January 2010

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by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

From a very early age, I believed it was my destiny to be famous, but I never consistently did anything to make it come about. In fact, whenever I stood on the verge of creating or consolidating a reputation in any field, I unerringly took another direction.

I think that the belief in future fame was the pathology of a lonely child. Strange offspring of socially awkward parents, I couldn't play sports, had few friends and preferred books to people. As a result, I was cut out of the classroom pack.

Belief in a special destiny is probably a common by-product of this kind of treatment. If the result, many years in the future, will be unusual respect and even the love of millions, it will all have been worthwhile. To be tormented by people as a child, only to become a lonely and marginal adult, and die in obscurity having never achieved anything, would have been an unbearable idea.

My childhood experience has provided a central question, whether life is the fourth grade, or something more. For a while in my twenties, when I was self employed building a reputation as a specialist in computer-related legal matters, I sighed with relief to discover that life was not the fourth grade. By my thirties, having encountered the politics, manipulation and vanity of a larger corporate world, I came to the conclusion that the fourth grade was in fact the perfect metaphor for the adult world. Nothing has happened since to dissuade me this is true.

I had a few opportunities along the way to consolidate a reputation, if not exactly fame then the closest I could achieve.

Although I had written stories and novels continually from childhood, and always thought I would be a writer, I gave up quite easily the effort to get published. Starting precociously at age 15, I racked up about 60 rejection slips, which is not a number incommensurate with the early experiences of authors who were later published and built a career. Later, I went through several brief energized rushes of sending things out, most recently in my late forties, and always stopped after a few rejections. Surprisingly, I quit despite some encouragement, such as a letter from an editor at a famous publisher, telling me that my novel was quite good and that someone else would snap it up.

In the 1970's, I worked for several years in the district office of my local Congressperson. I aspired to politics for a while, before I recognized I was completely unsuited for it. A few years later, when my employer, now the New York City comptroller, called to offer me a job, I said no immediately, choosing to stay with the law.

In college in 1976, I worked in the Morris Udall presidential campaign. I remember a key moment at which I had to persuade a campaign manager that I was better capable than another college student to run a certain project, and how sick the self-promotion made me feel.

A year later, I went to law school because of a failure of courage and imagination, really to prove I could be straight and successful. I was admitted to Harvard, where I spent three years so far on the outside that I never even suspected that there was a community of power at the core, of professors mentoring students who were the children of the powerful and wealthy, a mutual aid society that did not extend so far as me.

I think if you go to Harvard, all you have to do is not fuck up and you will do rather well in life. Even if you are an outsider, the degree opens a lot of doors for you. However, I fucked up dramatically and immediately, by taking a year off and spending it in Paris. In those days (1977-78) if you took a year off from law school, everyone assumed you had psychological problems. I spent my year working 100 hours a week as a poorly paid intern at a prestigious international law firm. However, I was still an outsider, and my mentor, though a founder of the firm, was old and had become politically weak. I was not invited to return after graduation and then found, in about sixty job interviews, that the year off was a tremendous handicap. Fifty-nine interviewers opted to make offers only to untainted candidates, and the one firm which did invite me turned out to be falling apart. Eighteen months later, I lost that job and went into solo practice. When you are off balance, its hard to get back on.

However, I built a stable and fairly lucrative solo practice, probably the only time in my professional life I really had any security. In 1990, when I had been practicing law for ten years, I had a vision for the first time that I could continue doing what I had started, for the rest of my career. I was a well-respected computer law specialist, had written a couple of books and many articles, taught seminars and was invited to sit on committees opining on law and policy. I had several hundred small and medium size clients, ranging from numerous individuals to a few medium size firms. I recognized that I could not break through to the larger corporate world; I was too much of an outsider, and had started out as a solo practitioner instead of with a large firm.

I was also bored out of my skull. A recurrent theme in my life has been that whenever anything seemed possible, it simultaneously seemed to be too small and not interesting enough.

During those years of solo practice, I had explored and abandoned another pathway. I started writing feature articles on computer law and policy issues for technology and industry magazines at $1000 a pop. One day I stood at a crossroads: I had to decide whether to pursue journalism or stick with law. I chose law, because the journalism career ahead of me didn't seem large or lucrative enough.

Whenever I rejected a career possibility, I had a private thought process I never shared with anybody. I wanted a career something like Thomas Pynchon's. At that point (he has now published too much, and too many trivial works), he was a highly respected literary novelist, who had preserved near total anonymity, so that he was truly judged only on his work.

