So, 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.