Thursday, May 12, 2016

NINJA STUFF: On the Destructive Desire for Fame (And Ben Affleck)

Do you want to be famous, Esteemed Reader? Do you yearn for the attention and possibly even adoration of millions--nay, billions--of strangers? Are you going to live forever? Are you going to learn how to fly? Are you gonna make it to Heaven and light up the sky like a flame (FAME!!!)? Will the love of all mankind finally fill the empty place inside you so that you can at last feel the sun warm on your face and be at peace?

I've been thinking about the desire for fame quite a lot recently as it's a major thematic concern in my next novel. The Book of David is the hardest thing I've ever written and I'm not entirely certain I want a large readership as its contents are potentially so offensive that they are better hidden in a book available only to readers, who are more likely to be mature enough for a FICTION intended for adults. In a world where director Richard Donner to this day receives death threats for the Biblical parallels in Superman: The Movie, which came out in 1978, I don't want to be famous for writing a book in which I say a few decidedly impolite things about God and religion (but always from the heart).

Yet I also believe in boldness and honesty in the written word. Otherwise, why is the author wasting my time with banality? I believe a writer who asserts some observations about the world should own them, which is why I haven't used a pen name. I'm sort of counting on the high improbability of fame, especially for writers, to bail me out. I want my book to be read, of course I do, but ideally by readers who will hear me out to the end of the story and give it its due consideration, not folks who will start their one-star review at the first mention of "Sexy Jesus." Scaring off such readers early is one of the chief reasons the language in The Book of David is so very filthy.

But we were talking about fame and the common desire for it, not my sudden fear of it as I publish a book that if it were written by someone else, I wouldn't be surprised to learn had generated hate mail (of course it did, the author was dumb enough to say mean things about God and use his real name).

Real talk: most writers, J.K. Rowling being the possible exception, aren't that famous anyway. When Stephen King, who was at one point the world's best-selling novelist and who has frequently been discussed as the standard-bearer for traditional publishing's promise despite having published in 1974, has made an appearance on a late-night talk show, he's often been the SECOND or even THIRD guest brought out after some movie star. Who gives a crap what Handsome McPretty-Boy thinks ("the movie I'm in is way awesome as were all my coworkers I have to see again for the sequel and the studio responsible should continue to pay me lots of moolah") when the author of The Stand and The Dark Tower is available for a conversation?

("Want to know my very important thoughts on philosophy and literature?")

That the majority of America does not value literary superstars the same way they value other types of celebrities should hardly come as a surprise. I'll never forget the day I went into my day job positively beaming that not only was I going to interview Richard Adams, but he was going to consider blurbing my book, only to be met with blank stares from every one of my college-educated coworkers to whom I had to explain Watership Down was a popular novel back when people used to read literature instead of Keeping Up With the Kardashians (I'm not saying I agree with those who are ready to bring on the apocalypse already, but I understand).

Every so often I find it useful to remember that we in 2016 are living through circumstances unlike any other humans have ever lived through in recorded history. This has been true of every generation and will always be true. Past generations may say I don't know what it's like to be forced into farm work and illiteracy and die of old age at 36, and that's fair enough. But those past generations have no idea of the stress of living in a time when you can lose your job, your family, and everything you hold dear with one wrong tweet. They don't know what it's like to walk around with the burden of knowledge that we all have access to.

For example, I'm going to wake my son and feed him breakfast shortly, then give him a bath and take him to the playground and it's going to be pleasant and yet the whole time I'm doing it I'm going to be simultaneously aware that there are over 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world, many of them housed in outdated and  poorly-maintained facilities (and those are just the bombs acknowledged by governments). I'm going to know both that Chelsea Clinton's wedding cost 3 million dollars (thank you Goldman Sachs!) and that over 49 million Americans, many of them children, are "food insecure."

I'm also going to be aware that somewhere in the world is Ben Affleck, who's been handsome his whole life from child star to adult actor and he's dated all the famous ladies you would most want to date (and Gwenyth Paltrow for some reason) and he's well endowed (or did you blink during Gone Girl) and he has all the money and he's smart enough to write great screenplays and direct good movies and people love him and now he gets to be Batman and when he dies, the whole world will notice and possibly sing songs about him.

Affleck's only a few years older than me and look at all he's accomplished. What have I been doing with my time/why didn't I date J-Lo!?!?



The answers to this query are numerous and self-evident, beginning with my weak jaw that looks very meh in a bat cowl (never stops me from wearing one anyway), and the fact that I can't dance in the sultry rhythmic fashion required to lure a hip hop star of J-Lo's magnitude. But let's not forget that there are over 318 million people in the United States alone and only one of 'em gets to be Batfleck. Even if I sorted my jaw and my dancing,  the world's most optimistic gambler has to admit that one-in-318-million odds do not make for great probability.

