“Never stop trying! Never give up on your dream!”
How many times have you heard that advice? How many times have you given it to friends who are discouraged by rejection? Many established writers and other creative people say that’s the best advice they can give anyone who is struggling to break in. But is it?
Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors, doesn’t think so. In a personal essay in the June issue of Psychology Today, Burroughs cautions that “Dreams are not always beautiful things” and encouragement can keep an untalented person plugging away forever – and wasting his or her life.
His own dream was not to be a writer, but to be an actor. He thought he was good. In fact, he thought he was brilliant and would be applauded as one of the greatest actors of his day. Then he watched a video of himself delivering a monologue in acting class. He barely recognized himself. The person on the recording was not an actor. He was terrible. Hopeless. He had no talent for the one career in the world he wanted to pursue. He abandoned his dream, knowing it would never come true.
Burroughs worked in advertising for a while before finding fame with his essays and memoirs (which draw on his troubled childhood and youth and his struggle with alcoholism). He says he has no regrets about giving up his dream of being an actor. He asked himself why being an actor had been so important to him, and he realized his true goal was to reach other people, to touch their lives. He could do the same thing by writing, so he turned to a different dream and made it come true. He urges others to face the truth about their own talents and ask themselves if their dreams are realistic. If you do have talent, of course, the dilemma is more complicated. You have reason to hope for success, but you can’t count on it. You may still end up wasting your life.
Burroughs’s views strike close to the bone for me, because I spent most of my life trying to get my novels published and was on the cusp of old age before I succeeded. I’m happy to be in print now, I revel in the praise of reviewers, and I love receiving fan mail. I’m a published author. Not a bestseller known all over the world, but a published author with an audience. It’s hard for me to say all the years of rejection were worthwhile, though. My failure to realize my dream was the dominant fact of my existence for a long time, and it drained the joy from life.
If you have little or no talent, and you’re fortunate enough to experience the kind of revelation Burroughs did, giving up a dream may be easier, although it will still be painful. But the truth is that we usually can’t see ourselves clearly. A dreadful writer can read his own words and believe they are equal to, or better than, anything being published. A terrible singer can listen to her own voice and feel transported by its beauty. Aspiring actors like the young Burroughs have to depend on others to let them perform, and if they can’t find work they’ll eventually be forced to give up, but they may live out their lives with the bitter belief that their talent was overlooked.
These days it’s easy for writers and singers/musicians to bypass the gatekeepers and offer their work directly to the audience. Those with talent will probably be noticed. Those without will suffer criticism and poor sales. But will that be enough to kill their dreams? In most cases, I suspect, it won’t.
Have you struggled to make your dream come true? Have you ever wondered if you should give up and move on to something else? Have you ever tried to make someone else see that it was time to give up?