Should I leave L.A. after one year?

I've been trying to break into the film biz but I'm thinking about giving up and moving home

Published June 24, 2009 10:19AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I hate my life. Not in an interesting, deep loathing of great unfathomable difficulties, but more a hopelessness at the unfulfilling and dull day-to-day boredom of trying to make the meager check from my mindless bore of a job stretch to cover my expenses.

I live in Los Angeles. I've been here almost a year, trying to get into the film industry. It was once my great dream, and now it seems that I've merely moved to a land where everyone is shallow, miserable and hates their career. That or, like me, they are poor, talented and unable to find something with even the hope of moving up in the world.

My mother wants me to move "back home" to the Deep South. It was a place I never liked, but it's been so long since I lived there, it's hard to think of it as home so much as a place my family lives. The idea of living there isn't anathema to me, but there are no jobs there. A future there would not be the bright overwhelming future that sustained me in my dark moments of adolescence. Miserable I may have been, but there was always my own brilliant future. Terrible, traumatic, awful things happened to me, but when I wanted to die, the promise of being something kept me going. I don't see a way to that brilliant future anymore; I've no dreams left to believe in, nothing seems to make me any happier.

I am dreadfully smart and creative, unfortunately talented in many directions, leading to mostly distraction from focusing on any one thing. I am lonely, but antisocial; needy, but distant; desiring of stability, but emotionally unstable and easily bored. I am young, far too young to have given up on my own happiness, but too much a pessimist to deny how miserable my life is making me.

I ran away from middle school by changing school districts, from high school by going far away for college, from college by going further away to graduate school, and graduate school by running from one coast to the other. And I daily try to escape all of that by reading, watching, writing, drawing and any other thing with little base in reality.

To move back home means to give up on this career I've spent so much time and money on, to give up on a creative career. I do not know what someone will pay me to do back there. I've no reason to think I'd be happier except that I'd have a larger support network of family. Do I stay in L.A. and hope an economic turnaround makes it more possible for me to live a dream I'm not sure is mine anymore? Or do I return home a failure?

In Search of a New Dream

Dear Searcher,

I have three things to say to you. The first is: Stay in L.A. The second is: Consider the paradoxical fact that as you get closer to your dream it seems farther away. And the third is: You are unhappy because your needs are not being met.

So now the monologue. You feel unhappy so you think maybe you should give up and go home?

So wait a minute. What is there to do at home? What are your realistic options except to stay in L.A. and keep working toward a career in the film business? What else is there to do? Go "home"? "Home" is for visiting and getting presents. That's it. You get presents and kisses and maybe you get admired and envied and you drive a rental car. Then you go to the airport and back to your private little hell that you work so hard to disguise. You go back to your imaginary friends and your imaginary life.

Home is worse than L.A. In L.A. at least you can complain about L.A. Complaining about L.A. is soul cleansing and invigorating. Complaining about home is just depressing. People say, Why don't you leave, then?

So you did leave. Good for you. Of course you left. You have ideas. You are part of the creatigentsia. Like me. We left. We started bands and colored our nails and stranged up our hair and stayed out late in less clothes than needed, strictly speaking, except when we were in more clothes than needed, and that too was odd. We were odd. They didn't understand us. We stayed in our new city. We stayed and bitched and got into trouble and ruined our reputations.

Then, eventually, with the perverse inevitability that is history's curse, we came to run things. We became the new elite. Now we suck. We are disgusting and hated but we run things. You will be like this too. You will suffer and hate everyone and then one day you will find yourself sitting at an immense console with knobs, and when you turn the knobs some people are thrown into the fire pit and others are elevated to the banquet hall, and you say, How did I get to be in this knob-turning situation? as if you didn't, secretly, know. You pretend like it was thrust on you by accident.

So it goes.

So you hate L.A.? So what would you suggest? A newer, cleaner, nicer L.A.? And in what universe would a new, cleaner, nicer L.A. do what it has to do, which is make the movies? It takes what it takes to make the films. It takes all the awfulness that it takes. It takes all the cretins. It takes all the suntans and the bitchiness and the 10,000 watts of self-delusion and the unfathomable narcissism. That's what it takes.

