Notes From Class is a series in which instructors of Catapult’s writing classes chronicle their experiences as writers and teachers. More information about Manjula Martin and her workshop is available here.
When I was thirteen years old, a family friend gave me a charm he had picked up while traveling in Central America. It’s a small matchbox painted over in bright colors and festooned with clumps of glitter. The box contains a piece of electric-blue thread, a small capsule full of sand, and a fortune, like the kind that comes in cookies. The fortune says, “You will be famous.”
I’ve kept this prediction, this talisman, for twenty-seven years, through two cross-country moves and countless apartments. It sits on my desk even now, next to an old rubber stamp that says, simply, “Someday.”
If you go by dictionaries, being famous just means being very popular. If you go by cultural experience, it’s much more. Unless you’ve been living in some blessedly boring and naive parallel universe, fame is basically the greatest thing a person can aspire to, especially in America, especially if you’re a creative person. When I interviewed famous authors for Scratch , I always asked about their experiences of fame, mostly because it’s a question that tends to lead to good quotes. What every writer I’ve interviewed has told me is that fame is just a side effect of success. It’s not success itself. To reach for it is to invite misery, distraction, and inauthenticity.
When I spoke with Cheryl Strayed, who was fresh off of Oprah’s couch at the time, she reminded me that, for an author of literary fiction, fame is a fairly relative term. The publishing world is a small one, and most other people have never heard of authors whom we consider to be totally famous. We’re talking Margaret Atwood fame, not Beyoncé fame. Strayed said that wanting fame isn’t the same thing as wanting recognition:
“I want be recognized for beautiful work, for good work, for real work . . . Which is different than saying I want to be famous. If you want to be famous, don’t be a writer.”
Another famous writer, Jonathan Franzen, took a different tack when I asked him about the topic. He made an argument that, despite the dangers of fame, having a few famous authors around is important to the state of literature itself (well, he said “the serious novel” instead of “literature,” but I’ll assume he wouldn’t revoke literary status from such nonfiction hacks as Joan Didion or Robert Caro). Franzen framed the cultural economy as a competition between literature and other forms of popular entertainment, forms more obviously given over to celebrity than books. Beyoncé exists, so writers need fame in order to grab our share of the market and to make the profession sexy enough that young people will still pursue it. As for Franzen’s fame-hunger? When he was starting out, he did crave fame—until he had it.
What these famous writers suggest is that while fame and fortune does come to a select few literary authors, popularity isn’t an automatic job perk. “Just do the work,” they intone, their advice a steady backing track to our daily efforts, like crickets outside at night. It’s as if, from behind their beautiful furniture and wall-to-wall bookshelves and paid mortgages, they’re hinting at a hard-won secret: None of this is real .
And yet in the corner of my eye I see something else moving in the shadows. It’s Salman Rushdie partying with a supermodel. It’s Jonathan Safran Foer on a Chipotle cup, and Eileen Myles guest-starring on an Amazon television series. And there’s Cheryl Strayed herself, at the Golden Globes, looking like a million bestselling bucks. Writers can and do pursue fame successfully while still being good writers. John Updike once wrote of fame-hungry Isak Dinesen, “she relished ‘the sweetness of fame’ and the company of the great and glamorous,” which her book sales allowed her access to. But even those writers who tangle with celebrity are aware of their anomalous status among the stars. As Dinesen herself wrote in Babette’s Feast , “What is fame? What is glory? The grave awaits us all!”
It’s frustrating to listen to famous people tell you not to try to be like them. Fame is sort of like money in that way—people who have money are usually the only ones saying it’s not important to have money. But often in literary culture, those who are blazingly successful are expected never to cop to having tried to be that way. “Don’t think about it, just do the work, practice your craft,” the famous writer says . “Easy for you to say,” the teenager inside me retorts. “You already have it.”
The desire for fame and the drive to succeed can and do overlap. This is the oddity of practicing a trade in which the attention of other people is required for the performance of your job. A writer needs readers, right? Hopefully, a large number of them. If we view fame not as a state of fantasy or folly but instead as an indicator of success, the act of trying to get famous isn’t so misguided. Fame might work in concert with ambition to function as both motivator and barometer for a writer’s career.
