Random Thoughts: The transitory nature of praise

My reading life is in a minor slump. I’m enjoying Frankenstein Unbound, but not enough to feel compelled to pick it up each day and finish it. Today I read an interview with the actor Rafe Spall that I’d missed when it was published back in May. I wouldn’t have had the same response to it back then, mind you. It was one of those serendipitous stumblings that spoke to me in a particular moment.

It’s a funny, self-deprecating and at the same time egotistical interview. I enjoyed his anecdote about dancing with (for?) Madonna. But it was this quote that struck me today.

I did Death of England, which was a big thing for me – 140 minutes, 16,000 words, very physical and every night a standing ovation. But it sent me a bit loopy. A standing ovation eight times a week. That’s not natural. That’s not good for you … it’s like a bottle of wine. One, lovely. Eight, pushing it. So that took a period of recalibration. How do I go out, get all these people clapping at me, then go home to normal life?

I’m not an actor. I will never get up on a stage and have hundreds of people watch me perform. However, over the last fortnight I’ve had a small taste of this transitory, abnormal showering of adulation that Spall captures here. The exhibition that I’ve been working on for two years finally opened last Saturday. It was delayed by the pandemic for 11 months.

Visitors to Use Hearing Protection on opening day

The exhibition is on a popular subject, and a subject that I am passionate about. Some of my reading over the past two years has been fuelled by the research I did for it. New books like Record Play Pause and This Searing Light. Re-reads, not reviewed on here, like Touching From a Distance, Who Killed Martin Hannett?, 24 Hour Party People, I Swear I Was There and From Joy Division to New Order.

Because of the popularity of the subject matter, the weeks before and after the exhibition opening have been filled with interviews with the press. So far at the museum, I’ve curated three exhibitions, and this one is the biggest in terms of its media reach. Nationally, I’ve been interviewed by The Guardian (twice), The FT, the Press Association, Radio 4, BBC Breakfast and 6 Music, plus specialist music media such as Louder Than War and Northern Soul. Locally, I’ve been on Granada Reports and BBC North West Tonight, as well as interviewed by local radio for the weekend news bulletin, which ended up being syndicated across other local BBC radio stations and Radio 2.

I’ve read everything, listened back to the radio interviews and watched the tv interviews. There has been nothing but positivity about the exhibition, and about my work in putting the exhibition together. Some of the journalists I showed round the exhibition commented on how my passion for the subject shines through. Friends and colleagues have said incredibly lovely things about how the wider world has seen how good I am at my job, how likeable I am as a person, how proud of me they are. I suppose I’ve had a glimpse of myself as the world outside my head sees me, which is a bit surreal.

It’s been rewarding. I’ve worked hard on this exhibition. It means a lot to me personally, and I’m over the moon and a little overwhelmed by all the positive press that it has received. Praise is nice. As well as the external media coverage, the past fortnight has been different for the way it has raised my profile across the museum group that my museum is a part of. In the normal run of things, I sometimes get praise within the organisation for the work I do, but most of the time I’m just doing my job and my work is largely unremarked upon – as it should be. Like Spall intimates in his interview, a bit of praise now and then, when you’ve made a particularly good fist of what you’re paid for, is a good thing, but not to be expected on a daily basis.

Crikey, but it’s addictive, though. That wine analogy is a good one (apart from my ability to drink a full bottle of wine is long gone, like my 30s). I like the buzz that one, maybe two drinks gives you, but that buzz also has that edge to it that tells you it’s going to fade and you need to have another drink to keep it going. Except that next drink and the one after it kills the buzz and turns you into someone different. Gives you a headache. Makes you want to shout and then, suddenly, lie down.

I think part of my current reading slump is because my brain has been switched over to a very different mode to the one it usually operates in. I’m an introvert, and doing press involves me adopting a particular persona. I’m not shy, but I am reserved, and this sort of thing doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. I can do it, I quite like doing it, but being ‘on’ for two full weeks and being unable to switch back off each evening because of the adrenaline, has left my brain a bit soggy when it comes to reading.

Next week, I’ll be going back to normality. The spotlight will be off me again. This weekend, I feel like hibernating, but have chosen to socialise with friends. I can feel the slump starting, the climbing down from the temporary high, the need to adjust back to my work being largely unremarked upon. My introvert self is looking forward to the recalibration. My ambitious self is worrying about how to maintain the momentum, how to keep my profile out there. Introvert me not so secretly despises ambitious me. Have I, like Spall, gone a bit loopy? I don’t think so. Perhaps the friends I see over the weekend will tell me differently.

