By Tiffany Antone
Eight years ago, I was excitedly sitting in on my first graduate classes as an MFA playwright. E.I.G.H.T. Whole. Years. Ago.
I didn’t know what the future would bring – I just knew my Muse was alight with passionate glee.
Oh, and I also knew that I had three years to write “something awesome” because after graduation, The Real World (and Sallie Mae) would come crashing down around me with all of its grubby demands. Demands like “You better pay for that education!” along with other necessities such as gas, food, somewhere to live – you know, the basics.
Well, the basics plus student loan and credit card debt.
But I read an article today in the Huffington Post that has me re-evaluating the way I’ve been handling The Real World since graduation. The article was titled “Where You Should Be vs. Where You Are”. I clicked on over to check it out because, like many an artist, I am constantly compelled to compare my actual career trajectory to the one I think I should be on by now. Also, like any good perfectionist, I like to read up on all the ways I’m not yet meeting my fullest potential so that I can berate myself about it later.
Which is, of course, exactly what the article’s author, Emily Bennington, is telling us not to do.
Emily tells us that she had her “Just what the heck is wrong with my constantly unsatisfied self?!” moment when her son told her how sad she was making him, what with all her yelling and irritation – you see, her shortage of patience with her self had dribbled over and onto her family as well.
I don’t yet have kids to hold a mirror in front of my face, though – so I suppose it means I have to find a way to hold one up by myself.
I’ve always been a fairly positive “You can do anything if you put your mind to it!” kind of person. It’s why I work so hard to improve my own short-comings: If I’m doing my best, I will get as far as my best can get me, right? But I how can I be doing my best, when I’m constantly picking myself apart in search of said shortcomings? Don’t you, at some point, start to peck into your own self-confidence with all that drive to improve?
Well, somewhere along the way, I got so bummed out by the constant self-analysis of my own “slow” trajectory as an artist that I froze – mid-takeoff – in abject panic.
Because the business of theatre eludes me.
When I’m wearing my Playwright hat, I sit in a room and type and type and type and TYPE. Then I send it out to play contests and theatre companies, and I wait. I wait and wait and WAIT. Sometimes the response is “Hey, we like this! We are going to give it to actors and invite people to hear your words!” and sometimes it’s “Hey, we like this! You should keep writing!” And, of course, sometimes it’s crickets.
That’s the nature of the business for a playwright, right?
I mean, is that really all we can do?
So about two years ago, I took a hiatus from all the pitching and mailing and waiting, and instead began producing small play festivals in a small town in AZ. I expanded my producer skills, learned that I was not actually afraid of directing (and that I, in fact, actually enjoy the high-stress immediacy of it), and dedicated myself to creating other theatre opportunities to feed my creative soul.
And I enjoyed it. I really did.
But I never escaped the feeling of heartbreak and ineffectiveness of a writer whose plays weren’t getting produced, nor the guilt-ridden dissatisfaction with myself for neglecting to write.
I’m not good at feeling powerless.
But I’m realizing that part of my “problem” is that I turned the mystery and frustration of my playwriting career’s seeming lack of progression into a mentally insurmountable hurdle. I sat down and stared at that hurdle for a while, kicked some stones its way, and decided to go left instead.
Only, left has really just been this other trail alongside the one I disembarked, and I’ve been looking over my shoulder the whole way. It’s like walking along a length of wall guarding the palace you built. And I put up more wall with every blessed step.
You’d think knocking down a metaphorical wall would be super easy…
But I don’t know how to knock it down except to maybe stop counting up the things I “don’t have” and just get on with my bad self. So…
I don’t have money. Who does? I’ve really got to move on from this one. I’ve got to stop lusting after “things” and realize – at this juncture especially – how much simpler my life will be when I stop tallying up how much money I’m NOT making and all the things I CAN’T do with an empty wallet. Instead, I’ve got to figure out how much I need to earn in order to create space and time in my life to focus on all these words needing to be put down on paper. I repeat: It’s. Time. To. Move. On.
But then what am I going to do to make that money? A small amount of money is still an amount. Just because I stop hating how small my sack of coin is doesn’t solve where I’m going to get the coin from in the first place? I mean, I really hate working desk jobs! And I don’t know how to get a teaching gig, and, and, and… Holy cow! How can a person display so much ingenuity on occasion and yet find herself stuck again and again on others? I just moved to Waco – there’s time to explore and get creative and get serious about this desire I have – this strong instinct towards saving my own sanity – and to carve out a pleasing paying gig. Instead of bitching about not knowing where to find those elusive university teaching gigs, how about creating my own opportunities to teach and write? (Massive DUH thought bubble) I need to focus on figuring out how much I really need to earn to survive – and then make it happen. There is no reason not to feel confident in this. Move. On.
Okay, but the saddest bit of truth here is that I don’t feel happy when I look at my plays anymore because I just see the unmet potential. WAAAAAHHHHH (crumbles into a mess of ugly, fat, tears of disappointment) Ummm… Gross. That’s just gross. And sad. And it just feeds my guilt about not writing, thus making the whole ugly thing worse. This will go away when I stop being angry at my plays for not being scooped up by producers after I’ve sent them out into the world. I need to forgive myself for not even really knowing how to get my plays to the people doing the producing. I need to forgive my plays for not getting a big production yet. But I also need to celebrate my plays who have had productions or very nearly. I need to tally up the pats on my back instead of just the unmet hopes. And I need to just write more damn plays – to get the machine working again instead of cursing my rusty hinges for being “ineffectual”. In essence, I need to knock. It. Off.
And move on.
Because here’s what I’ve realized: When I’m honest with myself, I can see just how much energy I’ve spent these past few years developing other great theatre skills at the cost of neglecting my own passion for the written word. I love writing, and I love teaching – and that’s where I need to put my energy. I did learn that I also, strangely enough, love producing and enjoy directing… but I can’t be a whole (or healthy) artist if the part I most readily identify with – my playwright self – has been put in the corner for the crime of not traveling up the Playwright Ladder fast enough.
It is time for me to stop comparing myself against all the things I haven’t yet done… it’s time to find joy in where I am now, and that it is MUCH harder to put into practice than I’d like to admit.
But that’s where I’m at, right now. And I’m going to celebrate it.