I’ve long been fascinated by stories of people who one day wake up and all of a sudden walk away from their lives, some of them never to be heard from again. I often wonder what it would be like to psychically awaken in some other place, months or even years later, and discover that the life I’d been living wasn’t mine, that it didn’t actually exist.
While my own recent experience hasn’t been anywhere near this dramatic, the realization that I’d been following a mistaken trail through my own personal dark forest was quite sobering. Since I was about fourteen years old, I’d always assumed I would be an author when I grew up.
It was unsettling to discover that the dream of modest literary success was now and had probably forever been out of my reach. Things happen to people; for other people, things never happen. That’s just the way it is. When I mentioned this to some friends, they were appalled. Most advised me to keep trying; many offered helpful suggestions that nevertheless wouldn’t work for me.
Unsettling as it was, however, this latter-day realization was the wake-up call I needed, a cold splash of water in the face, the resounding slap that knocked me out of my lifelong reverie. I finally understood that I’ve been using writing the way addicts use their drug of choice: to detach from reality. As long as I was writing yet another novel, I was delaying the day when I’d have to face the fact that I am not and never will be a real author. As long as I could keep that delusion alive, I’d never have to descend into the cold hell of real, actual life and accept that literary success just ain’t that into me.
It’s like someone born without hands who insists they are going to be a neurosurgeon. No, sweetie; you’re not, and all the good intentions, all the hope and prayer and faith and that ocean of fervent tears you’ve been filling with the bucket of your delusions isn’t going to make one damn bit of difference. You can’t operate on the delicate machinery of the human brain because you have no hands.
You’ve already spent the bulk of your adult life in this elaborate game of let’s pretend. Let’s pretend I’m going to be a bestselling novelist; let’s pretend that after I’ve paid my dues and published a few things that my career will begin to take off. Let’s pretend that if I work hard and apply myself and keep learning and keep growing, eventually, some day, when the stars align…
You can stick that feather in your cap and call it macaroni or anything else you like. Saying it doesn’t make it so. And despite what the New Age folks might think, the Law of Attraction doesn’t apply here. I don’t actually think it applies anywhere, to be honest. (Although it does sell a whole shit-ton of books, so there’s that. And DVDs, and self-actualization workshops, and weekends away in Big Sur or Red Rocks or Goa or wherever, walking around with jade eggs up your yoo-hoo and hobnobbing with all the knobs you could ever want to hob with.)
If you could think yourself rich and successful and beautiful and beloved, then every single one of us would have everything we want and the world would be a paradise – or a paradisaical hell. We’d all be wealthy and enlightened, and there would be no more war or famine, no pestilence or pandemics. We would regard all other forms of life as sacred, the earth as precious and inviolable. Instead, and despite all those lovely folk praying and meditating and chanting and intention-ing their hearts out, it just ain’t happening.
If believing was all it took to be successful, then I would be the most famous goddamn author on the planet. Talent notwithstanding.
This wake-up call of mine impressed on me the futility of effort. Some things, it’s true, yield to gentle pressure. Avocados, for instance. Ripe bananas. Some other things require sustained and forceful endeavor. Weight loss. Opening that stuck drawer in the bottom of your desk. Taking the lug nuts off your left rear tire.
Then there’s the other kind of effort, the backbreaking, gut-wrenching, bulging eyeballs, veins-standing-out-on-your-forehead type. That last mile of the marathon before you breast the tape. The sort of really goddamn hard graft that after a while absolutely breaks you. The kind that sends you to the madhouse. The kind that destroys and devastates, that renders a once-proud and beautiful edifice into Eliot’s heap of broken images where the sun beats.
If life were fair and the Universe just, then that kind of effort would yield glorious results. Trumpets would sound. Heaven would open and white doves would pour out. Angels would drift down and hover above you, plucking gently on the strings of their harps. A celestial choir would sing, bells would ring, and the fruit machine would align in that perfect combination of gold bars, guaranteeing payout. The slots at Vegas would belch out a Niagara of coins. You’d break the bank at Monte Carlo. You’d be rich and beautiful, successful and especially beloved of God.
You would be so goddamn happy to eat your daily dinnertime portion of rabbit food. Like all those pictures of women laughing with salad. (I hate salad.)
But here’s an uncomfortable and inconvenient truth that the New Agers and feel-gooders and Oprah-lovers don’t want you to know:
Sometimes you can do everything right and still fail.
Sometimes you can plan the battle to the last tenth of a second and still end up defeated in the mud, surrounded by the corpses of those foolish enough to call themselves your friends.
I think it’s called ‘meeting your Waterloo’.