Living the Dream
December 18, 2018 § 29 Comments
Back in the days when I was scrabbling my way up the rungs of California’s state civil service ladder, I’d ask my boss how he was doing. Without a trace of irony, he always answered, “Living the dream!”
While I admired his morale-boosting, I could think of a lot of things I’d rather be doing besides moving paper from one basket to another and engaging in petty squabbles over the picayune nuances of policy memos and budget requests. I wanted to be a published—and lauded—author.
As a gangly, frizzy-haired introverted kid, I’d always been more at home in the school library than on the playground, and my first vision of fame involved having a row of my books on one of the library’s shelves. The girls who didn’t want to be my friend would read my name on those spines, and boy, would they be impressed. By high school, I still wanted to find my books in the local library, but it was even more important that my photo grace the cover of Rolling Stone. All the boys who’d snubbed me would be sorry then.
In young adulthood, I pictured myself as Woman of the Year on the cover of Time, with an accompanying spread in Vogue. After all, I’d written the great American novel and I was a glamorous fashion icon.
Fantasies of how becoming a big-time famous author would transform every aspect of my life evolved with age, but the gist remained the same; books would be my ticket to international star status and all the trimmings—beauty, dangerous boyfriends, a killer wardrobe and enviable hair.
Eight years ago, at 56, I retired to write. Having spent decades plotting award-winning novels in my head, I blithely assumed they would leap from my brain onto the page and into publication.
Intellectually, I understood this was childish, magical thinking. Yet while I’d matured in all the visible ways, my dreams hadn’t. Deep in my adult psyche, writing was still bound up with the Cinderella, star-is-born, meteoric success fantasies of youth.
Eight years later, being a writer doesn’t resemble any fairy tale I’ve ever read. As for most writers I know, the journey has been paved with plenty of rejection, disinterest, and the rude realization that writing is hard work. It involves skills and insight that don’t accrue by wishing and hoping.
I’ve published some essays and a memoir/art book about my dad. I can reread most of my work without cringing. I’m part of a supportive writing community of friends, mentors and critique partners. I consider myself a decent literary citizen, reviewing for journals and facilitating writing workshops for kids. Best of all, I write most days and my family honors and respects me for it.
Along the way, I also gained forty pounds. My migraines have intensified. I’ve avoided far too many social occasions, and, as the coup de grâce, I suffered a life-limiting bout of shingles. All symptoms (I now think) of years suspended in a state of anxious anticipation, waiting for the next e-mail, phone call or social media post to tell me I’m good enough. I’m finally a real writer.
What should have been the happiest, most freeing, time of my life, has also been the toughest and most humbling. Linking my sense of self worth, satisfaction and joy to validation from others—the one aspect beyond my control—proved a recipe for anxiety, disappointment and depression. My perceived failure to become ‘famous’ strikes at the core of my sense of who I am and hope to be.
I remain committed to becoming a better writer. And it’s time for a re-boot—a conscious shift in how I perceive and approach my work. It isn’t a race with prizes or a popularity contest.
It isn’t a contest at all.
At 64, I harbor no lingering need to date rock stars, nor do I especially want to encounter my wrinkled mug on magazine covers at the grocery store.
What I want now is to express what it is to have lived a particular life in particular places and times. When I get it right, when I read my words back to myself and think, yes, that’s it, there’s no better validation.
Living the dream doesn’t look the way I imagined it at ten, twenty or even fifty. It isn’t the incredible writing career I fantasized. But I have the luxury and time to live a literary life. This is the dream, here and now. The fairy-tale bits have fallen away, but my life is still transformed.
Dorothy Rice is the author of T 2015), an art book/memoir about her dad, Joe Rice. She has placed two dozen personal essays in various journals and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her WIP is To Dye Or Not To Dye: a Memoir of Ageism, Shame and Acceptance. Dorothy blogs at Gray is the New Black and tweets @dorothyrowena.
Thank you. Gray here, too, and with you in most every detail.
Thanks for reading, Jan! Happy holidays.
Yes! Thank you for writing what I was thinking. (And gray here, too, under the flaps of my hat while I was growing it out.)
Thanks so much for reading. Yes, the growing out part can be painful!
A searingly honest, insightful blog post. Loved it. Thank you.
That ‘validation from others’ thing is a gnarly beast, and you slog her head on. I read this less as a surrender to age and dashed dreams than a humble victory speech. Brava!
I like your interpretation and love the sound of ‘humble victory speech.’ I’ll have to remember that one! Thanks so much for reading.
Wonderful post. Gray along with you. And, still writing! Keep on keepin’ on!!
Thanks Kathy! I’m in good company and, yes, I will absolutely keep on keepin’ on!!
I appriciate it.
aw! thanks so much!
You might be my newest hero…thank you! I loved this piece.
thank you! not a role I’m used to!
I’m 53 and pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, Washington. A much deferred dream. I enjoyed reading about your writing journey. Thanks for the encouragement.
Wonderful! Best wishes with the MFA and congratulations for pursuing your dream!!
Got me thinking of my dream too. This is lovely Dorothy. Thanks.
Oh, I’m glad. We mustn’t forget our dreams. Ever! Best wishes to you.
Well said, beautifully written!!
thanks so much!!
Nothing, but great
thanks so much for reading! all the best, Dorothy
Hi Dorothy – I have had two dream jobs in my life. I enjoyed reading about yours and your journey.
Thanks Bill; you’re a lucky man. So great to hear from you!
Your essay is a timely read for me. I’m in my early 60s and been writing since I was nine years old. I’ve got my master degrees, done the workshops, but only recently have I started to get published (and so far just the one time). My biggest block to writing has always been my need/desire for validation from others. It’s a constant struggle. Your essay reminds me that I’ll only be happy with my writing when I do it for myself.
So glad this proved timely! It sounds as though our paths have been similar in many ways. Best wishes for 2019.
Happy New Year to you, Dorothy 🙂
THIS!! – ” What I want now is to express what it is to have lived a particular life in particular places and times. When I get it right, when I read my words back to myself and think, yes, that’s it, there’s no better validation.”