Due to a winter bug, I came home and crawled in bed after work today. But I didn’t sleep, I flattened my brain waves to alpha by watching youtube videos of American Idol and X Factor. It’s tragic the way some of us misvalue our talent. True, this is how we found Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, but what about all the other people who want their voices heard? How do the Mary Roaches and James Lewises of the world get to these auditions?
I have, for years, had students tell me to audition for American Idol. I was always trepidatious, and by the time I thought to go ahead, I was already 30, and too old. When I lived in Brooklyn, I took my student advisory on a tour of the Apollo, and while there, I was invited to perform at amateur night. The manager slipped his card in my coat pocket and told me to call him. I had potential, he said. When I discovered the wooden claw with which performers were yanked from the stage in lieu of Simon Cowell’s “No,” I balked. Who would risk that much? I may be a capable vocalist, but I won’t know what the Apollo judges think. Is this cowardice, or calculated realism?
Henry David Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.” He was a dreamer. A doer and a dreamer. San Francisco is a city of dreamers, a little sister to the throbbing hubs of New York, Chicago and L.A.. But I just wonder when your dreams go too far. Are some of us wired to know our true capabilities, and others simply deluded? Is talent as fixed as eye color or our family’s place on the class ladder?
In the past few days I’ve been devouring Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, and it’s a great secondary read after Lucy Brock Broido’s Trouble in Mind. Both books explore and/or document the life of poet Lucy Grealy. I don’t know how it ended up that I teach Confessionals and end up reading all kinds of nonfiction about psychosis and disfigurement, but it did. Anyhow, Patchett’s book depicts the struggle she and Grealy had living a writing life: applying for fellowships, sending out poems and fiction for publication, hating their own work, switching genres, teaching in universities, and of course, life’s daily complications. For Grealy, complications were strikingly unusual: surgeries attaching parts that shouldn’t be attached for cell regrowth; or injections stretching skin to make room for new bone. But she wrote to stay sane, they both did. They both have books published, and are known in the writing community. But Grealy’s name is not on poets.org. And before I fell into my stupor of American Idol, I was searching for her poetry.
How long did she write before she switched genres? How did she realize that poetry, while it was her first love, was not good for her? Did she misvalue her poetic talent, was her audience unready? I don’t know.
When I envision a writing life for myself, I envision a messy paste of words and sounds. I see a ticking monarch standing over me with his scepter: write, breath, write, breath, write. It’s a risk. There were, undoubtedly, singers who spent years practicing for those auditions and still sucked. I’m afraid that all the time, all the words, will be faulty. I write poems, songs, lesson plans, and now, this. We could call this is my castle in the air. At the end of the day, I have to do it, whether I will be yanked from the stage or not. The real question is, will I be Kelly Clarkson or Mary Roach?