Listen to this story
Never give up. We’ve heard that chant since Churchill. Seen it splattered across a hundred blogs. But what if you do? What happens? I’ve killed my dreams at least a few times. If they’re strong enough, they come back. Reborn. Better than the old versions.
Nothing bad happens if you kill your dreams. The dream police don’t show up. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Robin Zander meant. You won’t go to prison. You probably won’t develop sudden onset depression.
In my 20s, I dreamed of a career as a writer. The hoity toity kind. I’d write literary journalism for The New Yorker. Publish novels with Knopf. Win Guggenheim grants. Teach creative writing at Columbia University when I needed extra spending cash for exotic travel.
Are you laughing hysterically? Good. Because that dream needed to die. It didn’t suit my true interests, or my personality. I never got along that well with other writers. I’m too much of a recluse.
Some professors took me out for an expensive dinner to celebrate my first novel a few years ago. The most awkward night of my life. That’s saying something. I’ve been on some terrible dates that went better.
They tried to one up each other the entire time, competing to see who could “recommend” the most obscure book. When one professor suggested a collection of literary criticism in French, I looked at my watch and left.
Shortly after, I gave up on a novel I was writing. It was about a 20-something like me who worked as a night manager at a luxury hotel in New York. Each chapter would focus on a different disaster she had to deal with — drunk celebrities, asshole CEOs, arrogant fashion designers. Drug dealers. Musicians. Endless possibilities.
Not a bad idea. The problem was that I’d never worked at a hotel. And I didn’t know any celebrities. I was either too busy or too lazy to do any research. I was also spoiling the story with too much literary pretense. I’d spend hours revising descriptions of the lobby instead of developing the plot and characters. In the end, I just burned out.
That happens when you’re teaching four classes with a total of a hundred students. And also trying to run a job search.
Deleting that novel from my computer made me feel sad for an afternoon. But then a tremendous sense of freedom washed into me overnight. From that morning forward, I could do or be anything I wanted. I graded papers, went for a long run, and then spent an evening at Starbucks surfing the web and thinking about my future. That was the first day in a long time I’d actually felt happy. No pressure. Just living, for once.
Sometimes, quitting your dreams is exactly what you should do. My dream of becoming a literary novelist had grown a lot of baggage. I couldn’t carry it anymore. Slavishly following that dream had blinded me to all my other possible futures.
Living without a dream can feel great for a few weeks. Even months. I focused on teaching. Took weekend hiking trips. Watched movies. I’d spent so long trying to turn into something else. So many nights revising stories that I knew had no real substance. It was nice just to be with myself. Live in my own skin. Pay attention to a physical world around me.
Suddenly, I had actual free time. I didn’t care about my first book’s Amazon sales rank anymore. I stopped checking my email twenty times a day for rejections from editors and agents. The best part? I could actually drink coffee and browse Barnes & Noble without the burning sensation of envy at every new “featured author” I saw. Envy’s an awful feeling. It’s like a urinary tract infection in your brain.
Giving up on my dreams also helped me appreciate the basics. No, I hadn’t published in the Paris Review. But that didn’t make me feel deficient anymore. I was young, healthy, and sane. Was I rich? No, but at least I could pay rent and buy groceries. There was a lot for me to appreciate.
I’ve talked a lot about how becoming a professor was a dream for me. But I forget the truth. Ten years ago, at the end of college, a friend suggested I think about eventually getting a PhD. Just the idea made me groan.
I told her it sounded boring as hell. Spending half my day in archives? Squinting over Foucault? No way. That would never be me. I was going to write poems on mountain tops.
Time changed all that. I gave academic writing a chance. Slowly, I learned to enjoy it. Professors recommended I send articles to journals. The journals accepted them. I got interested in linguistics and discourse analysis — stuff that the old me had found drier than old fries.
New dream, new person. A happier, more successful one. I’ve done better as a professor and blogger than I ever would’ve trying to jam myself into the mold of literary journalist/author. I had to give up in order to begin again.
Your dreams can make you miserable. We see so much advice about doing “whatever it takes.” But blindly chasing a dream doesn’t always end well. If you’ve worked your ass off for months on your dream, and feel like you’ve got nothing to show for it, there’s no shame in taking a step back.
Don’t be a slave to your dream. And don’t let it consume every ounce of your identity. Writers have this saying about killing your darlings. It works for dreams, too. Kill your dreams. Not yourself.
My old dream had led to a rut. Wake up early. Write for three hours. Lunch. Teach. Read for three hours. Gym. Lesson plan. Grade papers. Read some more. Cry while watching Netflix. Fall asleep over a glass of wine. Sometimes, I’d even skip Netflix and try to squeeze in some more writing or reading. Fell asleep at my desk. I told myself the more productive I was, the better.
That’s a pretty kick ass routine. But routines don’t always help you win. Sometimes they just wear you down.
For months, I could feel myself burning out. Despite book signings every other weekend, I kept up a rigorous writing schedule. No matter how many hours I’d spent in the car, I forced myself to write in my hotel room before going to sleep. I told myself I was keeping a promise. I was following my dream. What a mistake. All I did on those exhausted nights was churn out garbage that needed heavy revising the next day.
The harder I worked, the more miserable I felt. Other writers started making me insanely jealous. A shroud of disappointment and anger enveloped me whenever I sat down to write.
And it was nobody’s fault but mine. For pushing too hard. For not taking time to enjoy my life. For not investing in my happiness. And for letting my dream come first, ahead of everything else.
So I had to break out of my routine. I spent a few weeks away from fiction. Those weeks turned into months, then years. Later I came back to it — not fiction, exactly. But a kind of creative writing. A blog.
If you’re starting to burn out, at least take a vacation from your dream. You might like what happens. The world won’t end. Nobody will think any less of you. And you shouldn’t think less of yourself.
Some distance and perspective showed me that the one thing I’d chased wasn’t what I wanted to begin with — not exactly. I didn’t give up writing for good. I found another path.
My dream has come back in lots of different forms — freelance writer, crime reporter, blogger, self-published author, professor. Dreams can evolve. They can die. They can reincarnate. You’ll be fine. Give up. Explore. Restart.