This post has been lingering as a draft in WordPress since mid-October, and I’ve been frustrated by its inertia all these weeks. Only today did I realize how hilarious it is to procrastinate on a post about losing ambition.
So here we are. Irony is a place you can live.
There’s also this: I’ve embraced productivity as a synonym for writing success for so long that it’s hard now to accept my desire for something else in its place. The delay in finishing the post came, in part, from not knowing what to say.
What even makes sense after your main drive ceases to be interesting?
Back in August, I wrote a “what I did this summer” post in which I confessed to putting adventures ahead of writing. The takeaway of the post was that I found it helpful (necessary, even) to give myself permission to take a break, particularly from the striving associated with trying to finish my Gertie manuscript.
Here’s a bit of what that striving looked like:
- lists and lists with possible titles, identified themes, details about who Gertie is and what the speaker needs from her, holes, questions, etc.
- a different kind of list pointing to what I’ve been referring to as the “lineage” of the manuscript — the poetry books that I’ve been turning to for education and inspiration on alter egos, epistolary poems and other aspects that are relevant to the conversation between Gertie and my speaker
- notes on the kinds of manuscript sections or organization that may work
- different versions of the Table of Contents
- drafts of poems
- ideas for poems
- jobs I wanted new/missing poems to do
Of course, I organized it into a fat binder (Ambition 101! I’m no amateur!) with “GERTIE” written by hand, all caps, on the spine. When I forgive myself for being overzealous, this level of mapping sounds kind of amazing to me, in a nerdy type of way, and you can see in this photo how cute she was:
But here’s the thing: It was premature. I still had writing to do. Instead of continuing to write Gertie poems for pleasure, I’d invited in the editor brain, one of the more buttoned-up costumes monkey mind wears. It promptly took up all the space in the room. It squeezed out discovery (and other types of oxygen) entirely.
A poetry mentor had warned me that the binder (and what it represented) had the potential to block me in that way, so she offered another perspective. As valuable as all that planning could be, she said, what was more important now was to live with Gertie and the speaker a little longer, to listen to them, to trust that the project had an energy and wisdom of its own.
I knew she was right, but I didn’t really know it, if that makes sense. And anyway, I had no idea how to find play and exploration again. Were we even at the same party anymore? I had become a captive audience for monkey mind, stuck with Chatty Kathy Editor Brain on the porch couch, listening to her boring and tragic failed writer stories while music thumped for those smart enough to be dancing in other rooms.
In the end, I set aside the poet and the editor and went out into the sunshine to hike and kayak and bike and paint. The latter would have more to teach me than I was prepared for.
I don’t remember when I first mentioned the idea to my husband and asked if it would be OK to paint a mural on the side of our garage, but early in Summer 2022, just ahead of my birthday, he gifted me with the space to do it. Literally. He built from plywood a 6-foot X 6-foot canvas.
If you scroll down to the bottom of an earlier blog post, you can see what it looked like blank and primed white, but here’s what it looks like now that it’s finished:
The design pays homage to barn quilts, something that’s always fascinated me, while also celebrating my love affair with the octopus. As an incredibly smart and mysterious creature, she’s one of the world’s most beautiful gifts, and I’ll never not be amazed that we share the same world. And so I created a sketch of the odd coupling — octopus plus barn quilt — and crowdsourced some improvements via Facebook. I projected the final design onto the wall one night after dark, got some exterior house and started painting.
To my surprise, it had something to teach me.
Painting a mural on my garage over a number of weeks created renewed awareness of the nasty effects of listening to that Editor Brain. Monkey Mind may have been able to convince me she was being helpful with Gertie because she’d put together a Binder of Decent Ideas, but by making an appearance with this new project she revealed her true self. She’s mean, for sure. She’s also the opposite of helpful.
Here are some “highlights” of my time with her as we worked on the mural, plus a rare photo (she normally doesn’t show up on film):
- She doesn’t want anyone to see her or her stuff as a work in progress. She fears the “warts and all” that come with that kind of exposure (surveillance?). She’s more comfortable perfecting something privately and revealing it only in the polish-and-shine phase.
