One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
"I could have been a contender." Neruda wanted the Nobel Prize. Mother Teresa wanted to be canonized. Simba wanted to be the next Lion King. What do you want?
Red Hen poet Brendan Constantine told his father the actor Michael Constantine that he wasn't going to be an actor. "I'm going to be a poet when I grow up," he said. Michael shook his head. "You can't have it both ways, son," he said. That's a good point. Many writers want what they cannot have. They want the one ring; they want to step into the spotlight. "Money should flow toward the writer," they say. But there is no money in the world of poetry and literary fiction. It isn't as though bankers and lawyers are collecting the money that bursts like a fountain out of the mountain side. There is no fountain. The world of poetry and independent publishing is like Southern California in the drought.
You are the flow. You are the river of ideas and imagination, and if that isn't enough for you, if what you really want is money, fame and recognition, you're in the wrong business my friend. The problem is that some people do get all that: Anyone who wins the MacArthur genius award, anyone with a Guggenheim and/or a good tenure track job at a four year university, anyone who is at the stage where they get enough offers for speaking fees that they could live off that, all those people have found the golden key, the one ring to bring them all. Why not you? You could have been a contender.
My friend Nicelle Davis, a Red Hen poet in her early thirties jokes about her future as a famous poet. I want to tell her that's an oxymoron, but she has such fun with the idea that I hesitate to burst her bubble. Who knows? Patricia Lockwood is famous as is Matthea Harvey, Brenda Shaugnessy, Tracy K. Smith, Claudia Rankine. But not famous like Angelina Jolie, Hilary Clinton or Jane Goodall. Poets are famous like sparrows are famous. To really get some attention as a bird, you want to be an eagle, an osprey, an egret, an owl or even an ostrich. It's hard to be a famous sparrow. But maybe Nicelle will do it. She has feathers, so she's on her way, and she's young.
Somewhere after forty, doubt often sets in. I end up in these conversations with a long line of doubting Thomases who aren't sure they will ever make it. What do they have to do to get attention, to make a splash? If someone could just give them the ring. It would have the opposite effect of Tolkien's ring, the opposite but the same. Their work would make them live forever, and they would no longer be invisible. It's a seductive combination. One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. Why the darkness? Because the magic that makes you both visible and immortal is mysterious. It happens in darkness. You don't know why this poet or that writer was able to step out of the shadows and become renowned. When you have your first baby, you realize that childbirth happens behind swinging white doors. It's a mystery. You don't know what to expect until you're in it.
I've found myself on numerous occasions at drinks with a person who's between the age of forty-five and fifty-five and wants me to unlock the door to the magical success that eludes them. They're afraid that becoming a famous poet may not be possible if they wait much longer or a famous anything for that matter. So they sit me down and ask my advice.
But they don't warn me first, and I wish they would. I am in the business of learning publicity, development and editing. Often I've had the good fortune to take someone to lunch and pick their brain on one of these subjects, but I ask first. "Can I take you to lunch?" I say, "and pick your brain on publicity, fund raising, editing, etc?" There's this great scene in Point of No Return when Bridget Fonda gets out of the training wing and she's having dinner at a fancy restaurant with Gabriel Byrne. She's so excited that he wants to have dinner with her, and then he hands her the gun and she realizes she's there to do a job. That's me at dinner with writers when I think we're there to be friends and I think we're going to talk about what we're writing or what books we're reading and I realize we're not. I'm there to do a job. I pull out my map of Mordor, and I start highlighting the route to the finding of the one ring.
I live for love and game. My husband and I are writers first. We both are always working on a big book. But we're also inside a big story, a story of adventure, challenge, drama, change, wild. The story of raising four kids in the Amazon jungle of Los Angeles while I was getting a PhD and we were starting and running an independent literary press and we were both living out a great love as I jumped off cliffs and ran into the ocean and he made the wheels turn and the clocks wind up and wind down.
Who are your heroes? I always wanted to be Madame Curie, Florence Nightingale or Clara Schumann. Sadly I wasn't gifted in science, music or math, but having missed those gifts, I'm enjoying language and the imagination. You can change your heroes. You can change your dreams. George Macdonald has two children, Fern and Mossy, search for the Golden Key.
Those British writers liked things that glittered. I loved that story as a child, I was more about Macdonald than Tolkien because our cult didn't allow Tolkien. We were a George Macdonald/C.S. Lewis kind of cult. I wanted to escape into Narnia which is the world of the imagination.
If you feel you need the one ring and you want my help in locating it, warn me first. Just say "We're going to talk about me and how I can get what I want." I'm not going to dinner, but I can get through a drink as long as I'm warned first what we're up to. I don't want to be thinking it's a party and then be handed a gun and have my mark pointed out. Bridget Fonda's character did the job but she never trusted Gabriel Byrne's character again.
I'm not searching for the ring myself, because I am the ring. I have ferns growing in my yard, I have challenges that I cannot leap across. Life is never boring. I have love and the ability to create and I that is the ring of power; what more could I possibly want? Sure, some applause would be fun. Being financially successful would be a blast, and in the future, all that is going to happen. But right now I am flying over the mountains and I'm pretty sure this is the highest a sparrow has ever flown. I had the ring of power, but I dropped it in the fires. I did not need it any more. Call me Frodo.