A funny thing happened when I published my first book, more again when I published the second, and still more yet again with the third: People began to treat me differently. The typical exchange opens with a disinterested, “What do you do?”
“I’m a writer,” I say.
Here a very subtle sneer. “That’s nice. Have you published anything?”
“Yup.” I offer up my abridged CV.
Suddenly they stand up a little straighter. A light goes on in their eyes.
A moment earlier they were talking to nobody, a nothing, but now they’re speaking with somebody, a person who matters.
“Wow,” they say. “That’s amazing.” And sometimes: “I always wanted to write a book.” And sometimes: “I have a great idea for a book.” And sometimes: “Maybe you could help me write my book.”
This dynamic awakens a ferocious dormant animal, a snarling girl with a big mouth, too smart for her own good, nothing to lose, suffering privately. She’s me at fifteen, more or less. When she is ready to stop suffering privately, she’ll become a writer.
Oh really, she says. Now I matter? Wrong, motherfucker: I mattered before. (Also: Nope, can’t help you write a book, best of luck.)
She’s a little trigger-happy on the misanthropic rage, this snarling girl. She is often accused of “not living up to her potential.” She is neither inspired by nor impressed with prep school. The college admissions race leaves her cold. Her overbearing mother berates her about crappy grades and lack of ambition. (O-ho, the snarling girl says, you want to see lack of ambition? I’ll show you lack of ambition!) Where she is expected to go right, she makes a habit of veering left. She is not popular, not likely to succeed. Her salvation arrives (surely you saw this coming) in the form of books, movies, music. She obsessively follows the trail of breadcrumbs they leave behind. Here is a neat kind of power: she can be her own curator. She can find her way from one sustaining voice to another, sniffing out what’s true, what’s real. In her notebooks she copies out passages from novels, essays, poems, and songs. She Sharpies the especially resonant bits on her bedroom wall. This is how she learns to trust herself, no easy feat. These are epigraphs to the as yet unwritten book of her life, rehearsals for the senior page she is keen to assemble. These stories and lines and lyrics are companionship, proof that the universe is much, much bigger than her radioactive family and rich bitch west L.A. and Hebrew school and Zionist summer camp. Behold: She is not crazy! She is not alone! She is not a freak! Or, rather: she is crazy, she is alone, she is a freak, and she’ll keep glorious company with all of these other crazy, lonely, amazing freaks.
Look at her notebooks, all in a row. They live in my study, above shelves stacked with my books, galleys, audiobooks, foreign editions, literary journals, anthologies, Literary Death Match Champion medal, and piles of newspapers and magazines in which I’m celebrated as this amazing thing: a writer. A novelist. Legit. But witness, please, no coincidence, the notebooks live above that stuff. Spiral-bound, leather-bound, fabric-bound, black, pink, green, floral. This Notebook Belongs To: Elisa Albert, neatly printed in the earliest, 1992. Fake it ’til you make it, girl! The notebooks have seniority. Here is how she began to forge a system of belief and belonging, to say nothing of a career. Am I aggrandizing her? Probably. I am just so goddamn proud of her.
Ambition. The word itself makes me want to run and hide. It’s got some inexorable pejorative stench to it. Why is that? I’ve been avoiding this essay like the plague. I’d so much rather be writing my novel, my silly secret sacred new novel, which will take a while, during which time I will not garner new followers nor see my name in the paper nor seek an advance from the publisher nor receive the hearts and likes and dings and dongs that are supposed to keep my carnivorous cancerous ego afloat. I will simply do my work. Hole up with family and friends, live in the world as best I can, and do my work.
The work: this is what I would like to talk about. The work, not the hearts and likes and dings and dongs. And maybe I can float the possibility that the work is best when it’s done nowhere near the hearts and likes and dings and dongs. Maybe I can suggest that there is plenty of time for hearts and likes and dings and dongs once the work is done, and done well. Maybe I can ever so gently point out that a lot of people seem rather addicted to the hearts and likes and dings and dongs, and seem to talk about and around writing a hell of a lot more than they actually do it. Maybe we can even talk about how some self-promote so extensively and shamelessly and heedlessly and artlessly that their very names become shorthand for how not to be.
