Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The myth of progress

Listen, children. I've had a revelation. And I want to share it here.

I've been working on being a "professional actress" for a little over two years. In those two years, I've had some incredible opportunities. (This is going to sound very Gilderoy Lockhart-ish of me, so I apologize, but there's a point to this, so stick with me...) I've been on sets with Rob Reiner and Cary Elwes, I've acted opposite Michael Cerveris under the direction of Steven Soderbergh, I've done one local commercial, and I'm currently in rehearsal for my sixth stage production since moving to Utah. Which is all so so so amazing.

But there have been (and continue to be) plenty of "no's" along the way. And there's something particularly painful about "no's" that come after having success. You start to think awful things like, "I've played a lead in a Hale West Valley show, and now I'm ensemble?!" Isn't that awful? It's awful. It doesn't feel good. It isn't good. It's snobby and prideful and self-serving. So then you swing to the opposite and start thinking things like, "Those times I was cast were just a fluke. I'm not actually good. I'll never actually 'make it.' I truly deeply suck." Which also doesn't feel good. Both of those philosophies distract from doing the actual work of acting.

So here's my realization. I've been thinking of acting in this "linear progress" kind of way. Something kind of like this:

(Don't judge my hasty clip art illustration.)

And it makes total sense that I would think that way. There are plenty of forces at work to put this idea in my head. Darwin, for one. This is the subject of a Master's thesis, so I won't go into details, but there's this weird idea that people seemed to take from the theory of evolution, and that is that everyone and everything is working towards becoming more "advanced." And it's all tangled up with fairly recent ideas of imperialism, too...that some societies are more civilized than others, and that they can bring civilization to the primitive peoples of the world.

Not only is Darwin and imperialism at work, but all of the mythos of the American dream centers on the same idea of progress, of slowly rising to the top, out of your own hard work. And this is how most other industries work. You slowly get promoted until you're at the top. If you don't get to the top, well then, you didn't deserve to be there, or you didn't want to be there.

But for acting (or a lot of other industries, actually), I don't think it's quite an accurate way of looking at things. And I don't think it's quite as healthy a way of looking at things, either. There are a few accurate things about it, but I think it's mostly problematic. It allows for both pride ("I'm at the top!") and self-loathing ("I'm at the bottom!"), and it creates a world in which we set people up as "better" than others. It oversimplifies things, and ignores all of the other factors that go into casting. It doesn't leave much room for complexity. It also doesn't actually reflect reality. You don't move steadily up that green arrow. But when we think of acting in this way, we're filled with resentment when we feel we've moved "down." Because "that's not how it's supposed to work! I'm supposed to work hard, get better, keep getting bigger and better roles, and then I'll make it!"

So, maybe it's better to look at progress in acting in a more "cyclical" way. Something like this:

(More clip art action.)

If you think of acting this way, there's less feeling of "I'm not making progress." There's less resentment when you get a smaller role than you think you "deserved" or when you don't get cast. You take the incredible opportunities that come to you without thinking they're owed to you. You can't think of yourself as above someone else on some march of progress to the "top" when they're just across from you, or next to you. And if you keep your own acting goals in the center, then everything you do can be seen as moving towards that somehow.

Fame and fortune and success are strange, often impermanent things. John Travolta was nominated for two Academy Awards. He also made multiple talking baby movies...between Oscar nominations. If you think of acting progress in that linear way, those are steps backwards and jumps forwards...the momentum is exhausting.

Of course, it can also be exhausting to move around the circle above, too. Especially if you spend a lot of time in the "not being cast" portion of it. That's hard. And the only thing you can do is be patient and keep trying. I have a friend who recently moved to New York to pursue acting. She said that when she's talked to people, they all say, "You've got to work steadily at this for ten years. If you can stick with this for ten years, you can make this your full-time job." But most people only give it a year or so. A year isn't long enough. You've got to keep yelling "F*** you, Matt Damon!" until you're where you want to be.

There's also the very real possibility that doing this relentlessly for ten years will take too great a toll on you. It could be that the exhaustion of moving around that circle of progress is greater than the reward. It's a scary thing to realize--that you might need to take a step back, adjust your goals. There are two kinds of dread when it comes to doing that: the dread that you're giving up too easily, or the dread that comes from giving up a dream you've held onto for so long, even if it doesn't fit you any more. What will people think? Who will you be if you don't hold this dream? But you will suffer less if you listen to your own intuition, try not to give a damn about what other people think, and make the choices that will make you happy and whole.

I'm still trying to shift my own paradigm here. But this change in thinking has already helped me find peace, helped me live in the moment, helped me do better work onstage and be a better person offstage. I hope it can do the same for you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

What It Means

In the week following the election, I had this strange kind of "reactive mutism." I couldn't figure out how to say what I was thinking or feeling, so I just didn't really say anything for a little while.
I tried to write about the election when it first happened. That blog entry is a jumbled, emotional mess, so I left it in drafts while I processed everything. I'm still processing, and this is the best I could do when it comes to organizing my thoughts.

