Ambition

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!)
Cheers.

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5 thoughts on “Ambition

  1. The idea of having a blog has intimidated me for a long time. What you said about goals versus ambitions makes me think that I can start small and create something of substance that doesn’t require a lot of time away from the job of writing books.
    Incidentally, I think your own book would get off the ground if you weren’t so dedicated to getting the work of other authors out there. You will need to make time for it.

  2. I love this post–I hadn’t yet got to this distinction between ambition and goals. Feels a little bit to me like one you have control other, the other–maybe not so much? My husband has an acronym for those goals–CDTs, clearly-defined tasks. And what we’ve found over the years is that sometimes you just have to keep breaking those tasks down into more and more smaller tasks. Kind of like getting closer & closer to a specifically active goal for a character, versus their big, overarching…well, now I’m going to call that a character ambition, NOT a goal. Love this!

    The one thing I’m finding out, the older I get, is that baby steps can be incredibly productive. The all or nothing attitude I had when I was younger ended up, way too often, in producing nothing.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  3. Your frustrations and struggles with writing a novel struck close to home for me, Arthur. When I was working on my first novel, I consistently felt that I was going to drive my car off the cliff, so much so that I was afraid to even turn the key in the ignition. And this was a puzzlement to me: my ambition was to be a successful writer (whatever that means) but I was so sure that I didn’t possess the mental depth to write a full length novel that I was paralyzed and couldn’t even begin. What could I possibly say that would be interesting enough for a novel? What helped me through the long journey was a writing class where the teacher expected a new chapter every two weeks (a manageable goal), enthusiastic classmates who gave me immediate positive feedback and assured me I wasn’t driving into a tree, and eventually an encouraging editor who expressed his confidence in me as well as giving me a deadline. I wish I could say that I had purely noble motivations, but a large part of the reason the book got finished was a hungry appetite for the praise from my classmates and not wanting to disappoint my teacher or editor.

    Whether or not it will do you any good, I’ll return the favor: I have complete confidence that you will write this novel. Truly. I’m also confident that it will be a great read, and I look forward to having your book waiting for me on my bedside nightstand, whether next year, or in ten years.

  4. Arthur your words on ambition struck several notes with me. Ambition in some ways was easier to handle when I was a 20-something. I learned to set goals in my 30’s. I am learning to keep the goals in my 40’s. Maybe by my 50’s I can marry the two things together. Sometimes it takes a long time.

    As an illustrator I enjoy deadlines. That is what gets my ball in to the goal, when someone else is dependent on me delivering the job.

    Now I want to fulfill my ambition to write, and that’s not so easy. I go off on a tangent, I forget to follow the plot. I fall in love with the words. Last week, on the flight to SCBWI LA I decided to follow some advice from Cynthia Leitech Smith. I read the first chapters I had written, and then I pressed DELETE. ARRGGHH! No saved versions. It was gone. And on the 5 hour flight I rewrote from memory, and what a difference. I didn’t want to let those words go, but they were still there in my head, but better. I think ambition can make you fearless.

    I also started to write a blog this year. That has been a goal setting exercise for me. I am trying to be less conscious of sharing my thoughts, to let go. I am beginning to realize that the most interesting blogs are those in which the writer shares a little of their soul. And the soul in your writing shines through!

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