The Manager Who Couldn’t Write
By Gary Sledge
What launched Amy Tan’s career was not a big break, but a kick in the butt.
Before the million-copy sales of The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife and The Hundred Secret Senses, Amy Tan was a writer. A business writer. She and a partner ran a technical-writing business with lawyer-like “billable hours.”
Her role with clients was largely that of account management — but this daughter of immigrants wanted to do something more creative with words, English words.
So she made her pitch to her partner: “I want to do more writing.” He declared her strength was doing estimates, going after contractors and collecting bills. “It was horrible stuff.” The very stuff Tan hated and knew she wasn’t really good at. But her partner insisted that writing was her weakest skill.
“I thought, I can believe him and just keep doing this or make my demands.” So she argued and stood up for her rights.
He would not give in.
Shocked, Tan said, “I quit.”
And he said: “You can’t quit. You’re fired!” And added, “You’ll never make a dime writing.”
Tan set out to prove him wrong, taking on as many assignments as she could. Sometimes she worked 90 hours a week as a freelance technical writer. Being on her own was tough. But not letting others limit her or define her talents made it worthwhile. And on her own, she felt free to try fiction. And so The Joy Luck Club, featuring the bright, lonely daughter of Chinese immigrants, was born. And the manager who couldn’t write became one of America’s bestselling, best-loved authors.
The Kid Always Chosen Last
By Lisa Miller Fields
Pudgy and shy, Ben Saunders was the last kid in his class picked for any sports team. “Football, hockey, tennis, cricket — anything with a round ball, I was useless,” he says now with a laugh. But back then he was the object of jokes and ridicule in school gym classes in England’s rural Devon County.
It was a mountain bike he received for his 15th birthday that changed him. At first the teen went biking alone in a nearby forest. Then he began to pedal along with a runner friend. Gradually, Saunders set his mind on building up his body, increasing his speed, strength and endurance. At age 18, he ran his first marathon.
The following year, he met John Ridgway, who became famous in the 1960s for rowing an open boat across the Atlantic Ocean. Saunders was hired as an instructor at Ridgway’s School of Adventure in Scotland, where he learned about the older man’s cold water exploits. Intrigued, Saunders read all he could about Arctic explorers and North Pole expeditions, then decided that this would be his future.
Treks to the Pole aren’t the usual holidays for British country boys, and those who didn’t dismiss his dream as fantasy probably doubted he had what it takes. “John Ridgway was one of the few people who didn’t say, ‘You’re completely nuts,’ ” Saunders says.
In 2001, after becoming a proficient skier, Saunders embarked on his first long-distance expedition toward the North Pole. It took incredible stamina. He suffered frostbite, had a close encounter with a polar bear and pushed his body to the limit, hauling his supply-laden sledge up and over jagged ice ridges.
Saunders has since become the youngest person to ski solo to the North Pole, and he’s skied more of the Arctic by himself than any other Briton. His old playmates would not believe the transformation.
This October, Saunders, 27, heads south to trek from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back, an 1,800-mile journey that has never been completed on skis.
Too Short to Dance
By Nancy Coveney
Couldn’t she smile? If only she were taller. They loved her kicking, but … Like thousands of other young women, Twyla Tharp came to New York City with big dreams. The self-described Indiana farm girl enrolled at Barnard College to get a degree in art history. But her real passion, her real obsession, was dance.
To meet the college’s phys ed requirement, she studied dance with the legendary Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. Soon she was fitting her schoolwork in between two or three dance classes a day. A dream was born. But dance is not exactly a surefire, lifelong profession.
When she graduated in the mid-1960s, she auditioned for commercials and tried out for roles — but she just didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. She lacked the technical skills to be a ballerina, and she discovered in a big audition that she was too short for the Rockettes. They “loved my kicking and 52 fouettés on pointe,” she wrote in her autobiography Push Comes to Shove, “but couldn’t I please smile?” And she also learned she was “too small in every direction to work as a Latin Quarter show girl, but I still tried.” And Tharp wondered, Will I ever be a dancer? Do I have any business dancing? The only way to find out, it seemed, was to form her own troupe and create her own style of dance.
For five long years, Tharp and her troupe practiced virtually every day in the basement of a Greenwich Village church. Sometimes the janitors had to “throw them out” on Sunday morning. They worked for little pay and almost no recognition. Constantly, Tharp asked herself, Do you want to do this, or don’t you?
Forty years later, after choreographing over 100 dances on Broadway and in movies like Hair and Ragtime, after winning the National Medal of the Arts in 2004, Tharp still asks herself that question. And the answer is — yes.
“You’re Studying Dirt”
By Fran Lostys
Dr. Judah Folkman keeps a reproduction of a 1903 New York Times article in his archives. In it two physics professors explain why airplanes could not possibly fly. The article appeared just three months before the Wright brothers split the air at Kitty Hawk.
In the early 1970s, Folkman proposed an idea in cancer research that did not fit what scientists “knew” to be true: that tumors did not generate new blood vessels to “feed” themselves and grow. He was convinced that they did. But colleagues kept telling him, “You’re studying dirt,” meaning his project was futile science.
Folkman disregarded the catcalls of the research community. For two decades, he met with disinterest or hostility as he pursued his work in angiogenesis, the study of the growth of new blood vessels. At one research convention, half the audience walked out. “He’s only a surgeon,” he heard someone say.
