I didn’t submit a panel idea to South by Southwest. I didn’t submit myself as a speaker for the international women’s conference a friend urged me to.
I haven’t entered a contest or sweepstakes in I-don’t-know-how long, haven’t asked to be included in a gathering I knew would be fun but that I hadn’t been invited to, and the last guy I liked who asked for my number had to pry it out of me.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point over the last year or so I went from being someone who chased after things to someone who went after her own thing. And yes, there is a difference.
Take Yaddo, for example. It’s an artists’ community in New York State that houses writers and poets and, well, artists in retreat, providing them with a beautiful, distraction-free setting in which to focus on a piece of work. One applies, and one is either accepted or not. I have decided to apply, because I really, really like the idea of me in a beautiful, distraction-free setting, finishing one of the three books I started writing this year1. Or take Jennifer, although you can’t, because her delightful husband already has her, heart and soul, who introduced me to the idea of Yaddo, and that it was a perfectly reasonable thing for me to apply to. (She wrote most of her book in residence there.) I met Jennifer because I wrote a review of her excellent memoir, and got to know her because, after a bit of correspondence, I asked if she might want to start up a little writers’ group here in L.A., and she said “Yes.”
See, it’s not like I don’t go after things. I’m going after Yaddo; I went after Jennifer (in, you know, the friendliest and most well-meaning of ways). And if Yaddo turns me down, I may go after a slot again, later on, if I really want it. What I’m realizing is that in the past, there were too many times when I chased stuff because I thought that catching it would get me something or somewhere. That it would mean I had made it, maybe, where “it” is the cool kids’ club or a USDA-prime stamp on my ass or some other shortcut to the other side of some mythical, self-imagined velvet rope.
Much like Gertrude Stein’s genius summing-up of the perils of grabbing at the evanescent, however, on the few occasions when I managed to chase down my trophy and nab it, I came up empty. The thing I had desired wasn’t there, and the desire I had going in just vanished without a trace.
If pressed to define the difference I see between chasing a thing and going after a thing, I’d say this: a chase ends up being about the chase, and less about the fox at the end of it; going after something is putting one foot in front of the other and moving towards what you want. Deliberately, thoughtfully making choices, and perhaps delaying gratification elsewhere, so that you can get to the Next Right Place you need to be. Although I guess you could just as easily go after a refrigerator or a dream house or even a fox, if you had decided that what you really wanted was a teeny, tiny stole. But you would want that refrigerator or that house or that tiny stole because you really wanted it, you’d really thought it through, and figured out how it would make your life that much better, and it was worth losing that much life to go after it, and not just because you wanted to fill an empty place in your soul with a high-end icebox or rub your neighbor’s nose in your teeny, tiny fox stole.
Is submitting a talk show idea to Oprah always chasing? No. Absolutely not. I’m sure there were lots of people who were motivated as much by the idea of making a submission video as they were winning the golden ticket. When I entered a similar kind of contest a few years back, a huge part of the “why” for me was that I came up with an idea for a video I thought would be hilarious and great fun to assemble, not because I particularly lusted after the idea of being chosen from on high (no pun intended) by the great gods of the cut-rate airline to travel in their metal tubes and document what I found along the way. I mean, it would have been fine, but the winning, I was ambivalent about; the making of the video I had to go after.
But I spent a lot of years as an actor, watching a lot of actors chase after stuff that wasn’t there. As I said in a recent interview, you need to be about the acting, and the day-to-day work of being about the acting; if you’re going after gold statuettes and the love of a million random strangers in the dark, you’re going to come up with nothing even if you get your wish.
So yes, chasing vs. going after is a little like the old destination vs. journey standoff. And it’s also about living for other people vs. living for yourself, living the life you really, truly want, every possible minute that you can. It’s probably also a bit about all that good sovereignty stuff that Hiro Boga talks about.
The easiest way for me to think about it, though, is wanting what you want enough to do something about it, but really wanting what you want.
As the song says, more I cannot wish you…
1Yes, three. And you heard it here third, I already let the cat out of the bag with Havi’s Kitchen Table people and Pace & Kyeli’s World-Changing Writing Workshop. There will be more on these three massive mothers as I move forward, including how you can participate in one of them, but in the meantime, if you want to get on a notification list, sign up here, and leave a note in the comments field to that effect.