Finding Why: in Life and in Fiction

There is nothing wrong with being an ambitious woman. No matter what sexism and misogyny tells you. No matter what other women might say to your face or behind your back. Your place is wherever you feel right — it may not be in the home, the kitchen, the office, the schools.

But I have to admit, even though I know this is true — I live and breathe this mindset – lately, I’m struggling to find the why of my ambition. And I need to explore that, because as a writer, knowing why is where you start. In story, WHY is better known as MOTIVE or GOAL. It is the driving force behind the protagonists struggle forward. It is what keeps the main character fighting when all the odds are stacked against them, when everything seems lost, when finally they have their big chance.

It’s no surprise to me that I am also struggling to find the why for my main character at the moment. That sounds about right, since life imitates art, art imitates life, and both myself and this shiny new character need to get to the true motive for our actions.

Earlier this year I started a YouTube channel(Books, Booze and Bitches, for anyone interested). At first it was very loose, free — just a thing my sister and I were doing to chronicle our adventure to Comic-Con. It was a release and escape from the pressing matter of what the hell am I doing in my life and career. And it was FUN. It was MINE. Anyone could watch and like or dislike, but they weren’t in control of it. And for someone trying to make it in both publishing and film, two highly-competitive, highly-controlled fields, having my own thing was like growing wings.

But then I got ambitious. I wanted it to grow wings, too. It was fine, I said, to want more from this thing than just an outlet. I could do well on YouTube. It could explode. But then it stopped being quite so fun. I started getting pissed if everyone didn’t watch, and then I started getting sick of it a little.

Ambition has tried to rob me of the fun of creative pursuit. YouTube is not the first near victim. Earlier this year I wrote about my anger toward the publishing industry, how it was killing my desire to write, ruining my stories, and giving me wrinkles. I wrote about how I was going to take a step back so I could rediscover the reason I loved writing books.

Hint: it’s not about a book deal. That is insignificant to the love of writing. The magic is in creation. If you ever think you do a thing for money or acclaim, that thing will end up souring before you can ever savor it.

Last night, after I posted my video to YouTube and Facebook, I didn’t feel happy to have it out in the world. I felt irritated. I felt like I was screaming in a room full of people and somehow no one could hear me. Because even though it always gets views, I can’t figure out how to WIN. I want to conquer the Internet. I want to crack the code to success.

But WHY? What am I hoping to achieve from YouTube? Or writing, really? What am I doing it for? I sat on my couch last night and I couldn’t even answer that question. What, existentially, the hell do I want?

On the surface, of course I want publication, or my screenplay made into a film, I want to entertain people through YouTube, and somewhere not too far below the surface, I want validation and acceptance of my creativity.

What do I have to prove? As competitive as I am (do not play me in a board game, I will crush you), I don’t care about being the best. I like to win, but my definition of winning has nothing to do with other people. I care about being the best version of me. I don’t compare myself to others often. I compare myself to the woman I think I should be by now. I look at how successful I believe myself capable, and I shoot for more. I’m not happy if I’m not winning against me.

But I will never begrudge another person’s success. I will never be jealous. I will always support someone I believe in. I’m a Gryffindor, Loyalty and Chivalry are kind of our thing.

When you’re writing a story, you always start on the surface. Getting to know a character is like getting to know another human being. You ask them questions, and they give you true but shallow answers. The reason your character MUST survive the Hunger Games cannot be just because she doesn’t want to die. That is primal, and truthful, but it is not deep. Now, winning so she can give her sister a better life, that sells. That is something we as feeling people empathize with.

You don’t reach your goal because of external wants. You reach your goal because inside you have something worth fighting for.

So…what is my WHY?

I am compelled to be more than I was yesterday. I am fighting for success, but I am also striving for excellence. I need to show my son he can WIN if he never gives up. I need to prove to my nieces that bravery is just as important as beauty. I need to prove to the little girl that had the dream to become something when she grew up that she is something already.

In the story of your life, you must be the hero. You must define for yourself what your goal is, and you must make a promise to fight through all the obstacles until you get there.

Find WHY and your character, yourself, can win it all.

Inner Life of a Writer, Some Thoughts

I have talked at length about my obsessive nature with friends, family, my dog. No mental health professionals yet, but I never rule out a logical progression. By discussing it down to it’s finer points (and yes, I realize this is the very definition of obsession) I have concluded that I may never really get away from it. Or at least not as long as I write. John Updike said this:

The refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.

It couples obsession with art, making the obsessed, when in pursuit of creative truth, a hero rather than a villain. Following obsession to the very point of insanity is a scary place I am sure. I am not there, nor do I expect to ever be, but I felt the gentle nudge to the edge of the cliff. The abyss below is where many authors reside.

Why does this happen? When an author begins to submerge themselves in the chasm that is their creative process, a lot of things can come undone. It unleashes the mind to explore, and often times, the mind has a hard time reigning itself in. I was speaking with a friend about this recently, also an artist, and he laughed at me. “So, your writing allows your obsessive behavior and your schizophrenia a proper outlet?” I very inscrutably said, “Well, yes.”

When I was in the final weeks of this last revision, writing stuff I didn’t want to write but that I loved, breaking down barriers I had put in place to keep myself comfortable, building on my world, I found it very difficult have conversations with people at the end of a writing day. I was turning into Gollum and my manuscript was my one ring.

Anyone who saw me while we were visiting Texas, in those last few days, can probably attest to the shift. When I was done I felt like I could finally see people. Like I was a horse removing blinders after a long race. Oh there you are, world I live in, friends and family. I had almost forgotten what you look like. I became Frodo with his task completed.

(Note: I realize this pic of Frodo is when he goes off to eternity with the Elves, which is a little morbid. But he’s finally HAPPY!)

For me, writing is both an outlet — as my friend put it — but also a cell in which I am prisoner. You may read that and at once declare concern, but don’t be hasty. When I am a prisoner to the words, I am alive inside. So when my warden releases me, and I am expected to reenter society and contribute, part of me longs for the cell again. The writer in me is never fully sane unless writing. I love my other hats. The mom hat. The wife hat. The friend hat. I relish that there are people in my life who love me and enjoy my company, and who I love and enjoy as well. I take great pride in teaching my son something new. But always, the writer hat is in my pocket, folded up and ready to be unfurled. You don’t turn that off, you just try to contain it. (For this reason, among other law related ones, I do not take mind-altering drugs. I don’t need help unleashing the monster inside.)

So, what about you? Do you have an obsession in your life that you also kind of love?