Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: A Dangerous Drifting

Marissa Skudlarek is drifting dangerously… or is she?

There’s a misconception about what it means to drift through life. People who drift, we think, are passive, inactive. They work a mindless job all day, then go home and veg out in front of the TV. They don’t have any accomplishments of their own, any significant achievements to their name. They are wastes of resources and energy; they do not merit the consideration of ambitious, go-getting people like you and me.

But I think there is another way of drifting through life — a much more treacherous and subtle way. From the outside, the people who drift through life in this fashion seem ambitious and go-getting. They’re always busy, juggling a million projects. They keep up with current events and all manner of cocktail conversation. They fool their friends and acquaintances into believing that they are determined, goal-oriented strivers. And — what’s far worse — they even fool themselves.

In reality, though, these people (and I’m including myself in this category, if you haven’t guessed) are drifting — because they’ve allow their lives to be guided by other people’s requests, expectations, and demands, rather than their heart’s desires. Yes, they may be juggling a million projects — but how many of those projects are things that they initiated themselves, rather than things that other people have asked them to do? They may be widely-read, silver-tongued charmers — but do they have any deeper values and beliefs of their own, any higher moral code that guides their behavior? They scatter their energies in all directions, they throw off glints of light — but how much more powerful they would be if they could focus all of that energy in one direction, like a magnifying glass that focuses the sun’s rays to burn through a sheet of paper!

Perhaps it was around the beginning of this year that I began to get the sense that I was drifting. In my column about my 2013 resolutions, I wrote “My quest for novelty shouldn’t lead me to betray my core values and instincts. If one of my new projects turns out not to be a good artistic fit for me, I hope I will have the courage to abandon it.” This, it turns out, was a mealy-mouthed way of identifying the problem. I should’ve written “My habit of saying ‘yes’ to everything that comes my way isn’t making me happy, and is setting me up to feel scattered, diffuse, and uncertain of my true values. I resolve to take a deep breath and take several steps backwards, in order to focus on what I really want.”

I’ve drifted, this year, by filling up my life with lots of little obligations and to-dos, so that I do not disappoint the people who are giving me these opportunities, and so that I don’t ever have to confront the bigger, scarier things that I want to accomplish. I drift because it’s easier to write a lot of short plays and blog posts than to sit down and write that big, ambitious, knock-em-dead full-length play that I’ve been contemplating. (The problem is not only that it’s been two years since I wrote a full-length play — it’s that it’s been two years since I even tried to write one.) I drift because I am terrified of taking even one step down the wrong path, and it’s easier to let other people tell you what to do than to make choices for yourself. I convince myself that the paths that other people suggest for me are ipso facto the right paths — even though that’s often not the case.

All of these thoughts are foremost in my mind right now because, this month, I have to create an actionable five-year plan as part of my application for the TITAN award, part of Theater Bay Area’s ATLAS career-development program. Again, I sort of drifted into ATLAS — the application process was easy, and a friend said “you should totally apply!” so I did. What I didn’t realize is that it would require me to confront my terror of setting goals and creating a path for myself. This is really fucking scary, you guys, because to say “I want this and I’m going to do everything I can to get it” puts you at risk of failure. Big, public failure. To drift is so much easier; as Stephen Sondheim puts it,”There’s nothing to choose, so there’s nothing to lose” (“On the Steps of the Palace”). My natural cynicism doesn’t help matters. Optimists will say “Tell the Universe what you want, and it will provide!”, but my beliefs have always been more along the lines of “Man makes plans, and God laughs.”

Even worse, I make plans, and then I laugh. It’s easy for me to envision what my ideal life would be like, and even the steps I need to do (on a daily or weekly basis) to get there — the trouble is, I don’t follow the plans I have laid out for myself. Something in me rebels at the thought of following the logical, rational routine; aren’t we artists supposed to be more spontaneous than the general populace? Also, because I’ve overloaded myself with commitments, there turn out to be a lot of things I need to do on any given day — and because these are mostly things I am doing for other people, rather than for myself, I lack the intrinsic motivation to accomplish them.

It also feels scary (lazy, selfish) to admit to myself that perhaps I don’t like being overscheduled. Perhaps I want to do fewer things, but do them better. Perhaps I want to have time alone with my thoughts, or to write in my journal. (I haven’t journaled enough lately — which might be why this column is more diaristic than usual.) In the indie theater scene, I’m surrounded by amazingly smart, ambitious, go-getting people — which is usually a wonderful thing! Except when it makes me think that if I stop being so busy, I’ll fall behind and be forgotten.

I was talking to someone the other day about these problems: my terror of setting goals, of being less busy but more self-directed, of making the wrong choice. “What would the wrong choice look like?” she asked me.

This question (as all good questions do) made me stop and think. Finally I said, “A choice that betrays my values.”

Answering this woman’s question — and starting to create my five-year plan as part of the TITAN application — have caused me to examine my life and look at all of the ways in which I may have betrayed my values over the past few years. Lulled by the gently lapping waves, I have drifted out to sea, thinking that the ocean was benevolent, that it was my natural habitat. But I am a land animal, and I’ve got to start fighting my way back to shore.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright. Yeah, she said it: a PLAYWRIGHT. Find out more at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @Marissa Skud.