As an American, as a Christian, as the granddaughter of immigrants, as a survivor of sexual assault, as an environmentalist, and yes, as a woman, I cried myself to sleep over the election results.

Electing leaders is a matter of evaluating both character, experience, and policy. Trump's character is mercurial, narcissistic, unpredictable, dishonest, and thoughtless. He has no political experience, and his experience as a businessman has been fraught with bankruptcies and failure to pay the people he has hired. His policies are marginalizing and harmful to people who have been marginalized and harmed for decades.

Clinton's character is level-headed, thoughtful, and intelligent. The email "scandal" is the result of technological ineptitude, not criminal intent. She has spent a lifetime in civil service. Her policies are well-researched, and do the most good for the most people. 

And America chose Trump. A reality-television "star" who has used fear as one of his main campaign weapons. And even if something happens and Trump is impeached or resigns, Mike Pence will be in office, and he worries me, too.

 Everything feels wrong, and it feels like nothing will fix it.

A friend said that she woke up the morning  after the election, it was like waking up after a really bad breakup. You have a few moments of peace before remembering what happened and then it hits you again...all the heartbreak. It's like a bad dream that you can't wake up from.

 There's a part of me that hears the faint strains of a fiddle being played while the country burns.

And before anyone accuses me of whining because my candidate didn't win, let's get something out of the way right now. This is more than just partisanship. I have been disappointed in elections before. I've been sad when people whose policies I disagree with are elected to office. But this is different. This was the first female nominee who has a lifetime of civil service vs. a man who has zero political or military experience. You may have been disappointed when Obama took office, because maybe you disagreed with his economic policies or his healthcare plan or his budget recommendations. I'm disappointed that both Congress and the Presidency will be Republican, since I'm a Democrat.

But never before has the President-elect: made so many false claims during his campaign, advocated war crimes, said women should be punished for abortions, urged violence at rallies, mocked a reporter's physical disability, called for a ban on members of an entire religion entering the U.S., described climate change as a hoax perpetuated by China, called Mexican immigrants rapists, disparaged someone's military service because they were captured, praised the poor treatment of Japanese-Americans in America during WW2, praised a North Korean dictator, not paid his bills as a businessman, bragged about sexual assault, been praised by multiple white supremacy groups, discussed the size of his penis in a Presidential debate, lied about charitable donations, said that "laziness is a trait in blacks," been a plaintiff in almost 2,000 lawsuits, been accused of sexual assault, made multiple disparaging remarks about women (pumping breastmilk, menstruation, looks), and more. Any one of those things should have been an end to it. Any one of those things should have shut the whole thing down. Even if he's apologized or recanted, the thing about words is that once they're said, they're said. Do not compare the dismay I'm feeling to disappointment at losing.

(And before anyone accuses me of media bias, some of the links I provided are through media companies, but the primary sources are not hard to find, nor do they refute any of the things reported. It's not my job to do your research for you. I'm just providing jumping off points.)

I know that a lot of Americans are in a really tough place right now. For example, Detroit got completely screwed by the auto industry. The closing of coal mines and manufacturing plants throughout the U.S. have put a lot of people in a desperate place. Trump talked a lot about rising crime rates, even though he was completely wrong about them. Donald Trump offers hope and policy that speaks to people who feel afraid or disenfranchised, even if he might not be able to follow through. Cracked had a great article that explained the appeal of Trump for so many people. But all of that stuff? That's not a good enough excuse. Because your economic situation is a result of your circumstances. They can be changed, even if it's really difficult. Being Muslim, being black, identifying as a woman--those things can't be changed. For some of you who voted for Trump, it looks for all the world like you traded the safety and value of Muslims, people of color, and women...for a job.

All of this means we haven't come as far as I thought we'd come. I know that not all Trump voters are racist, xenophobic, or sexist. But even if they aren't, they were willing to overlook those things in their nominee, and that's just as big of a problem. Which means the country I love is not as thoughtful or kind as I believed.

Liberal vs. conservative is rarely about "right" vs. "wrong"'s more often a question of what people value more. And I'm dismayed to learn that fewer people than I realized value diversity and equity and kindness. Or at least, it seems like they don't value those things as much as I thought people did. 

I'm always wary of hyperbolic or highly emotional posts about politics. I try to counter my emotional reactions with rational thought. But I am disturbed in both mind and heart. I am deeply troubled that the majority of the people in this country are willing to risk the lives and safety of so many others for what they want. I know there are still tens of thousands of kind, thoughtful, good people. (And I'm sure that many Trump supporters are also kind, and thoughtful, and good.) But it's heartbreaking and terrifying that there are so many who were willing to put a demagogue in power--someone who has not demonstrated kindness or thoughtfulness or goodness.

My mom sent me this inspiring email on the morning of the election, about what it means to her personally that we have a woman on the ballot for President. Before the election results came in, I sat at my desk at work and cried at the beauty of what it means to have a woman President. I cried for Susan B. Anthony and for the Equal Rights Amendment and for the generations of women who weren't encouraged to have a career. I agreed with Hillary Clinton's policies and trusted her character, which are the main reasons I voted for her. But I also couldn't escape the beautiful symbolism of her candidacy.