- She’s constantly worried that what she’s doing is silly, frivolous, stupid and probably a waste of time.
- She believes she is going to ruin it, letting everyone see firsthand how incapable she is. She thinks this is how they find out she is not a poet or artist but an impostor.
- She has no idea what she’s doing, which is a big problem because everyone else does know what they’re doing.
- Who does she think she is to make art that can be seen in public?
- She’s taking too much time to do the thing. Everyone — neighbors, family, passersby, etc. — can see that it’s not done yet. Is she ever going to finish it?
Sounds fun, right? LOL
And while I wanted to offer you a sense of the inner critic chatter in my mind (in case you hear it, too), the experience was affirming in the end. I pushed through despite the voices in my head, and the mural brings me joy every time I see it. If anyone judged me (“What a weirdo painting an octopus on her garage!”) or judged the painting (“How childish!”), they did so privately. Most who were aware of the project were intrigued and delighted and cheered me on. I’ve since joked that it’s been voted “Best Octopus Barn Quilt in Town,” and it’s impossible to argue because it’s (currently) the one and only.
The experience also led me to return to painting on canvas/paper and to morning pages, where I am trying to learn to recognize self sabotage earlier and put those doubting internal voices in their place.
Part of the philosophy behind morning pages is that the universe wants and needs us to be creative and will support our creativity if we get out of its way. As such, I’ve started to recognize my obsession with productivity (ambition!) as a block I need to remove.
Longtime writing friends and readers of this blog know I’ve been a goal setter, including annual documentation of writing goals, and that I lament loss of “being a poet” when I don’t find or make time for writing. My natural inclination — as a working single mom juggling *everything* in total chaos and often darkness — was to create a safety net of reminders and schedules and to-do lists. To make sure I could be a mom and a creative person, I established system after system through which I hoped to wrangle the writer (get her attention long enough to sit her down), hold her accountable and push her toward getting all the things done that you need to get done in order to be a Successful Writer.
Being organized is seductive. It can be a mechanism for opening and for opportunity. But being organized can also be a distraction (hello, Binder!) or worse — a substitute for meaningful work. Instead of motivating me, my lists were doing two pretty terrible things:
- I was using them to create paths I could follow without having to engage. They gave me a way to get things done without being present.
- I was also using them as proof that I was a failure. I never got everything on the lists done, and so I judged myself harshly. I never measured up.
I have tried to merge the passion with the practical, and sometimes it has worked. But (at least right now) the two are at odds. I’m no longer motivated by checking the box. I’m more interested in an approach that invites me to stay in the pleasure of it, and I think that means giving myself permission to buy raspberries out of season, splurge on an Ellen Bass class, make more creative messes than I know what to do with and be the weirdest person in the neighborhood.
These projects have energy and wisdom of their own.
So what’s next? What does come after ambition?
Real talk here: I still have a few ambitions. I’m hoping to turn what got rejected for one writing residency into a successful application for a new opportunity. I’m getting excited about the workshops I’m considering in 2023. I’m also likely to set goals for the year, though if I’ve learned anything at all, they’ll be gentler.
So I’m not quitting ambition cold turkey. Instead, I’m trying to create a healthier relationship with it, to aim its energy at what I find meaningful. I’m trying to have more balance and equilibrium, to be kinder to myself, to say nicer things. I want to encourage myself instead of beating myself up.
I’ve always admired people who had this kind of chill, wisdom, clarity, peace, etc., but I always believed that — while it was good for them — it wouldn’t work for me.
But here I am, nosing around in their world.
Thanks for sharing all this. It’s fascinating.
thanks! i’m working so hard to challenge that inner critic & figure out a new way to show up for my creative self. & for my self-self, too, i suppose.
Yeah, right there with you on the ambition ambivalence and attendant confusion. Plus the list-making… What’s next, I keep asking myself. I pretend I didn’t hear me.
it’s freeing to realize i’ve been hiding behind my lists vs. feeling my way through the work. it seems so obvious now that the “place” for the logical, type A brain in creativity has limits, a specific purpose vs. guiding principle. but sometimes, we’re too deep in.