American Splendor

One benefit of being empty nested for a couple of days is that last night my wife and I actually sat down and watched a movie all the way through without interruption. Well, there were two interruptions – the phone rang a couple of times. But that’s a record for us.

The movie we watched was American Splendor, an oddball biography of oddball writer Harvey Pekar, who scripts a comic book called, um, American Splendor.

I think I liked American Splendor maybe more than it deserved (for one, the speech about the telephone book is worth the price of a rental alone). It’s a quirky film, interspersing actor Paul Giamatti with the real Harvey Pekar (who narrates the film). At one point actual footage of Pekar from his David Letterman appearances is interspersed with shots of Giamatti the actor. Splendor is also self-aware of itself as a movie. At several points it even tells you that it’s a movie. Quite odd.

My capsule review of the film as a WriterFlick is here, but I think American Splendor deserves more of a look because it reinforced something my wife has been telling me for years about my writing career (or what I would typically say at this point, “My own lack of a writing career.”).

See, I have set the bar really high for myself. Maybe that’s a good thing. It makes me work, gives me something to aspire to. But it can also be a detriment, especially when I look at what I’ve done up to this point and see that I have such a great way to go.

When the Black Dog comes and reminds me that I’m not where I want to be, my wife has to remind me – “Look at all you’ve done that most people never do with publishing books and getting foreign editions. Look at the interesting places you’ve been and the people you’ve met. You’ve had a great career so far.” And I grumble and say “Yeah,” mainly because I’m looking for sympathy, not a cheerleader.

Well, here’s Harvey Pekar, writer of one of the most critically acclaimed comic books of our time – and up until recently he still had his dead-end day job as a file clerk in Cleveland. He didn’t make much from his American Splendor comic, and in some circles he’s known as much for his other writing – mainly, his reviews of jazz music – than his “art.” And yes, for a while he was a regular on the David Letterman show (I don’t care for Letterman at all but for the sake of argument will say, “How cool is that?”), but he still lives in a dingy, cluttered apartment and apparently doesn’t own a car.

And if you check out the five-minute “Road To Splendor” featurette in the DVD’s extras, you’ll see that Pekar and his family got to go to the Sundance Film Festival, to Cannes, to a couple of big-city premieres of the film, and the country’s biggest comic book convention. Cool stuff, all that.

Would I say that Pekar is a success? Absolutely.

Is he where he wanted to end up? I don’t know. He accomplished his goal of writing a comic book that was unlike anything else on the market at the time and became a revered figure in the comics world. He also turned his compulsive obsession with jazz records into something that has given him respect in other circles as well. So for someone as irascible as Pekar, perhaps that’s the limit of his expectations.

What about me? My goal with writing novels is to make a decent middle class living, and (obviously) I’m not there yet. But my wife is right, I have had a pretty good run so far. I should appreciate all those odd foreign language editions I’ve accumulated and those two trips to NYC I made and the stories I have of talking with James Cromwell on the telephone. I should cherish some of these things while I keep plugging away toward my goal. Things like this, after all, are the foundation I’m standing on – and there’ll be lots more moments that build up like bricks under my feet before I get to where I want to be, no doubt.

Now… what about you? Beating yourself up because you’re not there yet? Or are you still diligently working toward the goal, while filling your mental trophy case full of your accomplishments so you can look back and see how far you’ve come?

I’ll guarantee you one thing – one of those choices is more fun. I know. I’m still learning that myself.

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