While all the books I've talked about this week played an important part in shaping 20 year-old me into grown-up me, I'm finishing with one that I read a few years later than all of them, called A Voyage for Madmen. It's just as important as all the others, but for a different reason that sets it apart from the rest. They all helped expand my world, but this book helped me figure out who I was, and what was important to me.
In 1968, nine men entered a contest to sail around the world, alone, without stopping. The contest was sponsored by The Sunday Times, and the rules were pretty simple: leave from London between June and October, sail around the three great capes, and don't put into port until you get back. The first man to return to London won a trophy, and the sailor with the fastest time won £5000.
On one level, the story is an incredible adventure about nine men who took on a task that must have seemed almost impossible. Remember, there were no GPS devices in 1968, and no satellite navigation of any kind. They had to rely on charts, barometers, limited radio, and their wits to survive. Only one of them actually completed the race.
The book was exciting, but it spoke to me on an entirely different level than just adventure. If you've read Just A Geek, you know of my struggles with Prove to Everyone, my struggles to support my family, and my struggles to just figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life. I heavily identified with the insurmountable odds the sailors in this story faced, but none more than this man called Donald Crowhurst, whose story was so tragic you couldn't make it up.
Donald Crowhurst had experienced some small success with an electronics business, but as he got older, it was harder and harder for him to remain successful, or even relevant. This resonated with me like you wouldn't believe when I was around 27 or 28. He entered the race, completely unprepared, because he hoped the publicity and cash prize would save his business. He didn't do it because it was meaningful to him. He didn't do it because it was something he couldn't live without. He didn't do it for the adventure, for the challenge, or for the love of the ocean. He did it because he felt like he had to do it, and that it was his last and only chance to have a life worth living. When it became clear that he couldn't do it, he sailed off course to the South Atlantic and started faking his position through radio reports. He eventually lost his mind, and committed suicide. He never saw his wife again. I was never suicidal, but I read Crowhurst's story as a cautionary tale that I could relate to very, very intimately. In fact, in 2002, I mentioned him when I wrote about what I thought was a career-ending decision to accept a forgettable infomercial gig in Just A Geek:
Accepting it would mean some security for me and my family. It was also a really cool computer-oriented product (which I'll get to later, don't worry). It's not like I would be hawking “The Ab-Master 5000” or “Miracle Stain Transmogrifier X!"
It would also mean, to me at least, the end of any chance I had of ever being a really major actor again. That elusive chance to do a film as good as, or better than, Stand By Me, or a TV series as widely-watched as TNG would finally fall away.
I thought of all these things, walking Ferris through my neighborhood.
It was a long walk.
I thought of Donald Crowhurst.
I thought about why actors – and by actors I mean working, struggling actors like myself, not Big Time Celebrities like I was 15 years ago – suffer the indignities of auditions and the whims of Hollywood.
I remembered something I said to a group of drama students just before their graduation, paraphrasing Patrick Stewart: “If you want to be a professional actor, you have to love the acting, the performing, the thrill of creating a character and giving it life. You have to love all of that more than you hate how unfair the industry is, more than the constant rejection – and it is constant – hurts. You must have a passion within you that makes it worthwhile to struggle for years while pretty boys and pretty girls take your parts away from you again and again and again."
I listened to my words, echoing off the linoleum floor of that high school auditorium and realized that those words, spoken long ago, were as much for me as they were for them.
I listened to my words and I realized: I don't have that passion any more. It simply isn't there.
I am no longer willing to miss a family vacation, or a birthday, or a recital, for an audition.
I am no longer willing to humiliate myself for some casting director who refuses to accept the fact that I'm pretty good with comedy.
I am no longer willing to ignore what I'm best at and what I love the most, because I've spent the bulk of my life trying to succeed at something else.
I walked back to my house, picked up the phone and accepted the offer.
It was tumultuous, scary, exhilarating, depressing, thrilling, joyful.
I would spend the next three weeks wondering if I'd made the right decision. I would question and doubt it over and over again.
Was it the right decision? I don't know.
Things have certainly changed for me, though. I have only had three auditions in the last three months. A year ago that would have killed me, but I'm really not bothered by it now.
I've made my family my top priority and decided to focus on what I love: downloading porn.
I've decided to focus on what I really love, what is fulfilling, maybe even what I am meant to do, in the great cosmic sense: I am writing.
Since I wrote that, I've grown up even more, and realized that I could be an actor and a writer, but my resolve to put my family ahead of everything, instead of putting Make It As An Actor No Matter What ahead of everything remains. (And, as it turns out, I enjoy this writing thing, which is kind of nice.)
There's another man in the story, named Bernard Moitessier. He was a famous French sailor, who seemed poised to win the race, when he decided to just ... keep on sailing. His was a spiritual and philosophical journey, driven by the love of the journey. It was inspiring and reassuring to me. Following his story, and reading his book The Long Way helped me remember that if we're entirely focused on the destination, we rarely enjoy the journey. It took me a few years, but once I was able to let go of my destination (Proving to Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn't A Mistake) I was able to enjoy my journey: my wife, my kids, my writing, my family, my life. And you know what ended up happening? I didn't get lots of acting work, but I got the right kind of acting work. Whether it was VO or on-camera, it was stuff that was fun, that was challenging, and that was entirely worth my time.
Every book I've talked about this week changed my life, and though I didn't expect any of them would when I started reading them, none was more surprising than this one.
Now, I don't want anyone to get me wrong. You don't need to be in your mid-twenties, struggling like crazy to support your wife and kids while you watch your once-promising acting career continue to slip away to get something meaningful out of this book; it works very well as an adventure story about some truly unique men who did something most of us will never do. There are truly heroic feats in this tale, and it's an easy and thoroughly enjoyable read.
But if you've ever wanted to test your wits against the world, or if you've ever struggled against the tide, I think you'll be glad you took A Voyage for Madmen.