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On Having Impossible Dreams

(These are the legs of an author—but they're not mine. Guess who!)

(Photo taken one night in Washington Square Park. These are the legs of an author—but they’re not my legs. Guess who!)

Outlandish Expectations

The other day, two things made me think of the dreams I set out for myself. More than goals, these are the aspirations I carry with me everywhere. They consume me.

Ever since I was a senior in high school, I’ve set out some large, possibly outrageous goals that I wanted my life to live up to. It rarely did. But as the years passed—and the goalposts I set out for myself were not met and left me with disappointment—I seemed to have not learned a lesson from this. I still set out impossible goals for myself to reach. I still have alarmingly ridiculous fantasies of what life could be like. I still want to be successful enough that I could buy my mom a townhouse on Sullivan Street, on the same block as Anna Wintour because I like the townhouses there, and I think of this ridiculous, impossible goal every time I’ve walked past a certain door on that block that I’ve fantasized is my mom’s future door, and behind it, her future home.

My goals are still outlandish. And I don’t know how to stop myself from having them.

Things I wanted in my life included fortune and literary recognition. I still want to pay off all our student loans (an impossible goal if there ever was one) before I die and take care of my mother and help my sister. And I want to have a solid career as an author. In my mind, this “career” involves a certain number of things that haven’t come true yet, and each month that passes in which they haven’t come true, I feel disappointed in what I’ve done.

It’s ironic that I can be filled with doubts over my worthiness and skill as a writer and yet still want impossible measures of success for myself. How do I even justify the two together? The contrast—and wide leap between—is alarming.

The first thing that brought this all to mind was this vlog by author Daniel Marks. (He’s been a guest writer on this very blog with this hilarious, and horrifying, post on his worst fear!) In this video, he gives a really affecting, personal talk about his history with depression. He says, “My mood is really wrapped up in expectations. I have a tendency to set really high expectations for myself, for other people, for situations, for events, things like that. And because of doing that, I really set myself up for a lot of disappointment.”

Go watch the whole video here.

This vlog resonated with me—especially the part about high expectations and disappointment—because I can get like that. “Down,” I call it. I’ll feel down, and not much can lift me up. And I think so much of the reason that I go to this down place and let myself linger there is due to disappointment at not reaching difficult—in fact, impossible—goals for myself as a writer and published author and person in this world.

With this great vlog on my mind, I was flipping through TV channels the other night when I should have been reading (another disappointing trait of mine, but let’s ignore that), and I found Little Miss Sunshine playing on the IFC channel. What a great film.

As the opening scene unfolded and we met the characters, I realized how some of them were set up for such obvious disappointment.

Specifically, Richard, who’s trying to be a motivational speaker on the subject of being a WINNER and not a LOSER, and failing miserably at winning his own success.

And teenage Dwayne, who wants to join the Air Force so badly, he has taken a vow of silence until his mother lets him take the test for his pilot’s license. (SPOILER: During the film an accidental discovery proves that Dwayne is color blind, so he will never be able to get his pilot’s license. Dream dashed, gone.)

And Olive, little seven-year-old Olive. Just looking at her in the first few moments of the film, we can feel it in our ugly little truth-telling guts that she’s not going to win the beauty pageant. We can see this, but she can’t.

Sometimes I feel like Olive.

I’m Olive because some of the dreams I have for my future are laughably impossible. And maybe everyone around me can see that. But at the same time, no one can burst my bubble and take these dreams away from me.

You see, I like having big goals. It makes me strive for big things, and I can look back and see the successes that have come from all this striving. But when so much of my happiness is wrapped up in attaining something that is not necessarily ever possible to attain, I am, as Daniel Marks says in his video, setting myself up for disappointment… and my “down” feeling comes from that.

So I’m thinking about this. About how to fix this part of myself and still keep a hold on my big dreams. Can I?

I want to tell you why I think I’m this way. Why I’ll always strive to win that beauty pageant when I look like this.

When the “Impossible” Came True

When I was a teenager, my family situation was very dramatic. Usually I don’t talk about this here. The man my mother was married to at the time tormented me. He was fun and wonderful one moment, monstrous the next. And I never knew which way he’d wake up in the morning. None of us did.

I’ve touched on this in the blog before, but I remember once how he was yelling at me and said these words: “Why would anyone want to read what you write?”

He said it like it was the most impossible thing in the world. Anyone. Reading. What I, of all pathetic people, wrote.

He knew my dream was to be a published author because he’d read my journal where I’d confessed as much. And maybe it offended him, that I wanted to do this. How dare I even think I was worthy of such a thing?