I mean: ambition to what? Toward what? For what? In the service of what? Endless schmoozing and worrying and self-promotion and maniac flattery and status anxiety and name-dropping are available to all of us in any artistic medium. But the competitive edge is depressing. That thinly (or not at all) disguised desire to win. To best her or him or her or him, sell more, publish more, own the Internet, occupy more front tables, get tagged, have the most followers, be loudest, assume some throne. Is it because we want to believe that we are in charge of our destiny, and that if “things” aren’t “happening” for us, we are failing to, like, “manifest”? Or is it because we are misguided enough to think that external validation is what counts? Or is it because of some core narcissistic injury, some failure of love we carry around like a latent virus?
Perhaps it’s because knocking on doors like we’re running for damn office is a lot easier and simpler than sitting alone with our thoughts and knowledge and experience and expertise and perspective, and struggling to shape all that into exactly the right form, during which process we take the terrible chance that we might get it right and still no one will care. Maybe we are misguided enough to believe that what’s most important is that people care, regardless of whether or not we get it exactly right. Maybe getting it right doesn’t even matter if no one cares. Maybe not getting it right doesn’t matter if everyone cares. If I write an excellent book and it’s not a bestseller, did I write the excellent book? If I write a middling book and it is a bestseller, does that make it an excellent book? If I wander around looking for it on bookstore shelves so I can photograph it and post online, have I done good? If I publish a book and don’t heavily promote it, did I really publish a book at all!?
Everything worthwhile is a sort of secret, not to be bought or sold, just rooted out painstakingly in whatever darkness you call home.
Here is what we know for sure: there is no end to want. Want is a vast universe within other vast universes. There is always more, and more again. There are prizes and grants and fellowships and lists and reviews and recognitions that elude us, mysterious invitations to take up residence at some castle in Italy. One can make a life out of focusing on what one does not have, but that’s no way to live. A seat at the table is plenty. (But is it a good seat? At which end of the table??? Alongside whom!?) A seat at the table means we are free to do our work, the end. Work! What a fantastic privilege.
Feeling like one does not have “enough” of anything (money, status, fame, recognition, shoes, name it): that’s where every kind of terrible shit starts. And the benchmarks of success constantly shift. Ambition is a fool’s game, its rewards fool’s gold. Who is happy, asks the Talmud? She who is happy with what she has.
Fine, okay, but I’ve been publishing for a decade now. When my first book came out I was a silly wreck. I smoothed my dress and crossed my legs and waited smugly for my whole life to change. I looked obsessively at rankings, reviews. Social media wasn’t yet a thing, but I made it my business to pay very close attention to reception. I was hyperaware of everything said, everything not said. The positive stuff puffed me right up, and I lay awake at night in a grip of fury about the negative. You see this a lot with first timers. It’s kind of cute, from afar. Do I matter? Do I matter? Do I matter? Rookie mistakes. What’s tragic is when you see it with second, third, fourth timers. Because that hunger for validation, for hearts and likes and blings and blongs, is supposed to be shed like skin.
Ambition: an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment. Note: we are not speaking here about trying to pay our bills, have a decent place to live, buy decent food, access decent health care, get a decent education. For the purposes of this particular discussion, those fundamentals are assumed. And there’s nothing in there about spiritual betterment, social service, love, or happiness. The entire concept can therefore be seen as anti-feminist. An ideal matriarchy would concern itself exclusively with the quality of our days. Whither the collective desire to make life better for everyone? Ambition is inherently egotistical; it is by definition about being in service of the self. Which has never, not once in the history of humanity (can you tell I’ve not bothered to read Ayn Rand?) made anyone anywhere “happy.”
And anyway, haven’t we collectively imbibed sufficient narrative about the perils of success and fame already? Haven’t we seen how fame can destroy and corrupt, how ambition and greed are twins? How recognition can pervert and compromise? We’re all struggling with our own unique little demon conglomerate, and we all have some good luck and some bad luck. Nobody can tell you how to be happy because being happy is one of those things you figure out by figuring it out, no shortcuts. Or maybe you don’t figure it out, maybe you never figure it out, but that’s on you. Everything worthwhile is a sort of secret, anyway, not to be bought or sold, just rooted out painstakingly in whatever darkness you call home.
