Duct Tape for the Ego

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Fish

Bring me cookies, I’ll be under the covers.

                                                                                                                                               
Two years ago, I spent the most trying six months of my life, followed by six months of big-fish in little-pond victories. My hardship was as unremarkable as a breakup and unemployment.

During these periods, friends rally and say things like, “It’s time to launch an all-out attack on life.” I was the sort to reply, “Bring me cookies, I’ll be under the covers.”

But for whatever reason, this time, that kicked-while-down feeling, rather than causing me to retreat, caused me to tackle neglected tasks. Maybe I felt there was nothing more to lose, or maybe what I had lost were like gangrened limbs. Even as I grieved the absence of those limbs, the absence of the disease liberated me. I threw away clutter and organized my life. I re-edited and entered three of my short films into big festivals. I revised and entered essays and stories into writing contests.

The result? Rejection letters from every single film festival and writing contest.

This did not infuse me with fresh enthusiasm and the situation went from grim to bleak when I also became technically homeless: I couldn’t afford to pay my rent, so I subletted my apartment and took up house-sitting for friends.

My spirit was pummeled; my ego was in shards.

I was also suffering from the affliction of freshly broken-up people where every sappy song sends you into a fit of tears in the supermarket aisle. I knew I’d hit bottom when one night, curled up on the couch, house-sitting and watching Californication, I burst into tears at David Duchovny’s glib lines about women as if hearing him recite sonnets to the loveless.

Broke and broken, I hit the road with a traveling trade show for a retail store. If you’re thinking carnie, you’re not far off. I had done promotional modeling for trade shows before, but this was no candyass smiling-in-a-sexy-lil-tee job. This was grimy, tear-your-cuticles manual labor, which I had turned down several years in a row. It was fourteen-hour days of set-up, breakdown, lifting, hauling, you-may-as-well-be-sleeping-in-cinders work. You could see why I would’ve turned it down in the past, and maybe you’re wondering, like I did, why anyone would’ve offered it to self-pampered me in the first place. But this time around, I sought them out. As much as I have a talent for living off of nothing, I needed to stockpile money so I could move back into my own apartment.

Each show, between set-up, breakdown and the actual event, was four to six days in a row. To my own astonishment, I didn’t quit after the first grueling one. In fact, not only did I end up working every single show in five cities, I did it ungrudgingly. Let me take it a step further: I was grateful, in spite of having developed frayed, rough hands with welled-in dirt I couldn’t scrub out. And my poor muscles? They despised me and took every chance to let me know through aches from the cords of my neck to the balls of my feet.

This was a surprising new side to me — gratitude in the face of backbreaking, blue-collar grind. Well, the dirt was new too, but not nearly as unfamiliar as manual labor.

I’m analytical to a fault. My brain generates an exhausting, nonstop self-monitoring ticker. So if there’s a lesson in front me, unless I’m being particularly stubborn, I’m likely receptive. You’d think I’d be “particularly stubborn” whilst believing myself forced by circumstance into an unbecoming “carnie” situation. But either the stubborn in me was squashed by way of my crushed spirit and beaten-down body, or not all self-growth is in my own dictatorial hands. I was grateful for labor? Epiphany! So this was what people meant by character-building.

While being a carnie, I learned invaluable notions that I may not have otherwise:

First and foremost, I learned that zip ties are the new duct tape. I’m not kidding. I hadn’t known about zip ties. Zip ties connected and held together pretty much anything that needed to be attached or repaired. Except my shattered ego.

I also hadn’t known that labor and exhaustion were better than idleness and that empty feeling. I discovered vast reserves of energy in myself to which I’d been oblivious. I got to see myself capable of hard physical work, of adapting to situations out of my so-called comfort zone and of getting on exceptionally well with all kinds of people.

If I have a knack for anything, it’s for doing nothing I don’t feel like doing. I had written myself off in the areas of follow-through and endurance. But my carnie experience let me see those concepts aren’t antithetical to who I am.

Finally, even more beneficial than the infinite uses of zip ties was realizing there is no shame in earning my own way in what amounts to hard labor. It’s actually honorable.

It turned out, mining strengths I didn’t know I possessed put my ego back in action, and that ego decided to speak up:

“What a dumbass, of course your films weren’t going to get into big festivals at your rough-diamond stage. They have no production value, and you have no technical prowess!”

My ego might be slightly abusive.

The important part was, my ego wasn’t telling me that I sucked or I was delusional, but that I had jumped the gun.

Entering my little films into big festivals was a necessary step for me. For one thing, having to face I wasn’t ready prompted me to get into filmmaking classes. For another, when l would be ready, I’d get to skip the insecurity/hesitation stage before submitting to the big bad giants. I’ve already crossed their scary threshold and I know the worst thing that can happen: Rejection. And here I am, still at it.

My college classes proved to be my little pond, and for a moment, I became a happy big fish. I made a comedy short and as the top vote-getter of my class, it screened as a finalist in a packed theater with people standing against the walls. It was the first time I saw a film of mine projected on the big screen. In the final voting, my film came in only third among the slew of quality shorts. But afterwards, the very head of the film department took it upon herself to tell me if she had a vote, it would have gone to my film.

