Last night I saw the film "20 Feet From Stardom" about exceptional (and very busy) background singers who appeared on countless hit records without ever (mostly) becoming recognizable names. Some of them had brief flirtations with fame as solo artists, but for the most part, their attempts to step out of the shadows led to frustration and disappointment.
While most of the film's insights were obviously about the music industry, some of what was said really affected me on a personal level because they apply equally well to writing, or any other form of entertainment.
There are obvious differences between being a background singer and an author. An author has no shadow to step out of. We're putting our stuff out there with our name on it, and hoping for stardom. But many of us would love to have a somewhat anonymous sort of stardom, to have our names recognized as a quality brand on a book cover, but not necessarily to have our faces recognized or to get all the trappings of fame, other than maybe the money.
The women in this movie had some of the most incredible voices I've ever heard, but with the exception of the great Darlene Love, I was not familiar with them. I hadn't even heard most of their names, despite being a lover of music and hearing their voices on many great records. Time after time, their stories involved being very much in demand for their voices and vocal styles, then trying to step up and become known, maybe having some success but mostly hitting walls while watching lesser voices soar to great fame, sometimes giving up on singing entirely, then eventually realizing that it's not the fame they desired that they really loved, but the music and the performances.
They spoke of frustration when people who haven't paid their dues or built their "musical spirit" find an easy way to fame through shows like American Idol or by just being in the right place at the right time, while others worked for many years, had voices you wouldn't believe, were known to industry insiders, and still hit barriers all along the way. But the epiphany was almost always that the fame and name recognition don't matter. It's all about their art and being good at it and doing it for the love of the music and the talents they were given.
That's what we should be doing. We should all be developing the talents we have, becoming the best we can be, fighting against the barriers that are thrown up but ultimately writing for the love of story and the written word. There are so many factors beyond our control in our quest for success and recognition, but maybe recognition is the wrong metric when evaluating success. Maybe we should look at success as completing the long, difficult journey toward a finished work, multiple times, and getting better at it with each attempt. No matter how good you are, you will compete with people who are better and who have bigger names. Lisa Fischer could not win in a field of musical artists that included Aretha Franklin, no matter how amazingly she could use her voice. At the same time, no matter how talented you are and how hard you work at it, you're going to see people with less talent easily rise to the top of the best seller lists while you struggle with rejection after rejection in your attempts to find an agent.
If your dream is fame and monetary success, by all means, fight for that dream. But if you find satisfaction in the work you do, if you are constantly pushing your limits and growing, if you can fight through the publishing frustrations and just keep growing as an artist, then you will be a success, even if you never sell a book. And maybe the other will follow, if things you can't control go your way.
On a related note, one of the trailers last night was for the new documentary "Salinger." Looked pretty amazing.