I live in London, I’m a 40-year-old woman (which feels really weird to type), and I work professionally in the theater as an actor, writer, producer, or director. I’m in a pickle about my work and “success.” I do a bit of radio, TV, and film but I love the theater the most. When I was small I went to plays with my parents and it felt the way some describe being in church — like home but also sublime. Watching a group of people pretending to be another group of people in front of another group of people in order to work out the human condition is the maths that adds up for me.
My family is kind and supportive, but my teenage years were difficult and the theater was always a refuge for me. After university and drama school, I became my dream, a professional actor, and found a glorious community of passionate, hard-working friends. After some years I realized the roles for women were pretty rubbish so I started writing and running my own theater company. In my 30s, I made a series of shows, writing, acting, directing, sometimes self-producing. I hoped it would lead to making money and fulfilling my creative and financial potential. Yet theater productions are tricky as they end and often the right people don’t catch them. I have had some exciting successes but also a lot of near or complete misses. Two of my plays have been published, but I’ve not had a big hit. It’s been 15 years and doors are still hard to push open. I have an image in my head of this exhausted woman flinging mud at a wall, desperate for it to stick and it all sliding off.
My love life is better than ever, though: I have met someone who’s bright, passionate, warm, and truly brilliant — my heart’s desire. We have been together just under two years and are trying for a baby and may soon do IVF. This feels good and also scary. But in my professional life I’m anxious that the clock is ticking for the mud to stick. The theater saved me and it’s who I am, the rock I’m built on. I want to have more commissions, to be paid more and recognized more, to be more in demand and more successful. I feel a deep sense of shame in wanting that. What have I got to complain about? I’m busy, in love, financially stable, and surrounded by wonderful friends. But that wall.
When I look on social media the accomplishments of others feel painful. Projects similar to mine are becoming huge TV series. I’m in the running, I’m in contact with the gatekeepers, I have a good agent, but it’s not quite happening. I send a great deal of emails and pitches. And I feel I must be to blame. Not quite good enough. Must throw more mud. Better mud. Throw harder.
I tell myself people I know who’ve had big success in the arts must feel great. But my wise best friend points out to me that, no, the others don’t feel complete or cooked — they move on to the next thing and they struggle with that.
I feel like what I need is acceptance, but that feels at odds with my ambition and impossible to find. These days I have less mud-chucking ability, as I’ve seen so much slide down. It makes me sad. Yet I don’t want to be narcissistic and I do feel really grateful. I want to be present and positive, but I don’t like the sense of shame that lingers around work. And I fear if I have a baby my creative production will slow right down. Am I getting too old to have a hit? How can I feel in less of a pickle around this, please?
Pickled Across the Pond
You can cultivate gratitude and ambition at the same time. Those two things aren’t in conflict except inside the limited imaginations of those who have neither. So stop feeling guilty about wanting more and enjoy your drive and your energy instead. Savoring who you are and what motivates you is a big piece of what it means to feel grateful and happy with your life.
In fact, I would argue that your current dissatisfaction has more to do with shame than how successful you are. You walk around all day scolding yourself for wanting more, for not being grateful enough. You’re confusing your hunger for more opportunities and more recognition with dissatisfaction and entitlement. Motivated artists stay hungry because they’re always excited about what they might make next. That feeling will feed you and invigorate you, once you cut out your guilt and shame from the picture.
You also have to lose this notion that time is running out and there’s some finish line you need to cross in order to be successful and happy. You’ve already had some successes and it sounds like you’re pretty happy. Make an effort to attune yourself to the daily experiences that bring you joy a little more. And don’t confuse the tensions of the work and the courting of gatekeepers with dissatisfaction. If you’re trying to create unique, provocative writing or theater, you’ve willed yourself inside the crucible: Your process involves facing your fears, your shame, your insecurities, your truest desires. Doing work like that isn’t a trip to a day spa for anyone, even if they’re rich enough to book a trip to a day spa once they’re done with work. And if they are successful enough to do that, guess what many of them are thinking about while they’re getting massaged or sitting in a vat of clay or whatever? I’m all washed up.
