What It's Like to Give Up on Your Dreams

"Now, it still makes me cry to think about art and how crushing it was to give it up. I miss it every day and wish I had stuck with it."

by Tori Telfer
21 April 2017, 10:47pm

Photo by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete

We live in a culture that has, in some ways, turned art into obligation. MAKE EVERY DAY, shriek the Instagram influencers. CREATE CONSTANTLY! You can hashtag your hustle to show just how much you're participating in the art economy, and you can claim you were #calledtobecreative if you want to imbue the whole thing with a slightly religious aura. While in some ways this creates a culture of liberation, it can also create a culture of guilt and fear, where failure is not an option. After all, if anyone can #make, what's your excuse?

It takes bravery and a bit of defiance to say that your artistic dreams did not work out the way you hoped. Nobody likes to admit defeat, especially when "artistic failure" can be interpreted as a sign that maybe you just didn't work hard enough. Here, seven people describe why they stepped out of the race.

I went on a reality TV show in hopes of winning money or using my sparkling personality to spin it into a talk show or producing something or working in TV. I thought when I moved to LA: This is it. I've been in NYC for ten years, so let's take my unique brand of charm and charisma and crazy personality to LA. You know that Frank Sinatra song about New York, where he says, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere"? He's a goddamn liar.

LA is probably one of the worst places I've ever been in my goddamn life. The people I've had to work with are some of the most miserable people I've ever met. I'm a stab-you-from-the-front person. Everyone in LA is a stab-you-from-the-back person. There are no friends in Los Angeles. The whole last year in LA I cried every day. There were days I couldn't get out of bed, even though I needed to go job hunting. One day, my car got totaled, and literally four minutes after that the job I was about to start texted me that they'd brought in some other people. I accidentally ended up living in my mom's barn in wine country because I didn't have enough to pay rent—I was just in a crisis.

I work in casting for reality TV and game shows. In doing casting, I feel like I've destroyed my own little path. I never have time to breathe, really, or work on my own creative outlet. I'm constantly in this rotation of, Oh God, I'm so stressed I don't have a job; oh look, I have a job, I'm so stressed out because the demands from the network executives are so batshit crazy that I genuinely don't know how to function anymore. The hustle is exhausting, and it takes a lot out of you. I wish I had done everything five years earlier.

Jeffrey Marx, 40, freelance casting producer

I enjoyed the strategy and the planning for a photography career more than actually doing the specific craft. I was the girl who applied to one school and one major—I always knew exactly what I wanted. So to quit was very intimidating and unnerving. People want to say, "You'll be fine; everybody's scared!" My mentor was very kind but also very honest, saying, "Go into that indecision."

As a photographer, you identify so much with being an "artist." Even a year after I decided to start working in production, it was really hard for me to feel like, Great, now I've decided not to be creative, and I'm going into this logistical career path.

Hannah Fehrman, 27, executive producer for Grey House Productions

There was never a watershed moment that I gave up on comedy; the math just didn't work out after a while. Comedy is a massive time sink. If you plan on being decent, then you should be gobbling up stage time. It's crazy easy to burn out on a system where a couple of hours waiting leads up to eating shit for five minutes. For me, the time and energy wasn't enjoyable, and ultimately if I wasn't having fun, then why was I doing it?

Talking for ten minutes to a largely silent crowd is appropriately the shit nightmares are made of. Every comic does it at some point, so it's part of the process—even pros bomb. That doesn't lessen the absolute ego bomb that it is one iota. I think I'm like most comics in that after a bad set you run outside and have a cigarette. Usually beer is involved.

When I stopped, life was pretty rad. I focused more on my job, and my excess energy went back into music and weird coding projects. Of course, I miss the positives, the rush, the camaraderie. But to be completely honest, once I quit going to mics altogether, I was amazed at how much I got done.

