Thought for Day 7 of Revise the Novel Month: Selfless Ambition.

One of the most haunting quotes of all time for me is one Thom Yorke (of Radiohead) sings in “Paranoid Android”: Ambition makes you look pretty ugly.  Haunting and scary.  I don’t want to be ugly. I want to be pretty all the time. I also want to be ambitious. Actually, I can’t help but be ambitious.  I have a drive and I hate feeling like I’m in a lull.  A good friend used to tell me all the time that I have a motor. It’s true: I have a motor.  I suspect that if you call yourself a writer, part of that is because you have a motor, too.

Today I spent an hour doing an exercise in Julia Cameron’s THE RIGHT TO WRITE, where she recommends that you put on music that makes you feel adventurous (for me this was the Soundtrack to Amelie and a bunch of Elmore James, who makes me wiggle in a good way–I’m wiggling as I write this…).  Then you take ten minutes dreaming on the page about six areas of your life: Spirituality, Friendships, Living Space, Traveling/Adventure, Work Life, and Creative Projects.  All of this writing helped me come up to today’s thought:

There are two kinds of ambition: selfish ambition and selfless ambition.

Ambition is good.  It can’t be helped for some of us.  Some of us just have motors (and we remain ever envious of those who are content with simple lives).  I recognize my motor and I embrace it.  It’s what’s going to get me through this novel.  But I must make a choice as I go to work, as I let the motor propel my writing: I must choose selfless, over selfish ambition.

Selfish ambition means I want to be number one and I get pissed off when others pass me in the race to success. I shun the friends who are rewarded for their hard work.  I am angry because I deserved whatever reward they received–I am entitled to whatever they got.  I am bitter and I am depressed because everyone is passing me by.  I am stuck in despair over other people’s achievements.

Selfless ambition means I want my success to inspire people to strive for their own successes.  This means I live in constant congratulatory mode.  When my friends make achievements, I congratulate them.  I celebrate their success.  We are all on a team to make the world better.  We want our friends to produce the kind of work that delights and satisfies, that inspires readers/listeners/audience members to appreciate their lives, to stay curious.  We want our friends to put good writing out there and for that good writing to be recognized and appreciated.  We want our friends to be rewarded for their hard work.

Selfish ambition means I write only to satisfy myself.  I write for paychecks. I write for recognition. I write for revenge–everyone who overlooked my work will feel like the jackass they are when they see how fabulous my work has been all along.  I write to make people suffer while I work my way up the ladder.  I write with a hunger that will never be satisfied, though I convince myself that if I just have a book published, if I just get a tenure track job, then I will be satisfied.  I crush everyone along the way to these goals.

Selfless ambition means that I write in order to enlighten the world to whatever topics, people, and phenomenons that I discover during my writing process.  Ultimately, our creative projects are good for us and they are good for everyone else.  When people overlook my work, I work harder and do not despair.

I choose selfless ambition over selfish ambition because, I believe, it’s an answer to Thom Yorke’s observation in this here quote:

Recommended Reading: The Right to Write by Julia Cameron, Penguin: 1998

Cinco de the Thoughts for Revise the Novel Month: Forget Failure.

I’m going to name drop here, so watch out: Alan Shapiro once said in a sprint course I took with him at Miami of Ohio that you have to accept failure as a part of being a writer. You can’t be afraid to fail because you will. It’s just going to happen.

This is great advice but I’m not going to stop at that. I’m about to one-up that one-of-the-greatest-poets-and-writers-who-ever-lived and say, “Forget failure.”

Tell yourself that failure doesn’t exist.  This brings me to another name-drop, actor and director, John Neville Andrews, from whom I took Acting as a Profession course at the University of Michigan.  John said once, and this is one of my favorite quotes of all time, “You will not fail on stage. You might f*ck up, but you will not fail.” Now read that again in a British accent.

He might have said “make a mistake” instead of fail.  The point is this: you are an artist. If you’re making stuff, you have already won. (Have a beer! AFTER you’ve clocked in your writing time…) When you’ve made a mistake, you have not failed, but you have had a revelation.  You’ve taken a step.  You are one step closer to the finish line because you know something you didn’t know before.

You can’t give up every time you make a mistake, no matter how much you feel like you’ve failed.  You haven’t failed, so just keep running the marathon, baby.  Your novel is a marathon.

With that, I leave you with two U2 references. I understand that there is a chance that you hate U2, but bear with me here. The first is another one of the greatest quotes of all time (in one of my least favorite of their songs): “There’s no failure here, sweetheart, only when you quit.”

I love it when Bono calls me sweetheart. I also love it when he proves, like he does here, that he is one of the smartest fellas who ever lived.

