After a long conversation with my mom the other day, I've been thinking a lot about the nature of success. Sometimes it's happening to us and we don't even notice it.
Forty years ago, a silly space opera hit theaters. Little did I know it'd be one of the pivotal events of my childhood. On the heels of Ray Bradbury's S Is for Space, it set me on the path toward being a professional storyteller. And I am. I tell real stories; I tell stories I made up. Every April I get to tell the IRS I write for a living...and I'll pay them when I can. It's not the best-paying job in the world, at least for folks who aren't Ray Bradbury or George Lucas, and that makes it harder for me to see when I'm succeeding day to day.
Thirty years ago, I was utterly lost. Two years out of high school, I was still paying heed to a religious sect that forbade me from going to the college I so desperately needed. Instead, I knocked on doors as a full-time evangelist. Yes, me. I honestly can't tell you how many Watchtowers I distributed, but I can tell you for sure it was more than the number of OLY ARTS I've distributed. My mom's patience was running out, though, and it wouldn't be long before she paid a visit to East Central University to enroll me behind my back. I gave her hell for doing that...but I was only playing the role expected of me by our moral "superiors." I knew she was right and all my other authority figures were wrong. You can feel that sometimes.
ANY success I've had in my adult life was the direct result of her act of rebellious frustration. Rebels are important; they certainly have been to me.
Twenty years ago, I was graduating from SIU-C after three of the most difficult years of my life, less than two months before I filed for divorce. Graduation is a success no matter how you slice it, especially for an ex-Witness trailer trashbag from Crowder, Oklahoma, but all I could feel was relief. I escaped. I escaped Illinois with my MFA, I escaped Crowder, I escaped a foolhardy marriage, I made it all the way back to L.A. and earned work in the entertainment industry. Simply braving the freeway was one of the greatest achievements of my life. I had a serious driving phobia back in those days, and merging onto the 110 felt like diving into a tank full of sharks. I arrived everywhere dripping with flop sweat. It was like that EVERY DAY. People tell me I was brave for trying to "make it in the big leagues." I wasn't. That was something I just had to do. The brave thing I did was arriving where it might happen.
Did I succeed in Los Angeles? To this day I don't know. I worked for Warner Bros. I passed that shield every day on my way into the office. Can you say something similar? I was on network TV dozens of times and appeared on screen in big-budget features. For a week, so I'm told, I was the writer of Terminator 3. I attended movie premieres and hobnobbed with the stars. But I was only a credited performer in two indie projects, neither of which I'd ever show you on a dare. My video-directing project collapsed into ignominy when my editor couldn't put her bong down for half an hour straight. But I did have my writing produced and performed on Sunset Boulevard. I had lightning shoot out of my eyes on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And when I left Hollywood for good in 2004, I knew I could hold my head high after all those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I could do that because, while I never really "made it," I also never lost my integrity or ability to tell a story in a meaningful, from-the-heart way. I never once created product; I told stories. And oh, my friends, the Hollywood stories my Hollywood accomplices and I could tell you.
Ten years ago I arrived in Washington state and auditioned for my first play here, TAO's Taming of the Shrew at the Minnaert Center black box. I made my first Pacific-Northwestern friends and earned a job teaching remedial algebra at Olympic College in Shelton. I started work on Salvation, the novel renamed Lightfall for publication in 2010. Sounds pretty good, right? But I was a lonely guy earning minimum wage, living with his mom at age 39, with no romantic prospects in sight, angry and so, so depressed from what felt like a life going nowhere. I told someone at a PARTY for God's sake that I'd been a disappointment to everyone who ever cared about me. What I didn't know was my life was about to take off like an Independence Day rocket. The seeds had already been sown. I was months away from my first date with Amanda (also my first date in Washington). And though Lightfall would come to feel like a nine-hours' wonder, breaking my authorial spirit for years, it would actually lead to writing jobs at the Weekly Volcano and Cengage Learning. Those would in turn prepare me for Chegg, then OLY ARTS.
I don't know if I'm a success. I look at my sister and brother-in-law's restaurant or my brother's inauguration at Valdosta State University and I'm not always thrilled by the comparison. But I have two novels and at least a dozen short-story publication credits to my name, I've written for a national magazine, I have loyal readers and a thriving marriage. I get to travel and see parts of the world no reasonable person would've predicted for my life thirty, perhaps even twenty years ago. I read the other day success can be defined as stumbling from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm. If that's true, then yes, I suppose I really am a success. For no matter how bad things may seem sometimes, I can still feel the fire inside me burning. I have stories yet to tell and opportunities to tell them. And my goal for the next year or so is to keep telling your stories with you. Success, it seems to me, is never really a solo enterprise. You and I, we're in this together.
Let's be successes. Let's never, ever, never, NEVER give up.
"Let me tell you something you already know," a fighter once explained. "The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place; and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you permanently there if you let it. You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done. Now if you know what you are worth, go out and get what you are worth; but you gotta be willing to take the hits and not pointing fingers, saying you ain’t where you want to be because of him or her or anybody. Cowards do that..."
And that ain't us. I know it ain't you...and I know it ain't me. Not for long. Not now, not ever.