Charlotte Burley grabbed her pen and paper and headed out of Buffalo's East Side nearly 11 years ago. She was a 25-year-old writer with big dreams and ambition to match - her sights set on the promise of New York City. Her family crossed their fingers, and couldn't resist asking her, "Are you losing your mind?"
Nonetheless, they supported her decision. After all, they were the ones who had encouraged her to major in theater arts at Buffalo's Visual and Performing Arts High School and gladly sat through every one of her performances.
Jesse L. Martin also grew up on the East Side and had some crazy dreams of his own. He had a flair for the dramatic, and at age 16, he drove with a friend to audition for a summer production of "West Side Story" in Brockport without telling his mom. As his mother's luck would have it, he got the part.
"When I told my mom, she freaked because she'd be the one to drive me back and forth all summer, and she worked and was in school and needed me at home to help out," said Martin. "But she did it anyway, and I'll love her forever for that."
Fast-forward about a decade. Charlotte Burley now is a writer/producer for USA Networks' Sci-Fi channel in New York City and recently co-authored her first novel, "Cosmopolitan Girls," which was released last February. And Jesse L. Martin? He's also in New York City on the set of NBC's hit series, "Law & Order," where he plays the compulsive and passionate Detective Ed Green. Martin also has graced the sets of "Ally McBeal" and "The X-Files" in recurring and guest-star roles and plays the Ghost of Christmas Present in the musical version of "A Christmas Carol," airing tonight at 8 on NBC.
Burley and Martin have more in common than Buffalo roots and zip codes in the Big Apple: They both pursued their creative aspirations, and they both were fortunate enough to have families who encouraged their dreams. Martin thanks his mom for always supporting his endeavors, whether it was hand-picking schools that would allow him to develop his talents, like Buffalo's Visual and Performing Arts High School, or by allowing him to intern at Shakespeare in the Park in the summer even though there was no money involved.
Some of his friends weren't so supportive, though. "My friends used to call me "Shakespeare' and laugh at me for going to work all summer while they were playing football," Martin recalled. "Don't get me wrong, I like football, but I knew what I was doing."
When his friends belittled his dreams, he remained silent. "I took the abuse, but I would think, "One day you'll see.' And," he added, "luckily I became successful, because otherwise I'd look like an idiot!"
Burley's mother and grandmother encouraged her to chase her dreams, but her father wanted her to be more practical. Perhaps that's why Burley enrolled in ECC's nursing program shortly after she graduated from high school. "ECC was to try to satisfy my family as well as myself," she said. Even though her dad went to every one of her drama performances and appreciated her talent, he worried that she needed a regular job.
"I always knew she would do what she wanted to do, but a backup plan is a good idea," said Burley's mom, Janice, who still lives in Western New York with the rest of Burley's family.
Through her college years, Burley continued to write, and after graduation, decided it was her time to make things happen. When she arrived in New York, she "fell in love with the city and didn't want to come home." And her family? "After some time, they saw I was meant to be in New York pursuing my dreams," Burley said.
When parents tell their children to dream big, the unspoken lingers in the air, and the young people can fill in the blanks. Some parents secretly want to say, "Dream big but dream practical. Dream our dreams." But young people with creative aspirations - the budding artists, musicians, writers, actors and dancers of the world - don't want the practical. They want the improbable. And they need family support.
"When you crush a child's dream, you're crushing the child," said Robin Ryan, a nationally respected career counselor and author of numerous career-advancing books, including "60 Seconds & You're Hired" and "What to Do With the Rest of Your Life." "If you want your child to be happy, she's not going to enjoy becoming a lawyer if she really wants to be an artist."
"I don't think that parents purposely try to cut their kids' creative aspirations down, but sometimes they fear what they don't know and project those fears onto their kids," added Dr. James V. Jones, director of Canisius College's career center. "Consider that kindergartners are going to be working in careers we don't even know about yet."
Traditional "safe" careers that conjure up images of steady paychecks, benefits and retirement packages are nice, but do they even exist anymore? According to the Department of Labor's 2005 budget performance review, the average person will change jobs nine times or more before age 32, and the shift to "knowledge work" will reinforce the ongoing trend of nontraditional work arrangements. Full-time, stable and long-term employment arrangements are on the decline.
"There are no safe jobs," said Martin. "Choose something you love and do it despite the economy." This came from a man who held many "day" jobs through the years while he pursued his dreams. "I washed dishes, waited tables, peeled onions (I really hated that one), bartended and worked at Macy's," he said. He chose jobs that allowed him to work around his schedule and always knew that his dreams came first.