What we want for you is to never land in that washed up state of mind, with or without the money and the vat of clay. In order to avoid that fate, you need to cultivate a mature and peaceful relationship to your work, your desires, your age, your expectations, and your mind. You need to build a belief system that focuses not on success, but on your enjoyment of the process itself.
That means you need to not only strengthen your conviction and belief in what you do and focus on your love of the process itself, but you also need to reimagine your identity in relation to your work so that it isn’t such a haunted mine of ageism and status anxiety and FOMO. This means you need to use your imagination to paint a gorgeous picture of yourself thriving at 45, 55, 85. You need to imagine yourself feeling strong and calm and confident ten years from now. Picture how you’ll dress and hold yourself. Imagine yourself with and without a baby, with and without a partner, with and without a hit show. Picture expansion and regression. Imagine giant sound stages and imagine tiny little plays in drafty theaters.
Most of all, picture the work itself. Imagine a daily routine that gets your blood flowing and puts you in touch with how brilliant you are. Watch yourself discover new pathways to expression that you never thought were possible. Instead of bludgeoning yourself in the head with your ambition by going on social media and comparing yourself to others, focus your ambition on the work itself: the experimentation, the weird dance of finding inspiration and nurturing new ideas. You have to treat all of the other stuff — the calls with agents, the discussions with producers, the false starts, the meetings, the discouraging news — as a fun little sideshow with juggling clowns and bears on bicycles.
The business side of the picture is not your church. Your church is creating dramatic works. The business part is just an excuse to take a break and meet some new people, talk about the work you love, and throw ideas around. Don’t invest too much of your energy in that rollercoaster. That’s your agent’s job. Your job is to nurture the expansive, buoyant state of mind that makes it possible to create.
I don’t mean to make that kind of faith and daily creative practice sound easy or simple. Because the main thing you need to build right now is a firm, consistent concept of your value as a human being in the world that isn’t eroded by the poisonous beliefs of the wider culture. That will take focus and conviction and time.
Most women need this, not just writers and artists, and not just as they hit 40 but at every age. Because we’re told that time is running out every day of our lives. When I was 23 years old, I had a conversation with my best friend about how we had maybe two or three years to date around and then we’d be past our prime. As we got older, we lamented that if we didn’t write a best seller or win a prize or make some “40 Under 40” list soon, we’d never amount to anything. We were huffing the cultural spray paint, and it was fucking with our brains.
Searching for bad hallucinations and twisted beliefs in your head is the first stage of building your church. You’ve got to go up into the attic of your long-term memory and find the big trunk full of rusted-out clocks and old copies of Playboy and little bottles of green liquid that say DRINK ME on the side. You have to do a thorough inventory of all of the deluded nonsense about writers and women and success and age that you’ve ingested and inhaled without realizing it. And you have to commit to dragging that heap of junk out onto the front lawn and setting it on fire.
Write down all of the false beliefs that are informing your current crestfallen perception of yourself and your position in life. Then think carefully about who fed you these twisted notions about your place in the world. This process will improve your mental health, and it will also help your creative process. As artists, we’re constantly searching for poisons in the groundwater. We need to be aware of the perverse and inhumane world we inhabit, so we can find imaginative ways to counter our culture’s most corrosive imperatives.
Some days, that process can be disheartening or exhausting. But mostly, it’s rewarding, because it brings you back to church — a place where you remember what you believe in and celebrate what you love.
You can keep working hard for a big hit. Follow your bliss! Just recognize that a big hit won’t determine how happy you are. Your happiness depends on your ability to feel the magic of this moment and connect deeply with your work, every day.
This is your life. There is no clock ticking down. Relish where you are.
Ask Polly appears here the first three Wednesdays of every month. Additional columns and discussion threads are available on the Ask Polly newsletter, so sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here.
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