I was speaking recently to a well-known writer about success. “It’s all about the work,” she said. She then proceeded to list all her accomplishments. Short of a Naional Book Award or a Pulitzer, she’d pretty much achieved “it all.” Multiple published novels and memoirs. Rave review in the New York Times. Stories in the New Yorker, Atlantic, Paris Review, Granta. Regular columns in glossy magazines and major newspapers. Yadoo and McDowell residencies. Teaching gigs in the Ivies. She knows a lot of other writers who have achieved the same accolades as she, check check check check check. And she told me something that breaks my heart, especially for writers, but anyone can relate with what she said: Without that Pulitzer, those writers pine away in levels of self-loathing and criticism. When is it enough? And if they do get that National Book Award or that Pulitzer…will it be enough THEN? It’s all in the books, she said. “Creative ambition is one thing. Career ambition is another.” You better watch out for the latter.
It’s what I’ve known all along. It’s how I’ve been living for the last 17 years out here, tucked into my Montana life, writing books and raising kids. The “prize” I’ve had my eye on is writing the best books I can possibly write. For a while it became about getting them published, but I had to let that go because it was eating me alive. My job was to write the best books I could write, send them to my agent, and let go of the rest. My job was to get back to work writing books. And once I did, that’s when I, in fact, “achieved” that “prize.” I’ve loved that “prize” because I get to have readers. I get to speak to audiences and try to inspire unpublished writers not to give up. And I got paid, which has given me the gift of more writing time.
But I know, that no matter what kind of list I have in my own mind about accolades I’d like to receive for my hard work, that list is secondary to the creative ambition that asks me good questions like, “How can I breathe this character into life?” “How can I imbue this unlikeable character with a humanity so true that the reader will love them despite their mistakes?” “How can I make this book sing?”
This to say that I think there are different kinds of lists in regard to dreams. I think it’s important to have them. I think it’s important to take a dream scan of your wildest ones and write them down. Maybe put that list somewhere like a little altar that you occasionally smile at or nod at or bow to…glad that you have dreams in the first place. But I think, after that, it’s a deep breath and a committment to the work at hand. I believe that with that committment, we move into those dreams. Creating our moment begets more creating, and suddenly we’ve blown through a few items on that list without even “trying.” Check check check. Our intentional living has birthed that dream child.
The difference between wanting and creating is something I wrote about in my memoir. Those dreams were born inside us, and while they often have to do with something outside of us and outside of our control with variables that have to do with other people and other places…we still can begin the arch that lands in the creating of them simply by acknowledging that we’ve dreamed them in the first place. I have my list. I no longer look at it, wanton. Covetous and clinging. I look at it like a character in one of my novels– I can breathe it alive. But that begins right here, in my moment, in me.
This morning, a certain teenaged girl in my life, asked me to print out something for her for school. It was an assignment: 30 thing you want to experience in your life. I of course read the list, smiling and teary. It was so inspiring and raw and real and huge-minded and huge-hearted and yet so much about the creative spirit I know so well that dwells in her bones– that dwells in things she creates every day in our little town in Montana…that I asked her if I could share it here. Give it a read. What do you want for your list? What can you create today that might breathe some of those dreams alive?
1. Receive certification as a scuba diver and then go to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
2. Become multilingual in French, Italian and German so I can live in Europe without getting the “American” treatment.
3. Ski where no one has ever been
4. Work at a bakery
5. Live in New York City
6. Do something completely humbling
7. Travel in another country after senior year in high school
8. Photograph a sleeping turtle
9. Meet a wild dolphin
10. Make orange juice from oranges I picked from a tree in my backyard
11. Live alone for a while
12. Climb a tree and make a fantastic tree house
13. Go to Columbia University
14. Build an igloo
15. Be completely independent and self sustained
16. Live sea-side, mountain-side, city-side
17. Read all Chronicles of Narnia books
18. Do something that gives me an insane adrenaline rush
19. Become ambidextrous
20. Never lose my love to run
21. Help a family in need
22. Ride on the back of an elephant
23. Live without a cell phone or the internet for as long as I want
24. Drift along in a hot air balloon
25. Learn to be content
26. Swim on the equator
27. Explore the Alaskan coast
28. Visit my Swiss heritage lands
29. Go to every state in the United States
30. Kayak through a river