Some people might remember a show called Wings. Tastes vary, of course, but for us, Wings is one of the few shows that has aged well. The jokes we laughed at in 1990 are the same jokes we laugh at now (it’s one of two TV series we own on DVDs).
By the way, that is the dominant tree and flower of the Hawaiʻian Tropical rainforest. It’s ʻōhiʻa-lehua and it’s likely to be the pioneer in recent lava flows. I’ll be posting pairs of photos as I write about writing.
You can click on the individual photos to see a larger version or you can go to SmugMug and see the originals in THIS gallery.
What? . . . yes; that’s right . . . this post is about writing.
So, for them not familiar with Wings, one of the characters in the show is Helen. Helen has been playing the cello for twenty years. Practicing all these years with the hope and dream to one day earn a chair in an orchestra.
Now, I aim to quote a large part of the dialogue, but them who are interested in the episode, here’s a YouTube link for you (note: these things come and go. If the link goes down, search for Wings: A Little Nightmare Music):
Anyway, here’s the setup . . . Helen works at the airport and Edward Tinsdale, the conductor of the Minneapolis Philharmonic, is coming in on a flight.
After some hits and misses, Helen begs Tinsdale for an audition. Here’s a description of the scene . . .
Helen: You probably noticed that I have a cello with me.
Mr. Tinsdale: Is that what that is? Young lady, I’m on my honeymoon. Don’t tell me you’re here to audition for me.
Helen: Oh, please, Mr. Tinsdale, I’ve studied this instrument since it was taller than I was. It is my dream to play in an orchestra like yours. It’s all I’ve ever cared about. I know this is an incredible imposition, but if you don’t mind, I—I have to find out if I’m good enough.
Mr. Tinsdale: Let’s just assume that you are.
Helen: Oh, no, please, please. I have to play for you.
Mr. Tinsdale: You’re not going to leave until I listen to you, are you?
Helen: I can live eight days without water.
Mr. Tinsdale: Come in. Play.
Helen: Thank you.
Helen plays for Tinsdale
The next scene is Helen finishing her piece and asking for Tinsdale’s opinion.
Mr. Tinsdale: Frankly, Miss, uh, Chappel?
Mr. Tinsdale: Your technique is poor.
(Helen looks like she’s going to cry.)
Mr. Tinsdale: Your playing lacks passion, but your understanding of the music is utterly superficial. I don’t think you’re ever gonna play in an orchestra of any consequence.
(Edward Tinsdale stands up and approaches Helen.)
Mr. Tinsdale: My advice to you would be to abandon the cello.
(Edward Tinsdale opens the door.)
Mr. Tinsdale: Get on with your life.
(Helen makes her way out.)
Helen: But I’ve practiced for over twenty years. I mean, this is my dream. If I’m not a cellist, I’m—I’m a waitress.
Mr. Tinsdale: Then be the best darn waitress you can be.
By the way, I had started to transcribe the dialogue, but then I found THIS site (thank you).
So, Helen is all dejected and Joe and his brother Brian (her friends since childhood) are trying to console her. She tells them to leave her alone and leaves. Joe gets mad and decides to talk to Tinsdale and convince him to give Helen another chance.
Joe confronts Tinsdale at his hotel . . .
Mr. Tinsdale: I, uh, I was being kind. I told her the truth. The momentary sting is easier to bear than wasting your life chasing a dream that can never be.
Joe: Who are you to tell her she’s no good?
Mr. Tinsdale: Selecting musicians is a large part of what I do. I’ve auditioned, gee, thousands over the years. I’ve played the piano since I was five, the violin since I was seven. After graduating from Julliard, I was picked by George Szell out of a thousand candidates to assist him at the Cleveland Orchestra. Since then, I have conducted the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the London Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra. In 1985, I conducted the Berlin Philharmonic and a series of recordings of the complete symphonies of Shostakovich, for which I have received numerous awards. I hold an honorary doctor of music degrees from Harvard, Cambridge, the Sorbonne. I sit on the board of the National Endowment for the Arts, and just last month, the Italian Academy awarded me the Silver Baton.
Joe: But not the gold.
Mr. Tinsdale: There is no gold.
It’s a good scene — establishing the qualifications for making the call he did — and there’s some additional banter that is fairly funny, at the end of which Joe convinces Tinsdale to give Helen another chance.
The next scene opens back at the airport with Brian describing what happened next.
