OWhen I was eight years old, I won a reading aloud contest. The passage I chose was from The Dare Game, the second book by Tracy Beaker. I remember standing in front of my entire school, the purple book in my hands, pigtails dancing in my peripheral vision. When I was done and sat down, my body resonating with applause, my dream was born. Obviously, I was destined for stage stardom.
I harbored that dream for another 14 years. I acted in school plays. I was, for my sins, a prolific comedian in college. I’ve performed in upstairs pubs and student theaters all over the country. I remember being backstage at Durham and wondering if I had time to puke my nerves into a bucket I had spotted backstage, still thinking: c’est la vie. I’m sorry to say that there are, somewhere, a handful of shorts I starred in in my early 20s: kissing people and crying and, God help me, pretending to smoke a joint .
After college, I auditioned for master’s programs at all the major acting schools. I committed to the idea of taking out an extra student loan to do this, worked in a pub in the evenings and practiced my monologues in front of the mirror during the day. I did not manage to enter any of them.
Still, I was determined to pursue my dream. There’s a famous advice in acting circles: if you can imagine yourself doing anything else with your life, you won’t make it as an actor. I took it to heart: I had to persevere. So I did it all over again the following year, and again, I got nowhere. I remember getting the last rejection email I expected, standing in the moldy basement of the pub where I worked. I blushed to my hairline and burst into tears. The fact that an embarrassed, physically awkward, depressed girl failed her drama school auditions doesn’t surprise me anymore, but at the time I was blindsided. A dream is supposed to come true.
I continued for a while. I found an agent, went to some miserable auditions. But six months later, with my self-esteem at rock bottom, I felt I had reached a fork in the road. I could go on, keep trying. Or I could admit that this dream was over. What I ended up being more afraid of was not the embarrassment (in front of whom?) of not achieving what I wanted to achieve, but of devoting more and more time and emotional energy to following through. painfully a path that put obstacles in my life. path at every turn. And so, I gave up on my dream. There was grief, but mostly I felt relieved.
I recently learned a phrase from a book called When I Grow Up by Moya Sarner. Speaking about her insecurity that many of her friends were getting married or having children in their early thirties, she realized that this urge was “not a real kind of desire.” Giving up on a dream can also mean discovering that a desire you had wasn’t a real desire: in other words, that the desire came from an uncharted place.
Why did I even want to be an actor? It was a question I hadn’t thought to ask myself; the dream had been calcified in my bones for too long. Childish reasons, in my case. Excitement, praise – thirst for glory, even. I now know that the life of an actor would suit me very badly. I would hate the forced downtime, the unsociable hours, having to worry about my weight and how I look, the relentless rejection, the financial uncertainty. Some of these things are part of my life as a writer but, at the very least, when people read my work, I’m somewhere else.
I’m a big advocate of giving up on dreams. Removing a fundamental lens through which you see yourself — in my case, embarrassingly, believing I was some kind of star waiting to be born — forces you to reconsider who you really are. And a dream is by nature a static, stubborn thing, ill-suited to the ruthless way things change. Life forces us to give up on our dreams all the time. People die, jobs are lost, relationships end, things that brought you joy continue to bring you sorrow. Being able to let things go is a skill not everyone is born with, and I certainly wasn’t. But I think it’s a good muscle to train.
There is a fine line, obviously. Success in any career requires tenacity, self-confidence and drive. But there is a point beyond which putting that energy no longer serves you. Failure and its merits have been in vogue for a while; Elizabeth Day’s hit podcast, How to Fail, has already had hundreds of guests. I think even more important than failing is the ability to start failing and saying, I could keep trying, but I couldn’t either. And have the confidence to do the latter.
Am I failing to act? Sometimes. Adrenaline was fun. But there are better ways to get this fix. I have new dreams now. I dare say that many of them will also have to be buried or die of natural causes. And when they do, I’ll mourn them, and then I’ll move on.
Imogen West-Knights is a London-based writer and journalist
Comments on this article are pre-moderated to ensure that the discussion stays on the topics raised by the author. Please note that there may be a short delay in posting comments on the site.