Well, I have to say I’m blown away by the thoughtfulness restraint and generosity of the conversation about my post “Inclusion.” Folks were willing to express their opinions when they were uncertain of what the response might be – that’s bravery. And when people disagreed, even when they felt that such a disagreement spoke to opinions they held dear, everyone maintained a high level of decorum and respect for the opposing point of view. That’s civility.

So thank you to everyone who made the discussion of “Inclusion” so entertaining and thought-provoking, so brave, and so civil. I have to say that it was way more than I’d imagined when I put down the Horn Book and started to type!

Thus I am learning about blogging. And doubtless making mistakes as I go. So thanks for not only bearing with me, but carrying me along on the currents of discussion.

All of which (now that I’m done being intimidated by it) has me thinking about Ambition and Goals and the relationship between the two. Goals seem like rooms unto themselves: they can be relatively small, clear, and easily defined. Ambitions seem like larger constructions with roofs expanded by things like hope and idealism, their pillars carved out of flawed veins of confidence. Their foundations often erected without conscious thought.

I don’t think I knew enough to have a capital “A” ambition for my blog, beyond opening up a line of conversation with folks who share my interest in writing and thinking. Plus, the fact is that I had an “Arthur’s Blog” button on my website for YEARS without actually writing anything. And what got me going, finally, was narrowing the scope for myself to a goal: to write something once a week. (Oops, off track on goal already!!!)
I am exploring the idea in my head (and through my fingers as I type) that one is most effective when there is a balance between these two things – Ambitions and Goals. And that each endeavor one might want to do in life calls for one or the other to be more prominent.
I’ve always wanted to play the guitar, for instance. I mean, I’ve wanted to play the guitar since I was ELEVEN. And I even took lessons at camp that summer, learning “Eleanor Rigby” and “The Times They Are a Changin’”. But for some reason, I guess I wasn’t satisfied with my progress at the time. And I felt that I’d already sworn my allegiance to the clarinet, on which I was a grizzled two-year veteran. So I decided that it was “too late” to start playing a second instrument, and I dropped it. Remarkably, I have been able to make this same absurd mistake half a dozen times in my life without ever learning anything. Including how to play the guitar.
Finally, I am learning again. And I think the key for me has been to lessen the Ambition (“I want to play WELL. I want to be like those wonderfully soulful, shaggy, guys who can transform a campfire or a party.”) And to focus on a GOAL.
The goal now is to practice every day. Another goal, just behind that, is to be able to change from the D-chord to the C-chord without hesitating.
The ambition was stifling me; even for something as private and inconsequential as learning to play the guitar.
On the other hand, I think my inability to finish the novel I’ve been wanting to write for fifteen years may have more to do with a LACK of ambition on my part.
I have tried many techniques for writing this novel. I had a terrific writers’ group at one point; the other two members have gone on and published the wonderful projects they were working on. For our monthly meetings I would dutifully produce some new material, taking various writers’ good advice and shining my headlights a few yards in front of me, meeting my short-term goals, having faith that eventually I would reach my destination, even though I’d spent the entire trip in the dark.
Instead I ran out of gas. Repeatedly.
I made another leap of progress last summer at the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Conference, sitting in a workshop led by the writer Linda Urban, who was talking about figuring out what the SPINE of one’s novel was. I was sitting next to my pal Ben Watson and he was dutifully scribbling notes and I thought, oh what the heck, let me try this, and BAM! I’d written the “spine” of my novel down on paper and in fact had outlined the whole flippin’ thing! In 45 minutes!!
If I ever actually write this durned novel I’ll have to thank Linda. But so far…well, nothing much has gotten done. It just feels too big, too hard, too overwhelming. And the idea of driving in the dark with my headlights, trusting that I’ll get the whole distance a few yards at a time? Well, that just feels like…driving in the dark with my headlights. Only I’m driving, with a splittin headache, on a wildly twisting, narrow mountain road with no guardrail and a treacherous rocky gulch yawning on my right. And since I don’t know where I’m going, really, I might find that the road ends suddenly. At the edge of a cliff.
I just have this suspicion that I have to psyche myself up to an AMBITION of some sort if I’m ever going to get over this terror. And I don’t think the ambition has to be: “I want to win the Pulitzer Prize.” But it might have something to do with having some Ambition to be a writer at all. At all.
Maybe if I find an ambition for this novel (or for myself as a novelist) that feels reasonable, I’ll be able to construct goals that lead up to it, and which don’t feel futile. Maybe. I’m trying this train of thought out. (Publicly. LOL.)
Is Ambition the thing that gives one confidence and energy? Or the thing that allows you to persevere when you have neither? Or do we working writers simply need something to push writing high enough on the priority list so that it gets done after wage-earning and parenting, attending to friendships and physical issues – all the (other) needs of the heart and the body?

