Thursday, August 03, 2006

ranting on Amy

In Little Women, there is a scene where Amy, after seeing the great works of Europe, decides to give up her ambitions as an artist. Why, Laurie asks, “with so much energy and talent?”

“… because talent isn't genius, and no amount of energy can make it so,” Amy responds, “ I want to be great, or nothing. I won't be a common-place dauber, so I don't intend to try any more.”

Alcott writes this in an approving tone; as if she is applauding Amy for having the maturity to give up on her dreams. Even as a child this bothered me. What was she trying to say? If you can’t achieve greatness, don’t even bother? That your efforts are merely wasted energy in the vortex of creative geniuses? That only the immature, vain and spoiled cling to their disparate talents?

I suppose this rankles a bit deeper in me now that I’ve become an author on the mid-list. Mid-list authors realize how elusive greatness is. Like the sky, no matter how high you climb, it is always above you.

Everyday I am humbled by the amazing works around me; and time and time again I’ve been forced to accept that there are achievements beyond my capabilities. But, still I refuse to accept that striving for it is childish hubris. Maybe it is true "that talent is not genius and no amount of energy will make it so"; but what is more noble than attempting to fulfill your potential? Is it better to waste the gifts you are given because you doubt what you can accomplish? Perhaps, greatness is not the power to awe others, but the satisfaction of excelling within your own limitations.

At one point, Amy thinks of Laurie, “If that's the way he's going to grow up, I wish he'd stay a boy.” I feel the same way about her.


Anna Alter said...

"Perhaps, greatness is not the power to awe others, but the satisfaction of excelling within your own limitations."

I think this point cannot be overstated, the poetry of fulfilling your own individual potential is meaningful and beautiful, even if it is not "genious."

I would just add that it seems to me like there are different facets of greatness: there are the born geniouses who can't help but express their greatness, as if it were breathing.

And then there are those of us who strive for it. And though we will probably never get to that level, there can be fleeting tones of greatness that grace your work once and awhile, a moment of genious reflected in your efforts, and that is enough to keep a person going.

Linda S. Wingerter said...
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Linda S. Wingerter said...

No one in the world
Ever gets what they want
And that is beautiful
Everybody dies
Frustrated and sad
And that is beautiful
They want what they're not
And I wish they would stop
Saying Deputy Dawg dog a ding dang depadepa
Deputy Dawg dog a ding dang depadepa

-They Might Be Giants

Erin said...

Wow, I never really thought of that. Thanks for posting it!

And the quote that Anna Alter posted was really great too.

Meghan McCarthy said...

I grapple with this topic on a daily basis! I always wonder if it's worth continuing when I may never achieve what I think is greatness. I create because I can... not always because I enjoy it or because I'm great at it. But of course if I don't always enjoy what I'm doing because I feel true happiness will only come with what I consider greatness. My other problem is that I am always raising the bar higher....

I was having a discussion with a friend of mine at a party a few nights ago. He and I moved to the city around the same time and both worked at Pearl Paint (a large art supply store) to survive until we "made it." He's a painter and has been trying to get his work into galleries. Finally he's had his own solo show and is achieving a level of success. We're both at about the same point in our lives right now. He said, "You know, I always thought that once I started selling my work I'd be so much happier. But I still live in the same place and I still work at Pearl. I go out to dinner a few more times a week and have some extra spending money, but othing has really changed." That's kind of how I feel, too.

I guess what I’m constantly searching for and haven’t yet found it is satisfaction. I don’t want loads of money or anything like that… but of course I want to live COMFORTABLY. And what I really want is for my books to be read and for people enjoy them. It’s soooo depressing to read the dismal royalty statements and know that most people AREN’T reading my books and probably haven’t ever come in contact with them. Perhaps when that changes I’ll feel that I’ve reached that level of greatness I’m searching for.

- meghan

Nancy said...

I don't think Alcott believed that you needed to be a genius to be engaged and successful in the profession. (Coincidentally I just posted about this exact topic yesterday, so I'm a little spooked to read your post.)

Alcott herself was all about the labor and the effort and writing as industry. She didn't view herself as a genius but she kept at it. I don't believe she "approved" of Amy's decision because it was antithetical to her own.

Nancy said...

PS: Just found this blog through Fuse #8 and loving it already!

Agyw said...

Grace I've told this story before, but it was a watershed. I have always had this struggle within myself and then the flip side with the INFERNAL EDITOR is "Hey, hon, ya can't win, so why try?!" But in those frustrating moments when I'm trying to create something clear and goodness knows I'm surrounded by people that just don't appreciate it, it's what I hang my hat on. After, is my personal philosophy, hard won that.

When I first started studying calligraphy, I was blessed with meeting some of the best in the business. I was not facile enough to lose interest, nor was it so hard that I couldn't lose myself in the beta waves of repetition it took to train my forms and hands. But the biggest and brightest, one of the people I salivated over his work was Ieuan Rees. Fabulous, oh-my stuff, do a Google.

