The best thing, probably the only good thing, about a 6 1/2 hour plane ride from New York to San Francisco is that you have plenty of time to think. Quiet time has been rare these last few weeks, so I took the opportunity the long plane ride presented to let my mind wander and make sense of my trip.
New York is an amazing place. You can find anything you want, any time you want it, and most times, you can get it delivered. The night we arrived, my brother-in-law, Shanga, and his wife, Anna Rosa, were waiting for Trader Joe’s to deliver their groceries. The guy finally showed up just before midnight and no one–not Shanga, or Anna Rosa, or the delivery guy–batted an eye. So it’s midnight? What’s the problem?
The last night of my trip, Aubrey, joined us for dinner. Aubrey is Shanga and my husband’s cousin. He’s also a dancer. He started his career dancing with Alvin Ailey, then was chosen to be lead dancer in the original Broadway production of Disney’s The Lion King. After a few seasons dancing with The Lion King, Disney hired him to be associate choreographer. Aubrey spent the next eleven years mounting The Lion King in sixteen countries worldwide. These days, he directs the dance program at Harlem School of the Arts. Let me say, it was great to see Aubrey. He looks exactly the same. Actually, he looks younger than he did the last time I saw him, six years ago, which is why Shanga nicknamed him “Benjamin Button,” –the longer Aubrey lives, the younger he seems to get. But back to the point of this post . . .
So. Aubrey is a dancer, Shanga is an actor and theater professor at NYU, Anna Rosa is an actor and playwright, and I’m a writer. Sounds like a recipe for pretty good dinner conversation if you ask me. We talked about everything from movies to cooking (Shanga and Anna Rosa enjoy it, Aubrey hates it, I don’t mind as long as I don’t have to do it under pressure), but eventually, the conversation turned to where we all are in our careers. We’re all in our 40s, and we’ve all had the pleasure and privilege of having our dreams come true. The thing is, none of us could say we are where we ultimately want to be. It’s not that we’re dissatisfied, but rather, we all feel as though we’re just getting started. There’s still work to be done. We’ve reached mid-life, but the game isn’t over. Aubrey put it best. He said that at this point in his life, his goal is “mastery” and something about the way he said it led me to believe that he wasn’t talking about striving for fame or external validation. He was talking about something quieter, something spiritual and deeply personal. He was talking about what I think every artist wants to feel about their art: a sense of connection and profound satisfaction.
Aubrey’s comment reminded of Malcom Gladwell’s article in the New Yorker, called “Late Bloomers.” He tells the story of Ben Fountain, a writer who worked on a short story collection for ten or eleven years before he got it published. Gladwell makes the argument that yeah, yeah, yeah, some people are child prodigies, or young hot shots fast out of the gate, but others of us, most of us, toil for years before we finally break through. He says that on average, it takes 10,000 hours of practicing ones craft before we reach a level of mastery. I remember reading Gladwell’s article when it first came out and feeling a tremendous sense of relief about the years, the thousands of hours I’d spent working on my novel. I was at the point where I was beginning to question all the years I’d invested and beginning to doubt whether my dream would ever come true. Gladwell’s article gave me hope. It helped me put all the years I’d been studying, writing and revising, into perspective, and I understood that if I stuck with it, if I just held on, held out and had faith my time would (probably) come. Aubrey said the same thing about his experience as a dancer. He said that most people who start dancing as kids fall away by the time they’re teenagers, and that the ones who stick it out through those years, usually give up by their early twenties. Because it’s hard. And it’s discouraging. And yes, it’s about talent but it’s also about determination.
By the night of our dinner, I’d been in New York long enough to tune myself to the city’s energy. I understood why people love it there. Walking down the street where there are a billion different stores selling a billion different things, riding the subway, or even standing on a balcony overlooking Washington Square Park, you feel like anything is possible. You feel like you’re at the center of the universe. Some of the world’s most brilliant, most talented, most outrageous people live in New York and, who knows! You might just be one of them. You also feel like you are very. very. very. small. So I asked Aubrey and Shanga and Anna Rosa whether, as an artist, being at the center of things was a good thing or a bad thing. I couldn’t decide whether knowing that you lived in the same city, maybe even getting invited to the same party as a Judith Jamieson, or a Colson Whitehead or a Robert DeNiro; whether being so close to all that greatness, is an inspiration or a source of intimidation.
Shanga and Anna Rosa have only been in New York since August. They used to live in Seattle where Shanga had the good fortune of appearing in a number of well respected regional theater productions. But he explained that what frustrated him about living in Seattle was that he knew his achievement would never lead to anything bigger. What happened in Seattle stayed in Seattle. Sure, living in New York could be intimidating, but at least he’s in the game; at least the possibility still exists that he’ll have a chance to master his craft.
I never lived in New York as a young person. I wanted to work in publishing, either for a magazine or a book publisher, and I vaguely recall typing up resumes and cover letters. But I never applied for any jobs. Why? Because I was afraid, though of what, exactly, I don’t remember. Maybe I was afraid of the competition. Maybe I was afraid of failure. I do know that years later, having to acknowledge that I chickened out was a huge part of why I was determined to stick with my novel. Maybe one day, I’ll pick up and move to New York–maybe not full time, but for a few months every year. I think it would be interesting to live in New York as a writer. I think I’d enjoy it. Because it’s like Aubrey said: it’s about talent, but it’s also about determination. And it’s like Shanga said: it’s about putting yourself in a place (for him literally, for me metaphorically) where at least you feel anything is still possible. Then again, maybe I don’t have to go any place at all . . .