Brian: And then she finished playing. And he just stared at her. Kind of like the way you stare at a bug after it’s splattered on your windshield. And then he told her she played better the first time.
Fay: Poor Helen.
(Brian shakes his head.)
Joe: I’m worried about her. She must be totally devastated.
(Helen enters the scene)
Joe: Helen, are you ok?
Helen: Oh, I’m wonderful.
Brian: You’re not bothered by what happened?
Helen: Yes, I was. As a matter of fact, I cried myself to sleep last night. But then, when I woke up this morning, I did what I’ve done every day for the past twenty years of my life. I dragged myself out of bed to practice, but after last night, I realized there was no reason to. So, I watched the sun rise. I went on a walk, and then I took a hot bubble bath, and I still had time to read the newspaper over breakfast. I figured it out. Practicing two hours a day, I have put over 10,000 hours of my life into that cello. Do you realize how many hours that is?
Lowell: Unless this is a trick question, I’d say 10,000.
Helen: So now, I don’t have to waste any more time practicing, hoping, wondering if I’m good enough. I’m not, and I know it.
Joe: You really are ok with this.
Helen: I’ve made my peace. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go make some egg salad. Some damn good, egg salad.
Lowell and Fay are two supporting characters. By the way, all of the characters in this sitcom were well written and acted (my opinion of course, but remember . . . I’ve never been awarded the silver baton).
Bear with me here, this really is about writing . . .
As Helen works on her egg salad, Tinsdale comes into the airport for his flight off the island.
Helen: Here’s the man that set me free. I’m gonna go thank him.
(Helen approaches Mr. Tinsdale)
Helen: Excuse me, Mr. Tinsdale. There’s something that I need to tell you.
Mr. Tinsdale: Actually, Miss Chappel, upon reflection, there’s something I would like to say to you.
(Edward Tinsdale pulls Helen aside)
Helen: Well, I just—
Mr. Tinsdale: I may have left you the other evening with the impression that your musical ability is non-existent. That is not quite true. I believe that you possess a glimmer of talent.
(Helen is shocked)
Helen: A glimmer?
Mr. Tinsdale: Yes. The tiniest of glimmers, but it is there.
Helen: No, you cannot be saying this, because, see, I just got my life back—
Mr. Tinsdale: Of course, it means that you’re gonna have to practice 4, maybe 5 hours a day religiously, but I believe that there’s a chance that over the next few years—
Helen: No, you told me I stink.
Mr. Tinsdale: Oh, but you don’t.
Helen: Oh, yes, I do, completely and totally. P.U.! You said no self-respecting orchestra would have me.
Mr. Tinsdale: I exaggerated. I apologize.
Helen: No, you can’t be saying this. You said that I didn’t have a chance.
Mr. Tinsdale: But—but you do.
Helen: Well, take it back! Take it back!
(some funny action after which Tinsdale leaves)
Joe: Calm down.
(Helen buries her face)
Helen: He said I had a chance. Joe, you heard him, didn’t you?
Joe: He didn’t mean it. He didn’t mean it.
(Helen leans on Joe and he comforts her)
Brian: Well, Helen, if it makes you feel any better, I’ve always doubted your talent and I still do. (looks at Joe) I’m just trying to comfort her.
Joe: You gonna be alright?
Helen: What am I gonna do? I’m cursed with a glimmer of talent. I’m gonna be chained to that instrument for the rest of my life.
(Helen jumps off the counter)
Helen: Goodbye, walks on the beach. Goodbye, fingernails. Goodbye, life.
(Helen enters the kitchen)
Joe: Think she’s gonna be all right?
Brian: She’ll be fine.
Joe: I don’t know. I’ve never seen her like this before.
Brian: You don’t think she’s gonna do anything desperate, do you?
(Audience hears the sound of Helen playing the cello)
Joe: I’m afraid so.
Some of you may already know where I’m going with this. Some might be thinking I’ll go farther than I will.
First, an observation about Helen . . . I can understand why Tinsdale said her music lacks passion. She was willing to give it up entirely (she was ready to give her cello away). If playing the cello really was her passion, she would have played regardless of her chances to earn a spot on an orchestra of note (or otherwise).
Second, the feedback she got from Tinsdale (the initial one) was spot on. I don’t mean I’m a cello expert and agree with what he said. I mean that he, as an expert, gave her his honest opinion. An opinion not couched in feelings; just facts. In that, despite the shock, Helen found value. You would think we would all want that in life.
