Monday, May 19, 2014

Yes, but how long is the apprenticeship?, or, Impatience then and now

{My friend Maggie Bandur and I are nearing the end of our wander through Daniel Deronda, and, in realization of that, in today's post Maggie backtracks a bit, taking us to an earlier scene that caught her eye. If you're just joining us and want to follow the whole thread, just scroll down to earlier entries and work your way back up; the first post is here.}

I appear to be the hold-up here, and while Levi travels for work and family, edits a book, hold down a prestigious job and runs six miles a day, I have no such excuses. I have spent much of the last month literally staring at the wall. This is the hiring time for television writers, when most of the shows staff up, and if you don't get one of the lucrative chairs when the music stops, you may not work again for a while. And although TV staff jobs will give you a mouth like a sailor, you develop no other transferable, marketable skills.

I would like to think it's not just my fretting that has held me back. The fact is I have actually (Shhh!) finished the book. I do think I am still trying to process how I ultimately feel about Daniel and Gwendolen and Mirah and their fates. (They all die. Shhh.) So, if I am permitted to backtrack a little--and Levi never responded to my e-mail to tell me I couldn't--there is a conversation in Daniel Deronda that has really stuck with me, especially in my current mental state. I was so tickled to discover, in the midst of this nineteenth-century novel, a conversation I have had many times: the one where someone asks how to break into the entertainment industry and--more importantly--how long before they can expect to be famous?

Her family having lost their money, Gwendolen decides she is going to take to the stage as an actress and singer. After all, she's always been a hit at parties. She goes to Klesmer, the composer for advice, and the results are eerily familiar. Gwendolen presents her plan with "the conviction that now she made this serious appeal the truth would be favourable." Klesmer takes a looong time answering and then begins ominously: "The gods have a curse for him who willingly tells another the wrong road."

Klesmer suspects Gwendolen does not understand the realities of what is involved:
Well, then with that preparation, you wish to try the life of the artist; you wish to try a life of arduous, unceasing work, and--uncertain praise. Your praise would have to be earned, like your bread; and both would come slowly, scantily--what do I say?--they might hardly come at all.
Gwendolen assures him she is ready--while betraying that she isn't:
I am quite prepared to bear hardships at first. Of course no one can become celebrated all at once.
And when Klesmer lays out the discipline and sacrifice involved, Gwendolen tries the classic defense of, "But I've seen so much crap; it can't be that hard":
"I will be obliged to you if you will explain how it is that such poor actresses get engaged. I have been to the theatre several times, and I am sure there were actresses who seemed to me to act not well and who were quite plain."

"Ah, my dear Miss Harleth, that is the easy criticism of the buyer. We who buy slippers toss away this pair and the other as clumsy; but there was an apprenticeship to the making of them. Excuse me: you could not at present teach one of those actresses; but there is certainly much she could teach you."
First of all, let me be clear I don't ever begrudge having this conversation. It is where everyone starts, there is a special place in hell for people who shit on others for having their same dream, and when it gets down to it, we're all in the same boat: If you look at the facts, making a living doing something creative is more or less statistically impossible and please don't make me look down to where the roadrunner has lured me out over the cliff. But there is something surprising and comforting in the le plus ├ža change . . . of this passage. I haven't been so delighted since Anna Karenina, shut out of society, decided to write a children's book. Apparently, frustrated, creative people with nothing better to do have been writing children's books for at least two hundred years! (Now, that I think about it, I could write a pretty good children's book.)

But when Klesmer discourages Gwendolen, I found myself ashamed that I do not take enough time to think about the honor and privilege that comes with a life in the arts:
I am not decrying the life of a true artist. I am exalting it. I say, it is out of the reach of any but choice organisations--natures framed to love perfection and to labour for it; ready like all true lovers, to endure, to wait, to say I am not yet worthy.
I do long to be such a worthy, choice organisation. But I am also sure Klesmer would not consider what I do to be art. And it is hard for me to tell the world that all I want to do is express my innermost soul--so now, won't you just give me tens of millions of dollars and a crew of two hundred to do it?

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