Friday, January 23, 2004

What is Success?

I seem to be in the rather odd position of not being famous enough to get a book contract, but too famous to get a job.

I don’t have a sufficient “platform” nor am I a prominent enough “brand”, but any job I am qualified for, I am apparently overqualified for. Or something.

When I mentioned this to someone on the phone, she suggested that I was “between trapezes.” Sounds about how I feel.

There's a chapter in The Malling of America called "Kids in the Mall: Growing Up Controlled." It's just five pages long in the hard cover edition, out of 400. (the chapter is longer in the paperback, with new material.) But it's been far and away the chapter reprinted most often. It's in literally dozens of anthologies and readers, mostly for college and high school students. It started getting reprinted right after the book was published in 1985, and has been in a couple of new volumes every year since. It will be in new anthologies through 2005.

It didn't occur to me when I wrote it that a chapter on kids in the mall would be a natural for classroom use. But I get a few hundred dollars a year because it is (one publisher called it one of the most teachable essays of the past 50 years), making it easily the most lucrative five pages I've ever written.

And it's why my name appears in anthologies that include Shakespeare, Chekhov, Thoreau and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In the collection I'm looking at, called "Legacies," it follows a poem by Margaret Atwood, and is a few pages in front of a story by William Faulkner.

Is it the best thing I ever wrote? I doubt it. Is it truly in a class with the work of those literary greats? Not really. Do I like it? Sure. It's flawed, but it's fun. And I remember being in a good mood when I wrote it---this draft of it anyway. I was on a roll then. I wrote several of the chapters in that section in just a few days, once I had the first one.

That chapter also happens to be one that my editor really hated. She thought it wasn't an accurate reflection of kids' experience, at least according to her resident expert, a young intern in her office. (To be fair, this was an earlier draft, but there's little substantive change.) If I had heeded her, I would have dropped it completely. Only my stubbornness kept me working on that book, after that particular set of meetings.

The Malling of America is the only book I've written---that is, that's been commissioned and/or published. It's a good book. I still like it. Now that Amazon has a new goggle-like system which, when you type in a name, gives you not only the author's book(s) but any references in other books, it occurred to me to look myself up. There are about 58 books in the amazon search that mention mine, and this doesn't include several more I know about. When I interviewed Michael McClure for my feature on Buddhism and the arts in San Francisco, I mentioned my book for some reason. "That's a famous book!" he said. "Well, it's a famous title," I heard myself replying. And that's true. More people know the title than the book. But I still get fan mail occasionally, from people who enjoyed reading it.

So why am I not more excited about this? For two reasons, that by the end of this bit of comment will be related. The first is a point that many people find difficult to understand. I like the writing in that book very much. But I feel exactly the same way about other pieces of my writing that have gotten far less praise, and some that have never gotten so much as a single word of praise. In a few cases, I feel the work that has been ignored (sometimes politely, by people who clearly don't like it) is better.

In a way this relates to the larger phenomenon of outsized praise, which is usually soon followed by outsized blame. This has been a feature of my work for clients in particular. The first work I do is not just satisfactory, it's genius. That very word has been used, more than once. These days when I hear it, I feel like running for the door. Because it is inevitably followed at some time by a piece of work that they don't like as much. And that is often enough the last job I get from them. The example I recall most vividly was one of the times the word "genius" was used, in conjunction with the words "perfect" and "just what I hoped for." This was a rewrite on a grant application for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was followed by similar praise for work on a grant for a couple of million dollars. Then I was called in to help on another project already in progress. There was a multi-national conference call involved. Unfortunately, the person who hired me left the room for part of the call, and when what I wrote responded in part to what he had not heard, he wasn't happy with it. And I was no longer a genius, and no longer called for other projects.

I do the best I can on every job I do, for clients or for naught. I don't let anything leave that I don't feel is good. I usually put far more work into what I write than is warranted by the money I make from it, on those occasions I make any.

Then there is work I feel pushes the envelope in more interesting ways, or expresses more, more than I had expressed before, more than I knew.
I have a special fondness for this work. I am often alone in this fondness. It's more often true of my non non-fiction (including music) but there's nonfiction, published and not, that qualifies.

So if I'm not going to jump off a cliff in despair because nobody is excited or inspired by something I really like---and I always want what I like to excite and inspire others (is there any greater bliss than having a melody you wrote hummed by children, and even to have it outlive you? A play performed by strangers? Not to my fantasy knowledge.) It's disappointing, I'm not happy about it, but finally it's my standards that count, in terms of my own feelings, and my own sense of my work, and my play. And so it's difficult to get too carried away by the responses I do get to other work.

I don't want to become like Conan Doyle, who hated Sherlock Holmes and valued most his metaphysical writing, which even in his own time was considered largely gibberish. Or like TV actors whose small screen success drives them to believe they should be movie stars. On the other hand, we aren't talking about living with the lavish rewards of success, but maybe living a little too deluded.

That's the other point. My mall book is known around the world. It's how I am identified, and probably will be in the first line of my obit wherever it happens to appear, if anywhere. But in commercial terms, in career terms, it was a failure. It was not enough of a success to propel me into a career writing books. I made plenty of naïve mistakes, mind you, leading up to publication and in the years immediately afterwards. But it is also true that one rather large factor in my ideas and proposals for books being all turned down after that, is that the mall book was perceived as a failure. It never even got a paperback edition, until I paid for one.

Had it been a big commercial success, I could have proposed a book on the influence of moonshine on white wall tires, and it would have been immediately hailed as a stroke of genius, and money thrown at it. Had it been perceived as at least a moderate commercial success, and especially a critical success, I would have had another couple of books to make a career. A success would have meant my screenplay would be looked at favorably, and I could add other forms to my legitimate repertoire.

