For New Year's Eve this year, my family went to a local theatre for a magic act and post-midnight cabaret set. It's this little theatre in this nothing town in the corner of a shopping center. The house was less than half full (mostly with senior citizens).
The magic act was pretty good. But the cabaret was outstanding. Three of the female singers were hold-your-breath level. (You know, where they do something so vocally stunning that you forget to breathe for a few seconds. Does that just happen to me?)
My husband is a wedding band musician and I've been around the wedding band industry for much of my life, so I can't tell you how many times I've heard the song "At Last." I still love it, but I had no idea I could still be mesmerized by it until I heard this spiky frosted-haired woman do the most nuanced vocal gymnastics in this little theatre.
And every one of them with the genuine smiles of people who you darn well know love what they're doing. You can just see when someone is at home on the stage. And I was torn between screaming, "WHAT ARE THESE PEOPLE DOING IN OAKDALE?" and "HOORAY! THESE PEOPLE ARE IN OAKDALE!"
Thing about community theatre is that it can really blow your mind. You figure that Broadway and the recording industry have the best talent the country can offer, and then you see this, and you wonder what in the world is going on. Is it that these singers never bothered trying to go beyond community theatre? Are they just happy where they are, keeping performing as a hobby and not a full-time career? Did they try to go further and fail? Did they hate city life?
And I'm reminded of my time on Zoetrope.com, the humbling crash to reality I got as a neophyte screenwriter. I had my head so full of praise from college professors that I assumed my screenplays were much better than most of what was floating around slush piles... until I got to Zoetrope and realized how distinctly unspecial I was. There were scads of really good screenwriters there! People who had written scripts I wished I'd written. People who had been trying to break into the industry, to no avail, yet had scripts that I thought were easily better than most of the current studio releases. (Don't get me wrong-- there was plenty of garbage there, too, but a lot more great material than I expected.)
I think the book world is a bit better that way. Mostly, the unpublished writers who I've thought are really talented wind up getting published eventually. (Though not always. Luckily, none of them have kicked the bucket yet, so there's still time.)
It isn't a crapshoot. But there remains an element of luck involved, and timing, and perseverance. Sometimes I wonder how many writers gave up one query letter too soon. Or how many hold-your-breath writers there might be hiding out in Oakdale.