I’m searching those old notebooks for one quote in particular, though. It came flooding back soon after I accepted this hellacious assignment. (I mean, women and ambition!? Too vast and complex. What the hell can possibly be said? Women: be more like men! Lean this way! Lean that way! Lean sideways! Pick a direction and contort yourselves heroically toward it at any cost! Never give in, never surrender! You are entitled to dominate! You owe it to all women! Don’t tell us what to do! Hear us roar! I dunno, you guys. I do not know.)
It’s a line from an essay by Christine Doza in an anthology called Listen UP! Voices from the Next Feminist Generation. I was fortunate enough to take Women’s Studies in high school, and the anthology was our textbook. Bingo, here it is: “When I was little I wanted to be the president, a firewoman, a teacher, a cheerleader, and a writer. Now all I want is to be happy. And left alone. And I want to know who I am in the context of a world full of hate and domination.” I had copied it out in huge, swooping letters.
I find Doza online and message her: Are you the same Christine Doza who wrote “Bloodlines” in Listen UP! Voices from the Next Feminist Generation?
I want to include her in this narrative, let her know how much her essay continues to mean to me, twenty years on. She’s not a “famous writer.” I can find nothing she’s published since that essay. But I want to tell her how forcefully she (still!) resonates when I am asked to formally consider the odious topic of women and ambition. She managed to articulate something difficult, profound, and specific (which is hard and rare), and in so doing, she gave me a gift. A jumping-off point. Affirmation. Recognition. Clear-eyed dispatch from further on up the road. Fate brought my eyeballs and her words together, and here we still are.
She never responds. I wonder what her deal is. Whatever.
So maybe my great ambition, such as it is, is to refrain from engagement with systems that purport to tell me what I’m worth compared to anyone else. Maybe my great ambition is to steer clear of systems. Any systems. All systems. (Please Like and Share this essay if you agree!) What I would like to say is: Lean In my hairy Jewish ass.
My mother was one of eight women in the UCLA Law School class of 1965. A lot of professors and students treated them horribly, those eight women, because they were “taking up a space a man could have had.” Appalling, right? Except, uh, it’s true: my mother did not actually want to be a lawyer. Her parents wanted her to be a lawyer. It was fairly radical of her to become a lawyer. She is badass by nature. But she didn’t really want to be a lawyer.
Upon graduation, those eight got together and decided to just ask interviewing firms outright: Do you hire women? Legend has it one honcho stroked his chin thoughtfully and replied, with no apparent maliciousness, “Well, we hired a cripple last year.”
She practiced law for a total of about a year before she gave it up, married my dad, had kids and settled into the kind of furious, bored, soul-eating misery that is the hallmark of thwarted women everywhere, from kitchens and gardens to boardrooms and private jets and absolutely everywhere in-between. To this day, if a stranger at a party asks her what she does, she’ll lift her chin in a gesture I intimately recognize as Don’t-Fuck-With-Me, and say, with cement grit and dirt and bone shard in her voice: “I’m an attorney.”
And isn’t everything we do, everything we reach for, everything we grab at, each of us in turn, a way of struggling onto that ledge, that mythical resting place on which no one can fuck with us? Don’t Fuck With Me seems as good a feminist anthem for the 21st century as any.
Taking care of myself and my loved ones feels like meaningful work to me, see? I care about care. And I don’t care if I’m socialized to feel this way, because in point of fact I do feel this way. So! I am unavailable for striving today. I’m suuuuuper busy.
But the mythical resting place is … mythical. And trying to generalize about ambition is like comparing apples and oranges and bananas and flowers and weeds and dirt and compost and kiwi and kumquat and squash blossoms and tomatoes and annuals and perennials and sunshine and worms. Wanting to be first in your class is and is not like wanting a Ferrari is and is not like being the first in your family to go to college is and is not like wanting to get into Harvard/Iowa/Yaddo is and is not like wanting to summer on Martha’s Vineyard is and is not like wanting to rub elbows with fancy folk is and is not like wanting to shatter a glass ceiling is and is not like wanting to write a lasting work of genius with which no one can quibble. Our contexts are not the same, our struggles are not the same, and so our rebellions and complacencies and conformities and compromises cannot be compared. But the fact remains: whatever impresses you illuminates your ambition.
