A Portrait of the Artist as a Grown Woman

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Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a dream. There was inspiration and motivation and daring and excitement. She was going to conquer the world and with a voice in her ear and endless story in her heart she knew that she could.

*                          *                           *

The land of creation is populated by liars. Its waters look deep but when stepped in are shallow, and the language is not how it sounds.

–How is it yes means maybe and maybe means don’t hold your breath? She never could understand or remember. She never learned to speak WhatsInItForMe.

But there are sparkly people, too, and she loves them! There are brilliant ideas and shiny talents; there is work and play and work and collaboration. O the collaboration! Yes, she says, and yes again. Let’s do something, or another thing, or lunch. A new project, new spark, new yes and yes I will Yes.

*                          *                           *

How can a world so small and crowded feel so empty sometimes? She has uncovered the challenge of living in the world while working in her head.

–It’s far better than the reverse, she reminds herself.

She watches friends change and fade and move on to better things, to better people. One by one some give up. She dreads the day she is faced with the same decision, wondering how one could possibly stop.

–Better odds for the rest of us. She secretly loves the acquired wisdom such ugly understanding betrays.

*                          *                           *

–This work is fantastic! Can you make it less ‘smart’?

–I love everything about this. Can you make it about a man?

–A brilliant new voice! Can you take out everything that makes it different?

Some create while others calculate, she learns. She wishes the calculators had as much faith in humanity as she does.

Stupidity and fear increase with power. With each note she leans to find the useful in the self-indulgent slop. She realizes she has a choice. Not every suggestion has to matter. Even if it’s right, she decides if it’s right for her. She learns to listen to herself.

*                          *                           *

Success is a carrot dangling, tantalizing up ahead. There is work, and money, but never the meal. She drags the weight of experience one step closer and grasps; victory keeps pace. One more step, one more reach, one more miss. With each try the weight gets heavier. Her legs get stronger. The distance gets smaller. But there is still distance.

She played Lucy once in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. It sucks to be on the other side of the football.

*                          *                           *

–Why can’t my work speak for itself? Why do I have to learn to market to people?

–If only it worked that way. This is a business too, she explains. People have to see the dollar signs.

Mentoring reminds her how much she knows after all the years, how much she has to offer. It is good to give back, help, feel useful. She hopes they won’t look close and see she’s a fraud.

–What is the best strategy for breaking in?

–When you find out you can tell the rest of us.

She explains time and again there is no best way. Everyone has a different story. Everyone has the same answer: whatever works. Time and again she watches their faces fall to frustration. She remembers the feeling. It doesn’t get better, she wants to tell them. Unless it does and she just doesn’t know it yet.

–It really is true that if anything else can make you happy, you should do it.

–They tell the same thing to clergy, her student replies.

–Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.

Isolation, devotion, a calling. The joke works because it’s true. She wonders if she accidentally took a vow of celibacy at some point.

*                          *                           *

Night is dark, but feels darker. The city moves constantly, yet nothing changes. She wants desperately to give up. What if the years ahead look just like the ones stretched behind?

Stopping would be easy, logistically – she could teach, go back to school. Stopping spiritually is impossible. The voice is there. She has something to say and the ability to say it. Her drive to be heard will never fade; stopping just means desire with no hope.

But she lacks means. Substance and skill are useless without means. It feels like the means will never come.

Death would stop desire. She briefly considers it; the moment is one moment too scary. Her practical side objects: too much willpower, love, guilt. She wishes there were better reasons to get up.

–OOF. Okay, I’ll feed you! Now please get your fuzzy butt off my bladder.

She is reminded why she adopted the cats in the first place. Who rescued whom, really?

*                          *                           *

Nov. 9: Another birthday without the gift of work from anyone supposedly invested in my career. Another day is frustrating enough. If I make it to 40 in the same situation, it may kill me. Although I’m pretty sure I said that about 39. And 38. Time for champagne!

Nov. 26: Today I get to be with family. As rough as the last 13 years have been, at least I haven’t had to deal with parental disappointment or a lack of love. I give thanks for family.

