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 sublet my apartment and took up housesitting 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 had hit bottom when one night, housesitting 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 14-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 would anyone offer 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 lasted 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. My muscles 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 never 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 through 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, because it did: I got rejected. And here I am, still at it.
My new classes proved to be my little pond, and for a time, I became a happy big fish. I made a comedic 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 directed by me projected on the big screen. In the final voting, my film came in only third among the slew of quality shorts. But afterwards, the chair 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, with 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.
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.
- 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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