Anyhow he came to the states when I was around nineteen and we immediately liked each other. He liked my energy, inquisitiveness (and probably bad perm as it looked much like his hair!). I loved his art, and then his humanness. Talking about moving to England as a young man, not speaking the language (he's Welsh), he was jealous that everyone else got the good jobs. He was also upset that first he wasn't paid for what he was worth, nor did it seem that his work was appreciated (boy, I find myself in that quandary from time to time, I tend toward the maudlin). It got to a point, he was completely at a standstill.

He came away with the FACT that no one will EVER love or appreciate what he did as much as he did. Nor should they; his work encompassed HIS passion. So he began to work in utter and complete disregard of others' expectations and worked to only satisfy himself. When he did his art took a major leap. To the point that he did the Investiture for Prince Charles when he became the Prince of Wales, and his work is permanently ensconsed in the Westminster Abbey.

The biggest breakthroughs for me in recent years has been when just letting the world pass on by and digging a bit deeper within me. It's awfully hard sometimes, but I've not been disappointed. I shall always wonder if I'm good enough, no matter the successes I might achieve. I just can't seem to come up to what it is inside my head. But I'm having a damned good time trying.

I'm working and may see something break in the next year. But you know, I don't even really need that anymore (though of course I'd embrace it). I know that I've been a ripple, and affected so many... I'd like to think that those that are better than I, some of my prodding may have helped them in the right direction, and those I didn't I did little or no harm to. Sometimes it's a thing that someone else gives us, that's essential for our growth. THEY might not have been great without it.

Your books touch children's lives, and in a positive way. You don't know where the ripple goes when you cast your pebbles.

And finally my philosophy when I've been hard pressed and that's most of the time, or fearful, and I can't remember a time I wasn't:

"We are fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance!"

Libby Koponen said...
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Libby Koponen said...

I both admired Amy's decision and was made uneasy by it. There have been times in my adult life when I wondered if I was deluding myself or asking too much of life to yearn to do something great and hope that I could. I still don't know if I ever will, but I NOW know I HAVE TO try, and keep trying....even if I am deluding myself, even if it never happens. For most of my life I didn't even try --but when I finally did, when for once in my life I tried my hardest at writing, it was an amazing feeling! I would describe it as a sense of solid satisfaction: no matter what happened, no one could take that away from me -- the feeling of completion that came from FINISHING Blow Out the Moon and knowing that I had tried my hardest the whole time. Of course it was gratifying when it was published and an astonishing feeling when after that, a reviewer showed that she GOT IT -- in the excitement of writing it, the fact that there were people at the other end who would understand what I was trying to say had never even really occurred to me! When Alvina read that first review out loud to me over the phone,I cried and Alvina I think you did too?

Of course, now it makes me really happy when other people get it (and sometimes more frustrated than I would like to admit when they don't: it's the not understanding that's more frustrating than the not liking!) -- but I can never again agree with Amy or doubt the worth of TRYING. Not to try, not to ever know what you COULD HAVE DONE or could still do -- that is a tragedy and a waste!

Luckily (for those of us who like the character Amy and I do!) in real life May didn't give up her artwork -- she kept at it until she died (very young, in childbirth: she wrote to her sisters beforehand saying not to be sad if she died, she had a year of perfect happiness and very few people can say that, she said). I saw a painting somewhere that she had done of her studio in Switzerland and it was quite charming. Maybe she never achieved success, let alone greatness--but she did keep trying.

Kelly said...

Actually, this is why I really dislike "Little Women" in general.

Amy's decision is similar to Jo's. Jo's professor (hate him) told her that her earlier writings were not worth anything, despite the fact they earned money and could have ensured an independent future for her. Instead, he told her to "write what she knows." Fine, we all know that advice. But, why shouldn't Jo be allowed to write anything she wanted to, even if it was sensationalist.

I really hate that Amy and Jo gave up their art for men. Hated it as at ten, hate it at 39.

That being said, I loved "Little Men."

Nancy said...

Kelly, I don't agree entirely. After all, the professor didn't tell Jo, "Don't write." As you point out he told her to write what she knows, which is pretty common advice to writers, even today. And in the end, she didn't stop writing. The direction he gave her pushed her towards writing better things -- more lucrative, even.

I don't mean to romanticize Little Women or some of its messages. But the message I took, as a young girl reading Jo's story, was one of independence and the ability to strike out on your own and create. Like many girls' stories of the time, the final "romantic" solution can only come about after the young woman has established herself as unique and successful in her own right. So I don't see that Jo gave up anything for a man.

I'm on the fence about Amy. Did she give up her art for a man? Did she give up her art because she was vain enough to want only perfection and greatness? Did she give up her art because it turned out not to be her life's dream after all? This is never made very clear, as far as I can see.

Perhaps Amy's action represented a part of Alcott's own psyche -- the part of her that would rather write only "great" things. But Alcott was incredibly practical and wrote to pay the bills, and to make her loved-ones comfortable, even if it meant writing things she didn't admire.