Daniel Sharp, 33, IT firm engineer + audio/visual projects at madeofants

I got the lead of Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie my senior year in high school—that was probably the pinnacle of my acting. But when I planned to attend school, I figured that theater being what it is, a better option was to go into filmmaking and media. Even at this point, I was being pragmatic—I've never been the most fit guy, and I knew that being in front of the camera or on the stage being as fat as I was made the chances of an acting career slim to none. Couple that with my dark secret of being a homosexual Mormon boy, I just couldn't see myself ever getting there.

In college, I found out that I was a pretty good editor, so when I went to LA, I found a job as an assistant at a post-production house. I also started working on YouTube videos expounding on the joy I'd found living in LA. But by this time, YouTube was going totally mainstream and corporate, and I found myself working hard each week to produce content that really no one was watching. I spent a year signed up with Actors Access to find auditions, and I was actually asked to audition for the touring portion of the Book of Mormon musical. Almost a year later, they asked me back again. Sadly, I was not chosen.

That role was so ideal for me, as a former Mormon (I'd left the church when I came out in 2008), and that's kind of when I realized that my voice was no longer there from a few years of recreational smoking, and lack of formal training, and lack of practice. Couple that with my failure to achieve any following from my videos spelled the end of that dream.

The hardest part about my dream was that I always felt like a liar because I felt so little self-worth—most of my life I secretly hated myself for being gay, for not being perfect, for not having married parents, etc. It's silly, but I think the fear of being confronted or discovered by being in theater scared me away from trying somewhat.

Ezra Horne, 30, post-production supervisor + owner, Paw Paw Records

I was a really good artist—but I could not draw people (I drew dragons and mystical swords and things like that). After a lot of peer pressure, I tried out for the talented art program at the school where I was.

They actually laughed at me. I was supposed to draw a person (or people) enjoying a day out at a fair. Since I could not draw people, of course it was awful. Because of all the negative and hurtful responses I got from that program, I couldn't ever bring myself to draw again.

I used to spend hours and hours drawing and painting. All I did during the summers as a kid was draw and read. I wanted to paint murals on my walls in my room. I wanted to write and draw for a living (I thought about going into comics). Now, it still makes me cry to think about art and how crushing it was to give it up. I miss it every day and wish I had stuck with it, even though I had been so discouraged.

Gabriel Vidrine, 36, laboratory manager

Back when I was giving things a go as a screenwriter, I think I did expect something to happen. I don't think I believed it would be a slam dunk for success, but I don't think I believed I would flame out. Maybe about seven years ago or so, I knew things were looking bleak. The kinds of material that I wanted to write was not that appealing to Hollywood, and I felt my patience for that world ebbing away. Not that I failed per se, but that I never gave myself the best chance I could. Could I have, should I have written more for the market?

I don't think I ever would have written something completely unappealing to me just to try to sell, but should I have spent a year working on a small, ensemble type of indie drama when I could have equally engaged with a true crime script, which might have had a better chance of gaining attention? These questions still haunt me, and my biggest sense of regret is not putting my best foot forward. If you want to succeed in any type of work, you should go all in, and I don't think I ever did this. I never had a "burn the ships" mentality.

Randy Steinberg, 44, real estate management and development

Opera is a highly specific path that involves a lot of long, lonely hours in a practice room, and as much technique as artistic expression. The path, itself, never felt creative to me at all. Plus, to be very honest, constantly worrying about the health of my voice (I couldn't drink or eat tomato-based foods or speak too loudly in a bar for fear of losing my voice) was zero fun. The life of an opera singer made me anxious, insecure—the scrutiny, oh my God—and so, so broke. I hated it.

For the bulk of my 20s, after making the decision to essentially start over, I was very lost. We're talking daily existential crises and sobbing fits about "wasting my gift." One time I stayed in an Airbnb next to a music school on a vacation to Rome, and I just sat on the balcony listening to budding opera divas sing their arpeggios and crying.

Rose Truesdale, 29, wellness writer