Then there’s the money. Noted 1980s voyeur Robin Leach had it right; rich and famous is a natural pairing. For a writer, even modest levels of fame might mean the difference between an occupation and a career. Creative workers quickly learn that the most sure way to achieve economic security is to have enough people love us that they will give us their money to do what we do. In the market, popularity matters. My own wish to be famous came early and stuck around too long. I wanted to be accepted by a lot of people for who I was—or, failing that, for who I pretended to be.
When I was a child, my mother was a graduate student in theater. I once visited her in her dressing room before a show. I was as eager as any eight-year-old can be who doesn’t know she’s about to sit through three hours of Strindberg. I remember the stale smell of the university’s cold linoleum hallway, the tactile thickness of my mother’s makeup. And the flowers! Even in such a mundane institutional setting, there were flowers, sent from friends and colleagues, at every actor’s station, material proof of their being adored. Mirrors framed by bare light bulbs reflected the flowers’ delicate colors and curves into every dark corner of the room. After the show, when my mother took a curtain call, she wasn’t my mom anymore; she was an object of admiration. Everyone was clapping for her. She looked so happy.
As a teenager, I spent a lot of time inside my own head, reading books and developing an obsession with classic films and Shakespeare. Even then, when I evaluated my own skill and talent, I was always hard on myself. I craved excellence. I wanted to be the best. And I assumed the best people were always recognized as such; the highly subjective distance between accomplishment and acclaim wasn’t something I was yet aware of.
My childish vision of fame stayed bright even after I was far too old to nourish it. As I became more serious about my creative undertakings, my visions of future acclaim became more unreachable. I spent more time thinking about who was going to blurb my (future) books than I did writing. I wasted entire daydream sessions imagining what I’d say to interviewers, what I’d tweet when I hit the bestseller list. I fantasized about what I would wear to the Oscars. (Okay, I still do this.) Somehow, during decades of being a creative person with high standards, I had conflated ambition with fame. And all I had to show for it was a stack of unfinished work.
The problem with fame is not its rarity; it’s that it is out of our control. If you set “phenomenal popularity” as your destination, you are jumping on a crowded bus with no established route—and possibly no driver at all—hoping it gets you to work on time. You can end up diverted, delayed, circling your priorities until you lose them. Perhaps if you are wise enough or grounded enough to yearn for fame and still produce good work, fame can be a motivational goal that allows you to keep going, keep reaching, against often overwhelming odds. But for the rest of us, fame is a false god, all sunglasses and leather jackets and sly smiles while you’re crushing on it, but distant and indifferent once it’s seduced you.
There is the fame of the popular imagination—red carpets and paparazzi, rumors and abs—and then there is a fame even the most aspirational writer can access with relative ease and self-determination. The feedback rush that social-media attention inspires is real, and it’s addictive. A couple years back, when I first started publishing regularly online and becoming active on “literary Twitter,” I wrote an essay that no one read. It’s really good. The language is tight. It’s lovely and uncomfortable in all the right places. And no one read it. Or at least no one tweeted it or retweeted it, or faved it when I tweeted it. No one put it on any “best longreads” list or messaged me to say they really related to that one part. No one even bothered to mansplain my own work back to me in a tweet. In fact, nobody on the internet talked about the essay, or me, at all.
My partner, who doesn’t use social media or work at a computer all day, thinks I’m already famous. “You have, like, 1,500 people, mostly strangers, who follow you on Twitter,” he reminded me one night shortly after my unpopular essay was published. We were watching a movie; I was palming my phone and breaching social media etiquette by posting two self-promotional tweets about my essay in one evening. He asked me why I kept checking my phone.
“To see if anyone’s tweeting about it,” I said.
He replied, “Why do you care?” I was stunned. The question had never occurred to me.
I’m forty years old. I’ve published some good essays online and in magazines, I’ve edited an anthology, I have another nonfiction book under contract, and I’m deep into drafting my first novel. I work for an acclaimed literary magazine. And I’m finally, only now, beginning to understand that I might not ever get famous.
