Thursday, September 18, 2014

Dreaming Big - A Story of Failure

You'll excuse me while I indulge in some middle-of-the-night fear-and-regret wallowing and motivation-pumping.

I was not one of those kids who figured out what he wanted to do early in life. I attended an event in ninth grade in which I and a couple of classmates had to introduce ourselves and tell our future goals. The other kids had answers like "I'm going to study medicine and be a doctor" or "I'm going to study engineering to work in the petroleum industry."

My answer? "When I grow up, I want to be... tall." (SPOILER ALERT--didn't happen).

The problem, mainly, was that I was one of those kids--obsessed with television and science fiction and fantasy and, most especially, superhero comics--who was not in any way interested in reality. Reality was mundane. Reality was beneath me.

Plus, I was really smart, which made it easy for me to coast through most of high school without having to work too hard. I could sing and act well enough to have a reputation as a big talent among our small high school, but I was so shy and insecure that I never really considered trying to make a living at something like that.

I developed the habit of faking it through high school, doing just as much as I needed to get by while retreating into fantasy in my spare time. I didn't get a part-time job and develop any real-world skills. I didn't have a girlfriend. I didn't have any really close friends.

And then Star Wars happened. And as I was in my junior year of high school, having to think seriously about what I wanted to do in life so I could pick a major in college, I realized that George Lucas had gone to film school. Seriously, there was a school where you could go to learn how to make movies. I applied to the same school he had attended--the University of Southern California--and somehow got in.

But having been literally handed the keys to my dream--enrollment in a prestigious university right in the middle of the movie capital of the world--I did nothing with it. I didn't take it seriously. I didn't actually know how to take it seriously. I didn't hang out at the film school building with the other film students. I didn't network with the several connections I had within the industry (and I made a few). I didn't work hard to learn the skills I needed. I mostly stayed in my apartment, watching shitty movies and writing sporadically on some really shitty scripts that I was afraid to show to anyone because I knew they weren't up to snuff. On weekends, I played D&D.

And I still didn't get a part-time job or a girlfriend, because mundane work was beneath me and girls terrified me. And when I finally started the film production track in earnest, I had no money to make my student films with and no social skills or self-confidence to get people to act in my films for me. I ended up dropping out and moving back to Oklahoma, ashamed at my failure.

I decided to recalibrate my dreams and try again. I worked at the Daily Oklahoman, where I lucked into a position as a freelance movie critic, then as a general entertainment reporter, despite not having a journalism degree. I bought an early-model Macintosh computer and wrote several screenplays, even travelled back to Los Angeles to try to get representation for one of them (SPOILER ALERT: I didn't succeed).

After a couple of years and a reorganization at the paper, I lost the film reviewing gig and ended up having to get my first real job, waiting tables at Bennigans. By this time, I had made friends with Mike McQuay, an award-winning science fiction novelist who read a couple of my screenplays and had some encouraging words for me. He suggested that I should blow off writing unproduceable giant monster movie scripts and really get into writing novels and stories. I also tried to put together a proposal to finance my own low-budget independent film, but I felt as if I didn't dare start until I had raised a production budget of at least a million dollars, and there was no way I was confident enough to ask anyone to give me a million dollars, so that went nowhere.

I had also gotten into a serious relationship with the woman who soon became Mrs. Frazier, which caused me to put off any more thoughts about a film career. I did think about going off to Vancouver Film School for a year (SPOILER ALERT-didn't) and try writing and selling one more script (SPOILER ALERT--nope) before recalibrating my dreams yet again and buying an Amiga with the idea of making an ultra-cheap direct-to-video science fiction thriller. But by that time, my heart wasn't really in it any more. After more than ten years of failure, filmmaking was pretty much over for me, even as a dream.

It took me several years, some false starts, and an enlistment in the Army before I ended up finally recalibrating my dreams again and making a serious run at being a novelist. I wrote Blue Falcon, a novel about a modern-day Korean war, which failed to find representation. I finally ended up self-publishing it through iUniverse just to get it out of my system. I joined a writers group here in Tulsa and wrote a handful of short stories (some of which I even sold).

But by this time, my marriage was falling apart, along with my day-to-day career, and I made the Biggest Mistake of my Life(TM), a bad business decision that left me not only broke but unemployed and deeply in debt. I wrote a couple more novels, but didn't even try to sell them through regular publishing channels. I recalibrated my dreams downwards again, self-pubbed through Smashwords and CreateSpace, sold virtually nothing. I tried different schemes at building an audience on-line through daily serialization and movie reviews and what have you, but nothing really gained any traction.

And this was where I found myself last year: broke, exhausted, alone, with a long record of failure and my dreams recalibrated downwards so many times that I no longer really had any dreams left.

And then, this year, things slowly started getting better. I got a full-time job once again, and with my father's help, I got my debts paid off. I started working out and adjusted my diet and started feeling better. And in the course of working out, I encountered this guy at nerdfitness.com who talked about the importance of not putting off your dreams, but going out to achieve them. More importantly, he suggested to dream really big, not to recalibrate your expectations so low that you could never be disappointed.

Which I would normally have dismissed as pie-in-the-sky motivational poster sloganeering, except that he suggested thinking of it as a role-playing game. Think of the big ultimate goal as Level 50 and break it down into smaller steps that become your intermediate levels. And then, don't worry about 50. Work on making Level Two. Once you've got Two, go for Three, and so forth. Eventually, 50 will come.

It was nothing I hadn't heard before, but that perspective really got me rethinking my life and my expectations. It had literally been so long since I had let myself dream that I honestly couldn't remember how. But for the last few months, I've been rolling that idea around in my head, and I think I've got something.

A big dream.

Something that I've wanted to do for literally my entire life, but always put off because I didn't have the knowledge or skills or resources or confidence or even, honestly, the ambition.

I'm not quite ready to share it publicly yet. But I've been playing with the idea for a couple of weeks, breaking down the steps, level by level, and the more I do, the more feasible it seems. I may not ever get to level 50 (that will depend on things that are really out of my control), but I'm well on the way to Level Two. For the first time in over a year, I'm working on something I'm really excited about,  and if I keep concentrating on the levels at hand, the higher levels will come.

Wish me luck.

1 comment:

sargon999 said...

That sounds amazing. Please tell me if I can help.