So we hate L.A. But those of us who hate it from afar don't even hate it the right way. To hate it the right way you have to be in it.

You are in it. You have hating rights. Good for you. Hate it with everything you've got.

And now make some movies! Wreak your revenge.

I personally love L.A. What I love about L.A. as opposed to San Francisco is that you meet people all the time who are actually editing videotape or transporting videotape from one part of L.A. to another, or working on chemicals that go into cinema, or working on wires that connect pieces of cinematic equipment to each other, or working on the dyes that go into the threads that go into the clothes that go into the wardrobe of a motion picture actor or a commercial actor. They are doing the work. I like that. They are connected to the dream. Yet their daily lives do not seem so dreamlike. Because for them the dream is a real thing: It is a business that needs trucks and cranes and wheels and computers and chemicals.

So as you work on the real thing, the dream loses its shimmer. This is real life. It has a shimmer all its own. It has a shimmer that is sometimes sour or bitter. But it is the real thing and it is what we live in. It is a gift. It is the gift of real life.

Before, you had only vague notions of one day making films. Now, you are educated in the field. Before, you were far from the centers of film production. Now, you are living right in the worldwide capital of film production. And yet now you feel like giving up. After one year, and some discomfort and disillusionment, you are wondering whether the dream is worth it.

One year is nothing. Try spending 10 years in L.A. See how that goes. Try writing 20 scripts. See how that goes. Try spending every year in workshops and classes and meeting other people who want to make films. Try living the life in earnest. It will be painful. There will be little escape from the reality of the dream. The dream will not be an escape any longer. The dream will be the job.

There are dreams and there are career plans. They are not the same. Some dreams are compensatory: visions that we retreat to in times of stress, like blankies for infants, things that comfort us and tell us what we need to be told. The dream of being a famous writer can be like that: a dream of infantile power and attention that disguises the more immediate need -- for safety, self-love, serenity, peace in our hearts.

But the work, that is another thing. The real work is staggering; the real work is work. It is not dream. It is pushing against the wall; it is hearing what we do not want to hear; it is doing the numbers; it is learning the new terms as they come along; it is sitting through evaluations and self-evaluations. It is an eternal object lesson in our powerlessness and our smallness. The real work is grinding and slow.

When I look at all the writers who have won coveted prizes and all the filmmakers and artists who have had success, what I notice is that they are the ones who actually filled out the applications for fellowships and sent their work around for critique and rejection; they are the ones who locked themselves in rooms and worked at it; they are the ones who did what was required; they are the ones who allowed themselves to be beginners and to begin at the beginning and do the next obvious thing.

What I conclude is that as creative people, we are citizens. We are citizens of the dream. As citizens of the dream, like citizens of the factory or the city, our job is to follow good working routines, to participate, to lend a hand to the greater enterprise. We are workers. Our work is ethereal but we are workers. Material must be transported. Mouths must be fed. It is work.

When seen from afar, like a rainbow, the dream is radiant and seductive; but when you are in it, there is just a lot of steam. There are men moving scenery, huffing and puffing. It is the factory of the dream.

Here is the other thing, a more prosaic thing: You are unhappy because you are not getting your needs met. Because you are unhappy, you are thinking about chucking it all. Because you feel unhappy, you feel that the dream is farther away than ever, when in point of fact it is nearer than ever.

You are lonely and tired. That is a condition of your material existence in L.A. You are lonely and tired and so you begin to have bad thoughts. So work on the loneliness and the tiredness. Do not imagine that creative success will cure these things. Whether you are successful or not, you will often be lonely and tired. It is cured by fellowship and sleep. It is cured by exercise and citizenship -- that citizenship in the dream I mentioned above.

So do not despair. Establish ways, now, of staying out of the abyss when you are lonely and tired. Take care of yourself. Go to the gym. Call your parents and have them tell you how lovely and talented you are.

Remember: You are closer to your dream than ever before. You are getting to it. The closer you get to it, the less it will seem like a dream, and the more it will seem like a job.

That is how you know you have attained your dream: It no longer seems like a dream at all.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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