Dec.1: It’s tempting to hate the agent who refuses to sign female comedy writers, but he’s not wrong. The odds are for-never in our favor re: work. But my motivation is starting to return. Spirits are up.

Dec. 27: Winter is coming? I’m pretty sure it’s here. A Game of Thrones marathon can ease me through the end of the year, but I need preparation to survive. New projects; new strategies; new sparks. Time to work.

Jan. 1: Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated story of my future. Stand me now and ever in good stead.

Los Angeles 2016

[My thanks to James Joyce for writing something I struggled with the first time, started to understand the second time, and have loved every single time since.]

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Rock, Paper, Sisyphus, Shoot (Me)

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I imagine if Sisyphus were alive today he would be a New Hampshire-ite. (New Hampshirino?) He would at least be a New Englander. Heck, he may already be Bernie Sanders. And I don’t just say this because of the futility that is shoveling in the midst of a New England winter.

Everyone thinks of endless futility when Sisyphus is invoked, but rarely do we remember why he was sentenced to such a fate. In life, King Sisyphus was a practical leader who placed his own judgment and passion above silly customs and superstitions like “the gods”.

Zeus steals the river god’s daughter for his own version of Fifty Shades of a Rape Fantasy and no one dares to speak up? Not Sisyphus – he’s all, “I’ll tell you where your daughter is, river god, if you promise to give my people water.” That’s good leadership. Angry Zeus sends Death to chain Sisyphus up in punishment? Clever boy says, “Hey, Death, you mind showing me how those chains work first, so I’m less nervous?” BAM. Death in chains, King S back on Earth – Live Free or Die, baby. Literally.

Even when he eventually did die, Sisyphus refused to stop living. He talked Persephone into letting him back up “just to haunt the wife a little”, then simply refused to leave until he’d had his fun. Sure, his lust for life and complete disregard for what is “supposed to” happen made his ultimate torment inevitable, but I’m pretty sure Sisyphus would have done it all anyway. You only live twice; what is an eternity of monotonous labor in exchange for greatness?

Great victories are always balanced by great struggle somehow, whether it be before or after. Call it Newton’s Third Law of Emotion. The problem is that in the midst of those darkest moments – as our strength is on the verge of giving out – it is impossible to know if we are about to be victorious over Death or about to watch that damn rock roll back down the hill for the umpteenth time.

There is a moment near the end of The Two Towers that is one of my favorites because it perfectly captures this uncertainty. Frodo, after months of mental torment and in the middle of a seemingly endless upward climb into Mordor, is feeling understandably desperate. To distract his friend from complete surrender, Sam starts talking about adventures:

“I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for… But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered… Folk seem to have been just landed in them… But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end.”

Sam then asks the magic question: “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”

“I wonder,” says Frodo, “but I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale…the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”

Frodo is convinced at this point that he is pushing a ring up a hill in complete futility, but of course we know that he will end up victorious over death. I like to re-read this part of Tolkien’s masterpiece in the midst of my darker moments. True, Frodo is attempting to destroy the source of pure evil and I am merely trying to bring some respectful and multi-dimensional portrayals of women to our modern mythology, but a struggle doesn’t have to be epic to completely suck sometimes.

Hollywood may not be Mordor, but can come close. The need to write is my ring/rock, and the patriarchal, nepotistic power structure is my uphill battle.

Lately, I have been feeling more like Sisyphus on the hill than Frodo in the midst of a dark tunnel leading eventually to light. If we’re lucky, in these darkest times we find ourselves in the company of a Samwise Gamgee – someone to give a little perspective, or at the very least a distraction for a moment or two. I am thus blessed, and so am prepared to keep pushing this rock no matter how many times it rolls back down the hill.

Life could always be worse, after all. As my own Samwise put it recently, “Sisyphus is better than syphilis.” Truer words have never been spoken.

To Dream the Improbable Dream

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Where exactly is the line between ambition and masochism, and at what point in my life did I cross over it without noticing? On dark days, like when I miss out on a job or can’t afford a ticket to something or am reminded by my body that yet another egg has gone unfertilized, I often ask this question. It started sometime around age 33, probably because once you reach that “I outlived Jesus” moment it is only natural to take a hard look at what you have accomplished so far.

