I recently finished reading Nick Hornby's latest novel, A Long Way Down. It's a dark comedy about four suicidal strangers who meet on the top of a building, where each had gone to jump. Their impulse to save each other forces them to realize their own self-preservation instinct. After walking down, the four bond into an unlikely band of friends.
'If Camus had written a grown up version of The Breakfast Club, the result might have had more than a little in commmon with [A Long Way Down] ... a brave and absorbing book. It's a thrill to watch a writer as talented as Hornby take on the grimmest of subjects without flinching, and somehow make it funny and surprising at the same time'
Tom Perotta, Publishers Weekly
JJ, described as a "tall, cool, American, looks like a rock-star (was, in fact, a rock-star before his band split) - who's weighed down with a heap of problems and pizza," was the character who most struck me. At an adult developmental leap point in life, he's trying to decide whether he can choose to leap forward, or if he ought to just leap off.
Early on he's explaining his story, how he ended up on the roof, and references it all back to when his band, Big Yellow, split up:
When Big Yellow played live, it was like some kind of Pentecostal service; instead of applause and whistles and hoots, there'd be tears and teeth-grinding and speaking in tongues. We saved souls.
But we used to have these messages boards up on our Web site, and I'd read them every now and again, and I could tell that people felt the same way we did; and I looked at other people's boards, too, and they didn't have the same kind of fans. I mean, everyone has fans who love what they do, otherwise they wouldn't be fans, right? But I could tell from reading the other boards that our guys walked out of our shows feeling something special. We could feel it and they could feel it. It's just that there weren't enough of them, I guess. Anyway.
Sometimes, I look at my traffic stats and comment numbers and compare them to other blogs. Not healthy, I know. Old habits. Habits for a good reason, which is to say, for an understandable reason.
Writing is (and I count blogging in this) a competitive and nepotistic field. For every one job, you know there are at least a dozen (more, usually) people who want it. Reputation and reader reception outscore talent and technical ability nine times out of ten.
If you want a job, first you have to prove that people want to read you. You can't prove that until you get a chance to get your pieces published. What a tricky wicket.
If you do manage to get published, you need the equivalent of good ratings. Otherwise, why use you again? The whole point of publishing your piece was to interest readers and convert them to buyers.
It's all about the benjamins.
JJ's band had a large number of shows and produced two critically acclaimed albums...neither of which sold well enough to generate revenue that made it worth anyone's while to bother further with the band. So one day, after a show, the leader said, basically, "Well, I guess that's it, then."
JJ decided then and there that clearly music was not his future. He'd given it a go, and it hadn't panned out. He fell into a space that was "too small, too dark and airless and fucking hopeless," as he contemplated his very limited future options.
The trouble with my generation is that we all think we're fucking geniuses. Making something isn't good enough for us, and neither is selling something or teaching something, or even just doing something; we have to be something. It's our inalienable right, as citizens of the twenty-first century. If Christina Aguilera or Britney or some American Idol jerk can be something, then why can't I? Where's mine, huh?
This idea is everywhere; it floods the television. People are chosen to get new houses, makeovers, new wardrobes, voted best dancer, favorite singer, etc. They aren't just sudden celebrities put in front of us; we see the entire process from "nobody" to "somebody." We know these are just Average Joes, just like us, or so we are primed to believe.
They aren't though, not really, not average at all. The ones we see on the shows were culled from very large herds of actual average people---people who didn't rate as much better than good enough (or worse).
The curse of mediocrity.
Growing up we all heard, "Everyone is special in some way...we all have different gifts." We watched kids get special attention and awards/rewards for being the Smartest, Cutest, Most Charismatic, and so forth and the rest of us bided our time, waiting our turn...anticipating our fifteen seconds.
And sometimes, we really aren't good enough to achieve our dreams.
Life Manifesto #1: You can't be anything there is to be. We are all born with certain potential and into limits. You don't have the right, you aren't entitled, to be rich, famous, or the best. But you can do your best at what you can do. And who knows where that may take you...
You want to shoot me right now, don't you?
So how do I reconcile this broadly promoted and aggressively pushed idea that we all ought to pursue our dreams? And how do we not end up like Walter Mitty, living exclusively in our imaginations to the detriment of our real life?
I think it's fine to learn, practice, work, and try but then we need to have enough wisdom to know our own limitations, and achieve our personal best within the bounds of reason. Or else we might end up on the ledge of a tall building, looking at the long way down---metaphorically, or literally.
