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.


The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CLAPP) recently anthologized story of mine called Uncle Sam City” in this book:

It’s a collection of short stories that emphasize setting; the story I wrote was set in Bangkok, Thailand.  Other authors collected include two author-friends of mine from my time in Oxford, Ohio: David Harris Ebenbach, who was, for a short time, a local writer in those parts and Joseph Bates, a resident writer at Miami University who taught one of my grad seminars there.  He was actually the first to workshop “Uncle Sam City,” when I submitted it as “untitled”.  It’s gone through several changes since then.  I’m really honored to be in a book with these two–they are wonderful, imaginative writers and fantastic folks.

Other authors in the collection who I don’t know include:

Jenn Winter, Brandon Tietz, Dan Treadway, Robert Duffer, Heather Skyler, Elva Maxine Beach,  Delphine Pontvieux, Emma Riehle Bohmann and Lorraine Boissoneault.  Traci Kim is the editor.

For information about how to access the collection see this page on the CLAPP Center’s website.

In Memory…

Yesterday I found out that a local Detroit performer, Blair, passed away over the weekend. A blogger for the Metro Times did a nice write-up on him, which will give you a sense of who he was and what he accomplished in his too-short life.

I first met him while working with this theater group in the city in preparation for a trip to South Africa.  He taught a poetry class for senior citizens at Hannan House, and I observed/assisted when I could.  I knew nothing about poetry but learned a lot about it from him–mostly about capturing emotion in description.  He was good at that.

The trip was rough for me. The first time I’d been out of the country.  I didn’t get along well with the people who brought me (to be cryptic about it…) and was a real mess during the plane ride home.  As I was sorting the experience out, he told me some hard truths that I’m still trying to grapple with, about catching problems early and solving them right away.  About being quick to communicate.  I didn’t want to hear any of this but of course he was right.  I can’t say I was a good listener but I did hear what he said.  Right after that, he offered me an opportunity to open for him at a music concert the next week after we returned.  This was my first musical gig, and though I still write songs and perform them, my fiction has lately dominated most of my time and artistic energy.  Thinking about him makes me want to pick up my guitar again.  That’s beside my point–I am remembering Blair for his amazing kindness to young artists, for his generosity.  He probably thought I was really young and naive, which I certainly was, but in that conversation he helped me out every way he could. I want and try to be like him.

The last time I saw Blair perform was a couple of years ago, when he released a debut CD with his band, The Boyfriends.  Though he was a fantastic musician, it’s his poetry that I will remember him by the most.  He performed this poem as a tribute to our city:

He was important to us.  We will feel his loss for a long time.




another old writer (i’m newly obsessed with)

Toni Morrison is 80.  She published her first book at 39.

I’m taking a ton of summer classes (by ton I mean three) and for two of them I had to read Toni Morrison novels–A Mercy and The Bluest Eye.  I’ve sort of bookended her career, I suppose.  Now I’m tearing through Beloved on the side of all my homework (i.e. write four response essays and read two other novels by Wednesday…) and I think it might very well be the best book I’ve ever read.

I love that I can go through nearly two decades of school (counting kindergarten) and still pick up new writers to be obsessed with.  This reminds me of why I think it’s silly for writers to be competitive–sure, our own success and glory is pretty great, but isn’t it also great to read good books?  Don’t you want publishers to release as many good books as they possibly can? Don’t you want the people who write these good books to be your friends?

I will probably never “know” Toni Morrison, but for the record, she did recently appear to me in a dream wherein we were going out for pizza and bowling and she was really nice. And now that I’ve transitioned back to the main subject of this post, I am going to say, once again, that we can learn from writers like her that there is no need to rush our writing careers or put pressure on ourselves about how much we should have published by when.  Just write well, live a long time, and write a lot.  And read Beloved if you haven’t yet.

Meet Rachel Levy

At Miami University of Ohio, I was fortunate enough to meet and study fiction alongside one of the most skilled an imaginative writers out there.  Rachel was known for turning in paragraph-long stories that accomplished more than our thirty-pagers.  I’m excited to share with you her story “Becoming Deer,” which PANK Magazine published in their latest issue.

You can read more of her fiction here:

“Ocean” and “Worms” in issues 2 and 3 of Ghost Ocean

A Turkey Baster is Just like a Penis in Smokelong Quarterly

Smokelong Quarterly also posted an interview with Rachel here


On a final random note: That image is a from a painting I found by googling “haunted deer”. 😀

age and writing

I think we often put timeline-pressure on ourselves, particularly about what we hope to have published and when.  Maybe the New Yorker puts it on us with its best under 40 issues.

Meanwhile, Alice Munro was 37 when she published her first book, according to her Wikipedia site.  I admire her for lots of things–sustaining tension, her dark regionalism–but one of my favorites is that she was born in 1931 and she’s still kicking. Hard.  She reminds me that I don’t have to rush progress and that it’s cool to stay alive and keep writing.