‘I'm Embarrassed by My Dream!’
If you believe in melting boundaries through art, stop indulging your neuroticism and practice your religion with conviction.
Yellow Sweet Peas (1925) by Georgia O’Keeffe
I read everything you write and I have tried to cobble an answer to my problem from your responses to other people, but I think it’s time to ask for help directly.
I am a late-thirties woman who is embarrassed to try to be the person I think I’m supposed to be. As a child, I was always singing and making up songs. My constant companion was a tape player with a microphone where I played and sang along to The Judds and Patsy Cline. I had a few early formative experiences where family members made fun of me for this interest, and it made me horribly self-conscious about my voice and lyric writing. I had little privacy as a child. I was made to feel like a chubby, awkward kid and I feel like my deep desire to write and perform music is tangled up with this lingering childhood embarrassment and shame.
When I hit puberty and lost weight, I started disappearing into other people. I wanted to kill that chubby, embarrassing version of myself and I had a series of toxic friendships and relationships that almost destroyed me. It was like my goal was to become as generic and pleasing as possible. The summer before college, I filled out a questionnaire and one of the questions said something like, “If you had no limitations, what would your dream career be?” I wrote, “Move to Nashville and become a songwriter and guitar player.” I crumpled it up and felt like I was going to die of embarrassment just for having written it down.
I was way too insecure to try to pursue music when I was younger. I got a guitar in my early twenties, but I never really gave myself the chance to learn. Now after cutting out the toxic people and years of therapy, I’m making music. I have been taking guitar lessons for a few years and I’m writing songs that I really like. I have a corner where I have privacy and space to create. It feels SO GOOD to be finally doing what I’ve always wanted to do.
My husband and I have a great relationship, but my music is an awkward point for us. He’s kind and loving, but incredibly perfectionistic and risk-averse. When I play anything for him, it never quite goes like I want it to. He says something very vague like “sounds good to me,” or “I could never imagine singing a song in front of someone.” The experience always leaves me feeling a little like I did as a child seeking approval from my parents. I’m not sure what I want from him anyway. Honesty? Flattery? It’s so weird and confusing.
I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to perform without a shaking voice and sweating palms. I am doing an in-person songwriting workshop in a few weeks and I am so anxious I can hardly eat or sleep. One of my musical heroes is teaching the class and I can’t stop obsessing about every potential embarrassing thing that could happen.
It feels so self-indulgent to go on and on like this, but my fears are huge. I am afraid that people will say positive things but secretly pity me! I feel too old and too uncool and I don’t know how to dress myself or fix my hair! I have two kids! I am terrified to expose myself to criticism! I have tamed my cruel inner voice in so many other areas, but this feels like a dragon that I don’t know if I can slay. It all feels so tender and scary and I’m about to start sobbing just typing this letter. I feel like I need to set goals or something, but I’m frozen in place. I’m not looking for fame or fortune, but I would like to begin performing in some capacity. I have taped a picture of my nine year-old self beside my desk and I really want to pursue her (our!) dreams. How can I get over myself and get out of my own way?
Shaking Voice and Sweating Palms
The hard part about pursuing your big dream is that it makes you face reality. You enter the delicious, slightly ephemeral realm of writing music and it feels good, so good that you start to imagine a future where you’ll be able to drag these glorious inventions into the light of day and people will LOVE THEM AS MUCH AS YOU LOVE THEM.
And that’s not impossible! What’s impossible is that you’ll land there without suffering repeatedly along the way, in the exact same ways that you’ve suffered up until now. There is no way to do what you’re doing without taking off your shoes and walking across the same hot coals you endured as a child.
Perversely enough, that’s part of why you want to do it. You’re craving that catharsis. You’re dragging that embarrassing kid out of the closet and showing her tender feelings to the whole world. You’re trying to heal something. You’re trying to fix the past. You’re trying to redeem yourself. You’re trying to show your heart. Everything is at stake.
It’s heavy. It’s dark. It’s too much. Your expectations are too high. You don’t just want creative fulfillment. You want to avenge that awkward, chubby kid from your past.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all a big mistake.
We’re just looking at reality through clear eyes, here. It makes perfect sense that your husband doesn’t get it. His reactions to your music have nothing to do with how much he loves you and zero to do with the quality of your songwriting. Does he write music? Does he love the same music you do? Can he see past the person he knows well and imagine that there’s this enormous talent there? Probably the whole thing looks a little frightening and inconvenient to him. He’s worried that you want much more than you’ll ever get and you’ll end up disappointed in ways he can’t fix.
