My longest and most genuinely functional-seeming romantic relationship was with a comic book writer I had written a glorified fan letter to. He was much younger than me, so I think he saw my infatuation with him as sort of exotic. I had all these things he didn’t yet have: a job, a cat, groceries from the grocery store that I bought with my own money, shampoo, etc. I had been a shitty girlfriend to enough people to know how to not be one anymore, and I think that was also an attractive quality I possessed. The thing that attracted me to him, of course, was that he was my favorite comic book artist.
Sal — let’s call him Sal, although that isn’t his name — was my favorite comic book artist because he was the kind of artist I was never going to be. He had exquisite focus. He was in love with his art first and foremost, and he had been since he was three years old, when he decided he wanted to be an artist. In all our time together, my fondest memories are of Sal bent over a grayish table with a museum-white light glaring down at this gigantic white paper, while he drew tiny swamp plants and feather creatures in pencil before drowning them expertly in ink. For hours, we coexisted in a sort of contented silence. And this was how most of our time was spent.
You may be asking what I was doing while Sal was meticulously chronicling the world around him in pictures. I don’t really know. I mean, I do know, but it’s kind of hard to pinpoint. Sometimes I was making imperfect five-course vegan meals from one of the many hipster cookbooks I obsessively ordered off the Internet. Sometimes I was sewing pillows shaped like birds out of whimsical dinosaur-print flannel. Sometimes I was trying to learn CSS code from an online tutorial; sometimes I was writing an article for one of the handful of under-the-radar websites I had tertiary journalism connections to; sometimes I was playing some minor-chord-driven disaster of a song on the out-of-tune miniature piano in our living room. Sometimes I was also drawing. But there was no consistency. Sal would be drawing; I would be doing something.
Now Sal is famous. I am unsurprised. He was the most talented artist I knew when I met him five years ago, and he has done nothing but draw since then. He’s not just a little famous, either. He’s famous-on-a-snowballing-landslide. Every day he gets a little more famous. A thousand more Twitter followers, a write-up in NPR. And Sal deserves all that, because he has wanted it since he was three, and he has done nothing but work for it. That’s what happens when you know what you want to do and you decide to do it.
But most of us have no idea what we want to do.
I’ll speak for myself, at least. There was a sense, always, that I wanted to be some kind of writer. But then I discovered that the world was rife with injustice! Well, I couldn’t sit silently by and let the injustice happen, could I? No. So I wanted to be an activist. Then, as I aged and became less and less popular and more and more depressed, I discovered that humor was a terrific mechanism to deflect actual conversation and distract everyone around me from seeing how awful I was. So humor seemed like it should play some part. And then came my love of swimming (lifeguard?), cats (vet?), pancakes (chef?), cookies (chef?), nachos (chef? Do nachos-makers call themselves chefs?), theatre (actress?), children (teacher?), and reading (librarian?). I did not have any focus. I couldn’t stay interested in anything for long enough to get excellent at it, and I simultaneously grew too attached to everything to let anything go.
Which brings us to now. Sal is famous, and I am still older than him, doing everything that interests me, and doing it all just moderately well.
Most of the time, the world tells me to feel bad about this. If I want to be a teacher, I should want to only be a teacher. I should study teaching with fastidiousness. If I make crafts, the crafts should be about teaching. If I watch television, it should be to decompress from my busy life as a teacher. I am 27, and I have not yet been written up in NPR, nor have I received an award for doing anything better than everyone else. I am not even on a career path yet. I am 27, and I feel like at this point, I should be more successful.
But then it strikes me that I might be measuring success all wrong.
I love to paint. It makes me happy. I love to smell books, and look inside them, and I even love to bind them, even though I have no control over glue, ever, and it will inevitably end up in a place glue shouldn’t end up. (Like between two pages, you pervert.) I love writing, and I love my cat, and I enjoy big Saturday afternoon sewing projects, and I am crazy about teaching. I love going on runs, even if you can’t really respectably call what I do “running,” or ever “jogging,” if we’re being honest — it’s more like “walking with a bounce.” I love playing the accordion in the wide open afternoons, even if I’m never going to be in an accordion band. Sitting at the piano and singing ignites me. Cooking an enormous meal (including the dessert) when I get the chance feels like having access to magic powers. I love going to open mics to do stand-up comedy, but I’m never going to go to one every night, because I like waking up at 4 a.m. too much to write on a blog no one reads. So I’m not ever going to be a famous artist, bookmaker, teacher, marathon-runner, musician, chef, or comedian. But maybe being famous isn’t always the point.
It’s cool that Sal loves drawing so much that it is pretty much the only thing he ever wants to do. I can’t imagine what that’s like, but it seems like it’s working for him. I can appreciate the people in the world who are so in love with just one thing that they have laser-beam focus on that one thing, and they do it really, really well. I can appreciate and admire those people, and simultaneously not ever hope to be one.
Because the thing is, I get a lot out of my life. And as long as I have a job that’ll pay me enough to survive (check), and people I really love to share the big meals with (check), it’s perfectly fine to want to dabble in lots of things. Maybe success isn’t about how talented people think you are at something. Maybe it’s about how much you enjoy doing the things you’re doing.