WHAT?! is Drooly Dog’s Advice Column for the Creative and Perplexed. In which I answer burning questions about the creative process and what might be holding up that brain of yours. Send your questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Drooly Dog: I have recently noticed something kind of major about my life, but I don’t know what to do about it.
I am a total screw up. I mess up everything. I’m late to work, my car runs out of gas, and I miss my rent payments.
I am an actor at a local repertory theater, but I always feel like I am muddling through. I learn my lines at the last minute, and then opening night I am terrified. I usually get through without any major incidents, but it’s rough. And I know my fellow actors don’t feel like they can count on me. I even heard that some of them learn my lines in case they have to cue me.
The thing is, people tell me my acting is really good. I get cast in productions. I have never been fired.
But then I go home and the messing up continues. I don’t have food in the fridge. I blow off calling my friends. I just make a hash of everything.
I’m asking about this now, because I have seen a few really choice acting opportunities go by and I want to be ready for the next one. I mean really ready. I want to do it right. But each day I wake up and I wonder what I will mess up next. How do I break this pattern and get on with it? Or am I just doomed to always be this close to falling apart?
– Sincerely, Supreme Mess-Upper
I have heard it said so many times that an artist does not fear failure, she fears success. For years I had no idea what the heck that was supposed to mean. But you, I think, are possibly Exhibit A.
See, you obviously are capable of doing things. You do actually get up out of bed, and you go through the day. You are not out committing crimes. You are just – skating along, teetering on the brink of something falling apart. All the time. You are hiding behind this.
A student said to me recently, “I would rather not try and get a bad grade than try really hard and get a bad grade.” Think about that. In both scenarios there is a bad grade. But the fear of really applying yourself, putting the best of yourself out there, and finding out it is not good enough, is too much to bear.
This, Mess, is a great dilemma for all creative people or people who want to accomplish anything at all. Everything is groovy inside our heads. It’s when that gets run over by the semi-truck of reality that things get ugly.
So what do you do? You manufacture your own failure. This way the scrutiny can’t find you. You can’t be judged wanting, because you already are wanting. You make sure of that. And in this way you make sure you will never feel like you tried, and then failed.
It is your way of saying, “You can’t fire me, I quit!” when nobody has actually tried to fire you at all.
Here’s a news flash: For every single thing that exists, from Shakespeare to Metallica, there is someone to dig it and someone to hate it and someone who says, “meh.” And this is not your problem. Even the greatest most famous artists of the whole world have probably thousands of people who just don’t like their work.
There is no absolute “good” or “bad.” But you have trapped yourself into thinking that there is, as if there is a single measure of worth and you are either on it or you’re not. And you’re terrified that if you go up for judgment, you will fail. You will fail in your own eyes. And that’s just overwhelming. So you hide.
The first person you have to stop hiding from is yourself. So get cleaned up, and get to your audition, on time. That will feel like a risk, because you took away an excuse. Be prepared with the sides or whatever you’re supposed to have. That will also feel like a risk, because you took away another excuse. Keep chipping away like that. And each time say, “I’m not going to hide behind this. Take it or leave it.”
Hopefully soon, you won’t need the crutch of self-inflicted mess-ups to convince yourself you didn’t want something anyway. And you can indeed get on with it.
Sincerely, Drooly Dog
Drooly Dog offers creative advice only. Nothing legal or medical, please follow of your own accord. It’s up to you, man.
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