My Overnight Success
There’s a story about the Oscar-winning actor Walter Matthau. A younger thespian is bemoaning his own struggle in show biz. “Mr. Matthau, I’m just looking for that one big break!”
In the story Matthau laughs. “Kid,” he says. “It’s not the one big break. It’s the fifty big breaks.”
Here’s what I wrote a few weeks ago, in the first post in this series about the writing of The Legend of Bagger Vance.
I attempted to write my first novel when I was twenty-four. Bagger Vance [my first published book] came out when I was fifty-one.
Twenty-seven years is a long time to labor without success. Can you imagine how many times I was taken aside by spouse, lovers, family, and friends and given “the talk?” Can you imagine how many times I gave it to myself?
I proffer three truths from this nearly three-decade odyssey:
1. It’s hard.
What are the odds against being published/making a movie/releasing an album, etc.? Beyond that, what are the odds against making a living doing your own art or passion? In other words, of not being “one-and-done” but actually following up Work #1 with #2 through #10 and continuing, via these endeavors, to pay the rent?
I’m serious. What are the odds? Does anyone know?
2. You gotta be a little crazy.
Maybe more than a little. Maybe a lot more. In my experience, you have to be driven. You have to be around the bend. You have to either want it so badly (for whatever reasons) that you are willing to do anything to succeed, or you have to be so constituted emotionally that you simply cannot do anything else. You have no choice: succeed or die.
3. It’s worth it.
I know this sounds more than a little nuts. Who cares about one book, or ten, or ten albums or start-ups or philanthropic ventures? Aren’t they all vanity, as Ecclesiastes testifies? What difference, in the great scheme of things, does any individual achievement really make?
Yeah, yeah. I agree. But still, for me at least … it was worth it.
All that being said, let me toss in, as a reality check, a couple of real-life distinctions:
1. It wasn’t all wilderness.
Within those twenty-seven years, I earned a living for at least a dozen as a professional writer. I worked in advertising. I had a career as a screenwriter. And I spent six years writing unpublishable novels (which counts as work too.)
In other words the process, although it had many crazy and desperate years, was simply one of relentless, diligent labor and self-education. I was failing. But I was learning. By the time, twenty-seven years in, when I sat down to write The Legend of Bagger Vance, I was a seasoned pro who understood the principles of storytelling, who possessed abundant self-discipline, and who had had enough success in related fields to tackle this particular enterprise with confidence.
2. It’s still a mystery.
The Legend of Bagger Vance came to me in one rush, out of nowhere. I wrote it in four months and hardly changed a word in the editing. The book sold in three weeks and was optioned for a movie less than a month after that.
Why? Had I learned some “secret?” Did all those years of failure finally “pay off?” Hell, no.
It’s all a mystery.
Lemme wrap up this series of posts by returning to Point 3 above—“It’s worth it.”
I’ve thought about this a lot. In the end, you and I can’t judge ourselves as artists or as human beings, even if it’s only in our own imaginations, by competing with others. The only measure is our own. Only we know our demons. Only we know the stakes we’re playing for, or the depths of the ordeals we’ve endured. We know these, and nobody else can or has to. I’ve never read a rave review or experienced praise or acknowledgment, even in private personal letters that are heartfelt and moving in the extreme, and had it really touch the part of me that is deepest. Why? Because nobody knows. Nobody knows where we’ve been, you and I.
The gratification comes, for me, entirely in private. No dollar signs are attached to it. And it doesn’t show.
[P.S. Don’t forget to check out this year’s Black Irish Christmas Special, featuring the brand-new, leather-bound, signed and numbered (only 2500 available) anniversary edition of The Legend of Bagger Vance.]