Ambition – n. 1: the desire to achieve a particular end; 2: an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power.

The only positions of rank I have ever striven for or achieved are that of first lieutenant of the marching band and captain of the high school math team, and I long ago concluded that any level of fame beyond minor name recognition (just enough to get the occasional dinner reservation) would make me miserable. But still, I have always been an ambitious person. Even without Winston Churchill or an Uncle Ben in my life (the guy on the rice box doesn’t count), it was clear to me that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Or, in other words, that when your parents give you genetic gifts, you use them.

What I haven’t been able to figure out is the degree to which the obligation to use talent should dictate life decisions. One of my favorite baseball players, Nomar Garciaparra, actually loved soccer most, but played baseball because he was so good at it and his dad wanted him to. Was that right? It certainly brought a lot of joy to the world – I enjoyed the hell out of his shirtless Sports Illustrated cover photo – but it makes me a little sad to think he didn’t love the game.

In my junior year of college, the campus was abuzz with news of a freshman girl from India who had been recruited by the school in large part because she was six-foot-eight and good at basketball. (How could she not be, at that height?) Upon arrival, she told the college she would not be playing basketball so she could focus on getting the most out of her Harvard education. I found myself in line for milk behind her one day, and as I watched her unfold from the milk dispenser to her full six feet and eight inches, I couldn’t help but think two things: first, that she was the best argument for drinking milk ever made, and second, that she had some impressive nerve to defy the tacit expectations of Harvard (and of nature) to do what she wanted instead. But was she right?

This friction between obligation and desire is universal – just ask Hillary – and will probably never go away. Do I do what I am good at? Do I do what I love? Or do I try to become the first female President because I, unlike most, actually could? My constant fear is that I will choose the wrong side; or worse – that I already have.

My ambition comes from knowing that I am capable of achieving great things, and also from taking pride in that fact. On top of feeling an obligation to use the brain I have been given, I also want to prove to myself, the world, whomever, that I am not wasting my talents or resting on them. Combine this with a few centuries worth of ingrained New England Puritanism, which screams that nothing is of value unless it is difficult, and the result is an ever-climbing standard for “success” that soon resembles a penchant for misery.

Masochism – n. 1: pleasure in being abused or dominated; 2: a taste for suffering.

Despite major guilt, I have somehow managed to let desire do most of the steering in life. In college, I changed my major from Applied Math to English not because I couldn’t make it as a cryptographer, but because there were so many books I wanted to read and discuss. Still, I feel like I gave up somehow. After getting into a few good law schools, I again decided not to go down that road because, while studying law sounded fun, the idea of being a lawyer after (and of accumulating more debt) did not appeal to me. Even though I am now blissfully happy as a writer, there is also an overwhelming sense that I have to make up for what I have given up. But what level of literary success is the equivalent of a career as an NSA code breaker, or a White House speech writer, or a public school teacher (like my parents)? This is how ambition becomes self-flagellation.

To satisfy my ambition and assuage my guilt, I have to achieve something hard. I mean, really hard. How else can I explain my ridiculous life choice? I could have been a lawyer, or a doctor, or a scientist, and instead I have chosen not only to write in the one medium (film) that least values writers, but also in the one genre (comedy) that gets the least respect, and as a member of the gender (female) that is only grudgingly welcome in the boys’ clubhouse. Whose stupid idea was this?

Ambition is great, we should all be striving for something, but the trick, I suppose, is to appreciate the struggle without falling in love with it. When the dream is so ideal as to become nearly impossible, maybe we should worry that we’re in it more for the pride of survival than for the goal. Or not; I have written plenty about how fairy tales are evil because they teach girls to wait for a perfect man (who doesn’t exist), but here I am in my mid-thirties still looking. I like to think of myself as an idealist, but as the Democratic Party has demonstrated time and again, “idealist” is just another way of saying “glutton for punishment”.

On the other hand, Fifty Shades of Grey has become a multi-million-dollar property, and a woman my age just snagged a ring from George Clooney. Maybe masochism is the way to go after all.