On writing, identity and fulfillment
If you approached me over the last five years and asked me that fateful icebreaker question “so what do you do?” I would probably tell you that I’m a film critic. That’s not my day job. It’s not how I make money. But I wouldn’t say I was a college housing administrator or a business process analyst. They are my jobs, but they aren’t my identities.
My identity was as a film critic. That’s what mattered to me. From November 2013 to today, I’ve written hundreds of reviews (337 to be exact). If you assumed an average of 900 words per article (which, to be honest is probably underselling things a bit), that translates to more than 300,000 words. If you turned that into a manuscript, it would be 1,213 pages. That’s almost the length of War and Peace. I became a member of the Online Film Critics Society and gained access to press screenings in Boston. I’d watch 100-150 movies in a year. Now, that’s not a lot for a full-time critic, who might see 250 or 300+ movies in a given year, but for someone with a day job, 150 movies pretty much consumes your life.
I think I should take some time to explain. Part of the reason I threw myself so heavily into movies and movie writing is rooted in how dissatisfied I was with that day job. I started working at the Housing office at BU (my alma mater) a few months after I returned to Boston in the fall of 2008. It was a job that paid me, so that was pretty cool (especially after being unemployed in a rather expensive city for four months), but I can’t say I had any actual interest in college housing as an ongoing concern or a long time career. About fourteen months after I started as a coordinator, I was promoted to run summer housing programs at BU. It was more money (yay!) and more responsibility (which I like too, I know I’m weird), so that was also pretty cool, but I saw it as a stepping stone to something bigger.
It turns out that that stepping stone became my professional life for eight years. I got increasingly miserable as I applied for jobs in other departments at BU and in other industries, increasingly despairing as I saw a future boxed into this life and this industry. I’d be a housing administrator for the rest of my life. It was a combative environment, one that saw my quality of life degrade with incredible alacrity. I have been overweight my entire life, but I had lost a good 120 to 150 pounds over the course of a year of particular inspiration. All that weight (and probably a little more, let’s be honest) came back in the next five years of arrested adult development. I was lonely, deprived of intimate and romantic relationships. I saw friends getting married, exciting new jobs and graduate degrees as I just...existed, doing the same thing day by day, year by year. My life was slipping away from me, and I got no fulfillment from the thing that I spent 40 hours a week having to do.
I needed something to keep me sane. I’ve always loved writing. It’s something I’ve done with relish since middle school. I feel worse as a person when I’m not writing. But in this existential funk, I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t write consistently. It wasn’t enough to create a support system or a pressure release valve. That’s where the movies come in. I’ve been a fan of movies as an art form for pretty much my entire life, and the analytical experience I developed as a Philosophy major in college pushed critical essays to the front of my writerly brain (as an aside, the single best class I took in the four years I was at BU as an undergrad was a course on German Silent Film, but despite that it was the only film course I took). I’d written about film in passing before, but this time it could be something more. A task, a goal, something to challenge myself and find that structure I was sorely lacking. The motivation was seeing Blue is the Warmest Color, my favorite film of 2013 and one of my top cinematic experiences of the last decade. I felt so compelled to write about it that it just poured out of me (you can read that piece here). It felt good, so good, that I didn’t want to stop there. I was going to take a shot as film writing as an ongoing concern. I set goals for myself. Keep up the writing through the summer (my busiest and most stressful time at work). Join a critic’s group. Gain access to Boston’s press screenings. I threw myself into it with all my energy.
And I achieved those goals. I wrote consistently through 2014. I was accepted into OFCS in 2015. I went to my first press screening (La La Land) in December 2016. I met people I could talk to about movies, the sort of stimulating intellectual conversations I hadn’t really had since my Philosophy days. It was an incredible feeling, and it helped me survive the ongoing disappointments of my daily life.
But then, thankfully, things elsewhere began to change. I met my beautiful, loving partner Jessica in 2015. We moved in together in Fall 2017 and I proposed to her the following February. And then in March, I started a new job and a new career, staying at BU but shifting away from Housing to a business analyst position in Enrollment and Student Administration. In the three months or so I’ve been in this role, I have felt more fulfilled than I did in all nine years I spent in the Housing office. I go to work with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. I don’t dread whenever my phone rings or I get an email, no longer assuming it’s some student or parent calling to yell at me for ruining their lives because of the room they were assigned.
I’m doing pretty good right now. 2018’s been a pretty great year, all things considered. The Eagles even won the Super Bowl (I was born and bred in the suburbs of Philadelphia).
And the release of that tension, the relaxation (and the aid of some timely anti-anxiety medication) has had an interesting ripple effect on the film writing. Fulfillment suddenly wasn’t a pressing need the way it was before, something I could only quell with the help of writing about movies. So the process of doing these things became less vital, less crucial to my daily well-being and by extension my identity as a person. More and more, the process of going to a screening and filling my notebook with words wasn’t the escape it used to be. It didn’t help that I had exhausted the film criticism goals I had the capability of achieving. I could try and become a freelancer, but the prospect of pitching editors, cold emailing submissions, waiting for a response and trying to stand out in a crowd of hundreds sounds exactly like the sort of hell I went through dating online or applying to jobs, and there’s no way I want to put myself through that again. The stress, the panic attacks. Life’s too short, folks.
So I suddenly find myself in a position where I’m not relying on film reviews to escape the drudgeries of my daily life, nor do I have a tangible goal to work toward. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I do have responsibilities and expectations. I am required to write 50 film reviews per year in order to remain a member of OFCS. So I do have pressure on myself. But now that pressure has switched from the job to the writing. Reviewing movies and needing to hit that quota to stay in OFCS, has become an albatross around my neck.
I love writing. I’d hope that’s clear by now. But what I’ve started to learn is that I’m not a movie writer or a film critic or whatever you want to call it, but I’m a writer who has happened to choose movies as my content medium. It’s that restriction of subject that has come to aggravate me. Over the past year and a half or so, my priorities have rather naturally shifted a bit. I’ve rediscovered a love for video games. I’ve waded deep into the pool of New Japan Pro Wrestling. If you tracked the time I spent watching movies over the last 18 months or so and compared it to the time spent playing games and watching New Japan, movies wouldn’t even come close.
So why am I only writing about movies?
Because I feel like I have to. The OFCS quota hangs over me like a heavy cloud, a sisyphean boulder. I’ll go to a movie, maybe enjoy it or maybe not, and sit down in front of that empty notebook or that blank screen, but what I’m actually thinking about is the 30+ hours I put into Dark Souls Remastered over the last 10 days, or my excitement about the upcoming Dominion show or G1 tournament for New Japan. That’s what I want to do right now. That’s what I’m passionate about.
For me, writing is an exercise of passion. I’m not making money doing this. It’s not about a career. It’s about getting something inside me out of me. An exorcism, if you will. The writing in its purest state is an end in itself. And I’ve gotten a lot out of the five years I spent as predominantly (if not exclusively) a film writer. I wouldn’t trade that for the world. But it’s become a lot of a prison over the last six months.
So I’m going to escape. There’s a tunnel behind that poster of Raquel Welch, and I’m digging my way to freedom. I might write less over the coming days, weeks or months, but I’ll write about what I care about. I’ll write about games and Japanese wrestling and, yeah, probably some movies too. Maybe I’ll take a class or join a workshop or take another stab at creative writing. I’m going to love writing again. Because that’s what matters. That’s what I’m here for. It’s my identity.
So when I talk to you in the future, I won’t call myself a film critic. I’ll call myself a writer.