Okkervil River's Will Sheff: I wish someone had told a nerdy teen that someday being smart would be cool!

Trust Me on This: It wasn't until college that I realized being smart was a good thing -- and that people liked it

Published November 19, 2013 12:00AM (EST)

Will Sheff       (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-667657p1.html'>Christian Bertrand</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
Will Sheff (Christian Bertrand via Shutterstock/Salon)

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The single piece of advice that would have made my life easier: One day, being smart would be an asset.

All of these things that made me a spazz, or a dork, or a nerd, or a weirdo, or a reject, or a pariah in the eyes of a very small town group of little kids -- being smart and enthusiastic, being nerdy about stuff I liked, geeking out on things and putting a lot of energy into them -- would all be something somebody would find worth paying money for someday. It could be attractive and lucrative and appealing.

The word "nerd" is such a funny word, and at the time it was really damning. In the early '80s, "nerd" was a damning word in a small town. I hated that I had glasses and all this stuff.

It wasn’t until college that I realized that being smart was a personally attractive quality. I thought of it as a liability. I spent a lot of my time, at different phases in my childhood, trying to pretend I was a fucking moron. That’s the single most important thing that would have given me confidence: If somebody had said, “All these things that people give you such a hard time for, eventually people are going to like.”

I was always the kid who had his nose in a book, literally as I was walking down the hallway. I would be walking and reading and bump into the wall. I never, ever went out for recess. I always avoided sports. I only played sports when I was forced to play, and then I would immediately get hit in the face with a baseball.

I really loved to draw. I really loved comic books. I really loved science fiction. I really loved creating. I liked creating a whole universe with characters and worlds. For whatever reason, I knew for absolute certain that I wanted to be a special effects designer for a living. Like Stan Winston or Rick Baker. I really loved that stuff. I had a subscription to Cinefex magazine that I would bring to school, and I got in a lot of trouble for that.

All of those things are really minor compared to what was the fundamental problem: I was just a very awkward person. I had been really sick when I was a kid; I’d been repeatedly very sick and it made me have a poor engagement with the physical world. I was like the kid who really didn’t make eye contact, who wasn’t physically confident. My physical movements were weird. I didn’t understand what to say in different situations, what to not say, modulating your voice – all those little social cues that you’re supposed to have.

So basically I was like that gazelle that gets eaten by the tiger because there’s something wrong with its leg. That thing when chickens see blood on another chicken and they peck it to death. I had the outward signs of, “There’s something wrong with this kid.” That was the No. 1 reason they gave me such a hard time.

I think many people who are artists get into art partially because they’re born with a creative instinct, but partially because there’s something defective in them. They have a difficult time relating to the world in the ways that normal, healthy people do.

When you factor in the thing that makes them want to be successful -- that’s usually some pretty heavy damage, such as a desperate need to have everybody love you. For me it wasn’t really that; it was anger. I was really, really angry. I was angry with all the people who made me feel like I was a defective human. The countless times I’d gotten into physical fistfights. The countless times I had to get called “faggot.” The countless times I had to get called “retard.”

And after a certain period of that, it can either break you or fuel you. And what fueled me into confidence, and self-actualization, and the desire to make art was anger. I was fucking pissed off at everyone. I was pissed off at the world: That anger fueled me.

In my life I’ve run into many artists -- people who nobody has heard of and people who are massively mega-famous. One of the things I’ve noticed about the massively mega-famous ones is that they’re driven in a crazy way that cannot be accounted for by mere professional pride. There’s something personal happening there. The trick is to recognize it and treat it like the animal you keep in the cage that you let out when you need to. It’s like Bruce Banner in "The Hulk." You have to know to stay Bruce Banner most of the time. But you need to be the Hulk if you’re going to smash things apart.

I went off to college, and suddenly I was surrounded by people who were smart, and I found that people liked that I was smart. It wasn’t like I was suddenly popular or anything, but I realized girls thought it was attractive when a guy was smart. People wanted to take a chance on you when you were smart.

I also realized that what I was passionate about things. Passion is very attractive to adults. Being smart and passionate is not attractive to 13-year-olds in a small town. As a result, a lot of kids don’t foster their passions. Then they grow up and don’t know what their passion is. You look at all these adults out there who are in jobs they don’t necessarily like and they go, “I don’t want to do this, but I don’t know what else I want to do. I can’t figure out what I want to do. I can’t figure out what I want to do with my life, what it is that would make me happy, what it is that I like.”

My issue was trying to narrow down what I wanted to do. I really loved doing stuff, and I really wanted to be able to do it all. So I think that in the end that all turned out to be a good thing. I had great parents, but nobody ever said, “Dude, people are going to love that you’re smart. People are going to love that you’re enthusiastic. These are things that are going to draw people to you. These are things that are going to bring you success.” Instead, later, adults were impressed by it – but nobody said if you stick with it, you’ll go places other people won’t.

By Will Sheff as told to David Daley

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