Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Fame: The Good, The Bad, The Character-Builder

I want to talk a little about celebrity - various types of it, in all its color and excitement and vulgarity. I find it a fascinating phenomenon. I want to talk about it because I have now - at this point in my rather advanced years (okay I'm not that old - but old enough to have seen more of life than most others I meet have) - begun to notice the different faces of it, and how it changes the one experiencing it, as well as fans. I often wonder if, as it changes an artist, it also changes the art he or she produces.

Years ago, I was married (yes, imagine!) to a sort of local celebrity. My ex was a professional photographer - nationally recognized. Although photographers aren't generally recognized on sight, at the local level they are known. He had done some TV interviews and granted some magazine profiles (one of which was my first big publication) - and so his face was recognizable around the area we lived in. Back then, I was astounded at the way fans felt it their right to intrude upon his personal life. They would interrupt us during a private dinner out. They once stopped me in a mall to blab about how they knew what I was getting for Christmas (having run into him earlier as he made a purchase). They asked him questions about his personal life - including questions about me and our marriage (he was a foreign national, and they found it fascinating I guess that he married an American and stayed in the U.S.). Although we have been divorced for years now, I have never forgotten the sense of entitlement these fans had.

This I know:  Fame is never what those who never experience it think it is.  It is never secure. It is often not comfortable. It brings stressors one could never have foreseen. When it was never really sought out for its own sake - the holder of it just stumbled into it while practicing his or her art - it is often bewildering and overwhelming. We go through life assuming we understand the basic ground rules. Such as that a perfect stranger will never ask you what you like to do in bed, that strangers will not intervene in your love life, that people you don't know will not offer up unsolicited advice on the most personal choices you make. But when fame comes - those rules with which one is so familiar are often broken.

Perhaps I experienced fame in my last life! Oddly, I have never had the same feelings as I see fans have: I honestly never "fan-girled". Something in me instantly tells me that a person puts their underwear on just like I do, engages in good and bad judgment, just like I do, performs bodily functions, experiences highs and lows of life much like I do.  By some unique circumstance, some of us end up living in the public eye, most don't. I always considered it an accident of chance - more than some privilege given to specific magical beings.  Conversely, when Life grants you the chance to live in the public eye, it isn't because you deserve it - a special life full of privilege. Rather, it's because through a combination of luck, work, and life choices, you have somehow landed in that position. With it comes responsibility - to treat your profession with respect, to remain grateful for any adulation that comes your way, to deal with others kindly.  These things I believe.

My work has brought me into contact with many others who wrestle with varying degrees of fame on a daily basis.  Some never forget to be grateful. Others - especially the very young - seem to take it for granted that they deserve the worship, and even use it to further selfish purposes.  It pains me to see someone with celebrity mistreat a fan.  And it pains me to see celebrity friends attempt to deal with fans who lack common sense about personal boundaries: I am often in awe of the patience displayed by some very young people in the face of jarring comments.

In the world of writing, I have observed some of the same behaviors from some fans. I have mixed feelings. Many a fan has brightened my day with some note, some word of encouragement: I find myself continuously at a loss for the words that would express my sincere gratitude to these people that they took time to read my words and then took time to speak to me about it. But also, I have fans ask about things such as my sexual preferences: while a part of me understands their curiosity, given the subject matter I write about, another part of me wants to protect myself from too much scrutiny from strangers. Recently a fan thought it appropriate to engage in some obscene comments toward me, which he assumed I would find funny. I didn't. I found it as disrespectful and ominous as any woman would from a male she didn't know well. Do I sacrifice the right to these feelings because my books contain some of what could be termed erotica?  I have to maintain that I don't.

The casual way some toss out criticisms of my personal beliefs (those they find reflected in my writings) leaves me breathless - as if by putting my view of the world on paper, I have given permission for boundless judgment. I know, as I tell myself to breathe and count to ten, that these same people would never think to say the same things to someone whom they know in "real life".  And truly, most of them are simply incapable of understanding what it's like to be the recipient of this judging of one's most personal experiences of the world: they mean no real harm.  The behavior is born of ignorance and lack of depth, not of malice. Usually.

I have watched other writers - those who have been in the public light much longer than I have - develop a sort of protective layer: they lose the spontaneous friendly approach to fans they may once have had, they pull back a little, close down a little. Inevitably the self-protection is interpreted as conceit. How does this change the way they write? Does it? Will my own prose lose some spontaneity?  Will I - however subconsciously - begin to censor my writing, protecting myself from future fan assumptions about my life or belief system?  Worse, will it creep into the far corners of my subconscious and start to change me in my everyday life? I hope not.  I want to live bravely. And yet . . . I am as human as the next person.  The whole point of the type of prose I write is to suggest an alternative point of view, or to challenge a common belief: this is what makes writing fun for me. Without that . . . will I lose my fire?

And so the challenge becomes to rise above. I have resolved to remain grateful for every person who notices my books, or my online presence, and makes me a part of their world of entertainment, whether good or bad. It is a character-builder, to be sure.  But maybe that's the price: the price of having your work recognized is that you must sacrifice some right to dignity. Perhaps. Still . . . I am an idealist: I wish that in the end, we could all just be seen as people, not icons. We all put on our pants one leg at a time. We all are just trying to get through this life as best we can, day to day, with some degree of dignity.