Renouncing My Claim to Fame
One day, not so very long ago, I stood up on stage and read my Hollywood Manifesto. An essay about my hope that I could still, just maybe, despite my advanced years, reach one or two of my goals as related to being in the movies and pursuing an artistic sort of a life. And I laid out my argument that as a mature adult, with a sense of humor and a low number on the crazy dial — though that’s admittedly a self-assessment — and some skills in various areas, might be a good choice for casting, maybe in a movie, be it teleplay or feature film. Though the manifesto didn’t cover writing, I’ve long clung to the idea that I could also be a writer, maybe of a movie, be it teleplay or feature film. I thought I was lucky, having not one but two areas for potential success. This wasn’t so very long ago time-wise, but it seems I’ve come quite a long journey. Because already I find…I am giving up. I give up.
Say you’re buying a house. And you decide early in the process that this house will absolutely need to be a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath colonial on at least half an acre of land on a in a rural community within reasonable driving distance of a decent sized city, at minimum, a tertiary market. And you begin your search, full of hope and sure that if you just keep looking, you’ll find everything you want within your price range. And then, as you go on, you realize that a two plus two ranch-style house with a decent yard would do just well, as long as it’s a quiet street or a cul-de-sac in a suburban setting. And then you go even further down the road, and you think, well? I could do with a busier thoroughfare, as long as it’s set back from the street and there is some defensive landscaping, and bottom line, has one bedroom AND a den. And so it goes, until you end up somehow sharing a condo that’s backed up to a highway, but it’s okay because they’ve just put in some absorbent acoustical material and anyway there are no windows on that side.
But you didn’t give up on your dreams. You just had to whittle them down to an almost unrecognizable nub. This is how I feel about my life right now. I can map out a steep and steady descent from what I thought was some sort of destiny to where I am right now.
We are told since we emerge from the womb that we can have what we want, and that all we have to do is believe, and that good things happen, and that karma is a reliable concept. In fact, almost every movie shores up these ideals. At least, the movies I watch do. My movie choices are skewed in this area. But in any case, I’ve been taught that you can have what you want if only you don’t give up your dreams, and that is patently untrue. It takes a whole lot of other stuff besides.
I’ve wanted to act since I was a very little girl, but that’s pretty much all I have for you. No stories about the classes and recitals, or the elaborate shows we’d put on for the neighbors. I didn’t do any of that. It was for whatever reason, my secret, though I felt rather strongly that it was my destiny, that it was meant to be. I identified with two areas where you’re supposed to self-proclaim. I am an actor. I am a writer. There was no proof of either of those things. But I felt them. And these feelings are requirements — I got that part right, at least.
My struggle to write started in eighth grade, with a Creative Writing elective. In what would become a lifelong pattern, I thought, “yes. That’s IT. THAT’s it.” I had no idea what I was doing but I knew I wanted to be good at it. And, in what would become a lifelong pattern, I learned that the class was actually for Creative Writers and not for people who wanted to be taught how to write creatively, or as in my case, wanted to know what that phrase even meant. I had no way of knowing going in. As early as Junior High, apparently, you can run into that wall: “Some things can’t be taught.” That’s what the so-called experts like to hear themselves say, but that doesn’t mean they won’t take your money for the class. Arriving fully-formed is an issue of mine, and I think it dates back to the C I got in that class, that damning C.
Because I think if we come at this from another angle, we can teach these things. What if we start with the idea that we are all creative people, and all of us can write or act or paint or whatever? Then the class becomes about teaching you that it’s true, revealing and discovering your particular talents, and building the confidence you need to want to pursue greatness. I get the artist argument, but what if you’re 12 and you don’t even have the vocabulary? Please. If I walk into Algebra 101, no one asks me first thing to find x. Whether I’m good at it we can’t know until later. Show me the bones.