It’s such a relief. After decades of setting myself against an impossible standard, it’s so refreshing, so grin-inducing, to imagine not having to worry about maybe or maybe not being recognized for my work. What if I finish this novel, and it doesn’t sell? What if no one ever realizes how damn good I am? What if I don’t care? I mean, really, what’s the worst that could happen?
I am not a teenager anymore. I have experience at life and its pendulum sways. I have a more realistic understanding of the hard work it takes to practice a craft. Most important, I have a sense of my own self-worth that doesn’t come from outside me, but instead is suffused into all the different parts of who I am. Some days it’s quieter than others, but I know it’s there. (Burnout helps, too, by limiting the energy I have to devote to fantasy . ) Decades of working the creative person’s double shift in varied configurations, struggling to breach the boundaries of time and finance in order to both support myself and keep my creative life on track—and failing, a lot—have made me realize how much I really do want to write. Not be loved or acclaimed for writing. Just write, write well and then better.
I was recently invited to speak to a college class about the “business of writing.” I started off with a quote attributed to Hollywood producer and writer Lawrence Kasdan: “Being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life.”
The class tittered lightly at that. I went on to talk about how making a living as a writer is not always easy. A lot of nodding heads. But, I reminded them, it’s not supposed to be easy. In the economic hierarchy within which we exist, writing is not work that’s valued monetarily in the way that, say, lawyering or advertising are.
But this work also goes beyond monetary value. In a cultural landscape that increasingly worships code and clicks, every novelist’s continued persistence can become a rebellion. Making literature is an assertion of an intangible value, a legitimization of the un-algorithmic qualities of the arts. There’s a reason why writers have been historically suppressed in many societies: We tend to shake things up. (Then I made a little joke about bloggers in the gulag, although I’m not actually drawing a parallel between freelance writers in America today and political prisoners . . . yet.)
At the end of class, I told the students that I know I will likely never get rich or famous doing what I do—and they should be okay with that, too, if they want to “succeed” in the “business” of writing. They needn’t be ignorant or fatalistic or unambitious—seeking and sharing knowledge about the business side of things is awesome, and every artist should get as much money as they possibly can—but they may want to check their fame fantasies at the door if they plan on getting anything done.
Then I asked for a show of hands: How many people here have fantasized about getting a MacArthur “genius grant”? A few bold hands raised. How many have pictured their books with little golden Pulitzer stickers on the cover? A few more. Who here has thought about what they might wear to the Oscars when their work gets adapted into a screenplay? Most of the room, hands up.
Great , I said. That’s great. Ambition is awesome. Now, go do your fuckin’ homework. Any questions?
Despite its dangers, the writerly desire for fame is something I believe we need to actively engage in order to keep it in its place. It’s not enough to say “don’t think about it.” Writers must grapple with this desire, catch it and pry it open and see what it tells us about our character, our work, and our lives. Sure, there are some obvious basics. Don’t be a greedy, shallow faker, for example. The supermodel thing? Not really that cool, dude.
You don’t, however, need to feel embarrassed for wanting the thing that every artist has been trained to want since birth. It’s okay to set your sights on a career and a body of work that, in addition to being well-remunerated, is grandiose and world-changing and widely recognized. But if you can’t find other ways to respect your own work—even if it’s just the deep-down, so-sure knowledge that what you do is worthwhile— you are not going to be okay.
I still allow myself to peruse couture dresses online when I need a break from reality. But I try to notice when I do it, try to reign in the fantasy when it threatens to overtake me. And I try to tell myself the truth.
The truth, writer, is that you will never be famous. You will never complain of too much attention or need to have a secret email address. You will never need to wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from the glare of flashbulbs, and you will never have thirty million Twitter followers. You will, however, hold onto your ambition, your drive, your pulsing faith in better and more . Then you will put on your fanciest dress and your reddest lips, and you will sit at your desk and do your fuckin’ homework.
This essay was originally published in Scratch Magazine.