BY RENA MEDOW
This piece is part of the Relationship Issue. Read more here.
Before I understood I had a lisp, too many feelings and too little volition, I wanted to be an actress. On stage, I felt complex, mystical, and exotic. I didn’t have to own my wounds or shame. I was a human portraying a human. It was the closest thing I knew to purity.
The death of a dream is like any other death; sometimes it’s unexpected, other times it’s slow, exhaustive, and inevitable. To those around me, it was obvious that being an actress was not my singular fate, but I still memorized lines and refused to grieve.
A few years ago, during what I now call "the summer of insecurities," I became obsessed with my body. It was my vehicle for communication in a world where young women, in particular, are taught that their bodies are the gateway to being loved. I saw my physical flaws as indicative of how unlovable I feared I was. I wanted to design myself, control the roles I could play, and ultimately, the love I received.
Which is why I was practicing tongue exercises and glaring at my 15-year old, newly-anorexic reflection in the subway window one July afternoon. I was told by a woman who I have huge respect and adoration for, that I must sharpen my S’s if I wanted to be taken seriously as an actress and a person. She wanted to save me from embarrassment and give me the best chance possible at success. She saw my vulnerability and was willing to tell me what the industry would eventually shove down my throat.
I was consumed by my slight lisp. I grew a certain disdain for the letter S and blushed when I spoke. I could never mimic sounds with the perfect crispness of an actor, and, after awhile, I stopped trying. I realized I couldn’t afford to be embarrassed to speak; I had too much to say.
It was because of my barely perceptible lisp and slightly too-wide hips that I explored a new avenue: writing. Writing was a way for me to separate myself from my body. Through writing, I felt I could attain new arms, new legs, a flatter stomach--a perfect voice.
The following summer, I went to New York City again to study screen and playwriting at NYU. On the first day of class, my screenwriting professor asked each student what they wanted to be. "A poet," I said. He stood dramatically, stepped closer. "Poetry," he declared, "is not an affluent career. Do you want to be affluent?" His glasses reflected the imposing skyline outside the window behind me, an image that still hangs in my mind. "No," I replied. "Good," he announced for the benefit of the class with two fingers on my desk. "Prepare for failure." It felt like a promise.
If I didn’t have the idealistic beauty to be an actress or the grit to be a poet, but maybe I could be a playwright? Along with acting and teaching a poetry class the following year, I also endeavored to write three full length plays. I handed draft after draft to my mentor--but my plays were "too poetic, esoteric, and avant-garde." I began to lose creative trust in myself.
Eventually I surrendered to his advice and wrote an adaption of Sophocles "Antigone." Antigone is a play about a young woman who rebels against the law to bury her brother and is killed by her uncle, the King. I cast, directed, and watched my adaption come to fruition. I was told again and again how proud I should be. I watched from the sidelines in tears. I cried because Antigone is not a story I knew how to tell. Antigone’s pain was not my pain. I accepted my bouquet with a forced smile. I felt like a fraud.
By taking the bones of an ancient story and giving it modern clothes, my mentor thought I would learn how to become a good writer. Instead my writing and heart suffered. I fiercely wanted the people in my life to be proud of me, so I sacrificed my passions continually. I was addicted to validation and praise. I didn’t feel qualified to judge myself or my own work, so I let my mentors roll me like a die, over and over. I didn’t know why I hated my body. I didn’t know why I hated my voice. I didn’t know why I wrote a play in the first place.
I started out the new year writing a poem a day. I wanted to shake my fate by its collar. I was exhausted by self-doubt, and poetry was my haven. Poetry accepts the world as complicated, but finds ways to streamline those complications in beautiful and comforting ways. I read and wrote; I felt that was all I could do. I knew most of my poems wouldn’t be great, but I wanted to explore my voice. I needed to know there were a few good lines inside of me.
A few weeks ago, I felt a strange, intuitive impulse. A part of me that needed to be heard, felt, and cared for demanded I make a film. I was excited. I felt uniquely qualified to tell a story I knew how to tell. I wanted to talk about what it means to live in a small rural town. To want love. To go to Manhattan wearing heart shaped sunglasses and be destroyed by men and mean girls. To be rejected and unsure in my art and relationships. To hurt and feel guilty that I hurt and still find redemption.
I had a story somewhere within my own story, esoteric and poetic as it might be. And an actress somewhere inside the mirror who needed this hypothetical and embryonic film as much as it needed me.
I was excited to tell my mentor about my new project and ask him if he’d read my screenplay. His response surprised me: "You can’t produce a poem everyday and expect one day you’ll be a poet. You’re a neophyte. I want to see you master something. Read the same ten poems everyday instead. Revel in craft. Don’t make an amateur film, Rena. It will be a silly and inadequate use of your time."
I can’t think of one time in the last four years when I haven’t applied my mentor’s advice. I've followed his suggestions with an almost religious zeal. I believed everyone else knew me better than I could know myself. I thought the best way to learn was to copy, memorize, and mimic the people who I respect and adore. I gave away my power because I wanted to be humble, admired, loved, and didn’t want to be held accountable for my own mistakes.
Mistakes can be scary, heartbreaking, and valuable. I chose to write my screenplay. Not because I don’t believe in my mentors, but because I am trying to believe in myself. I don’t want my fear of making "bad art" to prevent me from supporting my ambitions. Even if my ambitions are ridiculous.
Right now, I’m working on a scene where the protagonist in my film (a parody of me, named Metal) is tactlessly laying on a sofa during a job interview as if she were at a therapist’s office. She says, "I want it all to mean something. There are thousands of girls just like me. Girls who dream of making their mark with paint, clay, a camera, guitar, ballpoint pen…They think what they have to say is valuable. What if my ambition is not indicative at all of my talent?"
Talent is amoebic, hard to define and find. Like most young artists, I’m afraid I might not have it. But even if my work doesn't hold meaning for others: even if it's not a commodity: even if I'm an amateur and always will be–I still love it. I still live it. I have to.
Rena Medow contemplates the wild world through the lens of a 16 year old poet, actress, artist, radio volunteer, feminist, & urban wannabe. You can find her pouring coffee over the moon, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.