By Augusten Burroughs, published on May 1, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Every time I watch some trembling, weepy girl stand at the podium to accept her Best Female Pop Vocal Grammy and start thanking her ICM agent and God, I cringe. "And I just want to say to every little girl watching out there tonight, listen to me: Never, never give up your dream. If you want to stand here where I am, don't let anybody stop you. And I promise, someday the world will be watching you up here."
I just want to ask one of these singers: Have you ever watched a single one of the many thousands of abysmal YouTube covers of your own song? Because those are dreams. Dreams are not always beautiful things.
I know these Grammy winners in their spaghetti-strap gowns mean well but there are many, many people who do not need to be told to cling to their dreams; they need to have those fantasies wrenched from their little fists before they waste their entire lives trying to achieve them.
I am one such person.
It felt like a physical touch, a thumb firmly but gently pressing along the path of my sternum. I just knew. You know? My certainty was that thumb pressing my chest. As I stood in front of the other students in the acting class, in 1981. And while they watched me, I looked over their seated heads at the wall, yet in a way watched myself.
And by watched myself, I mean, I really saw myself.
I may have held just the slightest British accent in my voice because I loved movies from the forties, especially the way the actors said our ordinary American words with English-flavored flair.
"Half as big as life, that's me," I said. And as I said it, it was as if my eyes were two windows facing a grey, endless pelt of rain. "Half as big as life, that's small. But deep in my heart I know that I'm ten feet tall. Ten feet tall."
That rhyme—along with several others, throughout the monologue—had itched me initially. Because there was something so cute about it. Kind of cloyingly cute. Not my thing, really. It seemed chirpy. But I ignored this concern and memorized it anyway, because this was easier than selecting another play; one without rhyming dialogue. I would take what was obviously a play written not by a writer but by a happy person who was given a typewriter for Christmas, and I would turn it into a dramatic masterpiece.
As I stood before the other students delivering my monologue with chilling emotional precision, I could actually feel how good I was. Goosebumps rose on my arms and, surely, on the arms of the other students and the teacher as well.
I was going to be one of the greatest actors of my day—or possibly the greatest. I had known since a young age that I contained extra colors within my emotional range that I did not see displayed in other people but that they recognized when they saw these colors in me.
That's the only way I can describe my certainty that I was born to act, to inhabit other people. Because I, my own self, could not make connections with others. And when I did, they were staged. I had always been acutely self-conscious, as though I spoke a separate, small, little-known language and didn't want to give myself away. My inability to touch other people now made perfect sense.
Thank the Lord Jesus for making video recorders and play-back decks at just exactly the right moment in time. Because I was able to now see myself not in my own mind, but rather with my own eyes. And it was a stunning revelation.
The knowledge that I was giving an incredible performance in no way aligned with the reality of what I saw. Except for the nervous twitch of my left eyelid, the motionless figure on the screen appeared to be a JCPenney mannequin. At first, I actually thought something might be wrong with the machine, but I thought this only for the briefest instant.
Because I then had another physical sensation: one of falling—but not far—and landing—but not hard—at the bottom of something dark with an earthy, repulsive, yet comforting floor. I felt myself land on the bottom, the flesh of the earth, the ground everything in the world is built on top of and hides from view.
I fell and landed on the truth.
Not the truth I believed in my heart or the truth I wanted to be true but the truth in a more mathematical sense. Like, "Yes or no: You are wearing shoes at this moment?" Truth is an unassailable fact. Not your opinion of the fact. Nor is the truth your report of the events from your own, uniquely distorted and biased view, where there could be a disco ball hanging in the way blocking the most important element.
Which, in this case, happened to be the fact, the truth that I sucked worse than anything has ever sucked in the history of suckage.
Nothing does not get better even with hard work and dedication.
I was not an actor. Okay. What now? It took a long time, but I became a writer. Which is the same thing, except I'm better at it. Probably because I can be alone when I do it. I have absolutely no regret. When I ask myself, why did I want to be an actor? The answer is so plain: to be with people, to reach them.
In my normal life, this is very, very difficult for me.
But writing has allowed me to reach people and feel a connection.
I don't feel I gave up my dream. I gave up my choice of vehicle used to deliver me to it. I thought it would be a big-ass Ford pickup and instead it was a pale-blue hatchback. In truth, if you happen to lack talent at whatever it is you want in life, and if you never stop trying to attain it, you will spend your life feeling like a movie with an out-of-sync soundtrack.
What you have to do is know the truth.
The problem is that nobody else can tell you. Only you know what you contain. What others see of you is only what you show them.
If you want to be a singer and maybe you just are so annoyed by your stupid brother and irritating parents you never, not once, sang anything in their presence aside from a begrudging "Happy Birthday," but you have spent years singing privately, maybe recording yourself, and you're 99 percent certain you're not just fooling yourself, then I agree with the winner for the best sound design in a foreign film under four and a half minutes: Never give up. Or if you can't really sing all that well and you are gifted with both the ability to realistically and objectively appraise your own talent but also supplement it with showmanship or "star quality," then I also feel you should cling to this dream and make it happen.
It's a little confusing because in some cases, the right thing to do is to hold on to your dream, even if maybe you're not the best at whatever it is. The key is self-knowledge. If you know you were meant to be a rock star and you realize this defies reason to some extent but still, your certainty does not waver and there is no other possible life for you, you must pursue that end. Probably. Even though it's actually quite rare to become hugely successful at something you're not all that great at, just because you are so skilled at compensating in other areas. It's rare because there are so many other people who want the same thing and are actually quite excellent. What's also rare is the self-possession to continue in pursuit of one's dream in spite of this knowledge.
