Photo by Ron Davis – Newfoundland
A couple of nights ago I watched the tail end of a television show about a serial killer. In this episode the serial killer in question was a goth rock star who had lost himself in his stage persona. At the end of the show a woman’s voice-over quotes Cyril Connolly:
Better to write for yourself and have no public, than write for the public and have no self.
That struck a chord with me, both as a writer and as someone dedicated to sobriety and walking a spiritual path.
We live in a time where the distinctions between public and private are blurred to the point of invisibility. Indeed, a certain percentage of the western world’s population seems to believe they don’t exist, or that their life has little value, if they don’t constantly twirl across the public stage.
The seductive temptations of fame and public popularity are many, and addictive. In the US, we are bombarded daily by images of celebrity and fame, little of it, in my opinion, justified. People are famous for the oddest reasons — disastrous romantic relationships, scandalous behavior, multiple births, incendiary opinions, lack of undergarments. The most recent, and possibly the most pronounced example, is that of the so-called “Balloon Boy,” whose father is apparently so obsessed with fame and celebrity that he appears willing to risk anything, even the well-being of his children.
Rarely are we offered glimpses into lives filled with deeper meaning, deeper desire. We have so few true heroes. We have celebrity without inspiration. Bishop Desmond Tutu, for example, is in the public eye far less than any number of reality show participants; Muktar Mai, far less than drug-addled pop stars.
The desire to be famous comes from a basic human need to be part of a group, says According to Orville Gilbert Brim, psychologist and author of the book , Look at Me! The Fame Motive From Childhood to Death, the desire to be famous comes from a basic human need to be part of a group. He says, “It’s a yearning to belong somewhere that causes us to seek the fulfillment of attention and approval of strangers.”
Oh, it’s alluring, that glimmer and sparkle of fame. If you are a literary writer it often dangles just out of reach, like a golden carrot on a stick. Ms. Sarah Palin’s “book” earns huge advances and dances at the top of best-seller lists. She appears on talk shows literary writers dream about. And it is difficult not to begin thinking that if one changes one’s artistic vision, if one would only surrender to the siren’s song and write something else, something different, something the big publishing houses seem to crave, then one would be included, at long last, on the glittering stage.
But at what cost? As a person dedicated to sobriety, I always have to be aware of my emotional state, because if I get too far out of whack in one way or another, I’m walking toward a drink rather than away from one. It’s a fine balance (as Rohinton Mistry might say). If I find myself needing recognition and praise and acceptance from other people I start to feel that old craving again, that old obsession. It may not be about booze, but it’s familiar, all the same.
I’ve found myself a bit off balance lately, more concerned with what-might-be than with what is. That’s not a good place to be. And so I try and recall what it was like to write before I ever thought I’d be published; before it ever dawned on me I might be publicly successful in this field; when it was just me and my pen and my words. Back then I wasn’t concerned with critics or reviews or editors or publishers. I was concerned only with resting in that pool of language, where I most often found delight, and peace, and a sense of something greater than myself.
From time to time I am estranged from myself by the call of a larger life — big book deals and best seller lists and book tours and all that — and it inevitably leads to a state of mind best described as ‘not healthy.’ It’s fine to be grateful for those things if and when they come, but it cannot, for me, be where I live. Where I live is a far smaller place, darn near monastic. It is this room, that fire in the hearth, that cup of tea, that cedar tree outside the window, and that crimson cardinal. It is my good friend next door, my Best Beloved upstairs, and these words.
A big life, large and noisy and full of fame and celebrity might be fine for some, but for me, a small life, adorned with gratitude, is far more nourishing. Desiring and chasing after The Big Life is about hunger, but for me it’s a meal that only leaves me famished and craving more. That’s not what I want from the writer’s life. The writer’s life promises me bread, and delivers on that promise; The Big Life promises the same thing, but mostly it delivers only stones.
Just now I’m reading a wonderful book by Mary Gordon, called, Reading Jesus, a Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels. I highly recommend it, for writers as well as people who agree with Gordon when she says, ” “Just because the questions are unanswerable doesn’t mean they aren’t worth asking.”
In an essay on the gospel stories of the Transfiguration, she says this:
I wandered once by chance into a Catholic church in San Francisco where the Mass was being said half in Chinese, and half in English. The priest, who was Chinese, preached on the Transfiguration. “We don’t know whether this really happened,” he said, “but if it did, it was one of those moments where the veil between the invisible and the visible is torn away.” He spoke of a mentally handicapped man with whom he worked. When he asked the man if he prayed, the man said he did, and when he prayed, what he meant was that he listened. The priest asked what he heard. The man said, “I hear: ‘You are my beloved.'” The priest told the congregation, “This is what we should always be hearing.”
That sense of being beloved is truly what my soul craves, and the accolades and praise of strangers is a sad imitation. It looks, for a while, like the real thing, but it’s not. It’s a glamor, a shade. Although I’m not saying it’s impossible to lead a deeply satisfying life as a famous celebrity, I imagine it must be harder, somehow, since so much of that life is illusion. The real thing, for me, is found in the small life, the chop-wood-and-carry-water life, you know, from that Zen meditation:
“Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.”
And the other one I like: “After enlightenment, the laundry.”
All of which reminds me of one of my favorite poems — the last one Raymond Carver wrote, called, Last Fragment:
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
May you know yourself to be beloved this and every day.