I do think this relationship between an appropriate ambition and well-thought out goals is key in so many endeavors. Once I talked to a fitness trainer about an ambition I had to become someone who could take his shirt off at the beach unselfconsciously. He wisely told me that the part of my body I’d have to change to accomplish that was the brain, and he probably couldn’t help me with that. Ironically, he did. When I focused on a more attainable Ambition I was able to attach smaller fitness goals to it, and make progress.
As an editor and publisher I also have both Ambition and Goals. The Ambition is to leave a legacy of great books for young people that I’ve helped shepherd to their readership. The goals? Those are clear too when I step back from them: Find great authors and illustrators. Read their work. Give them feedback. Meet production deadlines. Inspire the rest of my company to get behind those books. Yet, to be honest, very often the actual workday is too hectic and out of my control to beat it into a shape that supports those goals efficiently.
Which may just mean that in the case of my work as a Publisher, I need to define my daily goals with greater vigor and rigidity.
It’s worth a shot!
And now…I have an editorial letter to finish! (My goal for the day!)

12 thoughts on “

  1. Arthur, our goals and ambitions intersect once again! I also “always” wanted to play guitar (electric bass, much of the time) and finally, about 18 months ago, I got serious about it. It was when we got Owen (then age 11) the electric guitar that he wanted, and I loved messing around on it, finding I really wanted to play finger-style blues. I decided to get my own acoustic guitar, and playing it is one of the joys of my life. I don’t have a teacher, though I have some good books, and there are lots of great videos and guidelines on-line. I wouldn’t say that I’m very good at all, though I want to be. But the guitar is not about ambition, for me — it’s more like a yearning. It just feels so good to feel the guitar resonating through my body.

    Writing, too, is a yearning that I can’t ignore if I want to be sane. My ambition right now is to write something as good as Criss Cross, but if I focus on that, I freeze. So instead I focus on the yearning. It happens that I just took a 5-day workshop with Lynda Barry at Omega Institute, and I found her approach to be so refreshing and inspiring — and productive. We wrote a lot. The course was called “Writing the Unthinkable,” which captures it perfectly — writing, or any kind of art, is not about what you think. It’s about re-opening access to that part of your mind or consciousness or self that you used when you were fully engaged in play, as a child. I wrote a bit about it on my blog: http://mudandlotus.blogspot.com/2010/07/divers-clothes-lying-empty.html . She wrote (or wrote and drew) a book based on the course, What It Is. I highly recommend taking a look at it. The techniques she teaches are what she used to work her way through two novels. I’m hoping it will work for me.

    On my way home from that workshop, I wrote lyrics for a blues song. I’ve worked out the chords and some fills and turnarounds, and I’m having a blast. Now if only a could sing, or had the confidence to try to sing … maybe that’s the next frontier.

    I guess what I’m suggesting is, goals and ambitions are important to have, but moving toward them means moving into a different mode. At least for me, with writing. The G and A provide the structure; the yearning provides the juice.

    1. Beautifully said, Lauren (as always!) I love your concept of Yearning providing the “juice” between Goals and Aspirations. Are we saying that what a writer really needs to have is G.A.Y.? (Goals Aspirations Yearning)? What a great connection to the last post’s discussion!! LOL.

  2. It’s funny, Arthur, that you’d blog about this topic… because it’s one I deal with all the time when helping people in social media. As an example, folks start blogging thinking that it’ll be the answer to their promotional problems… and they end up frustrated or giving up because it doesn’t happen (or not as quickly as their ambition insists). Instead, having smaller goals – building blocks, I guess you’d say – that lead to bigger goals and so on is far more likely to lead to any sort of success. It makes sense that this would be the case in allllll sorts of other areas (says the guy who finally learned some magic tricks much as you’re finally learning guitar!).

