A Commonplace

What is a commonplace?



 Mon, 21 Jul 2014 08:57:28

Book Review - Wil Wheaton: Just a Geek

Take a minute and try to remember being sixteen. Are you (the you of now) totally happy with whom you were then? Would you trust the sixteen-year-old you to make all the major decisions about your life and career? Ok, let's just ask one final question, what if whatever that sixteen-year-old you was doing was the highlight of your career? How would the you-of-now deal with that?

I'm re-reading "Just a Geek" by Wil Wheaton. Yes, that's right, re-reading. I don't know enough about Star Trek to know why a lot of people don't like Wil Wheaton. I think it's something to do with the character that he played when he was sixteen in Start Trek - Next Generation.

I'm re-reading the book because I want to review it [1]. And I've been writing book reviews (well, I wrote one) and I wanted to go back and try to write a book review of "Just a Geek". I think I like the book for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I identify with not having enough work. And with the constant wrestling with yourself that that involves.

In June 2007, I decided to go self-employed. Or self-unemployed as I've called it since I got another proper job - which was two and a half years later.

I distinctly remember the look on my boss's face when I told her - which was actually, also the point when I made the decision (yes, I know, this speaks volumes for the quality of my decision making). She'd already started her speech "You know Mark, we don't really have any more money to keep you on as a Research Associate, but if you applied for a PhD then we could find you some money for that, of course it wouldn't be as much but. . ."

I hope I wasn't too rude when I cut her off "You know what? Don't bother. I'm going to try something else." She did look genuinely surprised, and I still treasure that look.

So, Wil Wheaton and I have that in common. We both made ourselves self-unemployed and that didn't work out quite as we expected (although, in my case, I'm really not sure what I was expecting). And Will was a lot braver than me, Wil made this choice to be self-unemployed when he was 18 and also part of one the biggest cultural phenomena of the twentieth century.

It's a cheesy conceit, but Wheaton gives his self-doubt a name, and not a slick, easy to say name "Prove to Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn't a Mistake". Where I differ with Wil Wheaton is that I never had that voice. There was no voice inside me that ever wondered if it might have been a good idea to stay in academia. There were other voices though "What The Fuck Are You Doing?", "What Were You thinking?" and "Please Help Me, I Have No Idea What I'm Doing."

But there's something else that Wil Wheaton and I have in common - we both have a serious case of arrested development. But then again, there's also an important way in which this is very unremarkable because Wil and I share this with the rest of the human race.

I saw an interview with the great philosopher "Sting" in which he said that the problem with being famous was that you stopped growing up at the exact point that you become famous. And let's face it, the track record for child-stars isn't a pretty one. Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, Lindsay Lohan it's easy to generate a pretty long-list of literal and figurative car-crash lives without even taking the trouble to look up Gary Coleman.

What Wheaton manages to do in "Just a Geek" is go over the wreckage of his own arrested development and make it a redeeming feature. And he does this by finding a voice. He pioneers a certain kind of blog which combines techno-geekdom - enthusiasm and understanding of technology - with sci-fi/fantasy geekdom - an enthusiasm for Star Trek, Lord of the Rings and on and on. But it also combines this with an honesty and an attitude to failure - and success - that is, well, too refreshing to be described with the cliché of the word "refreshing." Resonant? I'm not sure that's any better. For one thing, it isn't any kind of relentless, "Smile or Die" positivism. He gets pissed off. He gets despondent. He doesn't gloss over the occasions when people aren't nice to him and don't help him even when that results in the picture we see of him not being flattering.

For me, having made myself self-unemployed and then having nearly gone totally broke as a result, I can really identify with a lot of what he's talking about. Let's be clear. I never missed a meal and I've never been homeless and for that I am hugely thankful, and embarrassed to still want to complain. But man does not live by bread alone and that became a lot clearer during my period of self-unemployment.

One of the things that I didn't expect about being utterly broke (and what a nasty surprise it was) was that the most embarrassing and painful thing about being broke is not having holes in your boxers, or not being able to buy a coffee at your favourite coffee shop, but not being able to pay for ceremonies. Weddings, birthday meals, family trips, visits from family members, for all of these you need money. The pain of that is far more unpleasant than getting a nasty letter from your credit card company.

There is a section where Wheaton decides that he has to stay in LA and go to some auditions (because he desperately needs the work) rather than go on holiday with his family. I feel for him, and I feel for his wife who's desperately trying to be supportive and understanding, but who is clearly (as I know mine was) also trying to silence the voice in her own head which is screaming "Why Are You With This LOSER?"

We all have to try to get over the wreckage of our arrested development and try to make it into a redeeming feature. What we're trying to get over, and how we attempt to do that is a huge part of who we are. The awful truth, that the self-help books won't tell you, but the voices that whisper to you when you awake at three in the morning surely will, is that a lot of us simply never manage it. Wil Wheaton seems to have managed it, but in a partial, piecemeal way, that makes it credible and makes this book well worth a read, even if, like me you hardly seen Star Trek since the 80's went the "real" one was on and really do think it's "just a TV show."

[1] One of the other voices in my head (hey! I'm not crazy, honest, where are you going?) Is what the Buddhists call "Monkey Mind" which whenever I've achieved something (i.e. writing a blog post) tells me that that's fine but now I've shown I can write, I should write something else, like a novel, or a screenplay. "Should" is the operative and destructive word. I wrote a blog post once called "Should-ering to a Halt" which I now can't find. I try to avoid "Monkey Mind" by following the advice of Ashtanga yoga guru K. Pattabhi Jois - practice and all will come. So I'm not worrying so much about where this is going, I'm just writing, trying to get what I'm trying to say out of my head and onto the page.