By Alison Umminger
Most of us grow up thinking, much like Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, that we have the potential to be Contenders, those proverbial “somebodies” in the fields of our choice. Raised, as good Americans, on the Horatio Alger myth—coupled with weekly doses of American Idol and its ilk—we think that “next big thing” status could potentially apply to us. Needless to say, for most of us, this is probably not the case. But this is not a fun or pretty thought, so we put it aside and live aspirationally rather than in reality. One need only look at our foreclosure rates to see how this plays out in the financial realm, but what about our far less quantifiable ambitions? How does one accept that life, as it is wont to do, has foreclosed on one’s dream?
I am going to use the following as the premise for the rest of this essay (and it’s not a favored mantra, so bear with me): what if one is not as awesome as one would like to believe? A friend was telling me recently that American students are low in global scores in virtually every area except for, no breath holding here, self-esteem. All empirical evidence to the contrary, we secretly believe that we are amazing. I confess, I felt this way about myself once. I wrote a nifty novel that my agent thought was great and my friends said was brilliant. Sixty editors disagreed. I’m going to spare you the catalogue of near misses and discussions of marketplace and just sum up what this meant for me. I had a dream. It didn’t work out.
So I tried dream number two, which was to make some money. If I couldn’t be Ernest Hemingway, I could at least be Danielle Steele, right? My best grad-school buddy and I wrote two chick-lit novels that we thought were super-commercial, but still smart, and would naturally make us millions of dollars because we were “selling out.” A little note about “selling out”—be sure that there are buyers! Although those novels made it to print, what we made was more like six months rent—not millions.
So while I am not going to be so melodramatic as to call myself a failure, I certainly wasn’t the great success story I had once imagined. So what? What next? If one is not amazing, what does one become?
First, I became alienated from my work. By becoming so focused on writing as a product, I lost my faith along the way in writing as a process, as something that gave my soul some breathing room and helped me to know the world better and care more deeply about it. I couldn’t sit down and look at a blank page without the nagging sense of despair that it just wasn’t worth it; if I couldn’t reach a wider audience, there wasn’t really a point. This is not an uncommon place to be for a blocked writer, but it certainly isn’t a very healthy one.
Then life threw me a curve ball. There is nothing better to cure an existential problem than an actual one. My husband and I started trying to have a baby, and we had trouble. In the course of one year, I had two D&Cs, a laparoscopic surgery on my ovaries, and a miscarriage at eight weeks after seeing the baby’s heartbeat. It’s not as much as many women endure trying to have a child, but it felt like plenty to me. I became severely depressed. I couldn’t see an end to my struggles with fertility, and I needed something to get my mind off of me. So I started working on something that my inner art-snob knew wasn’t going to win any prizes, and my inner sell-out knew probably wouldn’t make any money: romantic comedy screenplays. Why? Because I liked them. Because unlike most literature, or indeed many aspects of life, they have happy endings. I enrolled in a screenwriting class and started writing my first manuscript. Was it great art? No. Was it fun? Yes. Did it get me out of my head? Yes. Was I proud of it as something that I had worked hard on and enjoyed writing. Yes.
In the wonderful old movie Sullivan’s Travels, a director of comedies longs to make great art, a film that will paint “a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.” Much like Aristotle, he believes that tragedy is the greater art form and comedy a mere diversion. He aspires to better. This certainly mirrored the attitude that I encountered in my M.F.A. program. One aspired to create “great art” and wrote comedy (if one deigned) under a pen name to preserve one’s reputation. When my first chick lit novel was accepted, my advisor at the time, rather than congratulating me, gave me a wary look and said, “Well, you know you’ll never get tenure with that book.” It might have been a book, but it wasn’t a “real” book.
Sullivan’s Travels closes with a scene where Sullivan, having sought out suffering and found it, watches one of his comedies with a band of the truly downtrodden. For a moment, this collective is able to put aside their troubles and laugh, which Sullivan now realizes is no small accomplishment. This scene resonates with me. Maybe there’s something youthful and naive about courting art as tragedy—particularly if life hasn’t send much genuine pain your way.
In the same way, there’s probably something equally destructive about believing in your own “awesome,” rather than making friends with your “just okay.” The nice thing about embracing one’s own averageness, about giving up on being great, is that you get to decide who you are when all expectations are set aside. You get to like what you do without an inner biographer looking over your shoulder. Life has far more near misses than direct hits, yet we have a tendency to treat these as failures rather than as the real meat of most of our lives. Success is wonderful, and don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind having a little, but until then I’m happy letting characters “meet cute” and end well.
Photo provided by Alison Umminger.