I was looking for something I wasn’t going to get. I had to just know that I was this thing or that. With no real proof of anything. And it must work, because if you look around, there are plenty of people making a tidy living writing or acting and there’s no proof that they can do either. (Hey, I said I’d given up, not that I wasn’t still angry about it.)
A year after I got that C, bruised but not beaten, I confided in two friends my brand new plan to write the story of my life. Big words from a ninth-grader, and yes, absurd and funny. At least, they thought so. Oh, how they laughed. I don’t think either of them had ever heard anything so hilarious. When they were finished, we all wiped tears away. But this was instructive. Forget self-proclaiming, keep it to yourself. Which runs counter to the accepted philosophies about winning and getting what you want. You have to put it out there, they’ll say. You gotta believe.
Never mind that we were in ninth grade, or that it would take me 25 years to pick up a pen, or that writing the story of my life is, one essay at a time, exactly what I’m doing. None of that matters because I can’t make a living.
Gwyneth Paltrow recently made the news when asked about her growing number of haters. And she said she thought they were just jealous because it seems like she has everything. But, she said, she worked her ass off for everything she has. She thinks you can do anything you put your mind to. Because that’s exactly what happened to her. She doesn’t seem to credit the fact that she was born into Hollywood royalty. She may be talented and I don’t doubt she works very hard, but you see what I’m saying, right? That’s like a Lotto winner telling me I just didn’t want it enough.
The person who got cast in the big part may have given the best audition of her life, but because you gave the best audition of your life does not mean you’ll be cast. The best thing you ever wrote will not necessarily be published, though many first-time published authors will tell you it was their best thing ever — which of course they’re going to say, because it was published. Because you love someone with your whole heart doesn’t mean they will return those feelings. Each of these things seem like the key to the puzzle, but they are only one part. They are prerequisites, not guarantees.
I stood my ground for a long time. Because that’s how those people get what they want, right? Every winner will tell you that persistence is a major part of their success, so things get skewed for people like me. I figured all I needed to do is believe in the dream and not give up. But there are a million other things besides, external things over which we have very little control and internal things that seem to have way too much control. Also, I’m bred for compromise. I am not comfortable not knowing. Or not eating or not paying my rent, either. So yes, Successful Person, you stuck to it. Kudos. And of course it ends up at the top of your magical list of how you did it, but don’t forget that the rest is alchemy. I get that you have to play in order to win. But there are lots of us who play our hearts out (or train like crazy on the chance the coach will put us in) and still lose.
I’m not saying you should stop trying, but just don’t turn around once you get there and betray the rest of us, Gwyneth. Don’t slap our shiny, hopeful faces.
Like that dream house, I have whittled down my list. I gave up on any sort of success and fortune as it relates to writing and acting, and my list now consists of writing freelance web content from my crappy rental house in North Hollywood. And it’s become pretty clear I’m not going to get that either.
Maybe I can add those other things back in one day. But I’ll never be able to say “I never gave up hope.” Because I give up. (Unless you mean hoping that someone will someday hand me a cool acting gig, or a stack of cash. In that sense, no, I won’t ever give up hope.)
I’ve modified my dream acceptance speech accordingly:
Kids! No one told me how to make it happen, and I wasn’t born into money. And I gave up on my dreams all the time. I needed to make a living, and perhaps most importantly, I lacked confidence in what I was doing, got very little encouragement early on, and possessed none of the requisite skills like hustling and asking for stuff. Hell, yeah, I gave up, often and for sometimes long stretches of time. I traded almost anything on my list for the basic necessities of food and shelter. I took a succession of jobs that meant nothing to me but still actively avoided learning new skills or climbing any ladder, because I thought I was meant for something Big. Which is ridiculous. I was wrong. In fairness, I did work my ass off, but in the end it wasn’t for anything I really wanted, just the life things that I really needed. — Do NOT play me off, Mr. Conductor, I’m almost done — Dreams do come true, kids, for .00000002 percent of people. I am living proof of that, and I’m here to tell you: have a back-up! Have. A. Back. Up.
Thank you, and good night!