Somehow, we have to manage to do two contradictory things at once: Passionately enjoy and pursue the present, with whatever challenges and pleasures it holds, and at the same time keep at least a corner of your mind focused on what comes next.
I’ve been pondering this idea lately because, and I’m sure you couldn’t possibly have guessed this would happen, I listen to Liz Craft, a TV writer and producer and the sister of Gretchen Rubin. I consistently reference her podcasts, either the one she does with Gretchen or (sometimes, anyway) the one she does with her writing partner Sarah Fain. Liz and Sarah had a TV series on ABC this past season called “The Fix.” I never watched an episode, as I start clutching my head and screaming along about the second commercial breakwhen I watch regular network TV. The way the series was promo’d was kind of problematic, I thought, as it came across as a re-working of the O.J. Simpson case. (Marcia Clark was a collaborator on the show; the main suspect was a large, menacing-looking black man; the victim was a woman.) At this point I think we’re all sick and tired of O.J., aren’t we? It seemed to me that the series was very much couched as a rehab of Marcia Clark’s reputation, something profoundly uninteresting.
Well, enough viewers (and non-viewers) agreed with me that the series was not renewed for a second season. As Liz said at some point, “Our numbers were never very good.” There was always the hope, though, that they’d be given another chance to do better. But alas! The axe fell, and it was devastating. Not only did Liz and Sarah lose their contract with ABC and their office on the Disney lot, but everyone involved with the show also lost employment. That’s a big responsibility to carry, a big weight of sorrow and obligation. And now, in spite of their many years of experience as writers on various shows, they are scrambling for a new gig. Lots of meetings and requests for consulting, but so far no hard offers.
Even if the series had been wildly successful, though, it would have come to an end eventually. Nothing lasts, especially nowadays. You spend years writing a novel and it gets intense buzz for maybe ten days if it becomes a success. After that, ho-hum. The world moves on to something else. The lifespan of anything, especially anything creative, is so, so short. People are standing in long lines to see a movie and then poof! It’s gone.
So Liz and Sarah were intensely, Insanely Busy Writing and producing the pilot for the show, then intensely, insanely busy writing and producing the actual first season. Every day brought new challenges and issues. New deadlines. Constant stress and worry in the midst of the attainment of great professional success. Very, very few people ever have a TV show accepted for a full season on a regular network. They’d made it through the unbelievable winnowing process that occurs every year, and now they were riding on a wave of energy. But guess what? I just looked up the percentages for network TV, and 90% of new shows fail. The numbers are: 500 pitches for pilots, 90 pilots made, 5-12 series ordered out of those 90, and then the vast majority of those new series not being renewed.
Hard as it would be in the midst of all the madness, anyone making a TV show needs to keep in mind that it can all end with a phone call. Some shows even get canceled early. So you’re going full tilt, but you still need to hold the whole project loosely, to keep saying to yourself, “There will be life after this series.” Just as a parent of several small children needs to say, “There will be life after this chaos. Enjoy it now, with all your heart, because it will end soon.”
In my own life I certainly don’t have to worry about the aftermath of fame, as I have none. And my one child was very non-chaotic. Did I ever stop and think, though, about what I wanted to pursue as my life went on? Perhaps not. But I do need to take stock now: What do I want to accomplish in my last, oh, 20 years? (I’m 67. Hey! Alice Parker, the great choral conductor, arranger and composer, is 94 and still holding workshops, so maybe I can stretch it to 25.) I want to focus on two aspects of a productive life: people and projects. More and more I realize that I’d better get going on those two aspects because my time isn’t infinite. I don’t want to be a little old lady sitting in a rocking chair doing crosswords! (Not that I do them now, to be clear.) The question is, How do I want to live my life? Where should I put my energies? How should I spend my time? I’ve told Jim many times that I have all these great ideas every morning as I lie in bed before getting up. The problem is, plowing into the actual work involved is, well, work.
As a counterpart to the above ideas I’d recommend an excellent article in The Atlantic by Arthur C. Brooks (no relation to David Brooks as far as I know) who has recently retired from the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank. He makes a very telling comparison between Charles Darwin and J. S. Bach. Darwin came out with On the Origin of Species at age 50, so not in his youth but while he still had years ahead of a professional life. He spent his last years stymied for lack of a new direction, writing to a close friend, “I have not the heart or strength at my age to begin any investigation lasting years, which is the only thing which I enjoy.” Brooks continues, “When Darwin fell behind as an innovator, he became despondent and depressed; his life ended in sad inactivity. When Bach fell behind, he reinvented himself as a master instructor. He died beloved, fulfilled, and—though less famous than he once had been—respected. The lesson for you and me, especially after 50: Be Johann Sebastian Bach, not Charles Darwin.”
I find the phrase “sad inactivity” to be remarkably frightening! Never, ever do I want that to apply to me.
How about you? As you move through your current stage in life, do you have ideas for the next one?
This, too, shall pass.