“”I always wanted to be something, but now I see I should have been more specific.” -Lily Tomlin
Years ago, I met another would-be writer at a workshop. I remember that he praised several phrases in my submission, and that the presiding professional – who obviously did not want to be there – pilloried both our offerings. We commiserated, and discussed our writing ambitions. From time to time, we encountered each other at other conventions.
I turned out to be the most timid. Instead of pursuing my ambitions, I detoured into academia and technical writing, producing next to no fiction for years. Meanwhile, I watched with undisguised jealousy as the other writer gained a reputation for editing and started publishing fiction regularly. He was prolific, regularly publishing a novel per month, and frequently doing movie adaptations and theme anthologies. However, I rarely read his work; I couldn’t stand to. His success emphasized my shortcomings.
Last week, I downloaded a collection of ebooks that included one of his. Steeling myself, I made myself read his first. To my surprise, his work was no more than adequate. Background and characters were paper thin, and the plot thinly connected to the premise. I saw no sign of the literary ambition he had at the start of his career. Even allowing for my envy, his work was ephemeral and completely forgettable.
For all I know, he is perfectly content with his career. After all, he is probably making a living as a writer. He gets to deal with fiction daily, and if he goes to conventions, he can claim a place in the privaate room for professionals.
All the same, if I ever meet him again, I would like to ask: was where you are what you had in mind?
More importantly, my envy has drained away. I am in no way contemptuous, but I realize that I do not want what he has got after all. I realize I am more ambitious than him. I don’t just want to make a living writing fiction – my ambition is to be recognized as a writer. In my conceit – maybe in my naivety – I want to write something of value, something that will last. Granted, in today’s market, most works are here and gone in a few months, but I suspect that putting in the effort he has, only for each book to be forgotten in turn would only leave me frustrated and unsatisfied. Now, instead of a jealous chorus of voices whispering, “That could have been you,” when I think of this writer and his work, what I hear inwardly is, “Be careful what you ask.”