In search of greatness
January 30, 1981
The date above is an illusion.
It is actually 11 p.m., a day earlier than the date inscribed. But somehow it fits my mood, and the sense of days that mingle, where the wisps of one day flow over the edges of the other, until I can’t tell which day is which, and mostly do not care.
The orange cover of my literature book glows in the pale florescent lights of the Union Avenue Dunkin Donuts in Paterson, where I have taken up night time work while attending school during the day – another vampire life that is a little less emotional stressful than the rock and roll one I lived previously, but much less dignified, and much more physically demanding.
Faces from other parts of my life float in and out of here, carrying on their backs the memory of previous labors, such temporary Christmas jobs and other seasonal disasters – such as the Toys R Us job I worked, they having moved on just as I have, seeking refuge and pay checks from some new institution, and though we cross paths, we all seem headed in other directions, and nod in our passing. I do not expect to see many of them again. By taking this job, I seem to be reversing my footsteps, and searching out old paths I had abandoned with my dream of attending school, back to the labor force I thought I had evolved out of, and perhaps this was an illusion.
Yet even at school, the unity I thought of as permanent seemed to be shredding as class mates move in different directions, and the solid foundation that I had hoped to find there, I realize now can’t exist in that setting: college is always a transient thing, a temporary condition where we gather what we can and then take what we have learned out into the real world, testing it against real conditions with the hope that we might succeed.
Professor Davidow, one of my literature professors, said the only way to greatness is by reading and imitation. I suspect she is right.
I get as much from Michael and Glenn, and appear to be on the verge of finding their own paths through the winding ways of art. They seem to think that art is an exclusive club, where members must pay their dues in experience and learning, and those that do not learn enough, never succeed. Even those who do everything right, learn everything they can, imitate everyone they have seen, do not make it – which is the real flaw in this theory.
While I tend to follow Davidow’s advice, I do not believe that it is the yellow brick road she seems to make it out to be. It’s too easy, too much a formula that leads to mediocrity. While I tend to be a brick layer, and plop down word after word in hope that they will amount to something, I also know that successful art needs something more – otherwise there would be many more Shakespeares than there are.
Deny it as we might, all artists search for importance, something that will make him or her stand out against the backdrop of all that has come before. Some people build castles of stone, everlasting, while others of sand, that get washed away, and yet stone castles do not a treasure make, and sometimes, what the sand castles contain last longer even when they are but a memory.
Not all artists are the same either, and I have seen some who bury themselves in scholarship and never get a glimpse of the real world and so when they go out from the academic ivory towers, their arts fades. I need real things to inspire me, images and experience that do not come out of books other people have written, although I also read and re-read the sentences others have written, hoping somehow they will build some kind of pattern in me to which I can attach my own impressions.
But none of this is an easy process – even if some artists are lucky enough to have all their basic human needs provided. It is much more difficult for artists who must make a living at the same time they are trying to make art, and as inspiring as the real world is, it also drags an artist down.
The process is also full of mood swings, successes and failures, good art and bad, acceptance and rejection.
I envy Mike and Glenn for their early successes, and the admiration they have won on campus, and the perception most have of them as “real” artists.
So who am I?
I feel a huge distance between myself and them. Glenn, who serves as the official arts critic on the campus newspaper, failed to review my material in the literary magazine over the last two issues, making me wonder if this snub was in itself a comment on the quality of my work, and I might have to look elsewhere for recognition.
I am intensely competitive, and find myself competing with Michael, although not in a negative way.
We both strive to find greatness and the ego that such recognition brings.
But here I am sitting in this place, sipping coffee before I start my shift at a job where the only competition involves making donuts, and nobody I work with here, cares much about the poems I write, listening either to Spanish music by day or country and western music by night, in an unending sound track of their own lives.