I walked into the cinema for Florence Foster Jenkins one evening, without any expectations. I was there purely for a movie; an evening of entertainment, to unwind and get things off my mind.
Little did I realise how wrong I was. My mind was far from getting rid of the one thing that preoccupied me regularly. I left the cinema thinking more intently of the craft of writing. In fact, I walked out of the theatre that day, believing that I had seen a Florence Foster Jenkins, the world’s worst opera singer, in every writer.
Florence Foster Jenkins is best known for her vocals, a recognition any singer would have desired. Except, the soprano’s performance at the Carnegie Hall in 1944 was described as being awful from the beginning to the end. While most of her audience doubled over from laughing, some of her most loyal and sensitive friends tried as best as they could to save her from the embarrassment. Such was the reaction of her performance back then, and it was mirrored in the cinema that I was in – the entire hall was reverberating with laughter from Florence Foster Jenkins’ (Meryl Streep) performance.
I laughed, in fact I laughed very hard. I laughed at a woman, an ailing 76 year-old woman at that, who mistook her screaming and shrilling as a mark of vocal talent. There was no doubt that I was amused. I supposed that would have served the purpose for my wanting catch a movie that evening. Well, not quite.
There is no doubt that Florence Foster Jenkins is a reflection of every writer; from the unpublished one who plods on silently, to the award-winning and widely-acclaimed writer who basks in glory. Jenkins’ desire was to be recognised for the one thing that she was passionate about.
To be successful, in the pursuit of music, is ambiguous. The same applies to writing – or for that matter, any form of art. We practise, we dive deep and lose ourselves unreservedly, all for the desire of perfecting the craft. However, quite unlike any other profession, the success of an artist (musicians, writers or painters alike), to my mind, is something quite intangible.
While an athlete, for example, could measure her success by the number of medals won – gold, silver and bronze, how do writers measure success? Do we base our success by the number of books sold? Should our sense of accomplishment comes from winning one of the many writing prizes? Are the rejected writers from the slush pile all losers, then? Well, whether Elizabeth Gaskell is a good writer or not remains a much debatable topic to this day. That certainly says a lot about how successful a writer could be.
When all the tickets to her performance at the Carnegie Hall were sold out, that perhaps, was an accomplishment for Jenkins. People wanted to hear her voice. Her happiness however, was short-lived. She received the most scathing reviews from the following morning’s newspapers. Jenkins, who was being lifted to the height of great pride for a moment, was plunged deep into the abyss of devastation and failure.
The story of Jenkins, therefore, seems very much like any writer’s. The fate of our long and hard pursuit is very much dependent on a second party’s opinion. At times, we feel that we have finally honed our skills, just like how Jenkins felt that she sounded right in her head. Her art, whether or not it is an object of beauty, is influenced by another person’s taste. It gives a sense of vulnerability: to offer a piece of us, something which we cherish endearingly, to someone else to be judged.
Jenkins’ accomplishment, to my mind, takes on a different form that is much more pure and divine. She possessed one superior quality, which every dream pursuer should have.
Jenkins took delight in her art; you could feel her love in it. It was undeniably distinct. “You can feel her,” said Meryl Streep during an interview for her role as Jenkins. Listen to the soprano’s singing, and no one will miss the conviction and bravado in her voice. Florence Foster Jenkins believed in herself. Eventually, she did what every artist should hope to do – to remain true to one’s dreams. And because of her belief, Jenkins ultimately achieved what every artist desires – she touched people by her unrelenting love of the art. That, indeed, is what every artists could aspire to accomplish.