It’s funny how small moments can cause such explosive reactions to move ahead and focus your entire life. Because I want to tell you, when he said that—I remember this was a throw-off line in a fight. I remember which house we lived in then; I remember where he sat at the dining room table, and I remember where I stood in the room and how I cried. I remember how I flung myself on my bed in my basement bedroom, and in a rage I thought of my dream—to be a published author one day—and this determination grew inside me. The dream felt so impossible, you have to understand. I didn’t know anyone in my life who grew up to be what their secret dreams said they could be. Every adult I’d known had sacrificed and turned responsible and got a job to take care of their family. Real people—people I knew, people from families like mine—we didn’t do outlandish things like become published authors.

Well, I would, I told myself.

It was the most impossible thing to imagine for myself. Like being a rock star.

Yet I pushed myself toward that fantastical goal for years. It became my entire life.

And I didn’t do it alone: I had my mother, who always believed in me, I found E when I was really young, and he always believed in me. But you know who else believed in me? Me. I thought this dream of mine was near impossible, and yet I still thought I could try for it, I thought if I kept trying maybe just maybe it would come true. And here I am, with my third novel coming out this spring.

I think this is why I can’t let go of impossible things. I don’t believe in the word. I may be filled with doubt and worry and think bad things about myself, but there is also that girl still inside me somewhere, the one who was told she couldn’t and knew she could.

I’d rather let her keep believing in impossible things.

But Let’s Be Realistic

So I’ve seen the “impossible” come true. I’ve seen magic. And once unseen, you can’t unsee it, you know?

And yet.

I know I need to find a way to temper my expectations. To not expect the world from myself—and from the industry and every single person around me. Because I have my dream. I’m living it. And when I think of new and exciting things to want—when my Twitter feed glides past telling me all the wonderful things happening to other authors who are not me—I tend to forget what I have. I want more. And I hate that about myself.

I reached a good place last year with this war inside myself. But I can do better this year, though. I will.

I think it’s only that I love the feeling of reaching. I always want to aspire to be something bigger and better than I am and I want to prove to the world (as if it’s my stepfather at the head of the dining room table yelling at me) that when I say I will do something, I mean it. So lately, I’ve been turning this inward. Instead of reaching for outside markers of success—dreams that rely on other people and the industry to make come true—I am trying to reach only with my own two arms.

In my writing. Which is what I can control.

I am a work-in-progress. I will always think impossible things are possible. My life has shown me some of that. But I think I need to remember how I felt when I was a teenager, when even this very moment seemed like the most impractical, fantastical, never-to-happen-to-someone-like-me thing I could ever imagine.

How many impossible things can one person have in one life?

19 thoughts on “On Having Impossible Dreams

  1. This is an amazing post that totally resonates with me. Maybe all writers struggle with this kind of thing–I don’t know–but for me, the writing journey has been like a rollercoaster, some days flying high and loving what I do and thinking that can be enough, and other days (because of a rejection or a bad writing day) feeling like what I’m doing is a total waste of time, stupid and worthless. I thought when I got a publishing deal this feeling would go away, but now I know that it’s just the beginning of more wanting, and bigger dreams, and potentially bigger, more crushing blows. It’s ridiculous because ALL of it is self-imposed. Why do this to myself? Why not enjoy the rollercoaster? Shoot for the big dream but embrace the smaller ups and downs along the way.

  2. I had to let you know how much I love this post. It has resonated with me on a deep and very personal level, and I wanted to congratulate you for writing it. Thank you for speaking directly to the 17-year old dreaming girl inside of me, who is still struggling to chase her impossible happiness. You got there – so can she.🙂

  3. This resonates with me so much! I dream big and I feel the disappointments from expectations. For me, the change I’m striving for is to learn how to have the big dreams, while loving my life as it is. Sometimes that means stepping away from Twitter, etc. where lots of news gets posted. As a friend of mine always says, don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides😉

  4. Thanks Nova. You have an uncanny way of reaching into my (our) head(s) and speaking words I’m (we’re) afraid to say. Thank you.

  5. Thanks for this, Nova.🙂

    I still believe in the impossible. Sometimes, I think I’ve stopped believing, but then I realize I’m sitting at my computer with a Word document open and words waiting to be written, and I know I still believe.

  6. Here’s my first thought: there’s enormous value and importance in always wanting to achieve what seems impossible, because the world will always beat you mercilessly over the head with reasons not to try. There’ll always be people like your stepfather who do and say wretched things in order to temporarily plug some gaping void within themselves at your expense, or who need to stop people from striving for the impossible because they can’t tolerate any reminders that they’ve never even tried.

    I hear what you’re saying about tempering expectations – expectations are complex, pitfall-riddled things – but damn, Nova, keep believing that the impossible is possible. Keep that desire alive and healthy within yourself. You’ve already climbed peaks that thousands upon thousands of other people see as insurmountable. Who’s to say you can’t keep ascending?