And rare is valuable.
If you feel almost the same except you can imagine another kind of life, like being a vet tech, and you wonder if this is what you should do, that "wondering" could be the weak link. Another way to think about it: If you can let go of the dream, you probably should. If you can't let go, don't.
People who live with regret over not following their passion are frequently people who did actually have the talent or the charisma or the whatever-it-takes to have found success, and they can see this now; they wish they had just gone with their instincts back then.
People who do follow their dreams but never find the success they expected walk away with the door prize of being that person who followed a dream, no matter what. That's a lot harder than just entering medical school and coming out the other end a doctor.
You must examine this pursuit of yours. The question to ask yourself is: Why? Why do you want to be a pharmacist? You need to grab your dream out of the sky like it's a kite and pinch the string through your fingers until you reach the spool.
When you taste or smell or feel this dream of yours, how would you describe that residue?
If you immediately imagine yourself on a private jet surrounded by bodyguards and wearing 18-carat diamond-drop earrings, you're in luck. That's an easy one. You don't want to be a singer; you want to be hugely wealthy. So you need to invent something the world wants. Like a conveyer belt runway for jets. Or become a super-successful criminal. Or write a stupidly amazing Facebook game.
Dreams often have a misty, smeared, watercolor resolution. So we don't always try to rack them into focus and ask, "Okay, why do I want this?"
You have to do this. The rock-bottom, earthy truth is exactly the only thing that can make you happy and satisfied in your life.
I blame kindergarten.
That's where we're all taught that everybody is "equal" and can "do anything!" When in fact, we are as equal as squids and puppies.
In the last century I dated an Italian who, like most Long Island-bred Italians, continued to do his laundry at home, despite the fact that he occupied a one-bedroom apartment in Midtown with its own built-in washer and dryer. But it was the frequency with which he called his mother on the phone that made me feel that I was involved in an interspecies relationship.
The Italian Who Basically Still Lives at Home had a teenage sister. The whole family believed she might well be the next Meryl Streep, right there in their midst, hogging the bathroom.
When I finally met his family, I was both puzzled and disturbed. His sister was open and genuinely warm with lots of kinky red hair. She was mentally disabled by some degree of retardation. It made the girl anxious to operate a fork because she didn't want to screw up and spill something. I could see it on her face and it made me ache with tenderness for her. It made me think if I had such a child who was afraid to use her fork for fear of dropping it, I would be the bad parent who says, "Screw forks," and the family would always eat with their hands like cave people. I don't care if that's f**ked up; I know I'd do it anyway. Unless I could make her laugh by eating with a straw, then that's what we'd do. For the rest of our lives.
The girl's family spoke of her as though she were an honors student at Juilliard. While she sat right in front of them at the dinner table, struggling with her noodles.
"Believe me, you: I know talent. And that girl's got it," her mother said.
After the plates had been cleared, the girl abruptly stood and shrieked, "You know how whistle, Stee. You puh the libs together in the blow."
The family members clapped vigorously. The girl said the line once again. In their combined denial and attempt to bolster the girl's confidence, they had misinformed her. Then she turned to me and said, "I have Oscar and he made of gold! And I will win him. And mirror street will not get to have him because I get to."
"She means 'Meryl Streep,'" the mother told me. "She's saying she's going to win the Oscar and not Meryl Streep. I'll tell you one thing, that girl is no small dreamer."
That evening when we returned to The Italian's apartment, I gently broached the subject. "So . . . what's the deal with your family and Mel? It's like nobody seems to even know what's up with her."
He pried one shoe off his heel using the toe of the other. "What do you mean, 'what's up with her?'"
"Well, it's great that everybody is so encouraging around her and she's nuts about you, but, what I mean is, because she's obviously mentally retarded to some degree, is there a risk she might take this encouragement literally? And, like, in real life want to be a movie star?"
This is when I learned that the only thing that you can say to an Italian that's worse than "Your mother charges 20 dollars extra if..." is "Your sister is mentally retarded," even if it's completely true.
He didn't punch me. Instead, he turned around and he opened the door and stood back. He didn't say a word, but he motioned with his head, out.
It would be five years before we spoke again. He called to tell me I had been right, his sister was mentally impaired. They had learned this when she began to go to auditions and had become confused.
She was happy now, though. She was almost 18 and was working at a company that made biodegradable soy-based packing material. Her job was to count things, then click, then do this again and again until it was time to go home. He said she loved it.
Sometimes it's not quite so obvious that the dream is the wrong size, color, and shape for the dreamer. That's when encouraging somebody to keep hope alive borders on cruel. No. There's no bordering. It is cruel. It's just accidental, well-intentioned cruelty.
It is not true that you can do whatever you set your mind to. It is a lie that with hard work and perseverance, you can achieve anything.
And it's better for you to know this: Wanting something with all your heart does not mean you're good enough at it. Letting go of a wish because it cannot be yours is not failing. There are many ways to fail in life, but this is not among them.
The other thing about dreams: They are not like spleens. There is not just one per person.
And here's the hardest truth: You are the only person to judge whether you do have the talent or skill or ability to make your hopes happen—or you don't. Nobody else can tell you because you may be holding in reserve something extra, something more and rare, and very much enough. Only you know.
From This Is How by Augusten Burroughs. Copyright © 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
Augusten Burroughs is the author of the best-selling book Running with Scissors, as well as Dry and This Is How.