American Splendor

I wrote this piece in 2003 – before this crazy thing called “blogs” took off. I revisit it now after watching the Golden Globes on Saturday where Paul Giamatti won for lead actor in Barney’s Version (now queued up on Netflix for us). Also, now that I live in Cleveland, I know much more about Harvey Pekar and his impact on the city and the arts.

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My favorite movie of 2003, and maybe of all time, is American Splendor. This small gem of a movie is about a man named Harvey Pekar who wrote the comic book series American Splendor. I’d never heard of the guy or the comic books, but I went to see the movie because it looked interesting and different.

During the movie, I was transfixed and afterward, speechless, which for me is saying something. Not only did the moviemakers tell this man’s story in a completely inventive and compelling way – it was one of the most realistic portraits of an artist I’ve ever seen.

What I liked most about the movie was that Harvey Pekar, though he found a modicum of fame, money and success through his art, never changed. He had a few small epiphanies along the way, in the elliptical way movies sum up a whole life. But at the end, as he readily admits, he was still wildly cranky, he and his wife fought like ‘cats and dogs,’ and he still had the same crappy low-level file clerk job he had for years.

To me, this portrait of an artist was a revelation.

Most renderings of writers and painters portray them transformed by money, success and fame into happily-ever-after or in a spiral of self-destruction. In the movie and book world, an artist is either a brilliant but starving artist, a misunderstood genius or a tenured academic. American Splendor showed that an artist can hold a regular, non-artistic job and still be an artist.

For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t the only one. That there wasn’t something wrong with me for not wanting to be a writing teacher, not toughing it out on unemployment, not looking for a job in publishing or journalism.

Since I began Goddard’s MFA program in 1999, I’ve had six jobs – only a few that included any writing. And that suits me just fine. Before that I had worked my way into a successful public relations career – but at that point I was ready to commit to my writing, and had to give up that career, and my ego that was tied to it.

Quitting the safe, corporate world meant I had to let go of a lot of things including my concern with job titles, salaries and whether I sat in a cubicle or an office.

Since the moment I began Goddard, my ego has become tied to my writing. Not so much about publishing, though that’s certainly part of it, but more about improving my craft, and more importantly, practicing it.  I am very good at my day job – and I happen to really enjoy the one I have right now – but it’s just a job. It’s what pays the bills.

My career, my life, my passion, is writing, whether I ever make a dime from it. Not that I really want to have the same crappy low-level job forty years from now, like Harvey, but as long as I have the time and energy to write, I don’t really care what I do to pay the bills.

I’m not saying that it isn’t painful to me sometimes to think about how much money I could be making if I was back on the career track, but for me, this kind of compartmentalization works best.

When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a writer. When they ask how I pay my bills, I tell them I have a day job.  As I learned at Goddard, I’m a writer because I write.

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