Some ambition is banal: Rich spouse. Thigh gap. Gold-buckle shoes. Quilted Chanel. Penthouse. Windowed office. Tony address. Notoriety. Ten thousand followers. A hundred thousand followers. Bestseller list. Editor-in-Chief. Face on billboard. A million dollars. A million followers. There are ways of working toward these things, clear examples of how it can be done. Programs, degrees, seminars, diets, schemes, connections, conferences. Hands to shake, ladders to climb. If you are smart, if you are savvy, who’s to stop you? Godspeed and good luck. I hope you get what you want, and when you do, I hope you aren’t disappointed.
Remember the famous curse? May you get absolutely everything you want.
Here’s what impresses me: Sangfroid. Good health. The ability to float softly with an iron core through Ashtanga primary series. Eye contact. Self-possession. Loyalty. Boundaries. Good posture. Moderation. Restraint. Laugh lines. Gardening. Activism. Originality. Kindness. Self-awareness. Simple food, prepared with love. Style. Hope. Lust. Grace. Aging. Humility. Nurturance. Learning from mistakes. Moving on. Letting go. Forms of practice, in other words. Constant, ongoing work. No endpoint in sight. Not goal-oriented, not gendered. Idiosyncratic and pretty much impossible to monetize.
I mean: What kind of person are you? What kind of craft have you honed? What is my experience of looking into your eyes, being around you? Are you at home in your body? Can you sit still? Do you make me laugh? Can you give and receive affection? Do you know yourself? How sophisticated is your sense of humor, how finely tuned your understanding of life’s absurdities? How thoughtfully do you interact with others? How honest are you with yourself? How do you deal with your various addictive tendencies? How do you face your darkness? How broad and deep is your perspective? How willing are you to be quiet? How do you care for yourself? How do you treat people you deem unimportant?
So you’re a CEO. So you made a million dollars. So your name is in the paper. So your face is in a magazine. So your song is on the radio. So your book is number one. You probably worked really hard; I salute you. So you got what you wanted and now you want something else. I mean, good, good, good, great, great, great. But if you have ever spent any time around seriously ambitious people, you know that they are very often some of the unhappiest crazies alive, forever rooting around for more, having a hard time with basics like breathing and eating and sleeping, forever trying to cover some hysterical imagined nakedness.
I get that my foremothers and sisters fought long and hard so that my relationship to ambition could be so … careless. I get that some foremothers and sisters might read me as ungrateful because I don’t want to fight their battles, because I don’t want to claw my way anywhere. My apologies, foremothers: I don’t want to fight. Oh, is there still sexism in the world? Sigh. Huh. Well. Knock me over with a feather. Now: how do I transplant the peonies to a sunnier spot so they yield more flowers next year or the year after? How do I conquer chapter three of this new novel? I’ve rewritten it and rewritten it for months. I need asana practice, and then I need to sit in meditation for a while. Then some laundry. And the vacuum cleaner needs a new filter. Then respond to some emails from an expectant woman for whom I’m serving as doula. And it’s actually my anniversary, so I’m gonna write my spouse a love letter. Then pick up the young’un from school. And I need to figure out what I’m making for dinner. Something with lentils, probably, and butter. Then text my friends a stupid photo and talk smack with them for a while.
Taking care of myself and my loved ones feels like meaningful work to me, see? I care about care. And I don’t care if I’m socialized to feel this way, because in point of fact I do feel this way. So! I am unavailable for striving today. I’m suuuuuper busy.
Yes, oppression is systemic, I get it, I feel it, I live it, I struggle, I do. Women are not equal, we’re not fairly represented, the pie charts are clear as day: nothing’s fair, nothing at all, it’s maddening, it’s saddening, it’s not at all gladdening. We all suffer private and public indignities (micro-aggressions, if you prefer) big and small. It’s one thing to pause and grapple with unfairness, but if we set up camp there, we can't get anything done, can't get to the root of the problem. So sure, great, go on and on about how women should help other women! Rah rah, put it on a T-shirt, sell it on Etsy. Great marketing, but what's actually being accomplished? Who, specifically, is being helped? A collection of egos shouting ME ME ME is not artistically or intellectually productive or interesting.