The second is an entire song.  I listen to it every time I feel like I failed.  I haven’t failed.  I’m one step closer.

Fourth Day Thought: Leave Your Problems at the Door

Before I had writing, theater was my creative outlet.  Today’s thought comes from those days, they seem long ago now, when I used to be an actress. Here’s what I learned: when you’re in a show, especially when you’re in rehearsal (which is the creative period for an actor–you’re creating a character while you run your scenes with the other actors), it’s really important that you leave your problems outside of the rehearsal room.

I recommend having a room especially dedicated to writing—a room where you do nothing else but write.  I understand that many of us don’t have this; I only got mine in the past year and that was by a huge stroke of fortune. I might not always have this space, either.  For those of without a room to spare, I recommend having some sort of writing space. If you write at a coffee shop or a library, leave your problems at the entrance. If you write on your porch, leave your problems inside the house. If you write on your couch, leave your problems on the other side of the room before you sit down. Decide that you are putting your problems aside as you start to write.

Problems might include bills you forgot to pay, or a fight you had with your sibling, or whether or not you should call that dude back, or the fact that your dog needs a walk.  In your writing space, you’re going to need to concentrate on the character you’re creating.  You’re going to need to take on the mind of your character.  This is fantastic if you’re like me, a bit of an escapist, and you like to escape from your problems for a while.  Writing is the time to do it. (Especially when your protagonist is an escape artist, like my protagonist is an escape artist–ha!)

When I go into the extra bedroom I’ve dedicated as my writing room (the office), I try to imagine that when I go into that space, I have a different identity.  I’m still Nora, but I’m Nora the Writer.  Nora the Writer doesn’t care about bills or other people who she’s not writing about while she’s working on her fiction.

Sounds kind of harsh? Well, my friend, writing does require a certain degree of ruthlessness. Even so, you might consider taking care of your problems before you go into your writing space, that way you won’t need to think about how you owe so and so an apology while you’re trying to write a scene that has nothing to do with so and so.

Now, you may decide to tackle a specific problem with your writing—you might work something out in an essay or a poem.  Cool. That’s not really what I’m talking about. I’m talking about leaving behind anything in your mind unrelated to your writing.  Pay your bills. Answer your emails. Walk the dog. Call so and so back before you go into your writing space.  That, or commit to dealing with it later—decide on a specific time when you will stop writing and deal with that stuff.  Deal with that stuff outside of your writing space.

Day Three Thought: The Illusion of Deadlines

There is a lie that writers/all kinds of people believe, which is that our life is full of deadlines.  Grad school is great proponent of this lie.  So are day jobs with deadlines. Lots of things have deadlines but your great novel does not.

In his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass reiterates again and again that what separates a great book from a mediocre one is pretty simple: the quality of the writing.  This thought is related to yesterday’s, but great work doesn’t really have a deadline, except for what the term implies: write it by the time you die.  (And if you don’t, well, you’ll be dead and it probably won’t matter to you much.) Writing takes a balance of working like there is no tomorrow and working as if you’re never going to die.  Life requires this balance, too.

As a writer, I’m prone to think up phrases like, “By the time I’m 40, I will ______” — fill in the blank.  As an unmarried 30 year old woman, I’ve had to accept the fact that those fantasies I coined up as a kid of being married and having a house by the time I was 20 (I really did believe this!) were, well, just fantasies.  We have no real time frames, no real deadlines for by when our work, our monumental life experiences, must occur.  We don’t know when things will happen.  To think that I will have a book published by the time I’m 35 is an illusion. I can still be a great writer, like Alice Munroe, and not have my first book published until much later.  The New Yorker’s Best Under 40 Series is a toxic pit of lies.  We hear it said again and again, the first thing to kill the quality of your work is to think about how it’s going to be published and when while we write it.  We must rid our minds of these thoughts if we are going to produce great work.  Again, patience and hard work is what creates great work.

Thought for Day Two: Endurance

A woman in my apartment complex told me she has a novel idea.  I’m sure she’s not the last person who will ever tell me that. I heard this girl at the airport once go nuts over her novel idea. She annoyed the hell out of me, this airport girl.  I wanted to interrupt her and say, “You have no idea what you are talking about.”  But you know, maybe she did?  Maybe her novel will come to be and maybe it will be a great novel.

In the book I recommended yesterday, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield spends a section of tiny essays explaining what makes a writer (or anyone) a professional. One such essay is called, “A Professional is Patient.”  On page 75 he says that the professional,

 … understands delayed gratification. He is the ant, not the grasshopper; the tortoise, not the hare.  …  He knows that any job, whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much.  He accepts that.  He recognizes it as reality.