And look, I get it. You want him to feel the magic the way you do. One of the surprising things about having a great relationship is that you don’t automatically share every feeling with the other person. I know that’s obvious, but as an extremely romantic kid (and adult!), that can feel like a huge disappointment. People like you and me are essentially fixated on melting boundaries between us and the rest of the world. We want to feel the same things at the same time. The world’s absolute resistance to that effort can be one of our biggest frustrations.
But it also fuels our motivation to create things that do melt those boundaries, that can’t be resisted or denied, that make even the most unreceptive barriers become porous and then fall away.
It’s a tight rope walk, trying to believe that your creations can have such a dramatic effect without falling prey to magical thinking. Even if you manage to bend some corner of the recalcitrant, unwelcoming world to match your wildest dreams, that doesn’t mean that every single inch of your new life will be devoid of echoes of that awkward kid you left behind. But your magical thinking says, “Maybe if I practice a lot, maybe if I get good enough at this, I won’t feel jittery or old or uncool, my husband will start to love my music and rave about it using poetic words, people will fall silent in the presence of my amazing songs, and everything I hated about being an insecure music-loving kid will disappear forever. Sure, I might never be famous for my music, but everywhere I go, I’ll manage to feel like a beloved singer-songwriter who is confident and stylish and lovely and uniformly embraced!”
Don’t make enemies out of these delusional visions. You can recognize how unrealistic you’re being without scolding yourself for it. Your perfectionism is a direct reflection of your belief in the transformative power of art. This is your enormous dream off-gassing the byproducts of your passion and imagination.
I used to dislike the word “dreamer.” It always sounded so chumpy and foolish to me. But what word better describes someone who wants to share their strongest feelings and experiences with the world? Just because people in our (rigid, tedious, fearful) culture tend to misapprehend this drive as selfish and self-obsessed doesn’t mean that’s what it is. You say “It feels so self-indulgent to go on and on like this,” but you’re describing your most cherished desires. What could be more important?
Listen to me: Honoring your deepest desires is an act of generosity to the people around you. Right now, you’re showing your husband and your children and your friends and yes, even your family how to embrace what you love, even when the whole world rolls its eyes and turns its back and calls you a loser for doing it.
It is HARRRRD to do, motherfuckers. Most people can’t stand the thought of it. Their discomfort with that level of vulnerability is palpable. It makes them flinch and snicker. But look, that part has nothing to do with you.
Those reactions can make it hard to sustain a creative pursuit that matters deeply to you. Because the part of an artist that can take a huge leap and create unique, exciting things is also the part that doesn’t deal with reality that well. We feel exceedingly disappointed when no one cares about our songs or our books or our poetry or our art. It’s like they’re telling us we don’t deserve love. It’s like they’re saying that we’re even less lovable when we’re brave and show our true selves to the world. But we’re stubborn! We want love from the world for what we made! Instead, we feel rejected – and old and stupid and pathetic.
That rollercoaster – I’m a brilliant songwriter! I’m a weird old mom with delusions of grandeur! – is completely normal for *all* creative people. But it can block your path to actually doing what you love. When you treat your art as a kind of redemption from the past (as an awkward, chubby kid) and the present (as a regular parent living a mundane life) and the future (as an old, irrelevant woman who gave up on her dream), you raise the stakes too high.
So of course you’re paralyzed by fear. Of course your voice will shake and you’ll feel like an idiot. Of course you’ll shut down completely and give up and be embarrassed that you ever tried in the first place.
You’re recreating the conditions of your childhood. You’re fostering the same unrealistic hopes that your very rigid, avoidant family will understand you at last. And even though you need that imaginary, delusional energy to actually write good music, you have to set a little of that dreamer universe aside when it comes to entering the real world and performing. If you want to perform, you have to think more like a trained circus animal. Get practical. Enlist help. Power down your expectations of what comes next. Anticipate mixed responses. Imagine harsh reviews. Thicken your skin a little.
Privately, you indulge the magic. But when it comes to learning and collaborating and performing, treat your music more like a craft. Look for helpful feedback. Don’t stay in that space where every word is a verdict on your value as a human being.
Because if you want to write songs and perform them in public, you have to make peace with reality. And reality has nothing whatsoever to do with how good your songs are. Reality is this: Most people won’t notice how great a songwriter you are at all. And the better they know you, the less they’ll be able to tell that you’re good.
