Photo by Luke Jones

There’s an essay I started writing in 2012 then shelved for several years, [1] one of those ideas that sounded or felt clever but never materialised on the page. Enthralled by my original concept in the way only an amateur can be, I blamed my loss of steam on inexperience. I had only in the past year begun to pursue writing in earnest, not as a profession (I decided early on I’m a realist in every sense) but as a basis for identity, a secret foundation to insulate my sense of self against the soul-corroding effects of my nine-to-five. I didn’t want to be a writer per se, at least not yet. I only wanted to write in order to constantly improve, because I believed then and now that, contrary to the fake it till you make it doctrine that has entwined itself with our notion of success, any title worth having needs to be earned through sustained effort, which often entails suffering.

For a while it seemed I was on my way – the first few stories I sent out were accepted by semirespectable literary magazines, with a few more receiving reassuring, personalised rejections from some of the who’s who publications – but once the initial dopamine rush fizzled out, whatever psychic ground I thought I’d gained only yielded dissatisfaction. In print, my work didn’t look or sound as nice as it had when I’d first written it, which in turn didn’t look or sound as nice as it had when I’d first thought of it. Enter: the Creator’s Curse. As you work on a project, your skill improves and thus personal standards are raised, meaning you can never be satisfied with a finished product. It follows that a writer should evolve with each story, and so dissatisfaction, even an affected kind, is as legitimate an impetus for artistic growth as any. Although dissatisfaction can be a good motivator, it grants little in terms of direction. To keep improving, I would need to branch out, find others to share feedback with. Iron sharpens iron, as they say.

I read the bigger name journals, hired editors to read my work, lurked forums, took online courses taught by established authors [2], and even joined an urban writer’s co-op that provided a bright and quiet workspace despite my bachelor apartment having been selected largely on these criteria. The cumulative effect was mixed: As I studied the craft my dissatisfaction grew, not because my writing wasn’t good enough (though it wasn’t) but because a lot of what was considered good enough, the stories in the publications I aimed for, often struck me as technically sound but not necessarily inspired or inspiring. I never thought, I wish I could do that on the page. Compounding my lack of awe into disillusionment was the fact that no one cared to explain to me whether I was right or wrong in feeling this way. No one would challenge me nor lament with me. No one seemed to care one way or another. Among both writers’ communities and paid editors I found little desire to work through the nuts and bolts aspects of the craft nor the more subjective, abstract or philosophical questions about why we like what we like. The part of me that needs to know what it is that makes a work of art good, valuable, meaningful – my curiosity, I guess, incidentally the same part of me that compels me to write – couldn’t get past it.


The working title of my shelved essay was “Why Hipsters Can’t Write,” a nod to the late/great C. Hitchens’ much lauded and maligned piece exploring biology as the true cause of the general dearth of comedy penned or performed by women. Evolutionary pressures supposedly forced men but not women to develop humour in order to attract mates. In similar reductionist fashion, I based my title’s generalisation on the presumptions that good writing requires some measure of empathy and that hipster identity is centred around a kind of affected apathy or measured lack of caring we have come to define as coolness, which is of course antithetical to empathy. Confident that my conceptual thumb was more or less on the culture’s pulse c. 2012, I began fleshing it out, drumming up anecdotes about having to fit in with my then-girlfriend’s social circle, trying to evoke the chill and the ensuing numbness, hoping to write scenes that would ground me as the observer while encouraging the reader to identify with me.

An early observation was that hipsters define themselves as being forever ahead of the rate of cultural change via their refusal to participate in that culture. [3] Writing my essay, it felt as if the rate of cultural change had in fact accelerated beyond my capacity to grasp, process, describe, or analyse it, and the more I wrote, the further behind the times I fell. Every jab landed so embarrassingly late it seemed my target was never lined up in the first place. Living and working in Toronto, hipsters were everywhere yet they weren’t. They existed in the corporeal, flannel-and-Chuck Taylors-form, but in the less obvious (but more significant to this discussion) psychic or ethereal form – that which may be deconstructed or criticised but only through honest, sincere engagement at the level of human connection, i.e. a mutual acknowledgment of the other’s humanity – that part simply wasn’t there. There was no need for them to deny the label in order to avoid it.

