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.

Here’s to you, November!

I began this month with a blog post that examined the humbug state of November in years past, and how this November I would break that trend. As I’ve traveled the days of this month, barreling through the hard parts or staring bewilderingly at the shiny moments, I’ve not had a chance to ask myself if those declarations were realized.

Until now.

leslie knope

This month I decided to do NaNoWriMo with every intention of winning, and after 30,000 words, I discovered winning isn’t everything. It’s something, and don’t get me wrong, I’d never kick her out of bed, but in the end playing the game with friends was better than getting hung up in the battle for words I will still be able to write in December.

This month I turned 29 and the world didn’t end. I was Freshly Pressed. I was accepted to a writing retreat and workshop with an author I respect and admire. I flew to Montana and drove to the boundary of Glacier National Park where I visited the Blackfeet Native Americans. On the frozen plain, something in me thawed.

I met the Eleventh Doctor, the Ponds, and River Song (if only virtually). I watched Catching Fire and wasn’t disappointed (an event worth noting as I am accustomed to being underwhelmed.)

I finished shooting a short film that had lived in my imagination so long I was certain it could never become real. This month I decided that sometimes real is better.

This month my husband was so sick he became useless for days, and I confirmed my disinterest in doing any parts of life on my own. This month we had a cement truck, a Bobcat and some very skilled workers outside our house shutting off water and transforming our space.

It’s also the month I fell down the stairs, smacking my head and splitting it open, realizing the fear of a thing is often much more powerful than the thing itself. This month I didn’t die from something senseless, and therefore I became less afraid of dying senselessly.

How do you gage the value of a month, a season, an event? Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and for the first time in my adult life I was the host. To pull off any event with my family where no one brawls, bickers, or breaks the law is considered an achievement. Swept up in the chaos, that joyful unrest, that upheaval of all things routine and ordinary, the day came and was gone before I could even breathe in the blessing of a holiday where no one threatened violence. But that doesn’t mean the blessing wasn’t absorbed, and it doesn’t mean I stop being thankful because yesterday has passed.

One day can’t possibly hold all of our thankfulness for the moment, or contain all of our hope for the future, or heal every blemish from the year behind. To ask a single meal, or moment, or season of tinsel and twinkle lights to work that hard is to assure certain defeat.

November ebbs. I walk away from it with a few war scars, some accolades, promises, and the knowledge that I am woefully inadequate and unfathomably ambitious.

The war over this month is won in small victories and concessions, in turkey dressing and whiskey pudding, in days of showing strength and nights of sobbing into a glass of wine with a time-traveling Madman. It’s found in admitting when you are beat, and letting someone else shoulder your burden. It’s in valuing the joy of losing. It’s in snuggles instead of struggles.

I set out with a plan to keep November from stabbing me in the back, and discovered what I already knew. November will always fight me dirty, biting and scratching and hypothetically hitting me in the crotch. She certainly has a mean right hook. But in the twilight of the month, with much unfinished or given up — as the barmaid wipes the tables down and the piano man plays in the corner — I raise my glass to her, and to her credit, she buys me another round.