We went out to see the movie "Birdman" last night, it is an incredible movie, wonderfully acted and written and technically dazzling. It is the best movie I've seen in a long time, getting amazingly good and well-deserved reviews. It made me laugh and cry and I suppose one reason for that is the theme: our hero, played by Keaton, is a mostly forgotten former superhero looking for a comeback, he puts everything he owns into a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carter book of stories: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."
Keaton plays the aging Riggon Thompson, and while I rooted for him every second to pull off his play and his comeback, I should say that he is not a very nice man much of the time, although there is a sweetness buried down in there. If the movie has one single theme, it might be relevance, and this is an issue I identify with strongly, it is also a theme of my life.
I am aging also, and while I was never anything close to being a movie star or superhero, I also used to get driven around in limousines and taken to lavish lunches by my publishers and editors (it is unusual to even speak to them anymore.) I have struggled with relevance in my own life (I am, as you know, organizing my own book tour this year, my publisher didn't come to the party). I have felt the frustration, even rage, that Thompson (who once was "Birdman") feels and worked just as hard to be relevant and successful.
It was interesting to consider relevance after seeing this film. I started the blog to be relevant, published e-books to be relevant, started taking photos to be relevant, have 21,000 likes on Facebook to be relevant. I don't really know if I am still relevant or not, but I want to be and am always working on my transition from being an almost automatic New York Times Bestseller (five times) to an author working hard to get to a small third printing.
Being a relevant movie star in late-middle-age is a lot tougher than being a relevant writer, I think. The character Keaton plays is called "asshole" by almost everyone in his life – his daughter, ex-wife, lover, best friend. He has been unfaithful, dishonest and insensitive, even cruel. But he has never really addressed the nature of his life, or the many problems and troubles he brings to it.
It made me think quite a bit about my different decisions. I realized five or six years ago that I had no real life outside of my work, and I saw that the recession and the collapse of traditional publishing models would definitely affect my relevance. So I decided to get help and change my life, and face up to the many problems I had had for many years, problems that also damaged and hurt other people.
Beyond that, I began to be older in a culture that does not much value age, beyond worrying about how much old people cost. I know a lot of older writers, and all of them struggle with relevance, it is a part of our culture.
I decided that if I were going to be less relevant I would at least have a life I loved to live, rather than one that required becoming a Valium addict in order to sleep and stay alive and in perpetual panic and delusional haze. And so it began to happen, I ended a 35-year-marriage, found Maria, gave up Valium and panic and began to understand the true nature of me. It was not pretty and not pleasant – the people in my love called me an asshole quite often also. But I am better and working at being better still. Nobody has called me a name in awhile.
Still, just as his Birdman-personal gets into his head (he hears voices) and follows him around, so my ego gets into my head and follows me. Will the next book be another big one? Will I be flown around in first-class seats and driven around in big cars? Will I be swamped with requests for TV and NPR interviews ever again? Or are those days gone for good? We will see.
I was successful in at least one thing: I love my life, am finding love, friendship and connection. Is there anything more valuable in the world than that? These things make the issue of relevance and money much less important. I kept wanting to urge the Keaton character to worry less about his career and more about his shattered personal life.
Still, I want to be relevant. My blog gets about four million visits a year, I am still writing and publishing books, and people are still buying them and liking them, people ask me to do photo shows. But there is not much TV, few interviews, there are no longer big royalty checks or limousines. Tomorrow, I head to the Wilton, Conn., library to speak on my own hook, there is a certain freedom and satisfaction in that. I knew my book was in trouble when my publisher passed along the invitation to speak at the library but informed me in a short e-mail that this time, no money had been budgeted for travel, food or gas. Have fun, they said.
I have a new publisher, they say they love book tours.
Okay, I think every time my ego quivers, time for grace and determination.
Being relevant is important to me, liking myself and my life is more important. Maybe I can have both. We'll see. I am working hard on it. Whether you are relevant or not, I highly recommend "Birdman."
One of the lessons of life is that we will all be irrelevant at one point or another in one way or another. My life with animals teaches me acceptance. If I can't change the nature of life, I can at least be gracious about it.