The fact that hipsters stopped being a thing as soon as they began to be identified as such within mainstream discourse is a kind of poison pill necessarily arising from another trite affectation intrinsically linked to hipster identity, a symptom of coolness-worship: the obsession with irony. [4] In maintaining their ever ironic frame hipsters (ironically) allowed every aspect of their identity to be co-opted by and then integrated into the very culture whose labelling attempts spawned the culture-defying basis of hipster identity. [5] And why resist, because why anything? This natural defence mechanism, akin perhaps to the species of ant Camponotus saunderi that explodes when faced with a legitimate threat, (again, ironically) carries a certain fatalistic integrity, so philosophically amorphous and lacking in definable principles that even in posterity their existence cannot really be nailed down. In other words, by acknowledging hipsterdom we legitimised it, in legitimising it we destroyed it, and in destroying it we fulfilled a kind of grotesque prophecy that hipsters by simply existing as such were begging to see fulfilled. The fact that you see them everywhere means they were never here in the first place.

This is around where my initial attempt lost steam. Sifting through the layers of irony made my brain ache, the exertion gave way to a twinge of nihilistic apathy, the fear of which serves as a deterrent to criticism – perhaps yet another layer of hipsters’ ego-defence.[6] But does any of this matter w/r/t my original query? Even if I’m correct in my assessment thus far, are these layers of defence in fact barriers to emotional or intellectual engagement? The project was on indefinite hiatus but the concept lingered in my psyche. The palpable and growing lack of empathy in the culture at large irked me as I hoped it would anyone who cared to notice, but who might that be? Who cares about layers and empathy and intellectual engagement? Artists, including writers, are the first that come to mind. But the conceptual, brain-aching snags continue: If hipsters tended to regard themselves as an artistic class despite embodying values that are antithetical to creative vision, i.e. receptivity, this raises the question: What exactly constitutes the correct set of values, i.e. those that enable creative vision?

I think it’s fair to say that empathy is a necessary condition of the value-making equation, though not a sufficient one. With many now engaging in virtue signalling by presenting themselves as highly empathetic individuals – say, by accusing social or political opponents as lacking in virtue, calling their ex or the other person on the ballot a narcissist or sociopath – our concept of empathy is in danger of becoming debased through self-reference.[7] Under the auspices of self-referential/post-consumer culture,[8] empathy has been transmogrified from unspoken sacrosanct[9] to something as wholly consumable as ideology itself, relegated to the lowly ranks of pop discourse along with love and spirituality. The question of empathy versus apathy has been answered with a quiet yet resounding, Who cares? Whether this means anything to the individual may be up to the individual alone, another sad bit of irony I’d deem best not to think about were it not for its relevance to the matter at hand.


In the years leading up to 2012 (my mid- to late-twenties) I would sometimes socialise (and subsequently not quite fit in) with hipsters, mostly friends of my then-girlfriend. They were mostly trust fund kids with the trademark affectedly artistic personas who would drop signifiers of artistic status, anecdotes about their music, photography, writing, etc., yet seemed to allocate more time, energy, and money to socialising, sex, and drugs than to the ecstatic or workmanlike honing of craft. Their eyes lacked not just empathy but hunger and curiosity as well. They were hedonistic and at times a bit vapid.[10] Every exchange was a performance, the goal of which was optics or social gain. This was before I had begun writing in earnest, but the contradictory and hypocritical nature of the hipster personas got me thinking: If you could only have one, which would you choose: self-expression or social acceptance? After much consideration I decided this is not an either/or fallacy but is in fact a basic litmus test of artistic character, irrespective of actual creative output. Whatever psychological or spiritual quirks make some individuals inclined to push social and intellectual boundaries in novel and soul-pleasing ways would by definition lead such individuals to choose self-expression, even at great expense. This provides a partial explanation as to why it is that not everyone with a high verbal IQ can be a great writer and not everyone with fine motor skills and a sensitive colour palette can paint something awe inspiring. This much is obvious, for reasons that speak to the greater question of good versus bad art.