“Real” work is often invisible, and maybe sort of sacred as such. The hollering and clamoring and status anxiety and PR two inches from our collective eyeballs all day? Not so much. So tell the gatekeepers to shove it, don't play by their rules, and get back to work on whatever it is you hold dear. Nothing’s ever been fair. Nothing will ever be fair. But there is ever so much work to be done. Pretty please can I go back to my silly sweet secret sacred novel now? Bye. Take care.
My little boy is beside me. He is designing cars on BMW’s website. (Cars are a fleeting obsession.) He’d like a BMW someday. His dad and I hide our smirks. Sure, kid, whatever floats your boat. Yesterday it was a Porsche. Tomorrow a Maserati. Apparently he’s in an Id phase.
Why don’t you guys like fancy cars, he wonders.
They’re a little show-off-y, I say.
I like fancy cars, he says. When I grow up I’m going to get a Tesla and a Bentley and a Cadillac and a Rolls Royce.
I smile. Can I have a ride?
Wait, though, there are plenty of material goods I covet. I have a shameful thing for clothes. There’s this pair of Rachel Comey high-waisted pants, oh my god. I own like six pairs of clogs. I fill my walls with art by friends. I live beautifully. Nice textiles, what have you. There’s a Kenzo sweater I might be saving up for. I so enjoy the darkest of chocolate and juice extracted in the most exceptionally newfangled way, I really do.
What I would like to say (so that I might be forced to align myself) is that there is nothing material or finite that I will allow myself to rest on wanting. Okay, so dresses and clogs and art and peonies float my boat. But fool myself into thinking that these things constitute an end point, or that their acquisition will make me whole, or that people who are impressed by these things are my friends? Nope. No way. Not for a minute. (Well, FINE, maybe for a minute. But certainly not for two.)
Asked for writing advice, Grace Paley once offered this: “Keep a low overhead.”
So becoming a lawyer was more or less an exercise in Don’t Fuck With Me, but what did my mother want? In her seventies now, she’s studying Joyce and Dickens. She’s in Oxford to study Shakespeare. She is delighted and enlivened and occupied, and I wonder why she doesn’t go ahead get herself a graduate degree in Literature. She would make a formidable English professor.
“I’m too old,” she says.
“Bullshit,” I say.
“I’m stupid,” she says. I squint at her.
“I’m lazy,” she amends, and my heart breaks for both of us.
She used to tell me I was lazy, back when I was refusing to care about my GPA, refusing to run the college admissions race, refusing to duly starve myself like all the good li’l girls, refusing to wax my asshole or get manicures or chemically straighten my hair, refusing to do much of anything other than consume books and music and movies and books, then scrawl my favorite bits all over the damn place. She was talking to herself all along. She was talking to herself! Remember: our most haunting, manipulative ghosts always, always, always are.
I wrote a magazine piece a while back, and it’s been shared online some sixty thousand times. It’s a fine piece, but is it the best thing I’ve ever written? I don’t think so. Is it the most original thing I’ve ever written? Nah. Is it the most challenging, bold thing I’ve ever written? Nope. Sixty thousand shares is not a win, see; it’s a random, synchronistic event. The number of eyeballs on a given piece of writing does not confer nobility or excellence upon said piece of writing. If the number of eyeballs on a piece of writing excites and impresses people around me, that’s great, in that it makes possible more of the work I want to do. But it doesn’t make said work any easier! And I’m going to do said work regardless, so… what?
So What? Let’s add it to our list of proposed feminist anthems: So The Fuck What?
You should write for a larger audience, my friend Josh told me a year before he died. He had read my first novel and written to congratulate me. I was on the road, touring, short-tempered. I am not writing for an audience at all, I snapped. I have no control over audience and zero interest in thinking about it. I could look up our exchange but I don’t want to, because I’m sad he’s dead and I’m sorry I snapped at him and I want to transcend physics to tell him I love him, and he may have been right, and I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Josh, and here’s a dumb cameo in this dumb essay about dumb ambition.
