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Good Letters

20110509-something-that-im-supposed-to-be-part-2-by-jeffrey-overstreetIn my last post I remembered how The Muppet Movie begins. Kermit the Frog leaves the swamp to follow his dream.

As American dreams go, Kermit’s is unselfish. He hopes for singing, dancing, creativity, laughter in order to bring people happiness.

He welcomes a parade of colorful, kindred spirits: A bear who fancies himself a comedian. A pig who believes she’s glamorous. A Gonzo (whatever that is) who thinks he’s indestructible. And more.

Pursued by villainous businessmen who want to exploit Kermit’s talent, the Muppets hurry past all-American distractions like amusement parks and beauty pageants.

One evening, on a long stretch of highway, their station wagon overheats. And that’s that…or it seems to be. They’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, unable to help themselves.

As they kindle a campfire, the flames of Kermit’s confidence turn to ashes. He wanders into the dark.

Was he a fool to follow rainbows in search of a promised land? Has he brought these dreamers into the wilderness for nothing?

Decades ago, “The Rainbow Connection” was my theme song as I filled pages with stories that I hoped to share with the world. But today, Kermit’s sense of despair resonates as well. I fear all my hard work will fade quickly away and be forgotten. Family members, teachers, mentors, and friends who invested in my dream will be disappointed.

At church, an acquaintance quips, “It must be so exciting to have become what you wanted to be.”

Is this what I wanted to be? Was this the dream?

You can try to stir the writer’s life and the self-marketer’s life together, but they’re oil and water. Publishers sent me a guide detailing what “successful” authors do: Build websites about themselves. Create their own fan clubs on Facebook. Pursue their own endorsements. Volunteer to blog on “influential” websites. Organize readings, book-signings, and giveaways.

Following instructions, I feel I’m standing on a street corner wearing a sandwich board with my picture on it and shouting, “I’m awesome! Go tell everyone I’m awesome!”

Later, coughing dust across blank pages, I fail to find any sparks of inspiration. Do I even want to try again? How can anyone find inspiration in the midst of so much striving and pressure? I careen between embarrassment and an egomaniacal fever that comes from self-promotion. On a good day, I read nice notes from readers. On a bad day, I feel like a fraud.

Kermit walks into the darkness, torn in two. One side laments his failures. The other reminds him that this was never about achieving success. It was about inspiration: a rainbow that inspired a song. Opportunity was not obtained—it knocked unexpectedly because it found him singing, and he reached out to grab it.

My opportunity knocked thirty years into my writing endeavors. Like Bernie the Agent in his canoe, it came out of nowhere, without any smart strategizing on my part. After a magazine published one of my film reviews (I practically gave it away), a flight attendant read it. She asked to meet me for lunch to discuss my writing. I showed her a piece of fiction. She encouraged me, and we parted ways.

What happened next—well, remember when Kermit entered the office of Hollywood’s emperor (played by Orson Welles)? Remember how he was offered a contract, inexplicably, no strings attached? Ludicrous, right?

But the morning after I met the flight attendant, my telephone rang. It was her good friend—the head of a division at Random House—calling out of curiosity. Later, he’d find me three book contracts within a two-week span.

Remembering this, I feel amazed and unworthy. I know writers who have labored for decades, making all the right moves—but there I was with a golden ticket that fell from the sky. I remain embarrassed by this grace, and burdened with a sense of responsibility.

Since The Muppet Movie foretold my journey’s unlikely beginnings, I’m revisiting it now, fast-forwarding to the chapter where Kermit and I break down on the road and wonder if we have what it takes for success.

That state of unhurried, unselfconscious imagination I once knew—it’s as blurry as a fading Polaroid of my childhood home. I’m nervous that if I go looking for the place, I’ll find it’s gone. But I miss the days when happiness meant a pencil and an empty notebook.

There’s an old Sufi saying: “New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity. Therefore, O Man, increase your necessity, so that you may increase your perception.”

Maybe the Muppets’ vehicular breakdown was necessary. They needed the darkness. As their eyes adjusted, they’d recover their vision beneath the stars, and remember what the heavens declare.

There, in the quiet night, Kermit hears that familiar voice whispering what he is supposed to be.

There, Kermit’s friend Gonzo star-gazes and sighs, “You could get lost in a sky like that.” He wishes for a bundle of helium balloons to lift him up. And he sings,

Sun rises, night falls,
Sometimes the sky calls.
Is that a song there?
And do I belong there?
I’ve never been there,
But I know the way…
I’m going to go back there someday.

Comparison, competition, ambition…the thieves of joy tear our attention away from inspiration. But when I raise my eyes to beauty, I know the way home.

In a dog-eared Muppet Movie storybook, Kermit confronts his enemy with words that aren’t in the film: “Did you ever see a rainbow, Doc? You can’t buy it, or kidnap it, or put it in a cage, or have it stuffed, because it’s there for everybody and nobody can own it.” Kermit has regained the proper posture at last. His eyes are on the source of his inspiration. He’s ready to catch and reflect light.

Perhaps it’s time for a road trip.

Would you be willing to loan me an untrustworthy station wagon?

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet has been recognized for his writing on cinema in The New Yorker, Time, The Seattle Times, and Image, and spent an award-winning decade as film reviewer for Christianity Today. Overstreet writes fiction, memoir, reviews, and arts journalism. He is an international public speaker and teacher of creative writing, film studies, and cultural engagement for people of faith, including a term as Writer-in-Residence at Covenant College in Georgia. Random House’s WaterBrook Press has published four of his novels including Auralia’s Colors. Through a Screen Darkly, his “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” is available from Baker Books. He lives in Seattle with his wife, the poet Anne M. Doe Overstreet, and serves as contributing editor to Response magazine at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), where he works as a Communications Specialist. He is currently writing two novels, a book about film, and is enrolled in SPU’s MFA in Creative Writing program. He blogs at Looking Closer.

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