Delving deeper: The tenets of psychology hold that, after basic survival and reproduction, social acceptance is the strongest among the average person’s emotional and physiological needs. Brain imaging technology has shown that social rejection causes activity in the same area that processes physical pain, and many controlled experiments and historical accounts support these findings w/r/t causation. Take, for example, the Asch Conformity experiment, in which the experimenter asks the subject to select the longest of three lines drawn on a blackboard. The subject has been preceded by a group of controls (actors) who unbeknownst to the subject have been instructed to select a line that is clearly not the longest. Around one-third of subjects follow the group by selecting the wrong line every single time, but when the test is repeated on the same subject numerous times, around three-quarters will choose the same line as the controls at least once. This suggests that the majority of people either place social acceptance above personal integrity, i.e. saying what you know to be true when it seems likely others will disagree, or else are willing and able to convince themselves that an obvious lie is in fact true at least some of the time – a feat of mental gymnastics (talking somersaults here, nothing fancy) easily accounted for by evolutionary psychology.

The need to fit in is a powerful one, often overriding all others. But this schema is too new and perhaps a bit deterministic for the discussion at hand: Why do some people choose the pain of not fitting in, what stronger itch are they trying to scratch? Culture tends to lag somewhat behind science, so we don’t quite know what to do with these questions, or perhaps what to do with ourselves once we begin to consider the extent to which human identity consists of billions of neurons firing based on external stimuli.


But how does all of this apply to the pursuit of writing, given that many successful writers are showered with immediate praise, success, admiration? Then again some of the greats lived in squalor, sometimes even after their greatness became semi-acknowledged. Maybe for them the question at hand was never really a question, because self-expression was the only option, and when there’s only one option, it can’t really be seen as a gamble.

Self-expression entails a willingness to go against societal norms, often placing one at risk of social exclusion, if not direct retribution. Individuals who refused to go along with the tribe even when the tribe was clearly exercising poor judgment tended to be weeded out either directly or indirectly, i.e. outright murder vs. ostracism. The excluded individual may have survived well enough to eke out a hermit’s existence, but the odds of that person securing a partner while providing for whatever offspring they produced were not good. The fact that some who choose self-expression may wind up successful is beside the point. What matters is the overwhelming likelihood that such a person will suffer a lifetime net loss of social approval and thus reproductive success.

The independent thinking gene (or its piecemeal equivalent, whatever set of genes are linked to intellect in such a way as to occur most often in independent thinkers, artists, rebels) has had a rough go of it. Thinking about life in the strict biological context, as opposed to the abstract or philosophical (doing so presupposes people are ruled more by biology than philosophy, which I have hopefully justified by this point), who really needs to think outside of societal norms? What value or potential value does it bring the individual?

To simplify, if:

1) humans are hardwired to sustain our own lives as a means of contributing to the overall success of the species, either by reproducing or by living long enough to contribute in some other way, then:

2) the individual who chooses self-expression at the potential cost of social exclusion must believe on some level that their self-expression carries more potential value to either themself or the species than the nearly guaranteed reproductive success offered by tribal membership, i.e. adherence to group norms. That whatever they have to express is more valuable than long-term genetic survival. And if that’s not confidence, I don’t know what is.


Addendum (I): I’m writing this during a period of prolonged and unrequested personal and professional downtime,[11] the result of which has been a lot of ruminating and navel-gazing, wondering, analysing, rationalising. I’ve been forced to consider the possibility that it was the choices I made brought me here, to this nightmare reality, and yet I regret very little. All my screw ups, all the times I should have known better, brought me here, made me what I am. The time and energy I not only squandered but used against myself, the injuries it wrought, i.e. physical/mental/emotional/spiritual. Picking up on things others did not and acting accordingly cost me, big time. A mode of being tantamount to a long-term genetic death wish that informs and inspires my writing, completing the vicious cycle by creating conflict that in turn becomes fodder but also weakens my resolve, depletes me. This alone is enough to crush or at least dent the spirit, damage one’s spiritual constitution enough so that productive energy seeps out.


Addendum (II): It’s now 2020. My original draft has been rejected a number of times, with a smaller number of responses pending. I decided to go over this piece once more to edit for clarity, trying my best to maintain the spirit of the time it was written, 2016, with the original draft having been written with the intention to do the same w/r/t my stalled piece c. 2012. My health has improved since 2016 (though I am far from healed), and my perspective has changed for this and other reasons.

