One of the core missions of the Badger Hut is to advise young adults on various personal and professional challenges from age 20 to 30 or so, particularly the fact that you really have no idea where the journey will take you. To that end, today we are blessed by the wise words of comedy writer and improv artists Erin Whitehead. Erin lives in Los Angeles, performs at Upright Citizens Brigade, and is a featured writer for OnlineDatingSites.net. Follow her on Twitter @girlwithatail.
I spent close to a decade in Los Angeles in what I call my dog years; seven years passed but I only got about a year of living done in that time. Fresh out of college and armed with useful advice in slogan form like, “Make your dreams a reality,” and, “You can do anything you set out to do,” I began the work of attaining my big goal: to be Natalie Portman. Or Claire Danes. Or realistically (I thought) to be my own version of these gorgeous, serious actresses who got their start as preteens. I enrolled in a series of method acting classes during which I was coached into “break throughs” (mental breakdowns) and where I had to relive every terrible thing that ever happened to me in order to truly understand the characters I was playing (You know, like I’m sure they do on Entourage). The problem was I didn’t start as a preteen, I wasn’t gorgeous, being that serious all the time was making me depressed, and oh – I hated it. I realized this about three years in but, like my first real relationship, I thought that abandoning something just because you were miserable made you a quitter and that clashed with the other slogan advice I had in my pocket: “Don’t be a quitter.”
I’m not totally sure where these life lesson bumper stickers came from. It wasn’t family or teachers but then those weren’t voices I put much stock in anyway. Chances are, like most every other value I’d honed, I had pieced them together from 80’s movies. When Ally Sheedy’s character in The Breakfast Club said, “When you grow up your heart dies,” I took that to mean that letting go of something you wanted meant giving up and giving in to the grind of depressing adulthood. Characters in 80’s movies had dreams, goals, and aspirations that they NEVER let go of even if they ended up crippled in a wheel chair! Of course, the other thing about 80’s movies is they took place over a couple of days or weeks. The silhouettes of dreamers faded fist-in-air into the credits leaving you with the certainty that they’d never alter course. Had my own life freeze-framed at the end of one particularly moving monologue in a method class it would have suggested a very different trajectory than the one I’m currently on.
What I didn’t get was that allowing yourself to realize you don’t want something anymore isn’t the same as giving up. In fact, it’s just the inverted way of saying you want something different. If I had been open to listening to my heart which was, as Ally Sheedy predicted, dying, I would have saved years (and thousands of dollars in method classes). Instead, since I was squashing the inner rumblings that something wasn’t right, it took getting smacked in the face from something on the outside. Three dates in with a writer/comedian I jolted to life when I suddenly knew with absolute certainty that I desperately needed and wanted not to date him, but to BE him. No, I didn’t want to become a man (although hey, if my heart wants that one day, I’ll be open to it). I wanted his life. I’d been so crippled by clinging to an old want, I didn’t even know I had new, stronger one until it was making out with me. I wanted to be writing and doing comedy. Like most big crushes I’ve nursed, I was attracted to them because they physically embodied something I wanted. It’s just that I didn’t know I wanted it until I saw someone else walking around with it. It’s like when someone borrows your sweater without asking and you’re like, “That’s a nice – hey, that’s MY sweater, why didn’t I ever notice how great it looked until it was on someone else?” When you see your dream life walking around in someone else’s skin, you first want to hump them, then you want to be them. As soon as I figured that out, I ended my dog year.
If my life freeze-framed this second it would suggest I’m well on my way to becoming a successful writer/comedian. Right now, I really frigging hope that’s the case. But then if you had asked me what I want to be when I was ten I would have said, “Marine Biologist” (it was the cool thing to say you wanted to be that year). If you had asked me when I was five I would have said, “A horse.” Harmless as the question might seem, when adults ask kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” it implies that they should know. That it should be one, constant thing. I think “want” is a moving horizon. It’s the dangling carrot that urges us forward to the next thing we didn’t even know we wanted because we hadn’t seen it yet. Wanting something and going about attaining it is awesome. But for me it’s not about following it through to the bloody end. It’s about where the pursuit of that want takes you and what it makes you want next. It keeps you moving forward which keeps you alive. It keeps your heart from dying.