If you take nothing else away from this post, take away this: read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I would rank it as one of the five most important books I've ever read and it has honestly, unequivocally improved the quality of my life. When he's old enough, I plan to share its contents with Little Ninja (sit down, son, and let me explain why most of your dreams probably won't come true). I can't hope to adequately summarize the book for you here, but Gladwell's main tenant is this: the notion of the self-made man is a myth, and it is empirically provable that extreme success is more a result of luck and being at the right place at the right time than it is a result of talent and work ethic, though those qualities are also required.

In other words, if you have two inventors of equal intelligence working exactly the same amount of hard with exactly the same resources and the same education, it is not the fault of one inventor for not being as successful as the other if the government grants only one of them access to a recovered flying saucer. You can work as hard as you possibly can and do everything right and if somebody else also works that hard, but through sheer luck lands the alien technology, they're going to win, and I'm sorry if this is the first time you're hearing that life is not fair.

I want to repeat that: life is not fair. This seems obvious, but it's hard to accept.

Ben Affleck really was born more attractive than I was with a better jaw seemingly formed for that bat-cowl and it isn't exclusively (I don't want to diminish Batfleck's workout routines) anything I did wrong along the way or even necessarily things he did right that I didn't do. My parents didn't take me to audition for Voyage of the Mimi to start me off on the path to super-stardom young, but even if I had been born to parents who did that, I would still have lost to Affleck as a glance at these photos should make painfully clear:


V.

(Dawn of Average Attractiveness At Best)


It's okay. I've had my whole life thus far to get over it and a few girls were kind enough to give me pity kisses. Human life-spans are so ridiculously short anyway; it seems a shame to waste one regretting not being born luckier (I WAS born with access to clean water and food, not to mention white and male, and if you don't think that's a good deal, you haven't been paying attention). It might've been nice to play Batman, but again, there's 317,999,999 other Americans who also aren't having that golden Batfleck life experience, so after I have myself a good cry, it's time to get on with my life as it is and find a way to be happy despite never Chasing Amy or V'ing Superman on the silver screen:)

I don't want to belabor the point (too late!), but I cannot stress this enough: Life is not fair. This isn't a sentiment frequently put on posters or stitched on throw pillows, but it's absolutely essential to remember and folks who fail to acknowledge this truth cannot approach the world in a rational way. You look at a child born with his heart on the outside of his body or some other terrible condition and tell me all people are created equal and we all start from the same fair place.

Some folks is lucky and some folks ain't and it's not fair.


("Well hello there, Lady Luck!")

Don't blame me, I didn't make the rules. Eventually our sun will erupt in a great solar flare that will destroy all life on Earth (assuming we don't utilize those 23,000+ nukes I mentioned first) and on that day grievances over who did and who did not get to play Batman will matter very little.

I believe there are at least two primary reasons why many Americans are both rationally aware of life's inherent unfairness and irrationally choose not to factor it into their worldview:

1. Dwelling on life's unfairness leads to a negative attitude and is a go-to for losers. We've all known or met someone with a sour-grapes approach to life. Because they expect not to succeed, they're often correct. Someone who wants to be successful is better off with a positive mental attitude. It's as essential to the successful outlier as it is to the folks who take second and third place. At no point should my assertion that life is not fair be interpreted as an excuse for not making the most of the opportunities available to you.

2. Continued capitalism depends on the majority of its participants believing they can get ahead and come out on top just as a democratic republic requires its participants believe their votes matter regardless of what the empirical data suggests. As you're no doubt tired of hearing, the top one percent of the top one percent control more wealth than the bottom ninety percent. But Americans focus their attention on extreme outliers in all fields as though they were the expectation, rather than, by definition, the exception.

Being an adult means learning to see the world as it is as opposed to how you would have it be and the world is nuanced. The choice before a person isn't as simple as work really hard, become super successful, fabulously wealthy, and all kinds of famous, OR don't work hard enough and therefore not become those things. Many of the factors responsible for a person's level of success are outside of their individual control. Not all of them, of course, and hard work is so often its own reward. Yet there are factors at play and momentum from the past bigger than an individual and their work ethic, which isn't a good thing to bring up if I'm trying to sell you a self-help book, but it's true none-the-less.

There's only so much positive thinking can accomplish and spoiler to anyone who hasn't read it, The Secret doesn't work. Oprah just thinks it does because in her experience, positive thinking and hard work did go hand-in-hand with great wealth and success. But the media doesn't interview all the positive thinkers who weren't Oprah Winfrey.

