You can’t escape the Cool Kids.
Sorry. You can’t. No matter how old you get, no matter the profession you choose, no matter how far from your hometown you travel, there they’ll be—outpacing you, outmaneuvering you, outshining you, and doing it all with the kind of purposeful ease that makes averagely gifted bystanders want to punch granite.
You. Just. Can’t.
Before adulthood, I never paid that much attention to Cool Kids. When I was young (primary schooler, late 1980s) I was too deliciously weird to entertain a dripping Froyo’s chance in Hades of joining them. When I was young-ish (adolescent, 1990s) weirdo-ness came briefly into vogue and though I was never at the tip-top of any sort of heap, I qualified as Solidly Cool. But I didn’t even really get to enjoy it; that legitimizing flutter of status-satisfaction quickly faded amidst the sucking muck of shitty teenagedom. And then I got old.
After getting old, I settled into a writing career and discovered that the ’90s had, indeed, manufactured an entire generation of Cool Weirdoes, and many of them had also wandered into the Creative Professions, where they’d busied themselves making some pretty awesome and beautiful bizarro stuff: expletive-laden food podcasts; strange, gloriously disgusting performance art; off-the-wall Etsy shops; and, of course, all kinds of amazing writing: speculative fiction, awkward personal essays (my fave genre), biting socio-political commentary, and dark, dark potty humor.
Some Cool Weirdoes got pretty famous for it, and I definitely crush hard on a few of them. I dissect their Tweets, I covet their bylines, and I fantasize about striking up an electronic acquaintance over which we parry clever banter and good-natured jabs, which eventually leads to meeting for drinks in San Francisco or New York, at which point they tell me that they love my stuff and I’m really a voice worth listening to and can they maybe introduce me to their agent?
Such daydreams, of course, leave me feeling majorly underaccomplished, seeing as I’m not remotely famous and, really, pretty pitifully Uncool by comparison. And then I get to wondering if creative envy is ever productive and useful.
Can you learn to make cooler stuff by merely studying others who have made cool stuff before you?
Yes, I think you can, if you’re able swallow that jealous gorge and take the lessons genuinely to heart. As a perpetual student of Cool Creative Weirdoes, I’ve discovered that the ones I most admire share a couple traits in common:
- They can’t seem to resist the urge to be unapologetically themselves, whether that self is awkward, browbeaten, angry or obnoxiously optimistic. There’s an undeniable Is-ness to their creative expression that screams “Authentic!”
- They may explore a variety of topics, but the larger voice and message at work are infallibly consistent, which lends their works a satisfyingly thematic feel.
- They constantly take the pulse of their audiences and write about stuff that resonates with that audience. This might look accidental, but I doubt it actually is.
So, to review: to become a Cool Kid, you must be authentic, distinctive and relevant.
As for Cool Creative Crushes? Eh, I think they do have some value. You can learn heaps from studying their successes. But ultimately, you’ve got to keep talking to the world in your own chosen language; shameless mimicry stinks to high heaven, and it can get you in legal trouble, besides.
I know. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like anybody is listening, and nothing feels more like an indictment of Uncoolness than shouting into a void. Voids are big and nasty and completely demoralizing. But you must continue to hurtle your work into them without compunction neverthefreakingless. You must keep shouting! You must keep checking pulses and seeking out that sweet spot where your message and your audience’s interests intersect.
You must keep making Cool Stuff. Then, you must go back and make even more, even cooler stuff, and hurtle that down into the void, too. Over and over, until somebody shouts back.
You must keep at it.
Keep at it.
Keep at it.
All the Cool Kids are doing it.