No one is more hungry for applause than someone who questions their fundamental worth.
One of my activities as a young teen was inventing schmaltzy dramas and acting them out–alone, of course. Oh goodness, it would have been a disaster if anyone had seen me! Many of my dramas ended in tears. It was a good way to get out my emotions and to (unwittingly) rehearse for a life of acting.
My first opportunity was in tenth grade, when I played “Villager 2” in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. I progressed by eleventh grade and was cast as Princess # 13 in Once Upon a Mattress.
But when I was a senior, I got two dynamite roles. I was Mrs. Webb in Our Town, and I was Hermione in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. At the end of the year, I was named Best Actress. I got my Sally Field moment of “You like me! You really like me!” And I got a standing ovation.
That was it. I had emerged from my self doubts. I was an actress, and I would study acting at BYU.
There, I received dangerous compliments. The worst was this: “You’re the only one at BYU who has a chance to go pro and actually make it!” Oh, the heady fantasy that one brought! Yes, I was bound to be famous.
An emmy-award winner, Tad Danielewsky, joined the BYU faculty, to our awe. The sight of him–a slim, sharp-nosed Polish man–was complete intimidation. I was in the presence of someone who had worn a tux at a big awards ceremony and had won a trophy!
The big announcement came after his first year. There would be an elite acting class–by audition only. Those who made it into Mr. Danielwsky’s class would receive his personal training for hours a day.
Oh, how I worked on my audition! Funny that I can’t remember what scene I did with Actor John. But I felt good about our performance–and nervous.
We had to wait for several days. I would see the other auditioners around campus, and we would report on what we had seen, and what we hadn’t. We hadn’t yet seen the list of those who had been accepted into this exclusive club.
At a grocery store on the fourth day, I saw one of my fellow actors. The list was up. He had made it! I didn’t ask if he had seen my name–it was too scary. He volunteered it anyway. “I don’t remember seeing your name, Maggie. But it might be on there!”
I dashed directly to the HFAC (BYU Art Center) board to find my fate. I knew my name would be there. I was, after all, “the only one at BYU with a chance to go pro.” Other excited actors were crowded around the list and I had to inch my name forward.
My adrenaline surged. I looked. No. I looked again. Had I missed it? My name had to be there!
I can’t even explain what happened then. I simply broke.
A week later, I announced that I was leaving home. I had hoped to go directly to New York to prove myself on Broadway, but Mom decided I needed to try Denver first–where my uncle and his family lived.
I could not even gather the courage to tell my parents what had happened. It was unthinkable. I was NOT one of the chosen. I was NOT good enough. What did this mean? What did I have left?
I was about to begin a disastrous adventure, and I was in danger, far more than I realized.
For the second time in my life (the first time being when I was an infant), my father gave me a blessing. He knew that I was unhappy, but I had not told him or anyone what had happened. All I remember is that he laid his hands on my head, blessed me, and wept. I had never seen my father weep before. He must have known that I was wounded in a way so private I could not even articulate it. He must have sensed that he was powerless to fix whatever was so deeply wrong.
I did stupid things in Denver–and, consistent with my habit of staying alone and eating candy–I gained a lot of weight. Dad visited me and let me know that my weight gain was noticeable. And I finally told him what had happened, that I had not been accepted in the one thing which was meant to define and to prepare me for my acting life. Dad pondered the information and then said, “I think he simply didn’t notice you. He didn’t see you.”
I decided to return to Provo. Of course, there was a significant problem. I was fat. So, I did the thing that any of us who has been on a diet since puberty would do. I lived on Diet Dr. Pepper for a month. No food. Just pop.
I lost thirty pounds, but looked swollen. My mom’s face fell when she saw me, and I knew that I had become monstrous.After I finally returned to the HFAC–nervous that anyone would see me–someone asked if people recognized me.
I was lost, utterly lost. How could I even audition anymore? Did people see me and say, “That’s Maggie. She didn’t make it. And look at how fat she got!”
I did return to acting, and to writing, and even completed my bachelor’s degree-ingloriously. I entered unwisely into a terrible marriage, which need not be detailed. The man I married was full of anger from many things, and he genuinely thought he could control it in our marriage. He was wrong. I genuinely thought that my love would calm him and even heal him. I was wrong.
I entered into another circle of failure. I got divorced, something which my family simply did not do. But I seemed uniquely talented at failing.
Things started to change when I met Bruce Young, a good and gentle man. I had little self-confidence, and he was also insecure, but we were in it together.
I did continue getting awards and applause–this time for my writing. But I was starting to realize that awards are pretty irrelevant and can even distract us from “the better part” of our lives.
So one day in the temple, I asked God to give me something to do with my talents which would actually matter. A few months later, when Bruce gave me a blessing, he said “You will be given an assignment in which to use your talents.” I spoke about that blessing and the assignment here .
My solid belief now is that no talent is superior to another, that in fact some of the more visible talents can be seductive and lead us to egoism. Of course, great talent blesses everyone. Karl Heinz Schnibbe, who had been in a prisoner of war camp in Siberia, returned to his family a bitter man, someone his uncle referred to as “a wild man.” The uncle took him to an organ concert, and something returned to life in Karl Heinz as the music swelled. In the end, he was weeping. The music had begun his healing.
That organist likely knew nothing of that one audience member, but every scale he ever played, ever repetition of a measure, every minute of his practice was rewarded because the music began someone’s healing from years of abuse.
Surely that is a primary reason for our talents. We are to bring everyone together in some kind of healing. We can tell stories which will sound too familiar to the hearers, who might recognize their need for repentance. We can compose music which will communicate something divine, or simply peace to our audience. We can offer art work as a comfort and an inspiration.
My focus on my talents was not surprising, but it was dangerous. Before I could recover my unimpeded love of life and of others–I still did not trust others to love me–I had to find a firm foundation. Good acting and good writing are gifts which require refinement, but they are certainly no foundation. We often compliment artists in various fields with the words, “You have a gift!” But obviously, gifts are meant to be given. Part of my personal growth was to lay my talents on the altar of faith and ask God to use them. To focus on the talents themselves as evidence of my worth would be a form of idolatry.
I rely on the talents of others for my own healing. Art has the power to transport me to deep contemplation and even awe. Music is vital to my life, and when I am really struggling, I put on Christmas music, and I don’t care what others think. A good film or story will always tickle my own creative impulses and will often lead me to a creative work of my own. Good thinkers inspire good thoughts–especially if they can express themselves respectfully. If they use their intellectual gifts like crusaders’ swords, their gifts might become harmful. They cut down when they are actually called to edify.
I continue to learn to appreciate others’ talents, which are sometimes less visible than mine. They understand structure–which seems to elude me. They are organized. Some have a gift of healing and seem to always be at peace. Some can understand math or chemistry or bio-engineering.
Part of my remembering who I am is recognizing that I am one of many contributors to a community, where all present their talents for the benefit of all. We humans are all about community–family, friends, school, church. The truth is, I find it easy to withdraw from social settings, and that is perhaps my greatest challenge. I am far too comfortable in an isolated space. But I am certain that our communal bonding is more important than we have imagined. I suspect that all of us will offer our life stories beyond this world and have communal understanding which will go beyond what any of us could come up with individually. We will realize that we are US, and that the solipsistic life has firm borders, whereas the life shared generously and lovingly with others “expand[s] our borders forever” (Moroni 10:32)