"If a job interfered with an audition I wanted to go on, I left the job," he said.
"Job security lies within a person to find a job when plan A doesn't work," said Ryan. Some creative types don't care that much about stability, though - it's the creativity they're after. When asked to weigh the importance of steady paychecks over dreams, Burley answered: "Steady paychecks are important, but if I didn't have my dreams, I think I would just die inside."
The obvious solution to the dilemma of trying to choose between dreams and steady paychecks would be to find ways to combine both - a process families can certainly help facilitate. Here's how:
Listen to children's dreams.
Help them research careers.
Encourage them to place monetary value on their work.
Teach them to work smarter, not harder. "You need to learn the ins and outs of your trade and position yourself so you can make money," said Ryan. "Working smarter means getting inside your trade."
Encourage them to think of all the possibilities. Consider eBay - a phenomenal way for creative types to sell their work with virtually no overhead cost, noted Ryan. "I recently paid a lady $1,200 to paint a mural in my son's bedroom," she said. "There's so many ways to apply your talents."
Encourage children to get involved at school. "Our college has so many resources for students, whether it be pursuing internships or joining creative organizations and clubs - it's all at their disposal," said Jones." Accept that their dreams may not include college. This one is the toughie. According to a 2002 Census Bureau report, over an adult's working life, high school graduates can expect to earn approximately $1.2 million; those with a bachelor's degree, $2.1 million; and people with a master's degree, $2.5 million. Considering the statistics, it's no wonder so many parents believe college is the only option worth pursuing.
"College is great, but if you want to get into entertainment, sometimes experience outweighs the education," said Burley. "You can always try to make a go of your dreams for the first year, and then if you find you need more training, you can always go back to school."
To parents freaking out about their child's decision to forgo college, Ryan said, "If that's what they really want to do, you're not going to stop them." Instead of trying to stop them, help them, but realize that help doesn't equal enabling dependency.
"(Do) you really want to help your kids?" asked Ryan. "Take the thousand bucks and invest in career counseling or schooling but don't keep paying their rent and expenses."
Some parents may also fear their children's creative aspirations will take them out of Western New York. They wonder if young professionals can realistically stay in Buffalo without jeopardizing their future success. Both Burley and Martin chased their dreams out of Buffalo, but what about those who want to stay home? Are we doing ourselves a disservice?
"I had the ideal experiences in Western New York," said Martin. "One thing I noticed growing up in Buffalo was that the arts always took precedence, and given the state of the economy, it's very impressive. Everything was at my beck and call when I wanted it."
Perhaps that's one reason why Buffalo ranked fourth in American Style Magazine's 2004 "Top 25 Arts Destinations in the USA," right behind New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
"I believe in the people and talent in Buffalo," said the Goo Goo Dolls' bassist and songwriter, Robby Takac, a Buffalo native who was raised in West Seneca and "enlightened in Allentown." In November 2002, Takac decided his hometown was worth the investment when he opened Chameleon West Recording Studios, a recording complex in Allentown that promotes local bands. "We have the Music is Art 2004 record release coming up at the Irish Classical Theatre on the 29th of November," he said. "The disc features 56 awesome local acts. Supporting this scene is easy."
"If I had stayed in Buffalo, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now, only because the Sci-Fi Channel doesn't exist in Western New York," added Burley. "I could find plenty of ways to pursue my creative passions, however, like pursuing independent projects. If you have a chance to give back to your city, you should do so no matter what."
If Buffalo wants to be a hip, creative city that inspires and keeps its youth, more people need to be willing to give their dreams a chance, or at the very least, to encourage the dreams of others.
"You'll never believe how many people I meet who tell me, "I always wanted to do X,' but they were never encouraged to do so," said Martin. "All it takes is one adult to say, "Do it. Don't be scared or ashamed in any way, shape or form. You have great ideas and you can make it.' "
"Making it" doesn't come from external validations like a check or Mom's approval, though. "The world doesn't have to know you made it," said Burley. "It can be something you've accomplished privately - a goal you had that you made possible is success within itself."
And even though there will always be an acquaintance, friend or family member around to spread some cynicism, Burley offers this advice: "Always follow your dreams, and if anyone tells you that you can't do it, use that to make you want to do it even more."
As a wise and wonderful educator recently told me: "Every successful invention, business, school system, poem, counseling strategy, expedition to another place, architectural wonder, concerto, software program - every creative endeavor which enriches the world - was once a dream. Someone thought it was impractical. They were wrong."
Maria Pascucci lives, writes and dreams impractical dreams in Lancaster. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.