But I don’t want to write for a large audience, silly! The masses are kind of mindless as a matter of course, are they not? I mean, no offense, masses, but Trump’s memoir sold better than all my past and future work combined. (He didn’t write it, but still.) The Media Star of the Moment could take a dump on a square of Astroturf and there’d be a line around the block to sniff it. What makes a work of art special and meaningful is your private relationship with it, the magic of finding it amidst the noise and distraction, the magic of letting it speak to you directly. You found it, it’s yours. (This, however, requires the awesome skill of being able to think for yourself in the first place; hardly a given.) Art can change you; it can move and validate and shift and bait and wreck and kindle you in the best way. And others who feel similarly about said work can be your kin. It is not a more-is-better equation.
I repeat: more is not better.
Beware anything standardized, that’s what I would teach my daughter. Health care, ambition, education, diet, culture: name it, and you will suffer endlessly from any attempt to go about it the same way as some projected Everyone Else.
Josh, darling, I don’t write because I “want to be a writer.” I don’t want to be famous and I don’t need my ego inflated. I write to make sense of things, to make order from chaos, to make something from nothing, to examine my own thinking. Because what I have found in the writing of others sustains me. Because while I am struggling to live, the writing—a kind of parallel life—helps me along. Because language is my jam. Because I never learned to play the guitar and no one ever asked me to sing in a band.
I mean, writing is liberation! Or so I tell my students, over and over and over again. Flex your muscles, I tell them. Feel the sun on your face, the wind in your hair! Struggle with your shortcomings. Leave everything out on the field! Do it again tomorrow! What rigor. What joy. What privilege. Say whatever the hell you want to say, however you most accurately can! Complete and utter freedom. Work.
“The notes for the poem are the only poem,” wrote Adrienne Rich. There it is. There’s my ambition: Notes.
Oh, but get off your high horse, lady. Fucking relax. You Google yourself on the regular. Whenever you deign to log on to Twitter it’s to roll your eyes, sure, but also—BE HONEST—to type your name into the search box and see if anyone’s talking about you. You don’t even have to type your name in, BE HONEST: it’s already there, in the app’s fucking memory! Hypocrite. A nice notification or something can float you for about three minutes; a shit mention somewhere can feel like a slap in the face, even if it’s barely literate, even if it’s ignorant and hateful and so muddled it’s obviously not about you. And even as you’re skimming it, telling yourself you don’t look at this shit, telling yourself you don’t root around in this shit, you don’t play these games, you don’t care, you don’t care, you are looking at it, you are rooting around in it, you are you are you are you so are. Be honest.
The Latin root, by the way, is Ambitio, which literally means to go walking. As in canvassing, as with a political candidate. A friend who’s running for city council tells me this, giggling. I am the definition of ambitious, she says, incredulous, because she happens to be one of the most unassuming people I’ve ever met. She’s been going door to door for months on end leading up to the election. I hope she wins. She would do a magnificent job, and her corner of the world would be better for it. But she’s not who I have in mind, here. The root bears little resemblance to the plant that shoots up from it. (Reader, she won!)
Last week a young writer emailed me to ask for advice. How could she get more attention for her book? Where should she send it? The subtext: She wants what (she imagines) I have. It was funny, given that, in truth, I had right at that moment been pouting about my own status (Not Good Enough). I barely know this girl, haven’t read her book, she’s a bore on social media, but hell, what does it cost me to be generous? I wrote back right away.
Send it to writers whose work you admire, I told her. Keep your head down. Do your work. Focus on the work at hand, not the work that’s done. Do the work you’re called upon to do. Engage with what moves you. Eventually you’ll get recognition. And if you don’t get recognition? Well then, all the more badass to continue working your butt off. Recognition has nothing to do with the work, get it? The work is the endeavor. The work is the process. Recognition comes, if/when it does, for work that is already done, work that is over. Recognition can really fuck you up. Remember the famous koan? The day before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; the day after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. Substitute recognition for enlightenment, putting aside how ironic that is, and there you have it.