  7. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, as I have several unfinished goals in my life. I say unfinished because I feel like that’s different than un-achieved, or unachievable. As an unpublished writer, it’s interesting for me to read blogs and twitter feeds of published writers, and realize that no matter where we are, we’re always striving for something better. And I think that’s taught me something useful.

    I think growth is always relative. It’s easy for me to look back where I was a couple years ago, with my writing or my art, and forget how far I’ve come, or that I haven’t even put myself out there as much as I could have. And I suppose when I’m eventually published, it may feel the same way, at least until enough time passes to see the contrast more clearly, like in your story about being a writer in the first place.

    But it also makes me realize that no matter where we are, we have to a) be patient with ourselves and with life, and b) focus on our own growth and the things we can control, rather than compare ourselves to everyone else, or even to our own goals, to the extent that we fixate on the endpoint instead of the journey. We can’t help but look around at others’ successes–and we should, as we learn from that–but we have to keep the self-judgement out of it. Learn what we can, grow, and move forward. And accept that no matter where we are, there will always be something to strive for ahead of us. That’s part of the journey, I guess. Anyways, great post, and great thoughts. Thanks.

  8. Nova, the mom in me wants to do unspeakable things to anyone who would attempt to crush someone’s dream. So I’ll hop over my homicidal tendencies toward your stepfather and move on to say that of course the impossible dreams are the best ones. And yet we all have that This Is Reality voice in our heads that beg us to come down to earth.

    I think every dream, even the most outlandish, deserves a voice. Be kind to your dreams; treat them like your children. They may be way too assertive and obnoxious and in your face some days, but they grow. And change. And eventually, the potential for them grows too. No dream is impossible. But any given dream may have some growing up to do. Be patient and kind to it, nurture it, and let it play outside in the rain. Even let it out on its own once in awhile. It will come back to you.

    The good ones always do.

  9. If we stopped dreaming and reaching what would be left? Life would be so boring. I think it is important to dream BIG. I do all the time. But the trick is making smaller reachable goals so then you have something to feel good about in the short term. And obviously you’re not alone in this…and I’m there too with the rest of the crowd.

    • I picture the “impossible” dream as being an upper floor in the room that is my life. I just have to find or make the steps that take me there.

  10. I think what Amanda said is so important – to dream big, but to find ways to feel good in the short term. And not just with smaller, reachable goals, but also by simply doing things in life that are fun and bring joy. Far too often, this business sucks the joy out of life for me because I constantly feel “less than.” I don’t want to feel that anymore. I want it to be enough – wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, whether my book is selling or not – I want to feel that I’ve done my job and it’s enough. And yes, as you said, reach the most in the writing. Not always easy to do, but I want to try.

  11. “I think this is why I can’t let go of impossible things. I don’t believe in the word.” THIS. So much this. I can’t even tell you how wonderful and amazing this post is. Because I don’t believe in the impossible, either. And half the time, people find that either annoying or crazy. But there is so much to be said for passionately going after what you want.

    Thank you for writing this. Thank you for being so wonderful (because you are).

  12. Pingback: Odds and Ends: Impossible Dreams | Laura Maylene Walter

  13. I’ve always been a dreamer. Every year I would write down my goals and wishes for the year and would tape them to the bottom of a unicorn glitter globe. I wouldn’t look at it until the next year, and most of the time, I accomplished things without knowing. It was a strange and satisfying feeling. As I grow older, I want to be ambitious and write down something bigger than myself. I usually write one of those down, and the BIG one still has yet to be accomplished (getting published). Still, I keep moving forward.

    I also write a life list. It is something that can happen at any time. I wrote the first one in 2006, and when I found it six years later, I scratched three fourths of them off. The BIG one is still on there, and I’m working my butt off to make it happen.

    I also grew up in what you call a “dramatic” household. I vowed to make myself better and not let those things happen to me any longer. Those dreams kept me afloat and helped give me confidence in myself. I was lucky enough to find someone when I was young that believed in me, as well. We always look towards the impossible. I don’t believe in that word, either. Sometimes it tries to trick me, but I remind myself where I’m at is almost impossible already.

    Thanks for the wonderful post!

  14. Pingback: Big Dreams! « Rosebushchronicles

  15. Nova – I’m not even sure how I stumbled here this morning. I was supposed to check my email and then get to working on an outline. Yet, I found myself here reading a nearly three week old post. Thank you. Thank you for being brave and comfortable enough to share this. I’ve been that young girl crying on her bed, because someone else wanted me to feel small and wanted me to make my dreams smaller. I’m, also, always setting those impossible goals for myself, and it’s hard not to let the disappointment get to you some days, many days. But there is magic, and miracles, talent and hard work. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I might be a few weeks behind, but I really needed to read this this morning!

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