I have a long commute to and from New Brunswick on the bus two days a week. Ideally, I should use that time to prepare for class or work on my writing, but honestly usually too beat for complex thought. To pass the time I like listen to This American Life episodes I’ve saved up. The great part about This American Life is the podcasts last about the duration of the ride, which allows me to not think about the New Jersey hell-scape I am passing through.
Recently I listened to an episode a few weeks ago called “How I Got Into College,” in which people try to trace the factors that led to academic success. In one story, a scientist recounts his childhood as Bosnian refugee struggling in an Atlanta public school. How an essay he plagiarized so impressed a teacher that she recommended him to an an elite private school. This experience completely transformed his life, putting him on a path that would lead him to Harvard. The story always presented a kind of irony to him--the fact that cheating was what led to his ticket out. On the show, he uses a private investigator to hunt down the teacher who changed his life twenty years before. After a happy reunion, it becomes clear that the teacher’s story differs dramatically from his. While he recounts a lucky break in which he managed to fool someone into thinking he was smarter than he was, the teacher tells a very different memory. Not only does she not remember the plagiarized essay at all, but she remembers a student that radiated genius and potential from the start. While he remembered himself as an immigrant kid struggling with English stuck in a rough school, she was certain that he would have been successful whatever path he took.
The program then went on to speculate as to why he had hung on so dearly to this story of a kid who had fooled the system and got ahead through pure luck. It might feel arrogant, perhaps, to state that you were always destined for greatness and succeeded on your own merits as opposed to the help of others. When you start to proclaim your own greatness, it’s like an invitation to be taken down a peg.
This story made me think about my own achievements and path up to this point. As a kid who had trouble socializing with people my own age, I often relied on mentors to be my confidants and champions. At the same time, I wondered whether my achievements were based on merit or favoritism. On a truly level playing field, would my skills really measure up? Would my journalism teacher have really made me co-editor of The Bugle if I hadn’t come to the journalism lab during my lunch period and cried about my feelings? If Rutgers had been able to provide more financial aid, would I have have had more competition for MFA spots--and would I have even been let in? Would my grad advisor have put me up for a National New Play Network Fellowship if I hadn’t been the only female in my writing workshop most of the time and sucked up to him so much? When I was rejected from the NNPN residency and then a slew of others, it was hard not to take it as confirmation of my inherent lack of worth. Out of school for the first time, I feared this was the moment I had been dreading, when I would be weighed and measured by a jury of my peers and found wanting. That’s the trouble with the liberal arts: when measures of quality are subjective, it is difficult if not impossible to assess one’s quality accurately. Any successes can feel flimsy and ephemeral.
I’ve mentioned before that this may have been a reason why I continued street fundraising so long my first year in New York. Unlike with my writing, success in canvassing was concrete and numbers-based. There was something reassuring about those numbers, and even more reassuring in my paychecks. Of course, when we switched from Amnesty International to child sponsorship and my numbers started falling, I experienced a crisis of confidence once again, wondering if I’d just gotten lucky with Amnesty being so similar to a campaign I had worked in LA.
After a lot of soul searching, I finally started to turn things around. A big turning point came last summer when I got accepted into the Mission to (dit)Mars Propulsion Lab, the first of the hip young playwrights groups I managed to join in New York. Excited to be in the company of alums of the Public Theatre Emerging Writers Group and Youngblood, I went around telling people how excited I was to finally be “pushed by playwrights who were smarter than me.” When I told this to one particular playwright, someone a few years older than me who’s had quite a bit of success here in New York, he gave me a quizzical look. “You sure they’re smarter than you?” he asked, questioning my narrative. Was it possible that I really had just as much talent as these guys? That there was something they thought I could OFFER them rather than simply mold me into something else?
When the narrative about yourself starts to change, all sorts of possibilities begin to open up. If indeed I have real writing talent, then perhaps I don’t need to have the stamp of approval from some fancy theatre organization to give me the permission to call myself a professional playwright. For example, after some great progress I’ve made this year in my writing group with my play, Sex and Charitable Giving, I decided it was ready for a public, full-length reading. I initially approached some theatre groups I knew, and while they expressed interest, none of them were really in a position schedule-wise where they could commit host a reading in the near future. Not wanting to wait too much longer since my teaching workload is about intensify, I did something I’ve never done before: I put down my own money and reserved studio space in midtown for this Sunday.
This decision to put myself out on a limb does not come without risks. I’m not in the most stable financial situation nowadays--and what happens if I put down money and no one comes? I still get occasional flashbacks to when I was sixteen and tried to host a party for the cast of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the only people who showed up were the ten-year-old who played Huck and the older gentleman who played Mark Twain. Instead of a cool and hip soiree like some of my friends threw, it was just the three of us eating a Middle Eastern party platter in my parents’ kitchen. I did not host any cast parties after that.
The key, I guess, is trying to get out of thinking that one experience or opportunity should be able to make or break one’s chances of success. Of course I hope as many people as possible come to my reading on Sunday, but at the same time I don’t intend this one reading to be the end of this play’s life.
As Mr. Sondheim says, “Just keep moving on…”