calls themselves a writer, has written?

You can go pretty far down that shitty hole when you don’t tell your own story. When you don’t tell your own story, not so much to other people but to yourself. And it’s all stories. Everything is a story.

It took me 40 years. When I arrived in London I interviewed for an agency in Shoreditch with the creative director and current copywriter. The interview was in a very nice room with a weird light display on the ceiling of many multi-coloured orbs. There were no cubicles and the lobby had the rear-end of an elephant looking over it. It was very extra and I felt I’d arrived.

After some extended pleasantries the creative director asked if, at this point in my career, I’d found my voice. Was I writing with my own unique expression? And I, a person who could not call themselves a writer even while interviewing for writer positions, said quite cheerfully, oh no I haven’t and still wonder what my style even is to be honest.

The first clue I’d done a bad was the silence. The second clue was the sympathetic if strained smile from the copywriter. And the third clue was the conversation wrapping up a few minutes later, with me back out on the fashionably shabby street across from the cult bakery and a man yelling about the bugs in the walls.

(They’d hire me a month later as a “community manager”, which is what you get for not putting some respect on your goddamn name. You get yelled at by people named Gary for not giving them their Glastonbury tickets after they break the rules of the giveaway and enlist Lennox Lewis to start a Twitter flame war with you. On your birthday.)

Here’s a thing you learn by working in advertising and start-ups in London. Über isn’t a ride-hailing service. Deliveroo isn’t food delivery. WeWork doesn’t rent office space. They’re all stories. Make America Great Again is one of the most transparently unhinged tales of our time, but it’s still a story and a lot of people and thousands of Russian bots rallied around it.

If you ever worry that your dream of being a [fill in the blank] is just a story you’re telling yourself, remember that so is everything else. People invest millions in “good” stories. And you can either tell your own story, with its pace and rhythm and denouement, or you can let other people tell it for you.

I’m sorry to ground so much of this in capitalism, but you know who tells their own stories? People who get promoted. People who get promoted tell their own stories that start, “In the beginning I was demonstrating value at the highest levels, and those levels were with our product teams, and those products teams shipped on time!”, with no provisos or equivocations.

You best believe Jeff Bezos, that sad sack of human apathy, tells his own story. That’s literally all he does! And no, we don’t want to be like Jeff Bezos. We don’t want to be like Lance Armstrong, but we can also see that cycling is a really nice way to spend an autumn afternoon. Even a broken clock made of literal bullshit is right twice a day.

It took me 40 years to call myself a… wriiiiiter… and that wasn’t the hardest part of telling my own story. The hardest part is all the wavy pieces that make up everything else. But it’s cool! I get to add all kinds of new characters to it. There’s bisexual Thom and loosely-gendered Thom and musical theatre Thom and maybe one day there will be stand-up comedy Thom and live in Japan Thom.

And as I learn to tell their stories there’ll be less room for stare into the void Thom and paralysed by anxiety Thom. Maybe. It’s a bet, but a safe one. As my patron saint of self-worth, Shea Serrano, would say, “Bet on yourself.”

Bet on yourself and tell your own story.