Validation has a warm baked-goods comfort to it.

Around the same time, I won first prize in a poetry contest, and a bit of cash to boot. Any amount of cash is good to the unemployed. Then I booked a national commercial, and a little more cash.

My recent rejections were reversing themselves in small ways. My big-fish little-pond victories made me feel like maybe big-fish big-ocean victories weren’t out of reach.

But naturally, I continued to experience both triumph and defeat.

For example, I booked a lead in an independent film that brought me to Sri Lanka. Except while I was shooting there, my uninsured car was stolen back home. It took me three months to replace the car, which left me crippled for all intents and purposes in Los Angeles, a city not known for its public transportation.

I knew then, life would always be made up of victories and setbacks, blessings and curses, progress and — at times — no results.

Even in a single day, there are enough twists and turns to make for sea-sickness. It’s a matter of riding the good waves and dunking for the bad ones. Don’t blame me for my ego’s choice of surf analogy.

I’m not unique in letting my fear of failure paralyze me — obviously, if I don’t put myself out there, I won’t get rejected. But the line is thin between nothing happening or the possibility of something grand, and some days, that’s enough to jolt me into mobility.
 

Cathartic Monkeyism

  • If you have the opportunity for character-building hard labor, do it and see it through to the end.  It will reveal aspects about yourself to arm you with strength for your other endeavors.
  • You can try and fail, or you can sit still and imagine you might not fail.  But with the first, you might succeed, while with the second, you definitely won’t.

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28 comments

  1. I find when I am feeling that way it helps to get busy with things so it makes sense that doing some good old hard work would help you “right” yourself. Zip ties, really? For a girl who I feel lives life like an adventure I am shocked you didn’t know what zip ties were. You are a very interesting person.

    1. Yeah, can you believe it? It’s not like I had never seen one, but I’d never given them any thought, they were just “plastic thingies.” But at this show, we used them to put up entire structures…

  2. Thoughtful piece, GG. I think ideas of “success” and “failure” in creative endeavors have so little value. Validation, actual external validation, comes in many different ways, on a timeline often far removed from the work, and “success” and “failure” are tied in such direct ways to immediate response to work. It’s tricky stuff. Moby Dick never paid the rent for Mr Melville, but I’m sure glad he wrote it. And on the other hand, the farm labor he did at Arrowhead, and the later work he did in an anonymous government position, never did me any good, but they paid his rent, so to speak, so that’s good too. There are more than one type of work, and they are rewarded in more than one way. Thanks again for this thoughtful post.

    1. Hello there, thank you for reading the piece, it’s lovely to see you here. I agree with you completely. It’s comforting to know that different types of work are rewarded in more than one way – if only we always remembered…

  3. GG, This is awesome. It’s an abundantly honest exploration of the idea of making peace with where you are. By making peace with manual labor and giving yourself over to it fully, your situation shifted. You created more space in your life; you allowed in some cool stuff that was waiting in the wings and being kept out due to resistance.

    It’s our resistance that hoses us every time. It’s our “paying attention to reality” instead of daydreaming and lighting up about what can be that diminishes our opportunities and happiness. The ego cannot handle daydreaming and fantasizing. It demands that we toe the line, pay attention, and be realistic.

    But, by loosening yourself and accepting circumstances, by allowing, you let in some of the fantasy and it came quickly. Such a cool exploration here, sis. Thank you for this reminder.

    I am telling myself: “Let go, Elizabeth. Drop your hands. Accept the situation as it is and smile at it. This, too shall pass and it will pass as quickly as I can let go of it.” That’s delicious and feels so good in my body.

    XOXO

    1. Thanks, Lizzi, for you thoughtful comment. It makes perfect sense – loosening vs. resisting. I like the way your mind works.

  4. Very deep. Perhaps you should go into filmmaking and writing. Oh wait…

    1. One of these days it’ll be all I do. Oh wait… Well, one of these days, I won’t be starving while it’s all I do. (I’m not really starving, but I do wear rags.)

      1. That will be great. Then I can say I know someone in the biz. And you can get me a writing job right?

      2. I do have a soft spot for you, so you never know.

  5. You’re onto it GG, aren’t all overnight successes 20 years in the making? Can’t wait to have one of my kids recommend I see this “…totally awesome film!” and then tell them “oh yeah, ‘course it’s great, I’ve been reading her blog for years, she’s awesome!” Respect for hanging in there, REDdog

    1. That is quite a vote of confidence, thanks!
      Cheers.

  6. This was especially interesting to me since I’ve been thinking a lot about success and failure recently. In part I feel that success really has nothing to do with external validation, yet also I get drawn in to wanting that. I can relate to what you’ve written because I have in the past let fear of failure paralyse me, and stopped sending my writing out for quite some time. I have been sending it again, and getting rejections – and the good thing is that it is hurting less than it did.

    1. Have you seen those interviews with established writers speaking of having enough rejection letters to use as wallpaper? I like the idea of collecting my rejection letters to see how big the stack would be by the time I break through.

