Monday, May 19, 2014

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

No matter where you go, there you are.
                                                          —CONFUCIUS

When I started this blog three years ago, The Arsonist’s Last Words was almost done. My dreams as a writer were about to come true. Looking back, I remember thinking everything would change—all the way down to the way I dressed. How was that supposed to happen, exactly? Did publishing come with a fairy godmother?

Mind you, I wasn’t alone in this magical thinking. In Bird by Bird, writer Anne Lamott described the myth she faced in every new class of students, that “if they themselves were to get something published, their lives would change instantly, dramatically, and for the better. Their self-esteem would flourish; all self-doubt would be erased like a typo.”

Joyce Carol Oates, talking about first-time authors in A Widow’s Story, scoffed at “their naiveté that any publication of theirs, any achievement, will make the slightest difference in their lives, or in the lives of others.” I read that line—even highlighted it—and quickly shrugged it off. You mean other people, right? Of course my life would be different. How could it not?

A few weeks before publication, I heard a TED Talk by Harvard psychology professor Dan Gilbert on “The Surprising Science of Happiness.” He said studies showed that people who’d experienced a major life event—winning the lottery, losing a job, buying a house, getting divorced—returned to their previous level of happiness within three months. Ninety days is all it took. I did the math. My book was coming out in September. By Christmas, I’d be back to wearing the same old ratty T-shirts and doubting myself? No way.

Well, it turns out that Dr. Gilbert was absolutely right. Don’t get me wrong—seeing my book in print was the thrill of a lifetime. But the next day? Same headaches, same worries, same pile of laundry on the floor. My fear of malls and public speaking didn’t go away. Joyce Carol Oates didn’t call me for lunch. The only thing that changed, aside from the marketing chores, was that people started asking, “When is your next book coming out?”

I get it now. The writing—the work—is the fun part. The part about people knowing your name is kind of embarrassing. I stand a little taller having set a goal and achieved it, but it doesn’t mean a hill of beans in my daily life. Thank God for patient friends, a loving husband, a family that likes me no matter how many books I sell. (But if they say, “Fame has changed you,” I’m cutting them out.)

Seriously, though, why am I stuck on this point? I guess we’ve all imagined the speech we’ll give at the Oscars, or how it’ll feel to win “American Idol.” Who cares if we can’t act or sing? It’s the Sally Field moment: “You like me! You really like me!” We never think about going home that night and waking up with a hangover. Having to pose for pictures despite the fact that you look like death warmed over. Then the publicist calls, and your agent, and the accountant, and a million Twitter followers are waiting for you to say something witty.

We never imagine getting up the next day and going back to work. (Although, if you’ve had the lottery fantasy, you’ve practiced exactly what you’ll say to your boss, and exactly where he can stick it.) Dreaming of the moment that changes your life is an easy way of avoiding the very real changes you have the power to make.

Dorothy always had the ruby slippers on her feet, remember? We knew it as kids and forgot. Life’s no different on the other side of the rainbow, except for the flying monkeys.

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