8 thoughts on “Random Thoughts: The transitory nature of praise

  1. First, congratulations on your success with this, even though you weren’t angling for the equivalent of a standing ovation for your curation. I do totally get that job satisfaction is what motivates you, yet a bit of praise is confirmation that you did indeed get it right. But constant praise at such intensity is like riding a wave over which you have no real control, and that’s scary.

    I suffer from something similar, a condition that many on the autistic spectrum admit to, and that’s imposter syndrome. Before the pandemic I enjoyed accompanying performers on the piano, and having some facility at sight reading comes somewhat naturally. When I do it reasonably well I feel good, and praise from other musicians and from non-musicians is welcome validation. But when it gets too much, as it has on occasion, I want to curl up, finding it hard to keep a rictus smile, murmur thanks, say the expected things in different ways. It’s wearing, but it does sound so ungrateful, doesn’t it? Yet I know I’m not, and won’t be, the best at doing what I do.

    So yes, I think I sort of know what you’re saying. That’s why it’s nice to have and accept praise at a distance — in print, for example — rather than face to face, because one isn’t expected to express gratitude at the moment praise is delivered. Sorry, rambling on a bit!

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    1. I think you have understood, Chris, yes. On a trio of things: control; imposter syndrome; being gracious in the face of praise I think is unnecessary.

      I have experienced imposter syndrome, too – it started for me at the independent fee-paying grammar school I won a bursary to. Clever enough to be there, not at all monied enough to fit in, I learnt to mimic and assimilate to survive, and to avoid the people who looked down on me. This despite my parents holding the belief that I was as good as anyone else there and trying to convince me of the same. By the time I left the school, I believed them. I think the experience is where my drive to satisfy myself before anyone else comes from, and the high standard I hold myself to. The adage that, if you’re not from the prevailing cultural group, you have to work twice as hard and not make a fuss about it feels true to me.

      I’ve felt imposter syndrome from time to time since, working as I now do for an organisation where things like having a PhD or knowing instinctively how to navigate past the gatekeepers to advancement are highly prized. Many of my work peers are from similar backgrounds to the girls I was at school with. I continue to work to my personal standard so that I can’t be faulted on the thing I can control, but I still feel that I don’t quite fit in. Office politics bore me, talking myself up isn’t my thing, and some of the things I do receive praise for make me shake my head because I see it as just doing my job, and so feel patronised.

      What has struck me with the external response to this exhibition is that I’m clueless about how my work and I are seen beyond the walls of the museum because I so rarely get the sort of feedback I’ve had this time, that I quite like the external validation that what’s good enough for me is also good enough for others, and that it’s okay to say that, it’s not showing off.

      Thank you for your congratulations, and also for understanding what I was trying to say.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As Chris says, firstly, congratulations on this success, Jan. It is gratifying to know that your work and your passion resonate with so many others even if that comes with pressures of its own. I hope the weekend with friends has helped; that this week is shifting closer to what passes for normality; that you feel closer to yourself again.

    Although not in the context of praise, so much of what you have written in these reflections strikes a chord, and just as your reading of Rafe Spall’s article was timely for you, your own writings have been timely for me. I’ve never considered the word ‘recalibration’ but that is exactly what I have to do each time I return home and circumstances have required me to be away regularly despite the pandemic. Always it’s a challenge and I don’t always succeed in it. I suspect that simply thinking of that word will help. Thank you 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I learnt that recalibration is important while caring for my mum. It felt as though opportunities to do so were rare, because an end to it felt far off and also something I couldn’t really countenance. I hope that thinking of the word helps you.

      And my weekend of meeting up with friends, feeling free to be a me I don’t show at work, was an absolute tonic! This week and next, I have some time off, too, to watch Wimbledon and clear my head. I hope you’re able to find space for similar moments to yourself, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m so glad you’re enjoying that time and space, Jan. My frequent stretches away from home are almost entirely due to caring for both my parents. At this moment they are both safe and cared for and free from crises. That may change tomorrow, next week, next month. But for now – my time to recalibrate 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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