Anything I considered, such as a life in technology journalism, or as a respected but small computer lawyer, compared very miserably with the life of Pynchon. At the same time, I never tried harder to publish a novel because I was terrified it would not lead to the life of Pynchon either, but would sell only a thousand copies and lead to nothing. Growing up, we were acquainted with a novelist who had published one near best seller, a few other novels which didn't do business and who, the last we heard of him, was driving a cab.

In 1990, I persuaded my largest client to bring me in house as vice president of operations, and I spent the next ten years, rather satisfyingly, aiding in the running, growing and launching of businesses. In 1995, I received permission to start my own, a venture specializing in web-based business solutions. I was a year ahead of some of our most famous and largest competitors, such as Razorfish. But we lacked the reputation, that special large-chinned mystique which makes venture capitalists and investment bankers want to bet large amounts on you. Ultimately, we sold our venture for a few million dollars to some people who predictably fired me ten months later and replaced me with one of their own.

During the 1990's, I co-authored a book, one of the first, on Internet free speech controversies, which was published by Henry Holt, sold respectably and got a glowing review in the New York Times. Afterwards, I rejected an agent who wanted to represent me but didn't seem prestigious enough, tried to impress the glamorous technology agent of the moment and failed, and didn't hustle sufficiently to put across the proposal for the next book I thought of writing, on software development disasters. I also realized I didn't love the topics which seemed available, or feel compelled to write more nonfiction. In the end, what I will call the “Pynchon glitch” struck again: publishing more computer-industry related nonfiction didn't get me any closer to the career I imagined. I chose running the web-related business I had just launched in place of writing any more.

After September 11, unemployed for the first time in my life, I wrote a series of essays entitled “Year Zero” about my experiences under the burning towers, as a Red Cross volunteer, and on ambulances. In one of my brief bursts of energy, I sent these out to publishers, but got some kind letters saying that though well written they weren't really marketable in any way which would break them out of the pack of September 11 memoirs.

Working on ambulances was the first job I ever did which had nothing to with ambition. I was pursuing a different kind of meaning, persuading myself that I was not lonely, helpless and terrified, as I felt under the burning towers, but competent, unafraid and able to help.

After five years on ambulances, I had two novels set in that world. I put on another burst of energy and sent one out to about half the alphabet of agents I found on an online listing. I had only one personalized response this time, from one who thought the topic was great but didn't like my prose. I could have done much more to achieve some kind of ambulance book, nonfiction or novel, or get a writing gig on an ambulance-related television show (there have been three since I started). But I never felt compelled; I think the Pynchon glitch always interfered.

In 2005, I started writing and producing plays off off Broadway. To a non-New Yorker or theatre person, this may sound more impressive than it really is; “off off” is the catch-all for everything that is self produced, small scale, and not very glamorous; it is the “world wide web” of theatre, where anyone with two dollars to rub together can play. And it is effectively a theatre ghetto, from which no-one ever breaks out.. If you want to be on Broadway, you have to start on Broadway. No-one crosses over, any more than the best Brooklyn lawyer ever becomes a prestigious Manhattan one.

Yet I discovered that living and playing in the off off Broadway ghetto was nevertheless very satisfying. In the end, it wasn't about ambition, but about the experience of watching an audience watch your play. If they are silent and attentive, gasp and laugh at the correct moments, then you have made an essential connection, which doesn't depend on being interviewed in “Vanity Fair”. I had reviews too, in smaller web based media, some of which were overwhelmingly kind.

In January 1995, I published the first issue of The Ethical Spectacle and have put a new issue online every month since then. Its given me a small, modest platform for my views, led to a couple of paid writing gigs (nothing grandiose) and never ceased to bring me email from strangers, many of them telling me how much they loved or were influenced by something I wrote—about Auschwitz, lying, the death penalty, natural rights. It has also brought a smaller volume of flames, and one credible death threat.

I never engaged in the kind of relentless, single minded campaign necessary to achieve a real shot at a break-through. Instead, I have always retreated into day dreams after a couple of rejections. Part of the childhood pathology was that I wouldn't have to do anything in particular, other than write,to achieve fame. People would discover me; I wouldn't have to hustle, sell or manipulate. Well, the world doesn't really work that way; it didn't quite even in Pynchon's early days, and its even less like that now.

