What did you want to be when you grew up? Such an American question, imbued with the ideals of choice and determination and freedom.
And how'd that work out for you? Did your dreams come true? If not, when did you euthanize them? More important, what made you decide to kill them?
I was talking to a high-school classmate of mine a few months ago about this. Dan and I had acted together in high school plays; he was frequently the lead and I was always a supporting character. He had gone to UCLA and pursued an acting career, one that never really went anywhere. Now that there’s DVD technology, he says wryly, you can pause Steven Spielberg's 1941 and find him as an extra in the crowds.
But eventually, he told me, he realized he wasn't getting where he wanted to be. "I had to say, you know what, I gave it that shot, and now it’s time to grow up. Time to move on."
I'm trying to make that same decision about writing fiction, but I'm not having much luck. I find myself staring into a chasm of fruitlessness, and yet I can't stop myself from edging across this rickety, dilapidated rope bridge. I used to say that I'd give up my fiction writing when I turned 50. It didn't happen. I don't understand why I still cling to a shred of raggedy hemp.
I had my chances. I wrote a screenplay after college that I managed to get into Universal Studios, thanks to a national film essay award I won. I got a partial story credit on a Remington Steele episode, but only because I was dating Stephanie Zimbalist's best friend at the time. This is why I can say in all truthfulness that I slept my way into Hollywood. If you want to see the episode, called "Steele in the Chips," it’s on Disc 7 of Season 3, available through Netflix. (Be sure to listen to the commentary, especially when executive producer Michael Gleason asks Stephanie who I am, and she replies, "Some guy — I forget." I'm thinking of using that for my epitaph.) I had an agent once that half-heartedly sent a novel around New York, but it was just after 9/11 and I don’t think anyone was paying attention.
What I'm facing, I fear, is a classic clash between my id and superego. My pleasure-prone id still lusts after fame and fortune, the fantasy of celebrity and philanthropy.
My rational superego insists the dream is not necessary to my life. My wife would live with me in a mobile home if it came to that. The friends I had before Remington Steele are the same friends I have now; our camaraderie was not based on my being successful in Hollywood. The cats are completely indifferent, as long as there's Fresh Catch in the pantry.
My id hones in, scud-like, on the stories of elderly authors like Helen Hooven Santmyer, who published And The Ladies of the Club at 88. My superego responds to stories like these by noting that family or other connections usually escorted them through the publisher's door.
My id believes I am still young, still a potential prodigy, with stories to tell. My superego deems the whole idea ridiculous, and doubly so in light of the fact that I have friends and colleagues who have gotten agents, and have sold novels, and who have even seen them made into movies, without any significant impact on their lives.
But still I am drawn back to the keyboard and characters I want to know better. I hear my superego asking, why spend the time? But this particular dream refuses to slip away.
The compromise sits clearly within semantics. On one side of the chasm is writing; on the other side, getting published. Unlike my friend Dan, I don’t need a stage and an audience. My fiction writing may never amount to anything, and that's okay. We play the piano, knowing that we'll never be concert pianists. We swim, knowing that we’ll never compete in the Olympics. We exercise, knowing that we will never get our 32-inch waists back. I make up stories, knowing they may never live anywhere else except my heart.