Every now and then, a story comes along that changes how we see the world. These are the stories that shape us, that define us. They help us navigate through life. And they are few and far between.
Such stories don’t operate in isolation. Their significance dances in tandem with our own life experiences. Much like one person’s trash is another’s treasure, one person’s mere entertainment is another’s shared epiphany. I’ve found the stories that flow swiftest into my psyche are the ones that merge with the deeply guttered experiences of my own life. Or even more so, the ones that slam against the dams I’ve erected, and topple them to pieces.
Pixar toppled my dam. The story is called Soul.
Soul is as bold, as beautiful, and as brilliant as any Pixar movie. I would expect nothing less from the studio that made me shed happy tears over reunited toys, closeted monsters, and anthropomorphized emotions. Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall•E… Soul finds itself in astonishing company. And while I would not consider it to be Pixar’s best feature ever, it has certainly affected me the most.
If you have yet to see the movie (currently playing on Disney+), and you are concerned about spoilers, this serves as your alert. Although I am not going to disclose its plot, I am going to disclose its theme. But before I even do that, I need to discuss its antithetical notion, a philosophy I’ve nurtured since the early ’90s, a lesson gleaned from Jack Palance in City Slickers that spawned the foundation of my dam by claiming a means to a happy life.
In Palance’s words, it is this: “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that, and the rest don’t mean shit.”
Can any of you identify with this? I think I’ve spent my whole life looking for that One Thing. And these past dozen years or so, I even thought I’d found it.
My One Thing became writing. I’ve written multiple novel-length manuscripts and short stories, read books on writing, attended writing conventions, fallen in with fellow writers, received feedback on writing, edited writing, submitted writing, self-published writing… Writing fiction at full-throttle is a lifestyle, to be sure, and it can monopolize one’s time and energy and aspirations. When combined with a full-time job, there is room for little else. Especially if one wishes to “succeed.”
At least, that’s the other lesson we’re fed, the counterpart to the One Thing concept, and, in fact, the part that puts the concept in jeopardy: Once you discover your One Thing, you must seek it obsessively. You must make sacrifices. You must dedicate your life to it. Only by making it your highest priority will you ever have a shot at attaining mastery and reaping its rewards.
And maybe that’s true if that’s your end goal. But then, if taken to such an extreme, is it still the key to happiness?
When I reflect on my own experiences, at least with regard to writing, the ratio of happiness to despair is weighted more heavily on the latter. So much so, I’ve considered submerging the dream entirely, many times over. Because in addition to the buoyant support from friends both familiar and newly-made is an ocean of rejection letters, discouraging feedback, negative reviews, and dream-squashers waiting to suck you beneath the tide. The water is treacherous and the lighthouses are on the remotest of islands, and those beacons of hope are often lost with the coming of the next inevitable storm.
The One Thing can lead to sadness if it becomes an unobtainable obsession.
Soul refers to the One Thing as the Spark, but its parallel is indisputable. The whole point of the movie is to turn this notion on its head. It proposes that finding the Spark is not about discovering what your life is about. Rather, finding the Spark is about learning how to live. In fact, it’s not even a matter of finding “the" Spark; it’s a matter of finding “a" spark. Because there are many.
Life surrounds us with sparks, with opportunities to connect, to wonder, to live. I think back on many of my decisions, and too many of them involve sacrifices for the sake of my One Thing. Too many experiences have proven discouraging to my sense of self and self-esteem. Too many of them have made me feel like a failure. To want to be an Author rather than a Writer, to want writing to become my day job, to want my books to be made into movies… Such concepts have, in truth, brought me a great deal of despair. There’s only a 1% chance of these things ever coming to pass. This means I’m 99% likely to fail.
Those writers I’ve met who seem happiest with life are the ones who have no such aspirations. Hobbyists and dabblers, or those who have learned to appreciate the myriad of sparks that comes their way. They enjoy writing for the sake of writing, among many other things, and thus, are happy in the glorious journey rather than fraught with anxiety over improbable destinations. And who knows? Maybe they’ll reach that destination, regardless. In fact, maybe they’re more likely to.
I’ll keep writing, of course. I enjoy the process. But to hell with the expectations. More than that, to hell with the sacrifices. I am letting go of my endgame. I'm sorry, Jack Palance, but all that other shit? I’m afraid it does matter.
It matters quite a bit.