I know I've had to overcome---err, know I must learn how to overcome---the knowledge of my own personal limitations as a writer. In my fantasies, someone reads a piece I wrote and thinks, WOW! this writer ROCKS! she's the next best thing...I must sign her up for [insert dream project.]
It's the geek version of the starlet getting discovered in the soda shop.
But that never actually happens. In fact, when I pursue jobs, I not only face a tremendous amount of rejection, it's much worse; I'm frequently ignored.
I look at other writers at those publications. I read their work. And I wonder, what makes them the guy, but not me? I can't tell...and nobody ever explains. Damn uppity editors! (that's self-deprecating humor) Am I the Big Doofus making an ass of myself, like the one kid on American Idol, or that other kid on SYTYCD?
Do I think I am better than I actually am?
And I think hard. I have worked hard at this blog. I have goals. I've achieved my personal blog goals: write frequently, write honestly, write meaningfully...work towards deadlines, try different styles and methods of content delivery, hone your craft, keep up the writing muscles.
Like JJ's band, I have found a small but interactive community. As on his Web site, my own blog reflects that people appreciate a certain something in what I write and how I write. But also like JJ, there just aren't that many.
My blog is fairly static, actually.
I watch other blogs come up behind me and then rapidly overtake me, bypassing me entirely.
Does that make what I do worthless? Not good enough?
I keep thinking about how maybe it's true: someone with my experience, education, intelligence, ability, etc. ought to have accomplished more by now. I keep thinking about this mug my younger sister-in-law gave my husband on his thirtieth birthday; it read, "I'm 30, seems like I should have more money by now."
We're so cruel, sometimes, to people in the middle and lower. We're so harsh, actually, about the middle itself. "Those who can't do, teach." "Well, he couldn't make it as an actor so now he directs." "Yeah, her copywriting career flopped so these days she's editing."
When did the top become the only place that matters? Are the bottom 90% failures?
My grandparents' generation seems to have---in my recollection---lived by a very modest credo, "It doesn't matter what you do as long as you do your best."
They may have limited themselves unecessarily at times, not reaching for the stars, but perhaps we do the same thing, often thinking the real accomplishment is catching the stars.
I don't know what my dream is, now. I have to reassess.
If I set aside the messages that culture, society, and childhood drummed into my head that it is my obligation to reach for the stars, follow my dream, fulfill my potential...then what do I think I need and want to do, knowing who and how I am, what I know I can and can't do?
I suppose if Hollywood made my life into a movie my story would have to have a fairytale twist with a fairy godmother sort swooping in to provide magical bestselling novel success. I suppose if Hollywood made Nick Hornby's book into a movie JJ's band would reunite, and with new depth to their music from this experience, would become wildly successful (or maybe not...they didn't massacre his other two books too badly). I like the way Nick Hornby ended it (and no, I'm not going to say...just go read the book).
I'm not sure why we all need to see the wildly successful and happily ever after ending so badly. I say this as one who adores this sort of tied-up-with-a-bow perfection.
But I do wish more things showed people---after not being the ultimate winner---finding joy in mediocrity.
I think Gwen initially planted this seed in my mind with a post she wrote a while back, and followed up with more recently with her post, What to expect. She wrote
It’s tempting to tell our children they’re extraordinary and special. But empirically speaking, from a superficial performance perspective, that extraordinariness is not going to last for most of them. My daughter may be especially, hmm, let’s say kind right now, in her very very small elementary school pond. But as she grows up, that pool is going to grow and her spot of specialness is going to slip. It’s simple mathematics. Not everyone can truly be extraordinary, in that externally apparent way. This is what we learned from The Incredibles: if everyone is special, no one is special.
Nobody ever told me I was extraordinary, but certainly they did focus on my youthful potential. I was bright, I ought to go far. In reality, though, we are limited by many things, not all of which are in our control, and at least one of which might be our tragic flaw. I'm bright and a decent writer. But more importantly, I enjoy it. it has value because I value it.
So I keep blogging. I have discovered a common happiness in achieving my personal goals and have rediscovered a feeling of pride in what I do accomplish, which happens to be making something and being something, even if it isn't the top dog. Plus, the community I have found is outstanding.
Thus, at the end of the day, it seems that each of us is extraordinary in some way, we do all have special gifts. Just not quite in the way I think most of our youthful minds interpreted it to mean. It doesn't promise top tier success, fame, or fortune. It does promise, though, that in life, if we stop and listen, we'll find extraordinary in something and enjoy our special gifts.
copyright 2007 Julie Pippert