When I graduated from my degree in Cultural Studies, my film professor tried to persuade me to stay in academics. She wanted me to keep going, to pursue my masters and PhD, to be like her star student K---, who went to Irvine to earn a doctorate in some sect of specialized critical theory.
I wanted to write fiction.
“Your problem, Sarah,” she told me, “is that you have no ambition.”
In the documentary Meow Wolf: Origin Story, a group of misfit artists tell the story of forming a collective in Santa Fe. They convinced George R. R. Martin to give them almost two million dollars to build a multi-dimensional art installation/playground in an abandoned bowling alley.
They described having to pretend that it was possible, pretend that it was going to happen, in order for them to finish something so gigantic, without getting paralyzed by doubt.
“It was scary. We were all amateurs, and we didn’t know what we were doing,” one Meow Wolfer told us.
“It was such an ambitious project,” another said. “We didn’t know if we could do it.”
When Hannah Beachler won her Oscar for production design on Black Panther, she said in her speech: "I give this strength to all of those who come next to keep going and to never give up, and when you think it’s impossible just remember this piece of advice I got from a very wise woman: I did my best, and my best is good enough."
I was lucky enough to have two editors working with me on Radiant Shimmering Light — one in Canada and one in the US. Both tried to persuade me to cut the book by about 200 pages. There were storylines, character arcs, and a reading experience of overwhelm that I was unwilling to lose in the editing process.
I explained all of this, and why it was important for the novel to take up extra space so it could be what it is.
“Well, Sarah,” one of my editors told me, “this is a very ambitious novel.”
Ambition is a word with charge around it, like static electricity. We celebrate it, but only up to a point — then we feel suspicious about it. But what does it really mean?
What’s an “ambitious” novel? What’s an “ambitious” writer? What’s an “ambitious” career?
If you want to write a book, consider your definition of ambition, and then try to get right with it.
Think about how you feel about creating something from nothing.
What’s your relationship to the impossible?
Be ambitious: make your writing a promise, and keep it. Stay dedicated when it’s hard.
Be ambitious: write a story that does something new. Go into unprecedented territory.
Be ambitious: write a book that feels forbidden. Put the unthinkable into words.
Be ambitious: write about characters you haven’t met in fiction before.
Be ambitious: make your reader feel something new, uncomfortable, surprising.
Be ambitious: trust that your readers are smart, and will understand what you’re creating.
Take a piece from Meow Wolf, and pretend that what you’re writing is possible to write.
And remember the wise advice Hannah Beachler shared: do your best, and know that your best is good enough.
Photo credit: Reuben Wu