I sat down to write a post about creativity, but what emerged was a meditation on ambition. This is my parents’ fault. And the Olympics’. (Stupid international celebration of human excellence, grumble grumble.)
When I was little I wished my parents had pushed me to excel at a sport–horseback riding? high jump? J.V. sumo wrestling??–so that I could be GREAT and in the Olympics. Raising an eight-year-old curling champion, however, was not on their agenda. Instead, they supported the ebb and flow of my various interests, and tried to raise me to be a decent and well-rounded human being.
Parents ruin everything.
Even as an eight-year-old, I felt weird telling my parents that I wanted to be GREAT. We’re not supposed to talk about ambition. There’s something shameful in acknowledging it. In the Age of Consumption, when the phrase “American dream” has been magically and retroactively written into the Bill of Rights, there are still things it’s not okay to want.
“Ambition” carries connotations of hubris, Faustus, and that cardinal sin which inevitably (in hindsight) comes before a fall. It feels awkward and vaguely socially unacceptable to describe myself as ambitious, but I am, as a writer and as a human being. My aspirations are not small, yet I feel uncomfortable broaching the topic.
We emphasize “just getting along,” both in the sense of coexisting in a passive peace, and in the sense of “just getting by” without rocking the boat. As a woman and a mother, I feel the force of this discomfort keenly. In the broad cultural dialogue on motherhood, “ambition” isn’t part of the lexicon.
But I am ambitious. I want to make a living as a novelist. This is a ridiculously ambitious goal, but it doesn’t stop there. I don’t want to hit the NYT Bestseller List so much as I want to make a difference. I want to write stories that crack people open, that make them laugh-cry, that offer up the moments of transcendence that the best stories have given me. Books saved my life. I want to pay it forward.
Some ambitions, of course, are ingrained in the status quo. There are certain things we’re encouraged to desire. Most of them are tangible, ideal forms casting shadows in a cave full of Real Housewives of New Jersey. We’re supposed to want money, attractive partners, expensive vacations–things we can Tweet and Facebook, things that show in selfies.
I cannot take a selfie that conveys my ambition, an ambition which may sell books someday but will not be measurable by any instruments we have.
The creative impulse is inextricable from ambition. The act of creation is both divine and heretical, a presumption that mere mortals could craft anything transcendent. When we write, we play God, creating the world in our own image. It is a glorious blasphemy.
Ambition isn’t something people talk about in the carpool at my kids’ school. It’s not a topic that comes up at parties. It’s easy to think no one else experiences it and the conflicting emotions that accompany it. I’m putting this out there in the hope that it will resonate with you, and that we can move beyond the pedestrian discussion of wants to the harder and deeper question of aspirations.