REVISITING THE CONCEPT OF SUCCESS
When I was young, I wanted to be a writer, a singer and an actor, in no particular order. I didn't imagine doing any other kind of work, and I didn't tie my ambitions to any expectation of fame or fortune. I just wanted to do it. Sometimes I dreamed of becoming a movie star, but the advantage of this career, as I saw it, was that it would make me safe from other jobs, such as teaching or secretarial work, which my parents kept trying to point me toward, and for which I knew early on I was completely unfit. I wasn't that interested in getting ahead, per se.
When I read Edna Ferber's Showboat, at about age ten, I felt I'd been born in the wrong era. I couldn't imagine a more satisfying life than that of a showboat actor, traveling with my friends from town to town, bringing excitement to local people and experiencing new faces and places from the safety of my own tight artistic community. I would of course have wanted to write scripts as well, but I couldn't see any obstacle to that. The fact that showboat performers were obscure and probably second- or third-rate didn't faze me. They were doing the work they loved, in the company of congenial, like-minded people, and seeing the world. That was what I wanted, too.
It's hard to hang on to that vision as an adult, in our culture, though. Both theater and publishing tend to operate on the scarcity model, pitting us against colleagues who would otherwise be our natural friends and allies. Both fields are fraught with rejection which, on the one hand, we're told not to take personally, but which, on the other, determine our rank in the pecking order.
I have had excellent luck getting my stories and essays published, and I feel privileged to contribute both to BB&H and to the Mama PhD blog. In financial terms, however, none of this has really led anywhere. And I have written two novels which, despite the exertions of two first-rate agents, and interest on the part of editors, have been rejected by the marketing departments at countless publishing houses on the grounds that they don't fit into a particular genre, and are therefore unsellable. Every year, among all the excellent novels that are published, there are a number that seem to me to be worthless, offering neither entertainment nor insight. It's difficult not to resent these authors for success that I feel should have been mine.
In my singing endeavors, I have a different issue. I have an excellent ear and sense of timing, and a recognized gift for expression. But I'm not outstanding, and I know it. My vocal range is limited, and my voice, while pleasant, is weak in passagio despite countless hours of focused work. I have lucked into classes, and through these, into performance opportunities, with singers whose ability and skills are astonishing, and on good days, I find their performances both pleasurable in themselves and personally inspiring. On not-so-good days, though, when they open their mouths and, seemingly effortlessly, produce flawless violin sonatas, I start feeling like I should just give up now, and clear the stage for worthier aspirants.
I've been pondering all this because of three experiences over the past few weeks. First, as described here, I did write and perform in a slight play, along with two friends and colleagues with whom I have joined forces to perform in nursing homes and senior centers--my mini-repertory company, or showboat, if you will. Second, our family visited Paris and London last week. We had a wonderful time, as always, but two events stood out. First, in Paris, we spent a day and evening with Frederic, one of the singers referred to above whose accomplishments have made me want to throw in the towel. A native Parisian, he had come to New York to study acting and voice, and we had stayed in touch when he returned home. Then, in London, we met Peter Cox, the host of the Litopia podcasts, and his wife and literary collaborator, Peggy,
On both occasions--and even though I had never set eyes on Peter before, or encountered Peggy at all--I felt that mixture of comfort and excitement that I think we all experience when we encounter fascinating people whom we recognize somehow as kindred spirits--those people with whom we never run out of topics of discussion, and who leave us with hunger both to see them again and to explore the myriad areas of interest our discussions have opened up.
On the plane back to the states, I found myself reviewing all of these experiences, and realizing that I have been, without realizing it, living out my childhood dream. I'm writing and performing, and loving both when I don't get tangled up in the idea that I should be invested in the results. My work has connected me with fascinating, congenial people. I'm bringing fun and insight to people who don't care about literary prizes or Broadway success. And I'm seeing the world. Maybe some people could ask for more from their careers, but when I look hard at the situation, I can't think of anything more that I need.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. She is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity (Seal, 2007). Her Career Coach column appears every Monday on Inside Higher Ed's Mama, Ph.D. blog, and she is a regular guest panelist on Litopia After Dark. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.