Ambition.

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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


Be visionary.
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11 comments

Hayley Chewins

I love this so much, Sarah. It's exactly what I needed to hear.
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Stephen D. Forman

Hi Sarah! 1) I recognize you may just be paraphrasing a long-ago conversation, but damn, there's nothing that makes your hair bristle like this acrid favorite (always said with a cheeky smile): "You know what your problem is?" [Shudders] 2) Meow Wolf: Origin Story > Others have said it before me, but it does seem to be the case that people will lend you $10M more readily than they will $10K. [YMMV] 3) "I did my best, and my best was good enough" (Hannah Beachler) > This fits so well with a meditation I sat with this weekend. The teaching was to focus on intention, not outcome. I thought, "Wow, so much of what we do nowadays is outcome-oriented, goal-oriented, the end-justifies-the-means, measure the KPI's, etc." But what if I took a more forgiving approach? All I can do is intend to hit the bullseye: I'll nock my arrow and take aim at the center, but once I loose the arrow, the outcome isn't important. It will land where it lands. I put my energy and preparation into my aim, my intention, and that's "good enough." [Namaste] Thanks! Steve
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rea tarvydas

hi sarah, ambition is definitely complex and more so for women. i mean, ambition is viewed as the opposite of likeable, so there's that. god knows women are supposed to be likeable. but when you stop and think about it a desire to achieve something (e.g. write a story/book/trilogy) is made up of determination and a strong work ethic. what's so wrong with that? talking about ambition reminds me of the difference between nice and kind. nice is superficial and kind is more complex, and encompasses several points of view. then there's the fact that you don't have to be nice to be kind; in fact it's often better to be firm and fair. is that likeable? i think you have to get behind the word ambition and sort out the complexity for yourself, and that requires time/thought. rea
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Elizabeth Westra

I was more ambitious, but am losing it. Why? Because I have to share my writing room and time with another, and he doesn't seem to realize how much writing means to me. I try to get writing in whenever I can, but it's much less than I used to do.
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Sarah Selecky

1) I KNOW! 2) LOL is this true? Gah. 3) Yes. I have to remind myself of this every day (hence meditation practice. I get it.) Thank you.
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Sarah Selecky

Oh dear Elizabeth, I hope you can find the source of your writing energy again. Maybe a local library has a quiet table for you!
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you for this, Rea. I agree -- sorting out what you want a word to mean (for yourself) gives you autonomy and clarity. "Ambition" is one of those charged words. So is "kind", or even "happiness".
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Loved the article, Sarah. To me, ambition is all of the above and more. My first novel's premise is something that can be uncomfortable to a reader in western society, but it's something I want to talk about. On a personal level, quitting a well-paid job in a field I am passionate about must appear ambitious, but I did it anyway to be a full-time writer.
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Sarah Selecky

Wow - YES, Purabi! That's ambitious on both counts -- and I hope both decisions feel fruitful and strengthening to you as a writer.
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Sarah Selecky

Kristin -- so true! Someone recently told me that when you put your locus of power in someone else's opinion, it's like you put a leash on yourself, and they can yank your chain whenever they want. You just gotta practice knowing yourself, defining ambition for yourself, and taking your collar off -- so it doesn't matter who says what. You're free.
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Kristin Offiler

Love this! It's funny how "ambition" can be both a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, there needs to be a perception that you have it in order to be taken seriously, but when you DO have it, you had better think carefully about how you're wielding it or else you won't be taken seriously. Sigh. I think it comes down to the individual. One person telling you that you didn't have ambition was just "you don't share the same ambition I think is right for you" in disguise. And to say a novel is too ambitious is almost like saying, "are you sure you can even pull this off? I don't know if you can. Who are you to attempt this, anyway?" Come onnnnn.
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