The year is 1994. I am 21 years-old, and though I’m convinced I’m so mature, I’m having a hard time finding my way out of a 10×10 room with one door and a map. I’m struggling to figure out who I am, what’s important to me, and what I’m going to do with my life. I’ve spent some time working for NewTek (making really embarrassing videos), and while I’m very proud of the work I’ve contributed to the Video Toaster 4000, something just doesn’t feel exactly right in my life. I’m not sure I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
I’m adrift in a sea of post-teenage confusion, and I’m profoundly immature. Luckily, I am self-aware enough to know how little I know, so I’ve been attempting to educate myself about the world. I’ve been reading philosophy books, because that seems like something smart, insightful people do … but I’ve gotten wrapped up in Beyond Good and Evil and become something of an obnoxious fucking intellectual.
I will eventually grow out of it, but at this moment, in 1994, I’m dealing with the aftermath of being this guy for my entire life to this point, and it isn’t easy. In fact, it’s pretty goddamn painful, but I don’t know how to talk about it or deal with it, so I project this aura of overconfidence that, in retrospect, is pretty embarrassing.
Yet something important happens at this moment in 1994, and it happens on a Star Trek cruise in Alaska. It will change my life, set me on a long and meandering course out of the sea of uncertainty and toward the man I will eventually become. It happens because I find out I am expected to perform with the other actors on the cruse in a talent show, and I am forced to confront the reality that I don’t have any talents beyond acting, and I’m not sure I’m even very good at that.
So I take a walk around the deck of this ship, and instead of pretending to be deep in thought like usual, I actually think. I really think about who I am and what’s important to me, and wonder what I can contribute to this talent show. Honestly? I’m terrified. I feel like a fraud. I wonder if there’s a way I can just sneak out of this thing and not be part of it. Then I remember that I’m on a boat and the water around me is very cold. I keep walking past Star Trek fans — very nice people, every last one of them — and forcing a smile, with some occasional small talk. I’m afraid someone will ask me what my plans are for the talent show, but nobody does.
I don’t remember exactly how I got there, but I eventually found myself alone in the ship’s library. It was quiet, peaceful. I sat in a comfortable chair and looked out the window at the breathtaking Alaskan coastline.
What am I going to do? How can I do anything as entertaining as the other actors? René Auberjonois is going to sing a song from Beauty and the Beast, for fuck’s sake! I hate myself! Why did I leave Star Trek? Why did I do Liar’s Club? Why did I do The Curse? Why can’t I do something better than Stand By Me? Why aren’t I famous and successful? Why am I living in Kansas instead of LA? What am I doing with my life?
I sat there for a long time, wallowing in self pity and self loathing, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, I had an idea.
I write stories from time to time, and they’re not all that bad. Maybe I could write an essay…
I jumped out of the chair, grabbed a few sheets of paper from an empty table nearby, and wrote across the top of it:
In Defence of Nerds by Wil Wheaton
I started where all 21 year-olds who think they’re clever and insightful start an essay: a dictionary definition.
Nerd – (nurd) n. slang. 1. a stupid, irritating, ineffectual or unattractive person.
Yep, that’s me.
I continued to write for three pages, philosophically pontificating the titular defense (oh, excuse me, I’m very cultured so I use the British spelling - defence) of nerds. What I didn’t know at the time and didn’t realize until just now is that I was writing both a defense and defiant declaration of who I was. For three pages, I defined myself by the things that were important to me — being a nerd and loving nerd things — instead of allowing myself to be defined by who I was — a former child actor who was struggling to find his ass with both hands.
When I finished writing, I felt pretty good about myself and what I’d written. I felt empowered. I felt a little less lame. The talent show I had been dreading couldn’t come soon enough, so I could take the stage and prove to the world that I was more than just a former child actor who had quit Star Trek and was now regretting it. (This may sound familiar to those of you who have read Just A Geek.)
I was on near the end of the program, if I remember correctly. I tucked my pages into my copy of Beyond Good and Evil (because, you see, I had to impress everyone with my deep understanding of Nietzsche, who was relevant to the essay, for, uh, reasons) and walked up onto the stage.
“I hate talent shows,” I began with self-deprecating humor, “because they remind me how singularly talented I actually am.”
Some laughter came out of the audience, and I finished introducing myself. I began reading my essay. I can’t recall specifically how the entire thing unfolded — it was almost 20 years ago, after all — but I do recall that it went well, that the audience enjoyed it.
I ended with: “…I will remind my critics that Albert Einsten, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Gates are all nerds and non-conformists.” I paused dramatically. “My name is Wil Wheaton - and I am a Nerd.”
In my memory, which I want to make extremely clear is not entirely reliable, the audience went crazy with applause, even though I’d had the audacity to compare myself to Einstein, Hawking, and Gates. Ah, the blind arrogance and surety of the 21 year-old philosopher, right?
In the years that followed, I’d occasionally think back to this day in 1994 when I wrote and performed something in public for the first time. I would wonder if it was as good as I remembered or as bad as I feared. I looked for the essay whenever I moved, but I never found it.
Until this weekend.
Going through my garage, clearing out space to build a homebrewery in there, I opened boxes that I haven’t opened since 1995 when I moved out of my parents’ house into my own. Those boxes were mostly filled with books that I didn’t want or need, and they painted a clear picture of who I was back then: lots of SF and Fantasy books, how-to guides on programming in C++, every book Henry Rollins had written up to that point, volume after volume of William Burroughs and some of the Beat writers. There were books on film and acting, and a large number of philosophy books. Among the philosophy books was Beyond Good And Evil.
“Ugh,” I thought to myself, “I know why I haven’t looked in these boxes in years. I was such an insufferable douchebag back then. I should have listened more and talked less.”
I grabbed the book and tossed it into the donation box. It landed on its front, with its spine facing me. I turned back to the box I was emptying, and my eye caught some pieces of paper, folded up and shoved into the book, like a bookmark.
I slowly turned back and looked at them for a long time, not sure I wanted to see what 1994 me had to say, but very sure that I had no choice. I slowly reached out for the book and picked it up. I turned it over, cringed, and pulled out the papers. I unfolded them and saw “In Defence of Nerds by Wil Wheaton”
I sat down and read the entire thing. It’s … well, it’s written by the 21 year-old I’ve described above.
I kept it, and I scanned it this morning because it’s something I’d like to make sure I have forever.
Would you like to see it?
Here it is:
It’s not as good as I remember it, but it’s not as bad as I feared. It’s the very best 21 year-old me could do, and I’m proud of him for taking the chance, facing the fear of being laughed off the stage, and speaking passionately about something that mattered to him (that still matters to me).
I’m glad that, on that day in 1994, I set aside pretending to think about things and actually thought about things. It was a small but important step toward finding my way into the life I now have. In fact, if I looked around at the foundation upon which I built my adult life, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that essay awfully close to the keystone.