Anybody see this article in The New York Times about the writer Edith Pearlman? I had heard of her before only because a friend of mine is related to her, but as you will read in the article, Pearlman has been a working short story writer for 50 years and is just now at the age of 78 being “discovered.”
As Americans we love the success story–the wunderkinds, the late bloomers, the underdogs, and the self-made especially. Nowadays stories of success and lessons in success(especially in the arts) seem to have taken on a sort of fanatical interest. We welcome and eat up failure stories–but only by the successful (those valued by a large audience or an important one). I can’t help but think continually that even these stories feed our cultural mythology around the arts–that all of us toiling away at our work will someday matter when we reach that golden pot of fame and notoriety.
I love Pearlman’s example, not because she is at last getting the acclaim she deserves. I love it because hers is a powerful example of a real and successful life in the arts–a life of dedicated work and perseverance. She was serious and good and didn’t quit when it was only noticed by a small number. A lot of people would have quit after the first ten years–heck, the first five!
I think about any number of literary magazines that I pick up a few times a year and I have never heard of any of the people published within them. Yet aren’t those people serious and some even truly good? They were serious enough to work on their stories, essays, and poems and they were serious enough to research literary magazines, and submit to those magazines. Pearlman did this for 50 years without much notoriety. The truth is she is still incredibly fortunate to be be getting the rewards and the attention that she deserves. There are hundreds (maybe thousands?!) of people doing valuable work, who may never be valued by a large or important audience. We may never know their stories. Perhaps I am one of them–and will I be a failure? Will you? Is it a waste to work and care and try if it doesn’t go the places we think it should?
Of course I have big dreams of being cool and celebrated and all that jazz–but I also feel completely committed to doing the work that I love without that outcome. It’s how I want to live out my life. I also want to live out my life reading beautiful books so if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to order one of Pearlman’s books.