On Making it to the Big Time
A poet (or anyone in a challenging field where many aspire and few achieve fame) often seems to be on the brink of being discovered or making a leap into the “big time,” only to have it fizzle out, then feel that nothing came of it. After a series of such “failures,” he slopes toward despair.
Actually, few or none of these disappointments were entirely failures. Something of use came of each—or did if one notices. After all, attention (and admiration) happened. Now it expands or not, but something has happened. I remember how after my first marriage fell apart, I realized that despite the loss and seeming end of “everything,” something had happened. I knew, for example, that a woman could love me, and I could love a woman (etc.). Years of having a marriage and relationship had accustomed me to that, so that when it fell apart, I tended to see it as a total loss, but then I remembered that before I’d met her, I’d had the idea that maybe no one would ever want me. Now I knew that someone had wanted me (however briefly).
When I published my poetry letter—just my own poems being sent to subscribers regularly, called “Deanotations”—that was a wild shot in the dark that became an opportunity, since my mailing list soon grew to over 3,000, and I got flattering attention from a lot of people, including a few poets far better known than I. Then attention faltered, and (after 20 years) “Deanotations” vanished from view, apparently forgotten.
Yet in the process I’d found that I could have a few thousand people reading and mostly liking—even loving—my stuff, and some PAYING for it. I could easily say it went nowhere, because the attention and admiration that began to build didn’t “take off,” spark a forest fire. But something did happen.
What doesn’t expand will contract. We work hard for an expansion, then hope that it will create a chain reaction of further exponential expansion, so that we won’t have to continue to labor to expand. It will happen all by itself, a contagion. Such a hope is inevitably disappointed. The expansion we cease to create rapidly loses momentum. Or others add their creative efforts to keep it going, but what thus expands is altered, diffused, is no longer ours. We no longer drive it, but may be driven by it.
One way we are tempted to cease creation is by falsely assuming that when some hope sputters and goes out, we’ve gotten nowhere. But the hope was something. Things we don’t continue to create will end for us. Should Shakespeare be disappointed because after a 500-year flurry of attention, not a lot is happening? Jane Austen is getting more movies now. Worse, people keep trying to kick-start Shakespeare by redoing his work in odd modern-dress variations (not that these are all failures or unworthy, but the apparent need for them suggests some energetic puffing at dying embers).
That flare of hope was, in itself, a minute or hour or day of success. Enjoy it and move on. Its going out (poor candle) need not be an invitation to be apathetic about expanding the game. Just don’t ignore that you’ve achieved something and can do it again.
I’ve had MANY promises of big things that petered out: An enthusiast (a professor from Australia) was gung ho about using my Please Lord book in all his classes. As far as I know, he never did. A successful actor and comic years ago said he wanted to put together a show using my work, then said, sorry, no time. Another actor and writer originated the same thing, then dropped away. I got a letter years ago from a prominent Pakistani poet—someone had shown him some of my poems, and he liked them. He actually had a friend visit me in the U.S.A. This friend, another Pakistani poet, was a literature professor at the University in Upsala, Sweden, specializing in Japanese poetry. He translated some of my haiku into URDU, and they were published in a Pakistani literary journal. So I had my English haiku translated into Urdu by a Pakistani Professor of Japanese literature at a Swedish university and published in a Pakistani lit. mag. How’s that for a budding international reputation! And that’s where that ended (as far as I know). The elderly Pakistani poet (once “short-listed” for a Nobel Prize) got sick. I sent him some poems. He wrote back that they were dangerous to him in his current condition, because they made him laugh so hard. Not long after, he died.
A disappointment? Or a success?
Some people who loved my short poems actually did create a performance piece based on them—I think a one-time-only thing, in Chicago. And then nothing, except that years later I learned that same group was still doing well-attended performances and that their performance of my poems was the first thing they did together.
Then there were the books, for which I got radio interviews, a couple TV interviews, some big readings, some unexpectedly good press coverage, all of which “went nowhere.” Meaning what? Meaning I didn’t become a household word like “chair,” “sponge,” “toilet” or “Paris Hilton”?
I can view all this as a lot of false starts or squibs that burn out in the night sky and vanish from memory. Or I can view them as individual, limited successes that indicate a lot more is possible. Or I can view them as fate (or the composite of my decisions) doing successive approximations until I get it just right—like Edison trying out all sorts of substances, looking for a lasting light-bulb filament, until he finds it—tungsten.
I have found that when important things happen, they are preceded by a series of almost-important things. I’ll have my attention on something I want, and then I’ll get a feeling that things are opening up, that something’s coming soon. Then something will happen that seems to be the right sort of thing, but isn’t quite it, then something else a little closer, etc. And then what I want. I’ve had that sort of succession happen many times, both in little things over a matter of days and in big things over most of my life so far. When I do not slacken discipline and slump into apathy from the “disappointments,” eventually, I find what I’m looking for…or it finds me.
One can also experience the reverse: Death coming in small, but increasing doses. We all get body death that way, but many people experience spiritual decay that way too. If one continues to give life more than he takes from life, his life expands, but whether any one flurry of attention will light up the night sky for more than a few seconds is hard to predict.
The game is: Create an effect. A person in good shape does not have to create a huge effect to feel he’s accomplished something. If a poem elicits a smile, he feels enriched by that smile. A person in bad shape feels he has to blow up the planet before he can know he has created an effect.
The person who can take pleasure in having created modest effects is also able to tolerate having effects created on him. He will get teary at sad movies and laugh at funny movies. The person who is oblivious to any effects he creates other than HUGE effects, being stuck in a desperation to make his mark on the world, will be unwilling to experience effects, stony, impervious, dead (or faking it for social or political or cynical reasons, life a sequence of faked orgasms).
Also he will easily be tempted to create atrocious effects, because that’s the EASY way to create big effects. It’s far easier to build and set off a bomb in a crowded place than to—for example—get a crying child to laugh or create a successful marriage or feed and raise a family or organize a group to create a safer neighborhood or saner government.
The artist who has little tolerance for effects others try to create on him, but insists on creating only huge effects on others, is obsessed with some undefined thing like “greatness.” Nothing satisfies it. If someone likes a work of art, if 100 or 1,000,000 people like his work, etc. Most craving for “greatness” is simply a compulsion to create total effect on others.
The strength of character that can endure the “disappointments” (actually appreciate the small effects created) and persist to create larger and larger effects—that strength derives from recognizing what game we are playing. Part of it is we’ve created a game (this universe) which depends on spreading things out in time and space. To create effects one needs games so one has a way to measure effects. For example, the money game (wow! I’m a best seller!) or the fame game, etc. Let’s say you blow up the universe. What a terrific, huge effect! But the result is no games, no playing field, no one conscious enough to register the effect for a long time: In other words, a flash of huge effect, followed by eons of no effect, no games, no players, no playing field.
On the other hand, suppose someone reads a poem and is moved or amused by it and is inspired to write a poem or become more creative, however briefly, and then his creation affects a few people, and each of them creates more or communicates more and influences others, and over a few centuries there’s a huge cumulative effect (even though it’s lost the original poet’s name).
Not that you can’t create a big positive effect and do so quickly, but if you are in good shape, the effect REQUIRED on others is less. You can take greater pleasure in the smaller effects.
There’s a lot one can learn about creating effects in any area. For an artist, there’s mastery of the medium, marketing, etc. Here I’m looking at something simpler and more basic: One has to know when one has created an effect. Or, in more familiar terms, it’s important to recognize the small successes and not mislabel them “disappointments.” How can you pursue and increase your successful actions if you refuse to recognize them because they didn’t create the instant and lasting fame they’d seemed to promise?