I had a psychology professor in college who assured his students that all reality is manifest based on our individual impact on the world through our conscious and unconscious desires. If we wanted to improve our world, we had only to improve ourselves, allowing ourselves to summon love and success instead of pain and misfortune. This is a lovely sentiment and perhaps even has some metaphorical application (like a mental night light/security blankie). But when I asked this professor why, given "the secret" truth of reality, some little kids get cancer, he at first only scowled at me. Then, after consideration, he told me it was possible their parents had unconsciously summoned that trial into their lives, at which point I stopped being bemused by his fantasy and started suppressing my overwhelming desire to punch him in the face.

(I'm Bat-MAD!!!)

Tyler Durden famously said, "an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy sh*t we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact."  That he said this in the film version of Fight Club while simultaneously being Brad Pitt made the line all the more memorable.

In retrospect, it's easy to see why so many members of my generation yearned to be famous from an early age. After all, this was television's great sales pitch: watch closely and one day you'll be famous too. Watch Wheel of Fortune and practice for the day you'll be a contestant. Watch a movie's special features and listen to the director's commentary to learn how to direct your own film because one day you'll grow up to do it, or perhaps you'd prefer to be a movie-star, or a famous singer (why not both?).

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous was practically a video tutorial to come in handy... one day. Every year at the Academy Awards I was told to practice my speech for... one day when somehow, someway I would win one, and until then, make sure I pay to see all the nominated films. With a steady diet of television shows about the importance of being famous... one day, it's a wonder American children ever think to be anything else.

My great hope is that as the means to create and distribute art become more widespread, we'll eventually see the death of the megastar. It may come to pass that tomorrow's Ben Affleck can only afford one nice home instead of multiple mansions and one car as opposed to several:

(Hashtag #winning)


But I say if giving up one little Batfleck in exchange for fifty, maybe even one-hundred or more actors who all get to make movies and live relatively happy lives, that's a good trade.

Let us turn our attention, as we always must, from acting to writing and publishing. Sure, the mainstream story of self publishing tends to focus on the extreme outliers such as our old friends Hugh Howey and Andy Weir. These two names, incidentally, also meant absolutely nothing to my coworkers and were met with blank stares when I bragged about getting emails from both of them on the same day. So here I must reiterate: if you really want to be famous, number one, grow up; number two, stop writing and do something for which people actually become famous (like recording yourself having sex with an already-famous person).

For every outlier, there are thousands of writers enjoying a life of doing what they love and making some money, in some cases a lot of money, for doing it. Perhaps this isn't as exciting as the prospect of being super rich and super famous, and again, if you want to be either of those things and have the opportunity, take it.

Being grown up means learning to accept life beyond the terms of the extreme outliers. It's possible if you publish a book or more your work may be widely celebrated (assuming Ben Affleck appears in the movie version). It's also possible you'll win the lottery or be struck by a disease so rare they name it after you.

More likely, you're not going to be famous. Me, I'm already internet-famous, and that's plenty famous enough. I've been able to chat with many of my writing heroes (Stephen King's people have assured me that he might one day have time to face the 7 Questions). I have fans of my writing who will buy my books as I continue to publish them and a family that loves me, and though I'm likely never to know what it's like to V. Superman or get a full-body hug from the President, I can objectively see that I'm living a charmed life, especially by historical standards or even the standards of most people currently living on the planet right now.

("I'd ask what's poking my leg, but I saw Gone Girl")

Here's where I should leave it as I've made my point and then some, but I want to share some personal anecdotes with you that may illustrate the potentially destructive nature of a desire for fame. When I was in high school--which was a longer time ago than I want to acknowledge, but Alanis Morrisett was still a thing and acting in Dogma with a certain Batfleck--planning to be famous after graduation was a common desire. We had plenty of graduates who knew fame was a sales pitch and were just hoping to get into a good college so they could score a decent job and have a nice life because they didn't know greedy bankers and corrupt politicians were already liquidating the middle classes.

But there were also plenty of graduates who, like me, wanted to fly to Heaven and light up the sky like a flame. For many of us, future fame was an idea we had to grow out of, like a long-lingering belief in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Given that some of us went on to factory work and now face an uncertain future of being replaced by automation, having an extended childhood full of fantasies of one day being a superstar was maybe in some ways a mercy. If you're already screwed, why not have some morphine while you learn to make the best of things?

For the Ninja, it meant wasting a bunch of money on a semester of expensive film school before learning some tough lessons courtesy of the school of hard knocks. If I knew then what I know now, I would've read fewer books about Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton and spent more time hitting actually-relevant text books.

But it's okay. The Ninja grew up to live in a nice house and have a wonderful family with access to an Imax theater where I can watch Batfleck V. the hell out of Superman in 3D and I'm living a life that's pretty swell, even if it's not Batfleck-swell. And asking a writer not to be a dreamer is asking him to perform the impossible task of rewiring the brain he was born with. Despite writing this post, I'm still going to occasionally mentally compose my Oscar speech in the shower because I could still win one for best adapted screenplay from one of my novels. Right? Right!?!?!