I once spent ten days walking the length of Cape Cod, from Provincetown to Woods Hole. In Hyannis, I noticed the offices of the local weekly paper, and it occurred to me that if I walked in, they would probably do an article on me. I decided not to, and wasn't sure why. Later, when I published my Internet book, Holt's publicist got me on some TV and radio shows, and I discovered I really disliked doing those kinds of appearances.

I had a view of artistic creation which was as differentiated from the marketing as the sausage maker is from the person who sells his product. I wanted to write a novel, pass it to someone through a transom, and see it read and praised without having to do anything more than write the next one. I dreamed of being discovered by the modern equivalent of Maxwell Perkins, the famous editor, of being the next Thomas Wolfe who was only expected to fill notebooks. But the world had evolved very far away from this model; the sausage was now expected to assist in the marketing. The paradigm of the new kind of novelist is Dave Eggers, who had the irony, arrogance and ambition to name his first novel “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” in which he wrote: “These are people for whom the idea of anonymity is existentially irrational, indefensible...”

In my business career, I soon learned that I was incapable of being a salesman. I acquired my several hundred law clients by a sausage making approach; I wrote articles and posted advice to the Web's predecessor, the bulletin board system network, which caused people to seek me out. But, just as I felt sick when selling a campaign manager that I was better than someone else, I always deflected away from any conversation in which I had to persuade someone actively I was the better brand. Instead, I was the master of the “reverse close”; I always wanted to make sure people knew they had alternatives, that they didn't have to choose me.

At age 55, I can view the last forty years of my life as a hiker on the Appalachian trail looks back from a mountaintop on the terrain he crossed. At times, especially at four in the morning, I hardly know if I was a success or a failure. I certainly didn't have Thomas Pynchon's career, and never published a novel. I didn't make six million dollars, or get elected to Congress.

On the other hand, I am a member of a very tiny society, of people who have in the history of the world, written a play and seen it performed. Of people who have published essays and received the kind reactions of strangers. Of people who created jobs for others. Of people who have performed CPR and re-started a heart.

I think that the question of success or failure is a false one. The answer (as with most things) depends very much on how you phrase the question. If each thing I did—write a nonfiction book, a novel, or a play, publish the Spectacle, found a company—is regarded as a means to an end, a springboard or prelude to something else, almost nothing I did ever led precisely where I expected. Proust said, “It is rare that a fulfillment comes and perches exactly on the desire which called for it”. However, if I regard each project as an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve something else, I find the contemplation of them rather satisfying. In a world in which it is fashionable to tout the meaninglessness, I feel that my life has been very meaningful. In the end, you bring your own meaning. In forty years, I have been all over the place, but always doing interesting and useful work, never bored, and never rootless.

I regard ambition as largely a pathology, as it was for me as a lonely child desperately wanting my isolation to make sense, to be rewarded. If you think about it, pure ambition, a mere desire to be famous, can be quite mad; far down that spectrum, you find people like Mark Chapman, who became famous by shooting John Lennon. More benignly, but with equal pathology, there is a widespread aspiration in the population to be “famous for being famous”, like the woman whose husband put pictures of her on billboards all over Los Angeles.

When ambition is coupled to talent—which is not a given—one of them must be supreme. If ambition is subordinated, we may have a healthy combination in which ambition provides the drive, is essentially the gas to a well-designed and regulated engine. If talent is subordinated or nonexistent, what we have instead is spilled gasoline in flames.

Ambition warps talent, as it seems to me to have done in Dave Eggers' case. Where the work is too clearly written to win the acclaim, the artist, instead of being attuned to his own creativity, must always be mindful that his next “performance” win as much applause as the last. The result is that the world is full of formerly famous playwrights and novelists, savagely disappointed by their reviews and sales. They are addicted to the fame, rather than to the art itself. Contrast this with Jean Dubuffet's words on the “outsider art” of people who work completely outside, and unknown to, the mainstream:

Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses - where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere - are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.

Jean Dubuffet. Place à l'incivisme . Art and Text no.27 (December 1987 - February 1988). p.36 (from Wikipedia)

I think this is also what James Joyce meant when he said that the life of the artist is “silence, cunning and exile”.

The praise of a fourteen year old Italian girl who stumbled across my Auschwitz essay in the Spectacle, the gasp of a seventy-five year old audience member in the darkness at the moment of the big reveal in my play, because more intimate, are more precious to me than my New York Times review.