When The Dream Dies: How Long Do You Try To "Make It"?


On November 2, 1997, The New York Times published a very interesting and moving article by Andrew W. Jacobs, entitled, "When The Dream Dies: How Long Do You Fight The Odds When So Much Points To Failure?" (Section 14, The City, p. 1.) In it, he chronicled the struggle of artists to make it in New York City, the city that is America’s heartland for theater, writing, and many other forms of art: the Mecca of the creative mind that wants to "make it"; sometimes the fatal promise of lights that leads lives to become wrecks; the siren’s song that dooms the sailor to drown in beauty he cannot own; the flame that burns the moth. As Frank Sinatra sang, "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere." The trouble is, if you’re an artist, it isn’t easy to make it here. (Or anywhere.)

Andrews begins the article describing the struggles of a singer, working by day as a receptionist answering telephones, and in the night, as a waitress - five years of dead-end jobs, and struggle, trying to get a break:

“I feel scared in a way I’ve never felt before,” she said, as a passing subway train rumbled beneath her feet. “I mean, how much longer can I do this? How much longer can I fight for the recognition I know I deserve?”

They are questions you might hear from countless waiters, store clerks and cab drivers, if only you asked. For every overhyped success story, there are hundreds of anonymous dreamers. How long do you hold on? Some people fold in a few years, others struggle for a lifetime. To some, repeated rejection only fortifies their resolve to stay the course, as if surrender would mean the abandonment of a core identity.

“What they do is who they are,” said Joan Lowell, a former actress who helps underemployed theater professionals retool their skills for the job market. “It’s like they’ve joined a convent. Blind faith is the only way they can keep going, even when they don’t have much hope at success.”

The singer in question, who "gave herself three years to make it", had pushed on, too attached to her dream and sure of her talent to quit; and yet, after five years of not earning any money from her singing (what little she made was offset by expenses for her band and publicity), she admitted that sometimes she felt like "throwing in the towel."

Still, even as things seem hopeless, the dream dies hard. What will an artist do, if not his art? How can he or she give up the quest for the Holy Grail? Sometimes, struggling artists draw upon the legacy of others who suffered before them: others who were scorned, ignored, or rejected for years until, finally, their persistence paid off, and their dream came true.

Every unsung actor, poet and playwright can recount the story of a role model whose perseverance was rewarded later in life. “Look at Van Gogh,” said Simon Gaon, 54, an Upper West Side painter who spent years on welfare. “He was always proof to me that if you stick to your goal, there is a payback. Sometimes, unfortunately, it comes after you’re dead."

Denial has a way of keeping people in unrewarding jobs until a crisis forces them to confront their diminishing prospects. Often, the realization hits in their late 30’s or early 40’s, when peers are solidifying careers, buying co-ops and raising families.

“In my experience, very few people achieve their dreams in this city,” said Ms. Lowell, who founded the Actors’ Work Program. “I see it every day. But giving up doesn’t come in a day. It happens slowly. Sometimes it takes years.”

One man who came to New York to make it as an actor, after a period of initial hope, became bogged down in years of stagnation and disappointment. After years of bartending, he ended up enrolling in a computer programming course at the Chubb Institute in lower Manhattan, while supporting himself by doing word processing on the night shift at various legal firms.

… With the decision [to give up acting] made, he can look at the future with optimism. “I’m excited to work in a field where there are actually jobs,” he said.

Giving up on a dream is not always a conscious decision. Sometimes an aspiration fades until it becomes a memory, something that evokes more fondness than regret. Sometimes it takes a new passion to loosen the grip. “In New York, you can call yourself an artist, even though you haven’t touched paintbrush to canvas in years,” said Francisco Mamadou, 39, who stopped calling himself a painter recently. It took Mr. Mamadou a new career in social work to change his self-identification.

“In a way, I think New York makes it harder to let go, because the city worships artistic people and ennobles the struggle,” he said. “In reality, it’s awful being poor.”

Well, in some circles, it’s true, artistic people are respected and loved in New York - though this love is far from universal, and is largely provided by other artistic types! In New York, money is respected far more than art. And Mamadou was right when he said it’s awful being poor. It is!

Mark Haddad, who came to New York to break into journalism, likewise experienced failure. As he slowly began to shift into another profession, and to accept finding himself there, he admits he did not notice exactly what was taking place.

“At the time, I didn’t think I was putting aside my goals.”

Three years later, Mr. Haddad no longer goes on interviews; he seldom mentions his dormant aspirations. Eating lunch [in midtown Manhattan], he put down his fork when asked if he considered his ambitions moribund. “It’s like the lover you left behind because things weren’t working out,” he explained after a long pause. “You might have found a new relationship, but you always wonder if you made a mistake.”

These days he is focusing on [his new career], but he admits to occasional pangs of regret, especially when watching the news. “It’s like the actor sitting in the audience as someone performs the role he feels he should have gotten,” he said. “It aches sometimes, but the pain has receded. My initial dream may have died, but it brought me to a city that has opened up other worlds.”

Of course, many people never give up. But hanging on requires high maintenance in a city where paying the rent becomes a full-time occupation. “If you’re willing to be a big fish in a small pond, you could live in another part of the country, have a decent life and still pursue your craft,” said Ted Berger, executive director of the New York Foundation for the Arts. “In New York, where the cost of living is so high, that has become increasingly more difficult.”

For many creative people, staying the course is a test of endurance; often, only those with a high threshold for suffering can persist as youth gives way to middle age and optimism turns to disappointment.

“You have to have a total belief in yourself and the ability to stick to your vision, especially when the world tells you you’re worthless,” said Barbara Hollister, a curator who tries to revive the careers of overlooked artists (and the reputations of some dead ones). “Most people just don’t have that kind of inner strength.”

The thought-provoking article does end on an upbeat note, with the story of Simon Gaon, an artist, now 54, who sold his first painting at the age of 18, and jokes: "That, you could say, was the peak of my career." After that he did not sell a painting for decades.

He survived on public assistance or through the generosity of friends and family. It wasn’t until his mid-30’s that he got his first job, organizing street fairs. He muddled through poverty and depression. He paid his therapist with paintings. “I thought I was a genius and I shouldn’t have to compromise.”

Why didn’t he give up, after so many years of rejection, painting in a vacuum, it seemed, connecting with no one?

Mr. Gaon said he never gave up because doing so would have been akin to suicide. “It would have been like a Jew converting to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition,” he said. But beneath the bravado, he admitted, that he feared dying in obscurity.

But Gaon’s luck changed when an important art dealer finally discovered slides of his work on a friend’s desk. The dealer undertook to represent him, and at long last, Gaon’s paintings began to sell. Proof that there are sometimes happy endings?

Why did I write this article? My creative friends, surely not to discourage you from creating! Perhaps to show you that you are not alone; that there are many of us in this same battle, trying to fulfill ourselves, and to give something to others which is far greater than what we could give if we were to abandon our dreams completely, and allow ourselves to be absorbed by a system that wants to tie us to other tasks: tasks that lack the heart, the spirit, and the soul of what we are living for, and sometimes, it seems, dying for.

For more on my views of artists, and what can be done to make our lives easier (concepts of unity and mutual cooperation), see The Message of Rainsnow, p. 358-367. Somehow, we must find ways to keep the dream alive - for all of us!

NOTE: All passages in "Arial Baltic" type are direct quotes from The New York Times article cited at the top, "When The Dream Dies", by Andrew W. Jacobs. Thanks to AWJ for such a well-written and (for us) relevant article!



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