I Don’t Think I’m That Good

by Elizabeth King on October 26, 2011

Funny how stuff jumps out at you right when you need it…

This week I’ve been reading Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein, the biography of Pulitzer Prize winner Wendy Wasserstein. If you’re a follower of my Artist Series of interviews, I’m sure this comes as no surprise: I like to be all up in the metaphorical grills of incredible creators and artists and, since Ms. Wasserstein is no longer with us, this is as close as I can get for now.

Warning: this is not an essay on why it’s so wonderful that Wendy won the Pulitzer.

To catch you up to speed, Wendy grew up in New York. She went to Ethical Culture and graduated after a rather academically tumultuous experience at Mount Holyoke. She got into writing plays while at MHC, returned to New York, enrolled at City College’s inaugural creative writing program and studied with the Joseph Heller (the genius behind one of my favorite books, Catch-22).

Heller himself wrote her recommendation for her masters program at Yale, and she attended Yale while Christopher Durang, Sigourney Weaver, and none other than Meryl-freakin-Streep were there. Sounds incredible, right?

If this happened to me I’d have “J. Heller loves me” tattooed on my forehead, which is to say I can only imagine that when Joseph Heller writes your recommendation that you have a sense that you’re going in the right direction.

For Wendy, Yale was a disaster. The dean loathed her work–he went so far as to tell her it was a mistake to have admitted her. The major presentation of her work was miscast and bombed. She didn’t get one stinking award at graduation. In fact, according to Salamon, the dean didn’t even mention her existence when he wrote a memoir about his years at the school.

Shortly after graduation she wrote a girlfriend a note,

Here I am [at my mother’s], a graduate of Mount Holyoke, City College and Yale and considering a career in Frozen Yogurt.

She continues to kid, and then she says it:

Also, Ruthie, in truth I don’t think I’m that good, and I guess after these years of educational pursuits I’m far more critical. [p 137]

Oh, did that ever feel good to find! Here she was, thirteen years away from the most prestigious prize in play writing, and she thought she sucked! In fact, because she’d been so well educated, she kinda knew she did.

What a relief!

We never hear stories about how Thomas Edison felt like he was a lousy light bulb inventor. We just hear that he slogged on with a happy-shmappy smile through something like ten thousand iterations until he hit the light bulb jackpot. It’s so misleading! Who the hell can be that rah-rah all the time?

The beautiful thing here, though, is that even though Wendy thought she wasn’t very good, she stuck it out. She knew she had something and she kept slogging through. In truth I don't think I'm that good. Wendy Wasserstein

She didn’t exult in her failure. She hated it. Frankly, to read about it, it’s all very nauseating. She was not the Steve Jobs of the theater. She was someone who, albeit jokingly, thought, maybe I need to scrap this whole play thing and get into soft serve.

Since I’m not dead, I’m not interested in publicizing my own hemming and hawing and sense of inadequacies, but I will tell you that I’ve considered the ol’ frozen yogurt franchise more than once over the past few years. The great news is, I can think I’m not that good and still keep going.

Every day seems like one giant face palm lately, but I can still mutter, “See you from the prize podium in 2024.”

Maybe you’ll be up there with me?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan October 26, 2011 at 11:46 am

Great Post, There has been this meme going around the performing artists on Facebook about how when you start something most of what you make is not good. It takes years for it to be bearable, and years more to be actually good. I think too much is being put out there before it is actually ready, before it has gone through the crap stage.

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Elizabeth King October 26, 2011 at 11:51 am

Yes, yes, agreed. I have to remind myself (and I suppose I published it as a little reminder for all of us) that most everyone, even the greats, sucked for a while. Ira Glass has a great interview on Transom about the same thing, and he posted some of his early clips. They are hellacious!

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Clay Hebert November 4, 2011 at 11:55 pm

It’s a fine balance and you articulated it well.

But from kindergarten on, kids are taught “it’s not good enough.” too often. By the time they’re 10, most have learned not to ship.

No 3-year old had a bedroom closet full of finger paintings that she was too embarrassed to give her mom because they weren’t good enough.

Yet how many of us adults have a bunch of half-written draft blog posts and folders full of books we’ve started but not finished?

You nailed it in your post. Yes, even the greats sucked. But they put it out there anyway.

Steven Spielberg was an executive producer on Gremlins 2: The New Batch, but he also did Jaws, E.T, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Jurassic Park. He kept shipping.

Keep it up, E.

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Elizabeth King November 7, 2011 at 8:30 am

Thanks, Clay.

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chrisbean November 16, 2011 at 1:58 pm

this reminds me of that fantastic ira glass quote about taste: if you have any, your work will disappoint you. And that the only way to get past thinking you aren’t any good is to Do The Work: http://writerunderground.com/2011/04/28/ira-glass-on-creativity-or-the-gap-between-our-taste-and-our-work/

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