By Caitlin Kelly
There’s another Alexander Chee in my mind, the one who I would be if I’d only had access to regular dental care throughout my career, down to the number of teeth in my mouth. I started inventing him on a visit to Canada in 2005 when I became unnerved by how healthy everyone looked there compared to the United States, and my sense of him grows every time I leave the country. I know I’ll have a shorter career for being American in this current age, and a shorter life also. And that is by my country’s design. It is the intention.
…Until recently, I struggled to get by, and yet I am in the top twenty percent of earners in my country. I am currently saving up for dental implants—money I could as easily use for a down payment on a house. But I’m not entirely sure I’ll see the end of a mortgage or that any of us will.
Only in America do we ask our writers to believe they don’t matter as a condition of writing. It is time to end this. Much of my time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or to do anything of significance. I was already tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword by the time I was studying writing.
And this is from a writer many others likely envy and admire.
A younger friend, who makes most of her income doing Spanish translation work, (and some journalism), posted the link on her Facebook page; almost every journalist I know today feels vulnerable, underpaid and disposable — just as Chee (who writes fiction) does.
It is deeply American to undervalue — even scorn — those who work as writers or creators of music, art, dance, theater, film, until or unless we become powerful, secure and wealthy, which (as many of us know well), may less reflect talent than acquiring useful connections and well-placed allies.
Some of the most professionally successful people I know are really good at
sucking up to working well with powerful people, (who have the money and authority to hand out good jobs, plum assignments, grants, fellowships and other funding).
Others have (also) had the emotional, physical, financial and mental stamina to just stay in their field long enough to survive, rise and thrive.
Many fall by the wayside, bitter, broke and envious.
But a larger cultural and political American context elides the realities of slower progress, aiding in the deception that only the most wealthy and highly visible artists and creatives are truly successful.
In a nation that only offers affordable healthcare to the indigent, employed and old, the rest of us are left vulnerable to medical bankruptcy. I lived in Canada, ages five to 30, so I know what it’s like to live as a self-employed writer and not worry constantly about the cost of healthcare. Unless an American has lived abroad, they have no idea.
Which affects many creatives and often curtails how much time and energy we can devote to creativity.
But what defines success?
an enormous salary
lots of money in the bank
having and wielding power
owning your home
a (fancy) job (and maybe several promotions)
surviving tours in the military
having a healthy/happy child(ren)
a happy relationship with your spouse/partner
achieving an athletic goal — completing a marathon or triathlon, climbing a mountain or setting a personal record
regaining (or losing) weight
acquiring formal education, gaining enough credentials to get and keep well-paid work
helping someone else achieve their dream(s) through your mentoring and volunteer efforts
If you’re ill, it can simply mean being able to get out of bed, stand upright and complete a lucid sentence.
Some people consider me a successful writer — which is flattering, but which I also tend to shrug off, having accomplished less than I’m capable of, and with peers who have published many more books, won the fellowships I’ve lost out on, etc.
But I do feel satisfied and successful in other ways: I own a home; have a lasting and happy (second) marriage; have deep and lasting friendships, to name a few. I am very grateful for good health and some savings.
Success can be an ever-receding horizon line, one that’s forever maddeningly elusive — or one more easily claimed and enjoyed
If we don’t allow ourselves to savor, enjoy and share our smaller “wins” we can end up frustrated and enraged, neither healthy nor attractive choices.
How do you measure and define success in your life?