A definitive answer.
I mean, some answers we probably know on our own. I could practice all I want, but I’ll never make the NBA, NFL, or any other pro team. At my age, there is little I can aspire to beyond living a few more years.
Third, his final feedback . . . that is the kind of feedback that is most destructive. It’s couched in possibilities. Work hard, give it all you got, keep at it, and you will succeed. (American are sold this as a fact . . . it’s not a fact because it discounts cheating, nepotism, the buddy network, and luck.) Notice, Tinsdale did not say success was guaranteed. His exact words were “there’s a chance” and then only if she doubles her efforts to date.
Per my experience, people have a tendency to assign large values to the “chance” of success where in actuality the numbers are quite small. They hear “you will succeed” and leave out the “there is a chance.”
If Helen’s goal had been to play the best she was capable of, then she would have succeeded (probably was already there). But her goal was to make it to an orchestra of note. That chance — from what we heard during the show — was slim to none. Yet, she commits — presumably — to four or five hours of practice each day.
Some would say “Good for her! She’s following her dream!”
I’m one of the other guys . . . I shake my head. Mind you, I’ll be glad if she does. I might be the first to congratulate her. But, the odds are she won’t make it. In real life, there are literally thousands like her, all dreaming of making it big.
I’ll encourage anyone really passionate, really driven, really invested in a particular goal . . . but that’s not Helen. Once told she would not earn a chair, she planned to stop playing and enjoy her life. There is a difference in the two scenarios. Perhaps I can’t voice it very well, but it’s there.
I call one a life-long dream whose reward is in the pursuit itself. I call the other a delusion that might leave one bitter and disillusioned.
So, how does this relate to writing?
Sorry . . . I needed a humorous interlude.
I’ll speak to my situation but know that it’s similar to that of literally thousands of people. Perhaps, hundreds of thousands. Some of what I’m about to say could be actual advice to other writers.
A few years ago, I attended Viable Paradise with the specific purpose of determining if my writing was good enough for publication. That’s it. I wanted an honest opinion. I got better than the “glimmer of talent” feedback.
Whoa, whoa . . . before my readers hop on the comments, understand this: I think I write good . . . er . . . well . . . er . . . whatever; I like my writing. I enjoy writing and I enjoy reading what I write even more than I enjoyed writing it.
I also know a few people like my writing and have told me so. I take them at face value and I’m grateful.
BUT . . . I also know few people read my stuff, even when I give it away for free.
Now, I can sit here all day long listening to people encourage me, but, please, don’t — it won’t do a smidgen of difference in what I do; I mean, I’ll appreciate it, but it won’t change what I will eventually do or won’t do.
Back to writing and publishing . . . the bottom line is that talent and success are only loosely correlated, especially if we’re speaking about talent away from the extremes. Were I a writing savant, I would be already published. Were I a totally inept writer, I wouldn’t have this blog or be able to string two words together.
No; I’m somewhere between the extremes. I’m happy thinking I’m a tad above average, but I could also be delusional and I could have been lied to (all with the best intentions, of course).
As far as getting published goes, my ability to write does not matter. I mean, yes; one must be able to string words together, but beyond that, other stuff comes into play.
One thing evident to me at Viable Paradise was that I did not write like any of the other writers. I have all twenty-three other submissions and all of the stories written during the time we were there (students agreed to share their works with everyone, so I have it all in electronic format).
I don’t know how to explain it other than to say that most of the other participants wrote . . . expansively. Perhaps, ambitiously is a better word. I have to be careful what I say here . . . I mean, there’s nearly a zero chance any in the class will read this, but they might and I don’t want them to take this as a slam because it isn’t.
This is my opinion of what I read . . . difficult to read. Often, the stories landed outside my ability to grasp what was being written about and my eyes would glass over as I struggled to follow the writing to . . . nowhere.
I mean, well-written, but . . . not something I would normally read. There were a few great pieces, but even then, difficult to read. And, if I read the market correctly, most of the students — if not all — will likely publish before I ever do. A part of the reason — and perhaps a large part — is that many put a lot more effort into their writing than I do. If nothing else, they socialize within the industry a lot more than I do.
But, it’s not just that. When I got back from the workshop, I started reading a lot of stuff. All sorts of different stuff. In general, books (novels) track closer to what I write. Short stories are another matter.
