The cover story in the Washington Post Magazine today detailed the suicide of Dennis Williams, pen name Katry Rain, an American expatriate and writer who spent the majority of his adult life in Japan. Williams emailed his suicide note to a handful of journalists hours before he jumped off the roof of his hotel in Minato-ku. (He didn’t fly.)
Why did he end his own life? Because he’d committed to paper—or at least to virtual paper—everything he had to say, and no one really cared. In other words, he had not achieved the popular success and recognition he so desperately craved.
Egocentric? Sure. Pitiful? Yeah. But each of us is the hero of his own story. How do we cope when the hero that is us seems to have failed? Would anyone want to read, let alone live, a book whose main character misses every encounter with destiny, then limps off into the sunset whimpering, “I never got a fair break.”
I’m a wannabe. It’s true. I wallow in petty fantasies of the day when something I’ve written goes viral, and all those agents and publishers who deleted my hard-slogged words with a single keystroke start ringing my phone off the hook. I imagine clucking my tongue with poorly feigned regret as I sigh, “I’m sorry, this just isn’t what I’m looking for right now.” Then I hang up and cackle like Vincent Price on a meth binge.
But it may never happen. Let’s be honest: it probably won’t ever happen. So… what, then?
I wonder about Dennis Williams.
Having lived and traveled abroad, I’ve found that expats generally come in two easily identifiable varieties: those who thrive socially and intellectually enough in their country of origin to successfully field the challenges and rewards of life in a foreign culture, and those who… don’t. The former group is comprised of explorers, visionaries, sociologists. The latter is peopled with the discontented, the disaffected, the dysfunctional. (If you’re an expat and you’re not sure to which genus you belong, ask around. If you can’t find any first-language speakers from your own country to query, that may point you to your answer.)
I’m sure I belonged to the first group. I’m cultured. Personable. Sensitive and savvy. (I think.)
Yet I’ve been working on this writer-thing for over two decades now. And I’m not getting terribly closer to any traditional version of success.
Maybe I’m Dennis Williams, too.
The truth is we can’t all be rock stars. I’m not sure we even want to be. Because, frankly, how many wildly successful (e.g., rich, famous, A-list) people do we find to be anything other than needy, neurotic narcissists?
A quick perusal of magazines at the grocery checkout suggests that emotionally, physically, and psychologically healthy mega-stars are plainly the exception rather than the rule. Surrounded by handlers and publicists and hangers-on whose livelihood depends on that celebrity’s ceaseless and ever-escalating performance, actors and singers and athletes get fed a steady diet of pure, organic twaddle about their awesomeness, brilliance, and value to society.
Sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t like to get those kinds of strokes?
Except that’s all they are: strokes. Imagine the fear of failure, of revealing yourself to be less than they say you are. Consider the need to perform, provide, and put out more and better and higher and faster.
Miley Cyrus and her famous twerk.
Lance Armstrong and his syringes.
Amy Winehouse and the rehab she probably ought to have gone for after all.
My parents are in their seventies, and sometimes I hear the questions they’re mulling: what have I achieved? did my life count for anything? could I, should I, would I have done differently if I could go back? Don’t we all look at those questions sometimes, especially as the years stack up and mortality appears on the horizon like a dark, infinite wall we can neither see around nor get past?
I went to the Bible for an answer. Even if you’re not a religious fanatic, or a Jesus freak, or even a marginally spiritual person, Proverbs alone is a pretty spectacular trove of practical pointers. Yeah, the Bible’s usually got some pretty good advice.
Except maybe this time.
“There is nothing new under the sun. Everything is meaningless… a chasing after the wind.”
(Maybe Ecclesiastes was the wrong place to look for a motivational speech.)
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Human pursuit is meaningless?
We are but a vapor?
Holy crap. I want to jump off the roof of a hotel.
A few weeks ago I got an email that felt like a punch to the gut. (I’ve never actually been punched in the gut, but I imagine this is what it feels like.) An agent who picked up one of my book proposals at a conference gave me three wonderful compliments and one abysmal prediction. The good stuff first: I have a great voice, my story is compelling, it might have gone far.
Uh-huh, you read that right: “might have”.
The downer? Because I’ve published some of my work online and it hasn’t flung the literary world into a feeding frenzy, I will never be traditionally published. How did the agent phrase it? “No traditional publishing house will ever look at you.”
Wow. And ouch. And a day or two of tears.
I’ll never receive in the mail a box of MY books, fresh off the press from my publisher. I’ll never be feted with a launch party. I’ll never be considered for a major book award.
Thus saith the agent, anyhow.
But you know what? I’m the one who gets to decide what this means to me. What this does to me. What this says about the value of my life and the course of my dreams.
I can still write. Because I love it, and because I have stories to tell. And there’s no better time in history to be an unknown wannabe writer than now; everybody and his mother’s half-cousin-once-removed has a blog and a book on Kindle.
In fact, I could even be the next E. L. James!
Okay, that was a joke. Considering that one day we will each have to stand up and give an account for our every word, I’d rather muck pit-latrines in a third-world prison than be on the business end of that interview:
GOD: So, tell me what you did with the writing talents I gave you.
The end of all being is the glory of God. That’s essentially how Ecclesiastes sums up the matter. It’s incredibly, titanically, ridiculously dissatisfying to the natural, earth-bound person. Which is, I think, what ultimately sends people to the roofs of their hotels. Because if life is all about you, and your accolades, and your possessions, and your legacy, most of us are and will remain insignificant, unknown, and valueless entities in a world that can’t even forget us because it never knew us in the first place.
But what if?
What if you were created? Given a purpose, and the talents to fulfill that purpose? What if you will never know on this earth the magnitude of what your smallest decision, made in alignment with that Creator and his purpose, means to the universe? What if the ripple you made in your tiny pond reverberates through coming generations and changes the course of history?
Yet here, and now, you’re nobody. You’re just doing the next thing and living the calling of your life to the best of your ability?
I don’t think you’ll end up on a hotel roof.
And neither will I.
(Your email address will never be sold or shared.)