Saturday, July 4, 2009

Getting What You Want or Wanting What You Get

Kristi's post yesterday reminded me of lots of things from my own life. She and I are so much alike, only I'm about 15 years further down the road.

When I was in my mid twenties, I made a stab at L.A. and the film industry in my own way. I started a masters' degree in writing at the University of Southern California with a view toward becoming a screen writer. I might have been a flop at most things in life but had always done well academically, so I thought if there was a way to break into the industry through school, that would definitely be the way to go.

The classes were taught by successful screen writers and novelists and playwrights, so I pictured scenarios in which I wrote such amazing works for my class assignments that I would be discovered and catapulted to success. And I would live happily ever after in the world of film and make-believe.

A couple of days after I started the courses, I saw a bulletin board post that Burt Lancaster's production company was looking for interns from my writing program. I applied and immediately got the position. I wasn't particularly surprised. All was going exactly as I expected. My first step on that rung to happiness.

I discovered a curious thing. You can get exactly what you hoped for, and yet it can feel totally different. In the internship, I worked with only one man from the production company. Never did meet Burt or any celebrities. My supervisor was tactless and critical and strangely enough, never did gasp in amazement at my astounding talent. I'd go see him once a week to pick up assignments, and I discovered that visiting the production company was like visiting any other office of any other business. I remember, even after my first visit for the internship, having a let-down feeling and thinking, "This doesn't feel like I thought it would."

One of my courses at USC was taught by a cantankerous old novelist/playwright. He talked a lot about persevering and life and getting through the long haul--most of which was lost at the time on my 24-year-old brain. Still, I remember more of his advice and asides than just about anything from the program, so I guess it made some impression. One thing he said was that success in writing was more about perseverance than talent. Lots of talented people, he said, give up because it's too hard. And there are folks with minimal talent who put themselves out there and somehow find just the right niche. He summed it up by saying, "If you want to be a published writer, you can be that. But don't depend on it to make you happy, because it won't."

Is this an American thing, I wonder--because we watch so many movies and read so much fiction that our expectations are horribly skewed? I always think that feel-good stories are wonderful things and really help ease life's burdens, but sometimes I wonder. Can those innocent stories cause harm by setting us up for disappointment? I know that during my first serious romantic relationship--which lasted for about three years and which I was sure would end in marriage, but didn't--I would catch myself feeling let-down. Again, the real thing just didn't seem to be quite what I expected.

Fifteen years down the road from Kristi, I'm far more content than I was. Partly because I've adjusted my expectations. I don't really expect life to go as smoothly or to satisfy. That sounds depressing, but it's really not. I love getting lost in stories and embracing them for what they are, and I'm so grateful for the small pleasures in life. After seeing what a struggle life is, I'm grateful for a good husband, for days when health is good and my family is happy.

As I commented on Kristi's post, I think this is a struggle that we all go through to some degree. The bad thing is when people don't recognize it for what it is--when they continue to think that the ultimate goal of life is to be happy with their earthly circumstances. Or that marriage and romance will make them giddy like it does in the movies. Or the right job or house or whatever will do the trick. So when they face the reality of plain old life, they figure something's wrong with that mate or that house or that job, and if they just change the circumstance, then they'll be happy again. At least if we start with the premise that that's a false notion, we know what to work on.

Step two is to shift our focus to the eternal and the absolute, never-fail, never-disappointing joy that awaits us there.

I'm getting better at step one. Step two is still really hard for me. But I'm working on it.


  1. I have to quote something from Lonesome Dove here. I won't quote the entire section, because it's not all appropriate for our blog, but it is really neat that it all fits in together so nicely!

    "I don't like buttermilk," Lorena said.

    "Yes, that's your problem," he (Augustus) said. "You don't like buttermilk, or nothing else. You're like a starving person whose stomach is shrunk up from not having any food. You're shrunk up from not wanting nothing."

    "I want to get to San Fransisco," Lorena said.

    "Life in San Fransisco is still just life. If you want one thing too much it's likely to be a disappointment. The healthy way is to learn to like the everyday things, like soft beds and buttermilk- and feisty gentlemen."

  2. I think it gets easier for me to keep the eternal in mind as I get older. Your post is well-spoken and so true, and Kristi's example here is perfect. :-)