But he always believed that his work might help stop the growth of tumors, and might help find ways to grow blood vessels where they were needed — like around clogged arteries in the heart.
Folkman and his colleagues discovered the first angiogenesis inhibitors in the 1980s. Today more than 100,000 cancer patients are benefiting from the research he pioneered. His work is now recognized as being on the forefront in the fight to cure cancer.
“There is a fine line between persistence and obstinacy,” Folkman says. “I have come to realize the key is to choose a problem that is worth persistent effort.”
The Kid Stays in the Picture
By Fran Lostys
He was no scholar, and his classmates teased him. Rather than read, the kid really preferred running around with a 8 mm camera, shooting homemade movies of wrecks of his Lionel train set (which he showed to friends for a small fee).
In his sophomore year of high school, he dropped out. But when his parents persuaded him to return, he was mistakenly placed in a learning-disabled class. He lasted one month. Only when the family moved to another town did he land in a more suitable high school, where he eventually graduated.
After being denied entrance into a traditional filmmaking school, Steven Spielberg enrolled in English at California State College at Long Beach. Then in 1965, he recalls, in one of those serendipitous moments, his life took a complete turn. Visiting Universal Studios, he met Chuck Silvers, an executive in the editorial department. Silvers liked the kid who made 8 mm films and invited him back sometime to visit.
He appeared the next day. Without a job or security clearance, Spielberg (dressed in a dark suit and tie, carrying his father’s briefcase with nothing inside but “a sandwich and candy bars”) strode confidently up to the guard at the gate of Universal and gave him a casual wave. The guard waved back. He was in.
“For the entire summer,” Spielberg remembers, “I dressed in my suit and hung out with the directors and writers [including Silvers, who knew the kid wasn’t a studio employee, but winked at the deception]. I even found an office that wasn’t being used, and became a squatter. I bought some plastic tiles and put my name in the building directory: Steven Spielberg, Room 23C.”
It paid off for everyone. Ten years later, the 28-year-old Spielberg directed Jaws, which took in $470 million, then the highest-grossing movie of all time. Dozens of films and awards have followed because Steven Spielberg knew what his teachers didn’t — talent is in the eyes of the filmmaker.
Failing His Way to Success
By Janice Leary
Working in the control room of the salvage vessel Seaprobe at two o’clock one morning in 1977, Robert Ballard was jolted by a massive piece of equipment that crashed onto the deck just three feet above him. The ship shook with the force of an explosion. A drill pipe and its attached pod full of sonar and video gear had snapped and plunged into the Atlantic, abruptly ending the explorer’s test run to find the RMS Titanic.
“I lost a lot of credibility with sponsors, who had loaned the $600,000 worth of stuff” for the 1977 expedition. “It took me eight years to recover from that.” But recover he did, despite skepticism from other scientists, failed fund-raising efforts and other setbacks.
After the Seaprobe debacle, Ballard says, “I was back to square one. I had to come up with another way to search for the Titanic.”
He returned to active duty as a U.S. Navy officer assigned to intelligence work. At a time when the Cold War was still being waged, the marine geologist cut a deal with Navy officials. He would offer his expertise if they funded the development and testing of Argo, a camera-equipped underwater robot critical to the Titanic mission, and allowed him to use it for exploration.
The Navy sent Ballard and Argo on classified missions to survey Thresher and Scorpion, two nuclear submarines that sank during the 1960s. Those vessels lay in waters not far from the Titanic. After surveying the Scorpion in 1985, Ballard began looking for the doomed luxury liner. And two miles down, in the dark sea at 49° 56′ W, 41° 43′ N, he found it.
The oceanographer, who later found the German battleship Bismarck, the liner Lusitania, and other historic wrecks, has a simple philosophy. “Failure and success are bedfellows, so I’m ready to fail.”
Ballard’s current port is the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, where he has launched an archeological program. Students will join him on his latest quest — exploring ancient trade routes in the Black and Mediterranean seas.
By Joseph K. Vetter
“Angie, I know you like to sing,” her father, a practical autoworker, told Angela Brown, “but you gotta have something to fall back on.”
Brown took her father’s advice. She got a degree in secretarial science before enrolling in Oakwood College, in Huntsville, Alabama. Her aim was to become a singing evangelist. But then the opera bug bit.
So after graduation she headed to Indiana University to study with legendary soprano Virginia Zeani.
Once, when Brown was plagued by self-doubt, Zeani challenged her: “If you want to be the next Aretha Franklin, go, you need no more lessons,” Brown remembers her saying. “But if you want to be the best Verdian soprano this world has ever seen, you must work.”
Work she did. Three times she competed in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Three times she failed to make the final round in New York. Then, in 1997 at age 33, the age limit for sopranos to audition, she gave it one more try. She signed up at the last minute and didn’t even practice, figuring: “All they could do was tell me no, and that didn’t hurt my feelings anymore.” She had the strength she needed to fall back on if she failed.
She won. But making it to New York was just the beginning. Singers don’t spring into starring roles. It took her three more years to become a Met understudy. But waiting in the wings was fine with her. Finally, her time came. When the featured singer fell ill, Brown earned the chance to sing the lead role in Aida. And The New York Times proclaimed her debut a triumph. Angela Brown, soprano, who had prepared for 20 years, was an “overnight” sensation at age 40.