Conversations with Doubt
“So did you go to grad school?” Zoe asked, gazing down at me from the top bunk.
It was bedtime and this kid always knew how to get me talking so that she could stay up an extra ten minutes. I figured I’d just answer her question and be done. It was simple enough, after all.
“No,” I replied.
“But don’t all famous actors go to grad school?”
“Name one famous actor who’s never been to grad school.”
I named a few.
“Those don’t count,” she dismissed. “Why didn’t you go to grad school?”
This conversation went on for a few minutes in a similar fashion. She’d propose a question, I’d answer it, she’d refute my answer. With each passing second, I found myself growing more and more irate. Zoe was 11. What did she know about adulthood? Where did she get off telling me how to be an actor? She didn’t even want to be an actor, and she was still seven years removed from going to college at all. She had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.
Then I stopped and asked myself, “Why is this bothering me so much?”
Because I’m insecure, that’s why. Because, as an artist, I’ve defined success as getting booked on a network television show or my film getting selected at a prestigious festival or even just consistently auditioning. Meanwhile, I’m over here without any TV credits, receiving rejection after rejection from every film festival, and my last audition was two months ago. So I don’t feel successful, and that’s why Zoe’s innocent interrogation bugged me. Not because she may or may not have been questioning my success, but because I definitely was.
There’s something so odd about a career in the arts, in that some of us seem to think we need to reach a wide audience or make lots of money in order to be considered “successful.” What does that even mean anyway? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get into the arts to make money. I’ll admit the prospect of becoming wealthy by acting and writing was an incentive, but I’m happiest when I’m creating, regardless of whether I’m getting paid.
At my last private premiere screening, someone came up to me in tears, thanking me for telling that particular story, and gushing about how beautiful it was. I was fairly pleased with how it turned out, but it’s since gotten rejected by somewhere around a dozen film festivals, so I’m not feeling super proud at the moment. But the look in her eyes…I know it’s cliché to say, but even affecting one person in such a profound way gives me hope to keep going.
However, some days are harder than others. I recently went on antidepressants, because the days are blending together into an indifferent goo of existence. I got my latest short film idea entirely shot down in a way that made me give up on the concept. I’ve not wanted to write in a month or more. For awhile, I felt ashamed of all that. I still do a little bit, but for slightly different reasons.
After the shame started falling away, I started telling myself, “Why did you let that stuff get to you? You’re on antidepressants and they’re working and fuck those assholes who ruined your film and go write something new that’ll be fun and exciting and kick butt!” I tried to be my own cheerleader, but there was this little voice in my head that told me I should stop. That anything I wrote wouldn’t be good enough anyway. That I’d never get the funding, so it’d end up like the other half dozen scripts on my computer that are completed but dormant.
My biggest challenge at the moment is to be where I’m at. It’s a daily struggle, when I see people on social media posting about their latest callback or their film making it into yet another festival. But I’m doing it as best I can. I felt inspired to outline a new web series, one that’s been in my head for years but I never finished. I’m heading out of town for the summer, to a place that lights my soul on fire. I’m taking little steps to make sure I keep my artistic self alive, all the while acknowledging that it’s okay to be where I’m at. I don’t need to be a series regular or a Tony-winning actor by tomorrow. Putting impossible expectations on yourself is a guarantee you’ll end up disappointed.
I challenge you to be where you’re at, and know that’s okay. We are not perfect, nor should we be. After all, who wants to hear a story about a person with a perfect life? That sounds like the world’s most boring film. What makes a story so beautiful is when we recognize the humanity in it, when we see the flaws of the characters and we recognize those things in ourselves. When we embrace everything that we are instead of trying to force ourselves to be where we think we should, we are unstoppable.
I always loved The Magic School Bus as a kid, and Ms. Frizzle’s famous catchphrase was always funny to me. As an adult, though, it resonates with me on a whole other level:
“Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”
Let’s stop pretending like we’re perfect, or that other people are perfect and we’re somehow the only one without a clue, or that there is any one way to have success in the arts. We’re all doing our best, and we are changing the world, whether we realize it or not. And that’s something worth celebrating.