Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Suddenly Becoming Successful

No, I haven't suddenly become successful, but other writers have, and I'd like to, too. I'd like to experience a bit of fame and fortune before I die -- no, I'm not dying. My health is okay for my age. But my age is 55, so that if I do become famous, my obituaries will say that success arrived late in my life. Unless that guy at Cambridge, the one with the huge beard who says we can all live to be 1000 years old, is actually right, and the necessary breakthroughs are actually accomplished before I die, and I actually live to be 1000 years old.

I'd be okay with living to be 1000 years old.

Here's a nice sentence from an essay by Tennesse Williams, "Amor Perdida: Or, How it Feels to Become a Professional Playright," which I read just now:

"That's the nice thing about a language you don't understand -- it is possible to believe the conversation is so much more elevated than it probably is."

As soon as I read that sentence I liked it so much that I had decided to make it the new tagline for this blog -- with attribution, of course. I attribute whenever possible. But by the time I finished the essay, I had more to say about it. To summarize it and do great injustice to it, it's about when Tennessee was in Acapulco, and was about to go broke, something he had done many times and was very familiar with, and asked his friend, the owner of a cantina, for a job waiting tables, and then later that day received a telegram informing him that a play of his was going to be produced in New York. He described it as a moment when his old, poor life had ended, but his new, rich and famous life had not yet begun, and in which his earlier life, filled with many kinds of poverty in many different cities, flashed before his eyes. This happened when Tennessee was in his early 30's, an age which seems young to me now, at 55, but, I know, seems terribly old to a 30-something who has very badly wanted to be a rich and famous writer since before he was full-grown.

I repeat, I've done great injustice to the essay. By all means, read the whole thing. It's just 6 pages long in The Best American Essays 2004, in which it appears because it was first published posthumously in the Michigan Quarterly Review in 2003. And it's magnificent.

Tennessee's friend the cantina owner seemed less certain than Tennessee that Tennessee's life had been changed forever. I suspect this may well have been because he knew much less than Tennessee did about the business of writing.

I wonder whether success in a writing career, if and when it comes, comes with a very unusual suddenness compared to success in other careers. I'm not sure about this, because I don't know very much about other sorts of careers. But I've been studying the nature of the writer's career for well over 40 years. Yes, success can come gradually, rung by tiny rung for decades, but it can also come in an instant, at least as far as what the writer is aware of: wondering where his or her next meal will come from, he or she is informed that his or her play will be produced on Broadway, or that several major publishers have gotten into a bidding war for his or her novel, or that he or she has been awarded a MacArthur genius grant or a Nobel Prize.

I would think that if you, for instance, owned and operated a cantina, although the potential for success might be vast, the ways in which one could go in an instant from rags to riches would be fewer, if not actually non-existent.

As I said, the best thing to do is to read "Amor Perdida," Williams' wonderful short essay, for yourself. But let me interfere just a little bit more and point out, in case you miss it, that "Amor Perdida" is the name of the song which was playing on the jukebox at the beginning of the essay, when Tennessee assumed that he needed a job such as waiting tables, and that he writes, "I believe" it is "the most beautiful of all musical compositions." Not "I believed."

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