To date, the small Indiana town I  refer to in fiction as Harrington has yet to produce any truly famous people. But I spent some time as a substitute teacher in my old high school and can verify there are still plenty of clusters of students (the delusional tend to cling to one another) hoping to one day be superstars if they can just graduate and get out of the go-nowhere town that's holding them back. And I hope at least one of them does, but if Little Ninja should one day talk such nonsense, I'm going to burst his bubble--not to be mean, but to save him time because I love him and I don't want him wasting his youth yearning for a future that isn't going to come. Because I've seen what a desire for fame can do a person.


("I'm so happy and well-adjusted and better than you")

Of some of the friends I had in high school who wanted to one day be famous, one of them went on to become a popular book blogger and to be represented by my literary agent, as I've already told you.

One of them moved to California where he discovered he's... wait for it...  just gay:) And good for him. I see pictures of him on Facebook with handsome men. He's not on a poster for a major motion picture, but he's smiling just the same and he looks happy away from the small Indiana town he grew up in and I'm proud of him.

Another of my friends from way back when discovered hardcore drugs and that if you do enough of them, you presumably won't notice that you're not a superstar and that your impossible dreams didn't come true. A few of my other friends went on to get married and have kids and have epiphanies about how the dream of fame is a necessary Hollywood tool to sell products to impressionable youths and they did it quietly without subjecting their poor readers to overly-long blog posts:)

But another of my friends from high school showed up at both the four-year and eight-year reunions and proceeded to get belligerently drunk so he could yell at his former classmates that although he wasn't famous now, he would be by the next reunion, count on it. I'm sure he showed up at the twelve-year reunion as well, but honestly, the folks I wanted to keep in touch with I have, and everybody else I can see on Facebook easily enough, so I think I'm done with reunions.

And a girl I was once more than friends with is now in a mental institution. Last time I talked to her, she was telling me that if she could just lose 40 pounds, she was certain she could nail an audition and finally at last be famous and therefore happy. She can't drive and she has no money because she has no job and her family hides her away. But she didn't want me to worry. Because as soon as she gets her big break (and never mind that we're ever approaching 40 in an unstoppable, un-slow-down-able trajectory), everything is going to be okay because she's going to be rich and famous... one day.

("I'm so famous and awesome I don't need haircuts")

Yet, it's not her I'm thinking of primarily as I write this post, but another very close friend of mine. She's someone I would consider to be extremely successful. She's raised two wonderful children, she's had a long and what-appears-from-the-outside-to-be-happy marriage, and she lives in a house that while not quite at the level of a Batfleck mansion, is by Indiana standards a very nice residence indeed. She's a very fortunate woman and she deserves her success because she's worked hard and lived a good life. Again, she's a very close friend and I'm too old to waste my time on people I don't consider to be admirable. What's more, in the last couple years she had a bad health scare and had to face her mortality and was granted a stay of execution.

Despite all of this, she said to me in an email (half-joking I'm sure, but only half) that if she didn't get offered a traditional publishing contract soon, it might break her. She quoted Steel Magnolias (I really need more guy friends) and told me she'd rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special. She's since recanted. She's stronger than all that and knows she's living a good life even if she's facing the same long odds of publication and even longer odds of becoming famous through writing as the other 318 million of us. In fact, she's investigating self publishing, which has me excited as I know she'll be amazing at it.

But the thought did occur to her and no doubt it's occurred to you as well, Esteemed Reader. We are living in the information age and it's a hell of a burden. We have to know not only that there are 23,000+ nukes in the world, but that there's a definition of success beyond what's possible for us and our peers. 

Previous generations lived lives in which they could recognize their success in relationship to those around them without ever knowing it was possible to be born handsome, land a role in a video series, get work in early Kevin Smith films, win an Oscar at age 25, have romances with both Jennifer Lopez AND Jennifer Garner (and Gwenyth Paltrow for some reason), and to go on to wear the most sacred cape and cowl there could be and fight Superman. Previous generations knew how happy they were without the burden of knowing how happy it was possible to be.

("I'm so go****ed f***ing happy!")

But hey, we have a cure for polio and many of us are living longer than ever and if we can hang in there long enough, the singularity will happen and maybe we'll get robot bodies:) And it's easier now to be a writer than it's ever been in all of recorded history and there are lots of cameras out there these days so sooner or later enough people will photograph the same Stephenville/Phonenix-lights-level close encounter to force the government to disclose what they know about flying saucers and we'll all have access to the technology, so cheer up. Whether you're Batfleck or the other 317,999,999 of us, it's a good time to be alive and it's quite possible to enjoy life without being famous despite what television programming may have led you to believe.


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