Ripen as the tree
I did the thing, guys.
I did the thing that I tell all of my friends (especially those battling mental illness) not to do.
I scrolled on Facebook.
We’ve all been there: check the notifications, nothing exciting, something at the top catches your eye (“Cats who can rollerblade?! Show me!”), and then before you know it, you’ve lost an hour of your life staring at baby pictures of that chick Jenny who used to work at Panera with you. (“How did I get here?” you scream into the abyss.)
We’ve all been told the dangers of social media: you don’t get the whole picture of someone’s life. You only see the achievements, the awards, the progress, the glory, etc. So you’re left thinking that that’s all there is to that person’s life. Progress and glory.
If you’re like me, eventually you’ll have to stop because one post hits you just a little too directly. You stop because you saw something about some female friend of yours (who is, most likely, around the same age as you and involved in theatre.) She’s proudly talking about a show that she’s in, a show she wrote, an award she won, someone famous she knows, something she did…She’s talking about progress and glory
and it leaves me with the question, “Am I doing enough?”
I’d like to take a moment now to assess this thing we call “fame” or “success”. Obviously, the two are very different. Fame has, more or less, a singular definition: do people know who you are? There are obviously different circles of fame as a popular musician might be known throughout a whole country where a famous animal chiropractor is probably only known within the circle of their peers and patients. Success, instead, asks the question “did you do what you set out to do”, and because of this, it’s more of a matter of judgement; a musician’s level of success is different from the success of our animal chiropractor friend.
But how exactly do we measure an artist’s success?
I think many people would be quick to say that the more famous an artist is, the more successful they are, but this line of thinking is flawed on many levels. I know plenty of famous authors whom I would not categorize as “good” (Stephanie Myers, I’m looking at you), but likewise, there are many great artists who I say are phenomenal but have failed to hold the public’s attention. (For example, Hanson. Yes, Hanson. From the 90’s with the “Mmmbop” and whatnot. Look them up. They have grown to be fantastic musicians and songwriters but no one remembers them for anything more than being that long-haired bubblegum pop band from back in the day. Seriously, go look them up.)
Do you measure success by the amount of awards won? Again, flawed. Look at films like
or “Crash” or “Green Book” that both won Academy Awards but never received the popular vote to match such accolades. Bruce Springsteen has won twenty Grammys over the course of his career. Compare that to Taylor Swift who has won ten or Billy Joel who has won five. Find yourself a die-hard Billy fan who is willing to call Taylor Swift a better musician than the piano man.
Perhaps you have decided that success is a monetary issue: when I make enough money solely off of my art to live then I will be successful. As with a lot of art, though, that simply isn’t possible. Lauren Gunderson who is one of the most produced playwrights in all of the US still holds a regular teaching job in order to supplement her income. Let’s not forget examples such as Johan Sebastian Bach whose talents as a composer were not fully discovered until after his death. Bach is now considered one of the greatest symphonists of all time but died in oblivion essentially.
Success, as stated above, is a matter of perspective…especially for artists. And grand success (like the kind that wins Grammys, Oscars, or Tonys) is a very specific kind of success. The road to an award like that is a very specific road; it’s a journey that has its merits, but it’s not the only mark of greatness. The Tony’s, for instance, look at shows specifically on Broadway…in New York City. While NYC is considered the mecca of American theatre, it simply isn’t the only place where good theatre exists and telling ourselves that “talents that are good enough
eventually make it to Broadway” is delusional. At the end of the day, Broadway is just a place.
The difference between a famous writer and an unknown writer is that one was simply at the right place at the right time. This is not to take away from their talents or say that they don’t deserve the acclaim that they receive; I’d be a fool to call Paula Vogel, Lauren Gunderson, or Lin-Manuel Miranda unworthy. The point I’m making is that rather than paint someone’s talents out to be better or worse than yours, we should instead think of our talents akin to food. Art is sustenance after all, and the same way that one cannot live on ribeye steak all the time, one cannot only ever enjoy Arthur Miller. There is a time and a place for each artist.
When I was much younger, I was under the assumption that the best actor who auditioned for a show got the bigger roles, and likewise, those who were poorer actors didn’t get cast or perhaps were given smaller roles. If you’re good, you get Hamlet. If you’re bad, you get Marcellus. As a seasoned actor and director, I can see now that that isn’t the case. The question is never, “Who is the best actor?” but rather, “Who fits this role the best?” In this same light, as a playwright, the question cannot be, “Am I a good writer?” but instead, “Is this the play what this company needs right now?”
As I sit here writing this, I’m currently reeling from yet another rejection notice; it’s never wise to let your imagination run away with you and start thinking that a “We’re very interested” is a “Yes, we will produce this.” (Don’t believe anything until you’ve signed the contract.) Covid 19 is going to make the theatre scene tumultuous to say the least especially for new artists as it will always be a safer bet to produce Neil Simon versus an emerging writer, and as companies scramble to recover any losses, Neil Simon is looking pretty favorable right now. I expect a lot of the “interested” conversations I’ve had will suddenly turn into “no, thank you’s”, and that’s something that I have to square with. A global pandemic is bound to turn everything on its head, but I can’t let that take any thunder away from me. It’s incredibly easy to sob into a glass of cheap Cabernet (believe me; I’m doing now) and say that all is lost. I find myself throwing my hands in the air and asking, “What is even the point? Why write a show if no one is going to touch it with a ten-foot pole?”
Lady Gaga famously (I think it’s famous) has a line from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to Young Poet” tattooed on her upper arm. The passage is in German but the translation reads, “Confess to yourself in the deepest hour of the night whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. Dig deep into your heart, where the answer spreads its roots in your being, and ask yourself solemnly, Must I write?”
And I know that I do. Even before I thought I was good, I wrote. Even when I was just scribbling silly poems and random dialogues into my notebook at school, I knew that I had to write. It just comes to me (as pretentious as that is to say). When I was in college and struggling to understand story structure, script analysis, and all the technical aspects of writing, I had a conversation with my professor Jan Nelson-Gompper that has stuck with me for some time. I can’t recall what led up to it, but at one point, Jan looked at me and said, “You have something to say, and that’s why you’ll be a good writer.”
Fame and success would be lovely, but I can’t base my worth on those things because fame is fickle, success is subjective, and whether or not I achieve either of them, I know that I will still put the pen to paper and tap away at my laptop. Yes, Rainer, I must write.