I'm gonna live forever
I'm gonna learn how to fly
I feel it coming together
People will see me and cry
I'm gonna make it to heaven
Light up the sky like a flame
I'm gonna live forever
Baby remember my name
--Irene Cara, Fame
The 1980s film Fame was on Satellite last night. I remember watching it when it first came out and being fired up about the potential of my life. Now rewatching it for the umpteenth time when I am almost 50, I found the movie dated, trite and at the very best maudlin. Of course I'm sure this would be the case if I rewatched any film from the 80s, even such classics as Footloose and Flashdance.
I know that being middle aged jades me a bit. It is easy in your 20s to hold onto the fantasy that you are special and destined for greatness. But one need only look at the careers of the talented young stars of Fame to put things in perspective. I couldn't tell you what a single one of them did since that movie. Fame was literally fleeting for them (though Irene Cara did co-write the theme for Flashdance before spiraling into oblivion).
Want to make some wine out of those sour grapes, you ask? Okay, I'll admit that I used to be a passionate young man filled with dreams of changing the world. I assumed that I would do that with my writing. So I identified with those overachievers in the movie Fame, hopping around composing songs about the school cafeteria while dancing on the tables. Now I look at that scene in the movie and feel sorry for the poor custodian who has to clean up the mess.
Now that I can put aside my youthful optimisim, I realize that the truth is there are millions of people out there who don't have the luxury of basking in the glory of their artistic talents. When push comes to shove in the real world, talent doesn't always pay the rent. So little by little, you bend your dreams to fit reality.
In the real world, very few people make a living as a writer, musician or artist. Those who do are the ones that learn to play the game and produce what sells. I remember standing in line years ago at the University Bookstore in Seattle's U-District waiting to meet author Mark Helprin who was promoting his latest project, an illustrated book for children based on the ballet Swan Lake. Helprin was the author of Winter's Tale, a magical book I loved that I was sure that could only have been drafted by a extraterrestrial. It is an amazing, spiritually inspiring book. I didn't really want a copy of Swan Lake, but I wanted the opportunity to meet Helprin and stand in the presence of greatness. I figured he would recognize that I was talented young upcoming author and pass on some words of wisdom.
When I got to the head of the line, I looked around for Helprin, imagining this heroic figure bathed in divine aura. Instead there was this diminuative guy in a chair behind a table. He had thinning hair and coke bottle glasses. He didn't even look up when I stammered, "hello." He grabbed a copy of Swan Lake off from a stack next to him, opened it up and carefully wrote his name and the date. Then he dutifully noted the sale on a sheet of paper and handed me the book. Before he could move on to the next person and the next sale, I blurted out, "Do you mind signing a copy of Winter's Tale?" I had a dog eared copy in my pocket.
Helprin paused, and then looked up at me wearily and said (without feeling), "I'd love to. Do you have a copy?" I pulled out the book and handed it to him. He opened it up methodically the way he had opened up Swan Lake and signed his name and dated it. Then he handed it back and looked over my shoulder to the next paying customer. I walked away dejected.
The significance of this to me was that despite my romantic fantasy about what the life of a bestselling author would be like, the reality was, Helprin was just trying to make a living. He may have had a certain amount of limited fame in the literary world, but bottom line is you can't spread fame on bread and have it for lunch.
So applying this to my own life, I have realized that, although you may have certain talents for writing, singing, playing an instrument or dancing, you still have to survive. That entails acknowledging that the world doesn't owe you anything just because you can carry a tune or paint a picture. Sometimes you just have to work for what you need.
This is not to say you shouldn't nurture your talents. Because there is nothing that says that you can't light up the sky in your spare time after taking care of business. Even us jaded, middle-aged guys have to hang on to some dreams.