Short stories sold today are more along the lines of what my classmates wrote. I would almost say that SF is leaning toward a literary style. I use that qualifier based on my understanding that “literary” means something like “less entertaining” and more “delving in the nuances of the human condition,” often by eschewing action, adventure, closure (especially closure), and most of what I enjoy when I read fiction; you know, the stuff that makes reading interesting.
Not all, but a lot of the stuff that gets published is also nowadays pulling double duty in promoting social justice causes. Understand, I have nothing against that; it’s just that it’s not what I write.
What I really wanted to learn at the seminar . . . the answer to “is my stuff publishable?”
Honest, without giving myself airs, I already know I can write. But, can I find a market for my writing?
That is the frustrating thing with the submission process. A couple of places that deal solely in flash fiction rejected sixteen of my flash pieces and yet cheerfully invite me to send other stuff in. I really want to ask them what they’re looking for. The flash pieces I submitted spanned diverse stories, genres, styles, etc. (see my many flash pieces). Either the writing sucked or they are looking for something I’m not capable of giving them; I wish they would have told me specifically why the stories were rejected.
Just once, I would like someone to say “look, you write good . . . er . . . well, but you lack the passion and you don’t understand storytelling. You’re good enough for your blog, but not for publication.”
Or, something like this might help “You write well, but we’re looking for stories about one-legged sentient dogs named Biffy. Your story about Judy, the cross-eyed cognitively challenged cat, just misses the mark.”
Instead, I’m left to wonder where I fall on the spectrum or if I’m even in the same ballfield as where the game is being played.
In my opinion, that is what is sorely lacking in the “way things are.” Writers will go years writing and submitting stuff and rarely get an inkling if what they write and how they write is even saleable.
Think of all that effort, all that angst, all that hand-wringing as form letter after form letter brings news of another general and nondescript rejection. (BTW . . . no hand-wringing or angst here.)
My — and other writer’s — writing outlook might be different if I got the above feedback or even something along these lines: “I won’t lie to you . . . if every day you work really, really hard, strive to write ‘deep’ and ‘meaningful’ stuff, and constantly submit a whole lot to all sorts of markets and do this for the next four to eight years . . . maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance someone will buy something of yours.” Then, maybe, I would choose a comfortable level of effort and adjust my expectations. Wait . . . that’s what I’m doing, so this is for other writers to contemplate.
Before I continue, let me be clear as an unbroken bell:
I’m not bitter.
I’m not bitching.
I’m not depressed.
I’m not complaining.
I’m not looking for sympathy.
I’ve written a post or two about the odds of publishing success, be it the traditional or self-publishing paths. I’m sure most writers ignore the reality of the task ahead and just assumed they will someday make it.
It could happen, I guess.
It happens for
some a few writers. Maybe they are writing savants. Maybe, they are the 5% (read HERE). Know this: most of us are not writing savants. We may be good, but we number in the thousands and the odds are against us. Not impossible, but not anything to bet the farm on.
If you want to put the effort into getting published because you enjoy it, because the end result pleases you, because it fulfills a creative drive, because it’s a part of who you are, and do so without unrealistic expectations, then go for it. That’s what I’m doing. Meaning, I’m not holding my breath as I wait for publishing success; I breathe and enjoy life. Every day, I remember writing is not life; it’s just something I do in life.
But, if you are looking for the prize and that’s all that’s motivating you, know there are many more cellists than there are orchestra seats and they’re all working as hard or harder than you are . . . and it’s a LOT of work. If you want to put the effort into it, if you have an absolutely clear vision of what you want to accomplish, if you understand the cost in terms of hours of your life, then, by all means, embrace it and go forth. But you also better understand the odds; slim.
Whatever you do, just don’t be Helen. Helen approached her goal as a curse, as if she had no choice but getting back to practicing to the point of “ruining” her life. I think she should have listened to Tinsdale, really listened, and reevaluated her goal. Perhaps she might be just as happy in a local string quartet or playing for fun. Perhaps, she might realize cello playing is just one more thing and not the end of all things.
Instead, she angrily gets back to practicing. I guess that’s a form of passion but I don’t think it’s the right passion.
And now, this . . .
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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. . . my FP ward . . . chieken shit.
Finally, if you interpret anything on this blog as me asking or wanting pity, sympathy, or complaining about my life, or asking for help and advice, know you’re likely missing my subtle mix of irony, sarcasm, and humor.