I love stars, the kind you find in the sky, but I’m not as enamored with those on the ground.
There was a time when celebrity impressed me, primarily because the stars possessed things for which I could only wish. To be a high school quarterback all the girls loved, for instance. To be a famous writer like Stephen King. To date a glittery Hollywood actress and join the fairy tale I assumed was her life.
Celebrity worship, after all, is at least partially driven by envy, is it not? When you pore over the pages of Us Weekly, when you read about stars who are Just like us!, are you not in some way wishing to be one of them? When you make your daily trek to TMZ.com, do you not feel a rush of vindication to see the latest fall from grace, do you not feel a small and secret pleasure to see a star brought down from the sky? Because now they’re a little more like you, aren’t they?
But when you have the chance to meet a bona fide celebrity, if you get to know one, you’re able to see beyond the fiction of their lives created by the press, by the public, by you. A real person lives somewhere behind the façade, and to know this real person can have a demystifying effect on the artificial one. This effect may extend to other celebrities, to all of them, and lessen your envy or eliminate it altogether.
You can, however, want to understand a person’s greatness even when you care little about the person himself. I would like to understand how Albert Einstein made insights that other talented physicists did not. I would like to have lived in Jonathan Franzen’s mind during the white heat of his work on The Corrections, or examine the thoughts of Tiger Woods as he summoned the nerve to hit one miraculous shot after another on the way to 14 major golf championships and 73 total professional victories.
I’ve long been fascinated with greatness. What separates the very good from the great? Is it genetic luck? Upbringing? A lot of work? All three?
I want to be great. I want to write a novel that garners rave reviews from both the literary and pop culture communities, the quintessential Great American Novel. I can only assume that most fiction writers who contribute to this site want the same. But in spite of the rich talent amassed here at TNB, it’s unlikely any of us will ever reach such a goal, if for no other reason than the sheer improbability of such a feat. True, transcendental greatness is necessarily rare. It’s the barometer by which we compare all other efforts.
But is greatness really worth it?
I recently read Hank Haney’s Tiger Woods expose, The Big Miss. In many ways I wish I hadn’t read it, because in doing so I felt as though I was contributing to America’s unhealthy obsession with celebrity. And for the most part, the book is exactly what I imagined it to be: a couple hundred pages of Haney’s defense as coach of the world’s best golfer. He desperately wants you to know he didn’t break Tiger’s golf swing, that in fact he put it back together after it began to fall apart in 2002. He wants you to know the most famous athlete in the world didn’t trust most people around him, even those in his “inner circle.” And he also wants you to know that being a world-renowned prodigy is difficult, because in many ways you feel suffocated by the expectations created by your greatness.
Yeah, no shit, Sherlock.
Of course, Haney is smart enough to know that golf’s appeal has its limits, so he felt compelled to include a little dirt as well. About Tiger’s sex addiction, his relationship with his wife and other famous athletes, about his obsession with Navy SEAL training. But above all Haney wants you to know he did EVERYTHING HE COULD HELP THE BEST GOLFER OF ALL TIME AND FOR GOD’S SAKE DIDN’T FUCK UP HIS SWING!
If I took anything from The Big Miss, it’s that Tiger Woods seems to be a man very similar to what I would have imagined: a famous introvert, a kid who grew up as a nerd, perhaps with a chip on his shoulder, and has been proving himself to the world ever since. I have long assumed as much about Tiger, because my own life has followed a somewhat similar path. Having lived through a long period of painful teenage nerdiness, I spent much of my 20s refashioning my body, building self-confidence, and being obsessively dedicated to my chosen craft.
But where our paths diverge is that Tiger is a genius and I am not. I reached a goal few writers will ever achieve—to earn a lucrative fiction contract with a major publisher—but in golf terms, that’s the equivalent of simply earning the right to play professional golf, to say nothing of actually winning an event, or coming close to Tiger’s amazing record.
Is that disappointing? I would be a liar if I said it wasn’t. But the nice thing about writing fiction is that you can, and almost always do, improve as you gain more experience. The same can’t be said for sports, even golf. I likely have many years to chase the elusive dream.
And what if I never get there, or even part of the way there? Does that mean life is a failure? A waste?
I used to think so. There was a time when I believed nothing short of financial success as a novelist would fulfill me as a human being. But to define life this way is far too narrow. Happiness and fulfillment can take many forms, and perhaps the most rewarding lives are those buoyed by deep and complex relationships. And by understanding your true nature.
It’s possible that tempering my obsession with writing a famous novel will preclude me from ever doing so. But it won’t rob me of my love for writing.
In any case, as much as I respect his golf greatness, I wouldn’t trade places with Tiger Woods.
And especially not Hank Haney, who wrote a book about a fallen star: himself.