Instant Success

Holy_GrailSo, the story goes a talent agent spotted film actress Lana Turner when she ditched a typing class for a coke at Schwab’s Drug Store in Hollywood. It was really the Top Hat Café, but the name of the place matters little. She was nothing and, in less than a moment, something. In another decade or two, few people will remember Lana Turner, much less the roller-coaster life she led from that point on, but other stories will certainly supplant hers.

American mythology swims in discovery stories. The slightest eventuality can make us—the friction between one numbered ping-pong ball and another, a brother-in-law who has a cousin who has a friend who has a cousin who has a brother-in-law who has an idea, the unaccountable impulse to shine a flashlight into the darkest corner of an attic just when you decide it’s too hot to stay, the bizarre eventuality that puts you in the seat next to a famous power broker in an unusually receptive mood.

The best American success stories involve work only incidentally, just twirling tumblers of a safe until it softly and inevitably clicks open. If the door of opportunity swings for a minute, an hour, a year, or forever, nothing can surpass that instant when you are free for life. That miracle.

At my age, the door of discovery seems welded, and I’ve never had the gumption for the savvy networking and clever positioning that lands people in just the right places when attention sweeps their way. Yet, as no effective solution prevents dreaming, I’m susceptible. My modest successes as a teacher, writer, and artist ought to be enough (and mostly are), but I still imagine being found.

When I meet with students about essays, they sometimes slump deeper as our conversation goes on and on and suggestions accumulate. They hoped for so much and thought this essay—at last—might make their undeniable writing talent clear and propel them to reliable success forever more. Sometimes, I’m tempted to say what one of my MFA teachers once said to me, “You didn’t really expect me to say, ‘I love it. Don’t change a word!’ did you?”

The obvious answer, for me and for my students, is “Yes.” The fantasy of discovery begins with the world recognizing how deserving you have always been. For once in your miserable life, others will see you just as you wish to see yourself and marvel at how you’ve gone unnoticed so long.

At this stage I tell myself that my being discovered might be more like finding a sock under the washing machine when it’s replaced. As surprising as it might be—a mystery solved!—it’s rather academic. I abandoned the sock’s mate long ago, the mourning period passed long ago. The dream of fame, status, and repute as an instantaneous serendipitous confluence of fateful events suits younger people better.

I wish my little measure of acceptance was enough, but when others experience success—as they inevitably will—believing in your own deserving seems so much easier than believing in theirs. Hope, the feeling Emily Dickinson called “The thing with feathers,” still wants to fly, and against the stiffest winter wind. The little voice saying “Why not me?” never really quiets.

Some people will say that voice is crucial, that, to an American especially, the promise of success is akin to the promise of sunrise, another assurance of good things ahead if we ready ourselves for chance. “What would we do without our ambition?” they ask, “What would we say, after all, if we couldn’t say, ‘It might happen’?”

Maybe. More welcome, however, would be feeling you have success enough. These stories may be the sole means to make discontent tolerable or the greatest source of discontent. I’m not sure. But waking up one morning accepting my own worth—feeling it’s real without ratification or verification—could be the greatest discovery of all.


Filed under Aging, Ambition, America, Art, Buddhism, Doubt, Ego, Envy, Essays, Fame, Hope, Identity, life, Modern Life, Seymour Krim, Thoughts, Worry

7 responses to “Instant Success

  1. Woody Guthrie wrote: “Ain’t nobody that can sing like me. Ain’t nobody that can sing like me. Way over yonder in the minor key.”
    And he was right. (the song, in fact, is called Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key, from a great album by Billy Bragg & Wilco called Mermaid Avenue. All lyrics by Guthrie but composed by Bragg mostly. Must be on youtube).
    Combine that with the often quoted zen saying:
    “No snowflake falls in the wrong place.”
    That’s how I manage to endure the occasional bouts of “why not me?” as you so accurately reveal above. It must be a mid-life male thing. As I can totally relate. However, the answer is, of course, a slight shift in tone: why *not* me.
    I’d also recommend Donald Justice’s poem “Men at Forty”. I love that I have self-medicated my own mid-life crisis with poetry. Never really thought about it like that.
    But back to the success question. I would argue it always takes work. Serendipity is unreliable. So we all have to come up with our own answers. That change daily I would imagine. Small decisions add up. Read this poem, listen to that song, go for a walk, or write…
    Of course, you’re not asking for advice. You’re writing a blog. And blogs are meant to be bounced off of. But I’ve found that there really is something to the idea of non-reaction. A wise man once said: “The key to life is I don’t mind what happens.” Maybe it was Guthrie.

    • dmarshall58

      You always (rightly) take me to task for not being more comfortable in my own skin. People always praise my calm, but I wish I had the soul of a Buddhist rather than the appearance of one. Outwardly, I’m in utter agreement with not minding what happens. Inwardly the same currents of aspiration and ambition churn. Thanks for commenting. It always makes my day to see your name here. –D

      • When I comment here I am also commenting to myself. I guess I want everyone to be happy–or, at least, okay with everything that happens in life. And by everyone I mean me too. I admire the time you invest in the ether, advancing our humanity. Thanks for indulging my predictable finger-wagging. Best, –Peter

      • dmarshall58

        Your finger-wagging is well-deserved and welcome. It seems I’m on a string of these hand-wringing posts… must be a sign that it’s time for the school year to end. –D

  2. Well, between you and Peter, I’d you both have things pretty well wrapped up here. I’d only add one thing: It’s also a mid-life female thing. 😉

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