The Magic Fish

themagicfishWhen I was a kid, one of the children’s books in our home library was The Magic Fish. It was one of those generous, wide children’s volumes with illustrations by a true artist. When I opened it up above my head in bed, the world of the fisherman and his wife took up the entire panorama of my vision, and for a few minutes before drifting off I was in their salt-licked world of craggy rocks and poor man’s stew. I can still close my eyes and see the rounded slump of the fisherman, and the magic fish’s gaze, growing more and more agitated as the pages flipped.

The story revolves around an old, penniless fisherman, who one day snags a giant fish. In that repetitive, sing-song voice of a child’s story, the fish begs for his life and reveals his true identity as a prince. The fisherman kindly lets him live, but when he gets home his shrew of a wife gets all pissed off and demands that he go back and ask the magic fish to grant a wish. “Tell him I wish for a pretty house,” she orders, and the old man trudges out the door, net slung behind him, will broken. The magic fish grants her wish and they are suddenly living in a very lovely cottage by the sea. The kind of place you dream about renting for a weekend with geraniums in the windows and “Life’s a Beach!” signs and fake life preservers above the fireplace, just so you can be alone with the sea and write! But we all know you’d find a way to hook into their wi-fi and Tweet about shit you find on the shore and Instagrammed sunsets for two days before coming home without another word added to your story. Anyhow. The wife is stoked for a week or two, but then she decides she’s too good for the little cottage, and hassles her husband into dredging up the magic fish again and asking for a big Tudor estate. And so it goes, with the magic fish getting more and more put-out by the greed of these people, until the fisherman’s asking for the biggest castle in the world. The sea begins churning, the sky darkens, and the magic fish calls the old man on his bullshit. He takes back everything, and casts them back into the shanty from whence you came.

The moral to my 9-year-old self? Be happy for what you have instead of constantly clawing for more.

Twenty years later, this lesson is still a challenge. I’m always wanting another pair of shoes, a longer vacation, a slightly bigger salary. But nowhere in my life do I feel more like the old man and his wife than in my writing life. I find myself in a chronic state of under-validation and lust for the next achievement, even as I slowly move ahead.

When I began the MFA program at Pacific University, my first writing goal was If I can get a story published in a literary journal, I’ll be happy. In the middle of the program, I received my first acceptance. I jumped all over my backyard, screaming and crying as if I’d just been booked on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I called my friends and relatives, opened my best bottle of wine, felt as though I made it.

For a week. Maybe.

And then I began to carve and parcel my pride. It wasn’t a famous journal. It was small, and embarking on its first issue. I amended my goal. If I can get something published in something bigger, I’ll be happy. And then, about a year later, I did. A popular publication with a famous editor, read by strangers and commented on. I gorged on this feedback and felt accomplished, successful, as if I’d arrived.

For a weekend. Maybe.

Then I started looking at all of the writers I was following on Facebook and Twitter—the ones with incredible books and thousands of readers, these people who were my role models and inspirations. My favorite writers. They read journals and magazines, and often posted their favorites. If my favorite writer read something I wrote and post it, I’d die happy, I thought. 

A few weeks ago, my favorite writer did just that. This piece I crafted from my humble keyboard met her eyes, and she was gracious enough to share her approval with her legions of other fans. The torrent of comments and feedback was overwhelming; much more than I’ve received for any words I’ve written. Having her feedback would have been enough, but her additional support was better than anything I could hope for.

But then. I remembered. I don’t have a book out yet. And agents aren’t writing me back. And what about getting into Tin House? And what about being on an AWP panel? And I still don’t have any kind of award to speak of. And The Rumpus and I are on double-digit rejections. And… and…

…And then I remembered that sour-looking old woman scowling from behind the adorable geranium cottage’s window, her eyes scanning the sea to gut out the magic fish for all he was worth. The person I was just a few years ago, I’m certain, would have strangled fluffy puppies to have the humble achievements I’ve earned. Here I am, unable to feel satisfied in the moment of a hard-fought writer win for longer than it takes to tell another person about it. I stack it against the windfall of rejections and feel out of balance. I look at the other working writers around me and start comparing myself.

Writers at all levels have to fight for their successes, big and small. If I can’t learn to live in the moment for longer than an hour or two, if I keep berating myself for not being ten miles further down the path, I’m in for a life of misery. It’s time to remember that the cottage is a pretty sweet place to be. Hell, even the shanty wasn’t so bad. At least I was doing what I loved, and discovering that I could live this writing life in reality. The castle on the bluff will always be there, perhaps to dwell in. Perhaps I never will. But an existence working in-between and enjoying success for when and how it reveals itself sounds much more appealing than hating myself for the whole trek.

So rest easy, magic fish. I’m putting away my net for now. It’s time for cocktails, and an ounce of joy.