But it wasn't. So it's a famous title. It's a semi-famous book. In paperback now, it sells a few copies each month. Around Christmas shopping season, I get emails from reporters (Hamilton, Ontario this year) and a phone call from NBC News with Tom Brokaw, asking me questions. Sometimes they are even questions I can reasonably answer.

Now when I propose a book idea, I'm told (by an agent) I don't have a "big enough platform." I'm not a star, a brand name. I'm not an expert, with a constituency. Of course, the only thing that made me a shopping mall expert was publishing the book. I keep getting called a sociologist. I've had exactly two sociology courses in my life. I may not be an expert on the skills of peace, or the soul of the future, but I am also no expert on sociology or retail, architecture or business. So what? What about what I actually wrote, and people read? That may matter to you and me (it certainly matters to me) but not to anybody I've met in publishing. (At least they aren't in publishing any more.)

But I have to factor this in, when I evaluate my work. Not what it's worth to me, not even what it might be worth to readers (or listeners), but what it's worth in money. Which ultimately becomes what I'm worth in money, and that's what I have to deal with now. For in this society, the ultimate measure of all things is money. There's no getting around it. Probably even monks are expected to do some telemarketing for the monastery these days.

Over the course of a lifetime, you realize all too well that your virtues and your flaws are the same. The stubbornness that kept me working on the mall book, that keeps me following my enthusiasms, has led me through decades in which I wrote a lot, published a good deal less, and missed a lot. Like having a family, a house, a nest-egg, or a real career. I got ridiculed the other night for not having money in a mutual fund. Instead I have had a series of assignments, a series of articles, a series of unpublished drafts of fictions, plays, screenplays, and songs that not very many voices shared. Maybe that's why I insist on re-publishing my old work, even if only on the Internet. So it adds up to something, something whole, and in the world now.

Now I am trying to be realistic about where I fit, not by my standards, but by the standards of those who control livelihoods. But as flawed as my judgment must be, I still find it difficult to believe that my rightful place is rote work for minimum wage with a few hours a week of dubious focus on writing unproduced plays. That may in fact be the scenario, although if that's the direction it goes, it could be a lot uglier than that peaceful sounding little scene suggests. And who knows, maybe it's for the best---to give up any pretense of a public role, of even a middle class life, and write in the literary forms I always wanted to the most, if I am so able.

But even in that case, I will still be stuck with my own evaluations of my work, as delusional as they might be. There are still going to be things that mean a lot to me and to no one else. And other things that mean something to a few others, some of which will mean less to me. And I'm still going to pine for the response of excitement and inspiration, and in the end when I don't get it, it won't change my opinion. I still like what I like. I see what I see around me, I have my evaluations about the work of others, and my opinion where I fit in (somewhere in the second tier, just below the quite thin top tier, if you must know.) And as long as I can, I will remain stubbornly involved in what I care about. For example, even after I sent out a few CDs of my accumulated music this Christmas, I listened to the selection, liked a lot of it, but decided there were a couple of vocals I could do better, so I re-recorded them. I will probably work on this CD off and on for years. In the final analysis, though I care if others like it, it doesn't really change how I feel about it, how I evaluate it. Or put it this way. The ideal situation would be if my work happened to be making me a living, and people---maybe even lots of people-liked it, were stimulated by it, got joy from it, and I liked it. The joy of others would definitely add to my joy in my work. If my work were making me a living and I liked it, but what I created didn't make much difference to anyone, I could accept that and go on, hoping to do better work that might catch on, or just hope that someone might discover it later on. The much harder cases would be if my work were making me a living and I didn't like it, or my current case, in which my work is not making me a living but I like it and some others do as well. In those cases it's difficult to know what to feel.

The trick is going to be to accept the consequences of how I am evaluated by others in the context of whatever present is current. Especially the others with power. I've been avoiding that while I've been fighting it. A lot of my self-image is internal, but a lot of it is also based on a fantasy of my relationship to the external world. I don't know how I will handle the violent separation of the internal and external. I've never felt equal to being able to compartmentalize enough to give eight or ten hours a day of energy and attention falsely, and then come home and be energetic and true. And these days, simply your body and your brain aren't enough. Employers want your heart and soul. And the worse job it is, the more they demand it.

That's if there is such a job. I am the right age to be at the apex of my writing career, and the wrong age to be looking for a job. I am also in the wrong region of the wrong state. With the wrong job history. And introverts don't cold call well, as a rule.

I've had something in the Sunday SF Chronicle four out of the last five weeks. Two book reviews, one a cover; the cover story in Sunday Datebook, and tomorrow, a long Insight piece. This writing has cost more than it pays, and so it can't go on this way. It only works if it leads to something else. So far, it hasn't. No interested book editor or agent on the phone. It still could happen, of course. This is a weird game, and getting stranger all the time, but the odds are also getting longer. It's getting to be more of a lottery.

I alternate panic and not panic. At the moment I’m feeling okay. There was a certain “closure” in finding out that, as I suspected, a particular door was definitely closed to me. There was an aha moment in the shower when the intro line I’ve been looking for to begin “Soul of the Future” came to me, and ideas starting falling into place. So I may be at the starting point of a familiar cycle, of generating a proposal that I hope will liberate me from this angst without requiring me to move my life again… all such hopes have been dashed in the recent past, and even in the not so recent past, but for the moment the creative excitement carries me forward into another day.

So what is success? There's mine, there's yours, and there's the big old world's. If we all aren't on the same page, it's very hard to say. Maybe there is honest work I'm suited for, that I can't even imagine. Maybe I will find it, or it will find me. And maybe my fate will be the same as so many before me, after me, and all around me: a fate that would be regarded as tragic were it not played by unknown actors on so small a stage, in the midst of so much noise, in the dark. We do the best we can, with as much grace as honors us.

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