We’ve reached a point in history where the world seems to be falling apart much faster than usual, and in revisiting this piece, I’m struck by the way irony seems to have run its course as a mode of being or basis for identity. [12] As I explored earlier, this change had to happen, but with innumerable threats of utter chaos looming, the creative class (rightly or wrongly) has grown rather frantic and seems to be favouring clunkier, heavier-handed methods of self-expression. Or maybe self-expression is wrong, since today we seem bound by societal obligations to express only that which serves the supposed greater good. Alarms are sounding. Maybe sincerity came too late.

[1] Initially until 2016, and again until 2020.

[2] One of whom – one of my favorite living writers – said I was “very gifted” when critiquing a piece of mine that completely missed the point of the assignment. I keep a screenshot of this comment handy when I need a pick-me-up.

[3] See: everything old, cheap, vintage, thrift, etc. Or: you can’t lose a race you never ran, though you’re free to believe you’re better than those that did run.

[4] Although he was talking about irony’s pervasiveness in American culture in general and its dissemination via television in particular, I wonder if DF Wallace had hipsters in mind in 1990 when he wrote, “So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say?.. Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.”

[5] To get a better sense of my meaning, compare/contrast the co-opting of, say, black culture, which has traditionally defined itself based on concepts like authenticity, integrity, and respect, with hipster culture, which has based itself more or less on the exact opposite qualities. When the former was co-opted, the process was apparent and thus open to criticism; not the case with the latter.

[6] This process calls to mind Nietzsche’s abyss, the gazing back and whatnot. Referencing Nietzsche in criticizing hipsters: more irony.

[7] Come to think of it, this may account for hipsters’ open and affected disdain for empathy: It has become a cliché, plus it is associated with sentimentality, so doubly cliché.

[8] i.e. that in which our focus shifts inward and we begin to consume information, emotion, ideology, the parts of our lives that drove traditional consumption, as opposed to strictly consuming quantifiable goods and services.

[9] Imagine trying to explain the value of empathy to a child with twelve siblings in a developing nation, or in a Western nation fifty years ago; it would be like explaining the value of seeds to a farmer, or compound interest to a banker. See also: the work of Dr. Gabor Mate on the subject of “coolness” arising from a broken family structure and the schoolyard hierarchy becoming the primary base of socialisation.

[10] D.F. Wallace said in an interview, quoting an unknown source, that irony is the song of a bird that’s learned to love its cage. A life of shallow hedonism devoid of any meaning or purpose sure sounds like a cage to me. It seems not everyone is hardwired to crave honest or meaningful connections, and so it follows that people with this predisposition would gravitate toward hipster culture, but when every relationship is entirely superficial and purely self-serving for all parties, they aren’t just denying themselves whatever feel-good heart and soul tingles some of us are wired to seek. They are denied a connection to reality itself. Wallace also wrote that irony tyrannises us, and I heard elsewhere that “under a tyranny everyone lies all of the time.”

[11] I should elaborate. I suffer from Lyme disease. My case seems atypical in a number of ways I won’t get into, but suffice to say contracting this difficult-to-cure (or even manage) autoimmune condition does not seem as random as a tick bite, which I am exploring in detail in other works in progress. To anyone who may be curious I strongly recommend the works of Dr. Gabor Mate, especially his book When the Body Says No, as well as the essay “Mutiny of the Soul” by Charles Eisenstein, available online. 

[12] Urban twentysomethings still dress and live like hipsters, but the attitude, the affected coldness and snarkiness, has noticeably died down, often replaced by an affected curiosity, kindness, or positivity. This seems like a good thing, although I’m sure some drawback will be revealed in posterity. There are also those who seem too full of apprehension to engage in the external world at any level beyond the most basic and tangible. 

About Nick Michalak

Nick Michalak lives, works and writes in the Toronto area. His work can be found at Litro, The Fiddlehead, BULL Magazine, Punchnel's, and elsewhere. He is passionate about health and wellness and is an expert at Simpsons Trivia.

Nick Michalak lives, works and writes in the Toronto area. His work can be found at Litro, The Fiddlehead, BULL Magazine, Punchnel's, and elsewhere. He is passionate about health and wellness and is an expert at Simpsons Trivia.

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