Facing reality shouldn’t feel negative. You’re simply making room for what’s true: Your husband doesn’t understand your music and he might never understand it. Some people will say positive things but secretly pity you, because they don’t care that much about music or they’re afraid of their own secret, scary passions or they just have different taste than you do. You will continue to feel too old and too uncool at times, and you might never know how to dress yourself or fix your hair (though you can get practical input on those things, too, if they really bother you). You will continue to have two kids in a sexist society that treats this as some kind of embarrassing liability for a female artist. You will expose yourself to criticism and it will be terrifying and disheartening and disappointing. You will feel like a fucking idiot, over and over and over again.
Because listen. I’ve played in bands. Even when you’re in the zone and people are super into your music, there’s always that one guy in the back of the bar, playing pool.
He does not give a fuck.
You can’t fixate on that guy. He wasn’t in your dream. He was an unpleasant surprise. But you can’t erase him. Pool playing dude who doesn’t give a fuck IS REALITY.
The dark side of magical thinking is that it treats pool playing dude like a sign from the heavens that you should stop, get over yourself, quit writing songs, and accept that you’ll always be that ashamed little kid who loved music more than anything else in the world.
Don’t look for pool playing dude in people’s faces when you perform. Don’t treat your husband like pool playing dude just because he can’t feel everything you feel or say your song is good in words that sound right. Don’t assume that just because you feel old and uncool, other people can’t see past those things to the quality of your music and your voice and your melodies. When you hollow yourself out into flat traits that don’t matter, you turn yourself into pool playing dude, indifferent to and skeptical of your own enormous gifts.
Forget how you seem. You’re a woman over 35, which means that every other idiot on the street sees you as a scary old crone or a witch or a dull-as-mud mother or a misfit or a broken doll. The world is filled with pool playing dudes. This is why we write music in the first place, to make something enchanted enough to transform a crone into a queen, a dull mother into a dragon, a broken doll into a benevolent god, a dull moment at a songwriting workshop into a corridor that leads everyone in the room back to their lonely pasts as kids, waiting to be loved for exactly who they are, waiting for the world to live up to their stubbornly optimistic expectations.
You aren’t satisfied with reality. That’s what makes you an artist. That doesn’t mean you can’t live in reality with everyone else. Don’t turn the queen back into a crone. Make peace with this broken world, but don’t ignore your power as a benevolent god, even when you know that all anyone else sees is a broken doll. Make peace with reality but embrace the magic you own so completely that it just doesn’t matter who’s rolling their eyes.
You aren’t creating a market-tested product. You’re becoming who you are. You’re doing this for you. Be as practical as you can when it’s needed, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter how your work is received. You’re creating songs that please you.
Please yourself. You’re just a kid with a tape recorder. You’re just an uncool mom who’s also a benevolent dragon queen. This is your one life. Make as much magic as you possibly can while you’re here.
Stop expecting to change into someone better or less wrong or more acceptable or more loved and enjoy who you are right now instead. Need advice? Write to askpolly at protonmail.com. Ask Polly publishes twice a week for subscribers only, so:
Dear LW, I want to take singing lessons. For years now. Not because I have a great voice or plan to perform anywhere... well "my dream" is something like after ten solid years of practice occasionally perform with some lounge band at a Ken's steakhouse for much older people who maybe won't judge me too harshly... but because I just love to sing. I love to walk around my house singing songs and I thought maybe if I really practiced it in a serious way, or learned something about it that it would be really good for me, and fill me with some kind of joy, and this is all so so so humiliating to write. We all have dreams. Some dreams are lamer than others (see Ken's steakhouse). I hope one day I can reconcile my dream with reality. It's just lessons! What is wrong with me?! Haha! Keep going. You are already pursuing your dreams one scary humiliating dreadful step at a time. AMAZING JOB!!! Seriously. Go get it girl!
"You aren’t satisfied with reality. That’s what makes you an artist." WOW. So true.
I'm in the same position as you, but mid-20's and I'm actually envious of you. I want to show my magic to the world and fulfill the little girl me's dream that had been abandoned too!! But I'm also terribly lonely, I want kids (eventually) and a husband (right now yes) and being in this world by myself is miserable. Juggling the search to pair up and settle down while also wanting to reach my creative potential has been a distracting process that makes me feel like one or the other's gotta give (I don't want to date another artist, as a fellow artist I know that artist men will be too much for me to handle). I never feel like I'm properly doing one or the other right. It's great that you know where you belong in terms of family, you have the support you need to focus your time on self-fulfillment (even if it's not the most encouraging support, it's still something) so go get it! Who cares what your age is, the way I see it, you're in a better position than me!