  3. I so agree about having smaller goals–it help me to know that I only need to write a certain number of words a day rather than a whole novel!

    Another thought though–I heard that William Stafford once said about writer’s block “Lower your standards”. On those days when I can’t even tap out a first draft I find those words so helpful. It reminds me that once the words are out on the screen (or paper), then and only then, can I revise them and make things clearer and more truthful to the story that’s trying to be told.

  4. I love this discussion. What seems most important for me is the moment that goals turn into habits and I’m no longer even thinking about them. They are me, they are what I do.

    I do get snagged, though. Right now I’m waiting on revision notes and having the hardest time writing anything else while I wait. I’ve fallen out of my habit and now I need to set goals all over again.

    I hope you set goals that work for you, Arthur. I want to read that book.

  5. >>push writing high enough on the priority list so that it gets done after wage-earning and parenting, attending to friendships and physical issues…<

    This made me smile. YMMV, of course, but if I want it to happen, the writing must be prioritized BEFORE those other things, at least some of the time, and regularly.

  6. Arthur, the 15-year gestation period for your novel probably has little to do with lack of ambition. Just as you are now ready to enjoy the guitar, you will also be ready to write the book one day. And you will be surprised then at how much of it has already been written inside you.

    I’ve been writing my novel for more than 10 years, probably more like 13, on and off as other parts of life became more pressing. But the interesting thing is, I found out after years and years that running out of steam after writing 6 or 12 chapters was not laziness, lack of ambition, lack of skill, or any other kind of failure, although it always felt like that. I just didn’t have strong enough underpinnings to keep such a massive story afloat. I hadn’t spent enough time with the characters, living with them, looking in their pockets and refrigerators. Now I’m much closer to the end than to the beginning. It takes writing a book to learn how to write a book, and it takes the courage to throw away the lame early attempts and understanding that of course it is going to be better the next round. Of course, it is! Because you won’t make the same mistakes — you’ll write it a lot better (and make new mistakes).

    Starting a blog and putting those goals and ambitions out there for the world to see is a good way to solidify them and keep them at the top of your mind. You will find your characters bubbling up there, too. Then you will get those little shivers when you think about a scene you look forward to writing, and you will realize you’re on the right track.

    Being interrupted by life is just the way it is. You have a young child and a lot of demands on your time. Keep the faith.

    1. Thanks, Toby! That’s beautifully said. And very comforting. I’m sure your novel will be wonderful as well; you have such a wonderful, musical ear for language (we still read TWO COOL COWS, and HATTIE BAKED A WEDDING CAKE and WHOOSH WENT THE WISH with great delight in my household!! And I have faith in YOU that the time you spent working and thinking and living in your novel’s world will only be for the good too. So we’re right there together! 🙂

  7. Maybe it would take a dare to get you to finish your novel…..

    So, I hereby dare you, Arthur Levine, to write one page per day on said novel until a first draft is done.

    (Don’t make me bring out the double dog dare…..)

    Good Luck!


  8. It’s good to be reminded that you are a writer as well as an editor. That by itself tells me you understand the process, the ups and downs – in short, the self-doubt and turmoils – that are all part of capturing your heart and story on paper.

    I have a book called The Habit of Being. It’s a collection of letters by my favorite short story author, Flannery O’Conner – a woman of amazing intellect and humor who left behind some brilliant writing. Her letters are a testament of her dedication to the craft. Despite her health (she had lupus), she showed up at her desk every morning to write. Of course she didn’t have kids running through her room, a day job she had to drive to or most of the other distractions of modern life, but even if she had, I think she would have found a write her stories.

    I hope you finish yours – one day at a time.

    I hope you’ll finish your novel, Arthur, because

  9. Thanks for the tip about SPINE. This tops my list of things to do now as it could be just what I need for a back burner project. I also appreciate your distinction between ambition and goals as well as the relative connection each has to the other…now to push the yearning into overdrive.

    As a side, your contributions to the literary world have already left a legacy in your name regardless of the status of your personal novel. However, we are waiting with open arms to embrace the words taking up space in your head for the last fifteen years.

    Take care,

    Cindy Paul

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s