Listen, I know things will be "fine." I am inspired by the messages of hope and love and yes, anger and disappointment. That anger and disappointment assures me that there are still so many good people in the world, and the hope and love they're willing to share reminds me to be better and kinder and to not let my sorrow make evil of me. I know that America will recover from whatever possible disaster happens over the next four years. That's not what I'm worried about. I'm worried about the COST. I'm worried not about the ultimate fate of this country. I'm worried about the casualties.

I'm worried about Planned Parenthood. I'm worried about the Environmental Protection Agency. I'm worried about health insurance. I'm worried about foreign relations with Cuba, with Russia, with Mexico, with the Middle East. I'm worried about race relations in America. I'm worried about the Dakota Access Pipeline. I'm worried about the Muslims in our country and throughout the world. I'm worried about survivors of sexual harassment and assault--if they see what our President could "get away with," it sends the message that they won't be listened to and that perpetrators won't suffer consequences.

People always say, "It could never happen here" when they talk about political disasters. But I'm sure that's what ancient Rome said. I'm sure that's what Germany said. And while America does have legal and cultural checks in place to prevent our own self-destruction, we did put over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps less than 100 years ago. There are people alive today who were interred by their own government simply for being Japanese.

I don't know how we'll explain to our children what happened. I don't want to be a fear monger. But I also don't want to ignore what are potentially really really really big problems. Don't tell me we need to come together. I know we do. But I refuse to ignore the real problems of people of color and women and Muslims in this country.

I deeply admire those who are patient and forgiving of those who spread hate and fear and ignorance, even while fighting it. I'm not there yet. I'm working on it. This is why I haven't spoken a lot about the election during the last week--I'm still hurting too much, and I don't know how to be patient and forgiving without feeling like I'm abandoning my principles of standing up for those who need defending. When I say "I forgive those who spread hate and fear and ignorance," it feels a lot like I'm saying that what they did or said is okay. And it's not. I've got plans for how to deal with it when I witness harassment. I'll continue to participate in marches and rallies and protests. Right now, I'm just concentrating on letting my anger/hurt/disappointment take the Martin Luther King, Jr. route, instead of the Malcom X route. Because I know that ultimately, letting feelings make decisions is what got us into this mess.

I have hope, but I'm exhausted just thinking about the next four years. SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A resignation

Liz Chapman
123 Address Place
Salt Lake City, UT 11111

Sunday, November 6, 2016

National Novel Writing Month
123 The Internet Blvd.
The Internet, The World 00000

Dear Sir or Madam:

This letter is to regretfully inform you that I have chosen to tender my resignation from this year's NaNoWriMo. Please know that it is very likely that I will participate in future years, and that your organization still has my full and enthusiastic support.

I am very grateful for the inspiration and guidance you have given me in past years. I first participated in NaNoWriMo in 2012, with a manuscript I did not complete that year, but which has since been finished, and which never would have existed without your group. I have completed a novel every November since then, and now have three full novel manuscripts. Through my participation in NaNoWriMo, I have learned discipline, how to overcome writer's block, the value of writing continually in order to improve, and have gained enormous confidence in my ability to create work. I am eternally grateful to your organization for all of the things you have given me.

In order that you may have a deeper understanding of my resignation, allow me to present my reasons:

I am currently pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing from an online university program. This semester, I am taking a class in ekphrastic poetry and a playwrighting class. Both of these courses demand that I complete weekly writing assignments, and in a few weeks, I will begin work on a full-length play manuscript. To add a 50,000-word novel to my to-do list gives me a sense of diluting my forces me to focus on breadth instead of depth. I am not able to give any of my writing projects my full attention, especially with other demands like working as an actress and keeping a day job. Normally, I would reject "I'm spread too thin" as an excuse. I feel you must make writing a priority in order to be good at it. But with my MFA program, it's ALREADY a priority. It doesn't make sense to add a secondary writing priority. Doing so makes me less able to do meaningful work in either place.

This MFA program forces me to write regularly, which is one of the great strengths of NaNoWriMo. If that need is being met through homework assignments, I don't have as strong of a need to participate in writing a novel during November.

For me, NaNoWriMo is also a yearly reminder of the value of just creating, and that I am capable of writing, despite frustration or fatigue. But after 3 years, it's a lesson I feel I carry with me more permanently. I have less of a need for that reminder this year, though I'm sure the time will come when I need it again.

I have been worried that my resignation will be a disappointment to friends who have watched me on my yearly NaNoWriMo journey. I even set up a support group on Facebook for those who are participating this year. I regret stepping away from my novel, and worry about what it will mean for those friends who I began with. But ultimately, I knew this resignation was the best choice for me. I will still be available to offer moral support to my fellow WriMos, and I look forward to finishing my novel in the future. This resignation was not a decision made out of fatigue or frustration with my story or a lack of confidence. It was a thoughtful decision based on what my long-term and short-term goals are, and whether or not NaNoWriMo this year was helping me meet those goals.

Thank you for everything you do. You have inspired and continue to inspire generations of writers. I look forward to working with you again in the future.


Liz Chapman