10/05/2014 10:48 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2014

Halfway (Or So)

This week the New York Times talked about distinguished writers banding together in protest against Amazon. Listed were names of some men and women who could inarguably be called distinguished. Omitted, I noticed, were names of any writers who are pretty distinguished or semi-distinguished or, please!, not distinguished. They may (quite likely do) have as strong a desire as any others to engage in that protest. But they remain unmentioned and unnamed.

If you're not up on that top deck among the distinguished, there's a thorny question for you as a writer -- into which category do you fit? Royalty statements will remove any doubt that it's in the top. What, if in a moment of dire honesty, you suspect that you're a member of that bottom group? If so, there might surge the question of whether to persist in the endeavor, or simply abandon it. Reaching the top rung is unlikely.

Suppose we leave writing for a minute, and consider the world of architecture. Should a young architect heed the stern assessment of a boss who says that he'll never ever be as famous or distinguished as Frank Lloyd Wriight? Maybe, the boss warns, the young man might -- might -- eek out designing a building for the back lot of a warehouse in South Pasadena, but become another Wright, no. Try cooking.

That leads you to ask what's wrong with cooking or, for that matter, a building on the back lot of a warehouse? Wouldn't it be fine to design a handsome annex to that warehouse, or become a good chef? Neither one is achieved without effort. Even should a building of his design rival the Guggenheim Museum, the young architect might not be universally praised. Not everyone appreciates a fine building. But the chances increase if he cooks a wonderful pot roast. Everyone I know likes to eat.

I am one who believes that there's merit in being satisfied halfway up the rungs on that ladder. This, I confess, may stem from my climbing that far at most in a late-day writing life. But, hey. Look and you find a plethora of situations where half rules: half-marathons, half[-pikes, half-gallons, bottles that are half full (not even requiring that the bottom be totally full). There's the opposite side of the coin, too: half-hearted, half-broke, half ass. I've been characterized as someone who always half-smiles.

There's a place for short of greatly distinguished, with no need for regret. You can cross the ocean on the Queen Mary on deck 6, halfway up to deck 12, and have a very good time. I've met people feeling happy and unenvious on deck 6. I bet there are some up on deck 12 who suspect that the deck 6ers are having more fun. There may be "distinguished" writers who harbor the concern that some on a lower rung are really greater than they,.

A writer, surely distinguished, such as A.A. Milne wrote a poem in "When We Were Very Young" in praise of halfway. It's called "Halfway Down":
"Halfway down the stairs/is a stair/Where I sit.
There isn't any/Other stair/Quite like/it.
I'm not at the bottom/I'm not at the top:
So this is the stair/Where/I always/stop."

Maybe the world hasn't caught up with the guy halfway on the stair. There are a lot, and need to be part of a protest, too.


Stanley Ely writes about different kinds of achievement in his new book, "Life Up Close," in paperback and ebook.