      Don’t let it hurt you even one bit – everyone goes through rejection, including the greats. It’s just part of the process. But of course, you know that.

  7. What a beautiful post! Failure was not an option for you. You seem like an amazing and beautiful person. Good things are still ahead of you. Keep going!

    1. Thank you for your wonderful support! I would like to become the person you describe.

  8. A great post. As always, you’ve touched the heart of the matter with a keen, incisive eye. Your clarity of vision seems to be one of your greatest gifts, and the way you explore themes of self-knowledge here is breathtaking. I for one cannot imagine a future where you aren’t the success you deserve to be. Thanks for posting.

    1. Feels wonderful hearing that from you–someone whose writing I admire so much.

  9. Neat post Gunmetal Geisha – very thought provoking and peaceful. For some reason it reminds me of “Walden”: working with your hands can not only support existence but infuses a sense of peacefulness and completeness that is not available in a more complex world. Somehow being the one that makes the actual, final, real physical change – the one with whom the final responsibility lies at the human/world interface – is particularly satisfying.

    A lot of white collar folks come from white collar background, studied and interned to be white collar and know nothing but white collar. I find the blue collar world much more honest with a greater and faster feel of accomplishment. It’s refreshing. I’ve bopped back and forth between the two for most of my life and I really think the best white collars are the ones who have been “in the trenches” and vice versa. Mind you I’m biased that way, having done both intermittently. The biggest issue, I find, is that neither the blue nor white collars appreciate the contribution and dediciation of the other. Truly, you can’t lead until you have learned to follow. And the very best and most productive followers are so because they can see the big (read “leader’s”) perspective.

    Interestingly enough, I think the same seperation exists within the individual as well as in the workplace. The journey to knowledge of self is, at least in part, exploring and harmonizing all our wildly different internal perspectives

    1. You really are a fascinating person–I’ve suggested this before, but if you don’t start a blog, you’ll be depriving us of all these stories! For example, the hows, whys and whats of your weaving between the white and blue collar world.

      I like how the comparison of the individual to the workplace recalls what we discussed earlier about repeated applications in seemingly unrelated areas. Actually, I believe you said, “repetition of concepts across different applications.”

  10. Zip ties are amazing in more ways than I could ever recount, even with my long windedness. That’s amazing that you did manual labor like that… Though it’s true that jolting yourself out of the ordinary is sometimes exactly what you need in order to “come back” to life.

    I didn’t realize you were a filmmaker… that’s awesome! Is any of your stuff on Vimeo or YouTube or elsewhere online? (hopefully that’s not a weird question…)

    Failure is the worst, and I totally relate to what you said about having a talent for not doing things you don’t feel like doing– I am RIGHT there with ya on that one… though you are certainly much more tenacious about going after things than I am… I need to keep the “chasm between nothing happening, and the possibility of something grand happening” more in mind.

    1. It’s not a weird question at all–I do have some stuff up, but they’re a little outdated. I’m in the process of updating…

      It’s easy to be tenacious about what drives me, but it’s the other parts–ugh–that are an issue. I could use some tenacity when it comes to watering the plant–yes, the one–and washing the dishes…

      1. Oh I could certainly use tenacity in those areas as well! I managed to keep some succulents alive for the better part of a year, simply because they only need to be watered once every never but then… I left them outside when it snowed. And they’re dead now. It was a nice run though.

        Well, let us all know when you have videos up! I’m curious…

      2. I’ll email you a couple of links…

  11. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Your story reminded me of my first 6 months in NZ. Technically, I wasn’t allowed to work because my visa was in the process, plus my psychological state was somewhat frail after leaving SA. Long story short; I got a short-term job in a warehouse (unpacking pallets of boxes, sticking a new barcode on each item, then repacking)…it was backbreaking work, but it didn’t deter me one bit, in fact, I found it rather therapeutic. It gave me something to focus on, other than myself, which was a welcomed relief. It was also there, in that warehouse of all places, that I met a NZ filmmaker who was instrumental in getting my first poems published.

    As for hierarchy of work/jobs/roles, I don’t think that there’s any shame in taking a job that gets you what you need in the short-term. You were obviously in a sticky situation and you did what you needed to do. Learning a valuable lesson and something new about yourself was the unexpected bonus.

    If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…I like to think that rejections are simply a reminder that you’re in the game and not sitting on the sidelines.:) The main thing is that you have a clear goal and you keep moving no matter what.

    I love this line – “it’s that chasm between nothing happening, and the possibility of something grand happening, that jolts me into mobility.” – but for me, it’s the chasm between nothing and something grand happening that keeps me going.

  12. I like your attitude about rejection – you’re so right! And of course, the rest of your story.

  13. You know, I truly like stories like this in that they tell a story over humans overcoming obstacles. It really is quite amazing what unemployment will do to a person, isn’t it? You showed yourself things you can do when you have to. And then when some things started happened, more did. Tends to work out that way, it seems.

    I’m not going to lie when I say I’d really love to see your comedic short. Is it online anywhere for all of us to see?

    I hope you keep pushing forward. It’ll all come together for you eventually!

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