Last week provided an interesting conversation which compelled me to assess my career and, subsequently, my life.
I was speaking to a colleague over coffee. He's a filmmaker, in his forties, divorced with three kids. After we caught up about this and that, he sipped on his coffee, clearly needing to get something off his chest. After a moment or two, he finally confessed, "I'm throwing in the towel. I'm giving up."
I asked why.
"I'm 43. I haven't made the breaks I promised myself twenty years ago. I'm not going to make it in this madhouse. I just have to admit it, once and for all."
I sat there wondering what to say. Am I suppose to immediately dismiss what he's said and fill him with motivation to continue? It's an instinctive response most artists have. If one gives up, then it opens up the possibility that maybe you should as well. It hit me more personally than he intended. I asked myself, "Would I feel the same way if I were in his shoes?"
The idea of not succeeding is a nightmare I've postulated far too often. When I was low, when I was depressed, those thoughts would flood my mind. A side of my brain would say I was completely screwed, having taken a risk to go down a road that will only lead me off of a very steep cliff. When I first felt those thoughts and feelings, I immediately embraced them, kicked them to the proverbial curb and used it as fuel to push harder and faster. Filmmaking is an enduring race.
After several years of these periodic waves of hopelessness, I could feel the potential reality of such a nightmare coming true.
Maybe I wasn't cut out for this business. I can't seem to find a community to latch onto. I can't seem to make a breakthrough with this feature I'm working on. Maybe I'm working on the wrong project. Maybe I ought to start another. I can handle multiple things at once, right?
These waves pass through every filmmaker, actor, writer, grip, PA I've met. In a world which claims to embrace the arts while at the same time attacking it in so many ways, it's difficult to consider our craft legitimate by society's standards.
For so many, the wave becomes too great and they drown in it. They get lost in it.
There are those who say they weren't strong enough to handle the stress and the workload. They say it's better to find out now than down the road. Some people just aren't suited for the lifestyle, despite their best intentions. So as my friend continued talking about his situation, I was running through my head this same old scenario. Am I like him? Will I become like him? I could feel an uncomfortable surge move through every nerve of my body.
And then I found what you could call my safe zone:
One night years ago, I arrived at a local bar with a few friends, and the spring air was particularly cool. It's the little things you remember, I guess. At the far end of the bar stood this woman, no older than twenty five but definitely older than me. She had this look. Man, it was a look. A look that definitely killed a few men before me. She was talking with this guy who must've been a full foot taller than her. Bizarre looking. Then again, I was probably taller than him.
Circumstances brought us together that night, and we struck up a conversation. She was Danish, en route to friends several hours south. Her car had broken down, and she was having trouble finding a rental. Life's sporadic moments. Well that accent was killing me, and there must've been something about me that kept her close. Maybe it was the Axe. Maybe it was shit-grinning smile. Who knows. Whatever the case, we ended up spending the whole night together.
We didn't sleep together. I know, I know. What the hell were you thinking? Aside from her having a boyfriend back home, that wasn't what this was. This was something temporary. This was something permanent. I don't know. It was just different.
We talked about the future as we sat on one of the giant limbs of this oak tree facing an oldplayground. She asked me if I liked taking risks. I thought climbing up a tree half-drunk was proof of it, but clearly not. I told her I took risks when it mattered. She looked at me and laughed, saying I ought to be an artist. I asked her why. "You can't be normal", she said. "I bet I'm not the first one to say that to you."
I confessed that to be the case. She laughed again, "Well don't be ashamed of it. Embrace it."
At the time I was trying desperately to to pursue the "normal" track of things. After exploring a number of fields, I had settled for Political Science, with the intent of going to law school. Then would come the 9-5 job, getting married with kids before 30, the house in suburbia. I suppose that used to be considered normal. Leave it to the millennials to start changing that up. Still, I had a hard time with it.
"You might as well embrace it, because you will never get rid of it."
I just kept looking at her. She kept talking.
"You can cloud it with drugs, booze, a wife (or wives), credit card debt, vacations to Maui, and all these other things. But it'll still be there, eating at you. Don't become that sad creature. It would make a night like this regrettable for me."
"Why?" I asked.
"We met for a reason, and I think this is the reason. You want to be a lawyer? Are you insane? Don't do that. Put your heart and soul into something that matters to you. I know you have a story in there. I think you have several stories in that brain of yours. Those are more powerful than money."
"Yeah, but money puts food on the table."
She just smirked at that. She then looked up at the moon, as one does in a cliche moment, and looked back at me. "I see something in you I have never seen in another person. You need to do something with that."
The morning came, she found a rental, and that was it. I didn't ask for her phone number. She didn't ask for mine. I haven't seen her since. Is it strange that I use a random example like that to dig myself out of the corner of hypercritical delusions? No, not one damn bit. Was she crazy? Well, hell. Probably. But at the same time, so am I. Hell, we all are. It's all a matter of how transparent we wish to be. She hit a key, a note in my brain that sounded right. So whenever I'm in a spot like that, I am reminded of that story. It pulls me through.
Some of us don't get that chance, that experience. We become swallowed in the work without the life. Hell, it happened to me. Throughout most of the experience with Videotape, the other shorts, and the few published works, I rarely went out. New experiences were much harder to find. I still found them, but they were not a constant. They were an anomaly. That was strange for me. So I would constantly dig through my brain for past experiences to keep my spirit alive and growing. It worked for a long time. Only near the end of Videotape did that finally start to flame out.
For my friend, I know it kills him to think about leaving it behind, and it kills me that he feels trapped with this idea. It should never be this difficult. It shouldn't be this kind of psychological battle for so many. But who ever said the world was fair? I know I haven't.
Tangentially, I have learned in the very real presence of karma. Now, I don't know if it's tied to anything religious (well buddy, you shouldn't use a religious term to describe it). But in some form, some fashion, it exists. There is a particular balance in this universe that's beyond our control, and I'm pretty sure that's a good thing. The last thing the human race needs is another responsibility it cannot master.
Do I think my friend will keep to his promise and leave the industry behind? Who knows. But I know I am not in his situation, for better or for worse. I am paving my own road, knowing there is a stranger out there, somewhere on this planet, who saw something in me she had never seen before.