The reality is, I think, that most of us have novel ideas, or just really good ideas in general that will take a lot of persistance to make them materialize.  Some of us have entire drafts of those novel ideas but what separates those who actually follow through with those ideas from those who won’t–any good idea, says Pressfield–is the acceptance of delayed gratification.  Every day we must go to work and say, I’m going to take my time. I’m going to keep working until this is done.  And then I am going to keep working on it again until it is great.

So, today, on this second day of RTNM, I am going to slow down, take my time, and do my best to get lost in that work.  It’s that whole cliche about recognizing the value of the experience in the journey, not the destination.

First Thought for the First Day of RTNM*

*That’s, “Revise the Novel Month.” Read my previous post from today for more information.

1. Stop focusing on what you don’t have and be grateful for what you do have.

This is not just writing advice, of course, but it’s especially helpful for writers.  Writing is one of the the best jobs in the world because it’s an art job.  By art job I mean, our work is a process of putting everything to good use.  Everything about our lives, I believe, could potentially make us better writers.  For me, this means, instead of flipping out because I don’t have a paycheck coming to me for the next two months, I can also see that the reason I don’t have a paycheck coming is because I don’t have a job.  Not having a job means not having work. Not having work means having a ton of time.  Time I won’t have as soon as work starts up again. (It also means I will spend less time at the bar–less money means less mornings wasted recovering from last night’s wine–more energy to work!) No job with paychecks this month means writing is my job this month.

If you do have a job alongside your writing, you get money and you don’t need to worry about how you’ll eat, so this is also good for your writing.  You also have access to a world of people who, if interacted with the right way, can enhance your writing (just as having a ton of time can enhance your writing).  If we have work outside of the home, then our job is to pay attention.  Also, to use our money towards making us better writers.  Paychecks=greater chance that you can afford to make it out to Seattle for AWP next year.

Part of being a healthy human is taking on the attitude: It’s all a gift. This is Rob Bell’s line, not mine. This kind of gratitude is definitely an important part of being a good writer.  Even bad things are gifts because they teach us how to be resilient.  Resistance (Steven Pressfield’s term for everything that might keep you from writing, from Facebook, to your dog waving your dirty sock in your face while you try to pound out some sentences, to your crumbling relationship with the person you thought you were in love with, etc.) is a gift because once you recognize it, you can learn how to rail against it with a resistant war cry: you learn to charge right through that shit and get shit done.

It’s all a gift.  Everything in your life could potentially make you a better writer.  This is why, for Revise the Novel Month, I’m going to start with gratitude and get to work.

Recommended Reading: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell

INTRODUCING… “REVISE THE NOVEL MONTH”

Those of you who know me personally know that I just finished, along with thousands of writers across everywhere, National Poetry Month.  NPM came at a great time for me.  I was finishing my MFA, waiting to defend my novel thesis, and classes were winding down.  Poetry month helped me to make a daily commitment to my writing.   I wrote a poem every day.  I also did something else—I posted a (famous, not mine) poem every day on Facebook.  There is something about the second activity that I think reinforced the first: having a public way to manifest my celebration of this month helped to, in some way, hold me accountable for the private way I celebrated poetry month (writing poems—most of which no one will ever, ever see).

I like the idea of committing to something for a month.  It seems manageable.  That is why I decided to dedicate this entire month to my novel—I mean, like, serious dedication.  I have then decided that I need a public way to manifest the process, as a way of holding myself accountable to the work I do in private. Granted, this month may turn into years of work, but I plan to commit to it one month at a time. I have made a calendar of reading and writing assignments that will work as prompts to delve back into this writing project. That’s the private stuff, though.  I won’t be sharing much of that on here.

Here’s my particular deal: I have a novel draft.  I call it the “fun” draft.  I wrote it, basically, to make myself laugh while I finished my MFA.  And it is funny.  Probably only funny to me, but it cracks my shit up every time I read it.  This does not mean I don’t care deeply about my characters or the profound life stuff the novel aims to portray.  It just means that I wrote that draft to get a draft out and now it’s time to hunker down a bit.  I have three manuscripts covered with notes from my three committee members. Time to get serious. I actually have no real idea where to go next.

I also don’t have a job this month, so something as in-depth as working on a novel seems perfect for me at that time. Considering the amount of MFA programs there are in the world, I’m guessing that there are other people in my boat—people who don’t have jobs for the month of May, people who have novel manuscripts from their time in school to revise.

So here’s what I’m doing on this blog for the month of May:I will share my thoughts of encouragement during all of this daunting novel business. I encourage anyone who has a novel draft to revise to check in with this blog once in a while—maybe, just maybe (hopefully!), these thoughts will be helpful to you, too.

CURRENTLY READING:

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

The Nighttime Novelist by Joseph Bates

The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West