Today’s offering is a guest post from Louise Marley, an award-winning author of historical fiction as well as science fiction and fantasy. Her musings on the writing life and the reach for stardom are generous and profound. Enjoy!
“There’s never a level playing field,” says Sting, in the brilliant documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom. You can skip this little essay and go straight to your television to watch that film if you like. It speaks for itself. As a metaphor for the show-biz aspects of writing, or indeed of any artistic endeavor, it has no equal. And it comes accompanied by spectacular music.
The documentary traces the lives and careers of back-up singers, those gifted and hardworking artists who stand twenty feet from the “star” and whose names hardly anyone outside the industry knows. Some of them made substantial, long-lasting careers. Some even had glimpses of stardom. Others, through no lack of talent or discipline or effort, remained—and remain—obscure. The great Merry Clayton made a life in music, and won the respect of everyone who worked with her, but she’s hardly a household name. Darlene Love tried a solo career, was betrayed and marginalized, and only succeeded after she had been in the business for more than twenty years. The incomparable, mesmerizing Lisa Fischer is the most perplexing. Hers is a voice of enormous range and beauty, and she possesses an enviable musicality, but again, hers is not a name the man on the street could call to mind.
Stephen King is a very, very famous writer, and he has legitimately earned his stripes. Even his nonfiction memoir is a compelling read. He also seems to be a thoroughly nice man, and a generous one. To my knowledge, no one resents his success, but is he that much better than all the other writers in his genre? Or does he possess that elusive and indefinable something that makes him a “star”?
Perhaps he does, like the artists Clayton and Love and Fischer backed up on stage and on recordings. King himself has said, with admirable modesty, that no one has control over being a great writer. There is a certain magic to success of the highest, or perhaps simply the most visible, order. There is also magic in catching the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, which is either circumstantial or accidental. There’s no formula for stardom.
One of the takeaways from the interviews with these amazing women, and also with stars like Sting, and Bruce Springsteen, and Mick Jagger, is that the work is the reward. Merry Clayton talks about the spirit in the music. Lisa Fischer says that the music is what her life is about. No doubt none of these singers ever made the kind of money, or garnered the same attention, as the stars they worked with, but there is no sense, in their thoughts about their careers, of having failed because of that. They speak of having spent their lives doing what they wanted to do, and I would guess, if asked, they would admit that many an aspiring singer would be thrilled to stand twenty feet from Bruce Springsteen in front of thousands of fans.
The idiosyncratic view from my own little corner of the universe is that most writers have more in common with Clayton and Fischer and Love than they do with Stephen King. King is a star. A superstar, even. Most of us would find it difficult to get within twenty feet of him, metaphorically speaking. But if we’re allowed to write stories, and if we are blessed with publishers and readers, we’re achieving something many yearn for but never attain. We’re not standing twenty feet from the Boss, but we see our work on bookshelves and in libraries, and that is an achievement to be celebrated.
Watch the film. Rock out a little. Smile at the nostalgia! And I hope, if you’re a singer, a writer, a dancer, or whatever, you’ll see the joy in the work, even if it seems the glory falls on someone else.
Louise Marley writes science fiction and fantasy, and is the author, under the pseudonym Cate Campbell, of the historical series BENEDICT HALL, set in 1920s Seattle. Her websites are www.louisemarley.com and www.catecampbell.net.