It wasn’t the advice she was hoping for, obviously. She never even wrote back to say thanks (tsk tsk, ambitious girl!). I thought of her a few days ago, when Ani DiFranco sang “Egos Like Hairdos,” a formative favorite: Everyone loves an underdog, but no one wants to be him…
Here’s what bothers me about conventional ambition, the assumption that we all aspire to the top, the winner’s circle, the biggest brightest bestest, the blah blah blah, and that we will run around and around and around our little hamster wheels to get there: most of these goals are standardized. Cartoonish. Cliché. Beware anything standardized, that’s what I would teach my daughter. Health care, ambition, education, diet, culture: name it, and you will suffer endlessly from any attempt to go about it the same way as some projected Everyone Else. You cannot be standardized. You are a unique flower, daughter. Maybe the Ivy League will be wonderful for you; maybe it will crush your soul. If the former, I will mortgage the house to pay your way; if the latter, give that shit the finger and help me move these peonies, will you? You are not defined by such things, either way. Anyway, let us discuss what we want to whip up for dinner and take turns playing DJ while doing so.
“She can, though every face should scowl / And every windy quarter howl / Or every bellows burst, be happy still.” That was Yeats.
I mean, fuck ambition, that’s where this is going. I don't buy the idea that acting like the oppressor is a liberation, personal ambition being, in essence, see above, patriarchal. And yeah, about recognition. What about when genius and/or hard work isn’t recognized? Because often it isn't, and what do we make of that? And what happens when the striving becomes its own end? What's been accomplished in such cases? You can get pretty far on striving alone, god knows. The striving might get recognized, but what relationship does striving have to mastery? And what's the cost of the striving? And what if we confuse striving or incidental recognition with mastery? What then!? Then, Jesus, we are so very lost. And we’ll have to acknowledge, yes of course sure, that we were born at the right time in the right place and we’ve never felt bad about working toward what we want, but want is tricky, so beware that particular sand trap. Right, and okay, be ambitious, whatever that looks like for you, but don't confuse your own worth with anyone else's definition of success. And don’t think that if you happen to impress people you must be very impressive indeed. And don't imagine that if you play by someone else's rules you can win. Anyway, there is no winning. Anyway, the game is suspect. Anyway, write your own rules! Anyway, WHO HAS TIME FOR GAMES!?
“The highway is full of big cars / going nowhere fast / and folks is smoking anything that’ll burn / Some people wrap their lives around a cocktail glass / And you sit wondering where you’re going to turn.” Maya Angelou.
There is a way to spin it so that I am a winner, a big success. Six-figure book deals. Media attention galore. Professorships. Invitations to read and lecture and teach and reside. Fan letters, hate mail. Hollywood knock-knock-knockin’ at the door. Some fossilized right-wing nutcase trying to take me down in the paper.
There is an equally factual way to spin it so that I am a middling mediocre failure, a nonstarter. I’ve been rejected by plenty of highbrow writer shit. I’m no household name. I barely tweet. I get ignored. You can’t buy my books in the airport. It just depends on the story you want to tell, the parts to which you are privy. Be assured, my website lists the hits alone.
“The quality I most abhor in women is humility, which seems like a chickenshit response to the demands of the world, or the marketplace, not that I can tell them apart.” That’s Emily Carter Roiphe, who I really wish would publish her second book already.
It hasn’t helped that I rarely deign to apply for the highbrow writer stuff. Or that when I do, it’s in vaguely mocking tones, as sort of an elaborate joke. I’m pretty terrible at applying for things. I should work on that. The snarling girl resents the expectation that she bow down before some purported authority so they might consider throwing her a bone. If they don’t want her outright, she doesn’t want their farty old bone, anyway. Maybe she’s not so dormant as I like to think. Or maybe my mother was right: Maybe she is just goddamned lazy.
I met a celebrated young writer at a party. The finest MFA, flashy blurbage, all the right everything. I’d heard good things about her first book, and I told her I was looking forward to reading it. “Thanks,” she said, looking right through me. Our mutual friend said, “Oh my god, have you read Elisa’s book? It’s so good.” The writer could not have been less interested. “What’s it called,” she wondered in monotone. “You’ll have to forgive me, but I really don’t keep up with much contemporary writing.” The condescension was burlesque. Our friend told her the name of my recent book. The light went on in the writer’s eyes. Ding. “Oh!”she said. “Oh YES!” Then she looked at me eagerly, hungrily, and I excused myself immediately.
It’s creepy, it’s actually borderline sinister, that I supposedly “matter” to those kinds of people now, that’s all I want to say. That I “matter” not because of the books themselves, not because of the work therein, not because of what prompted the work, not because of my actual humanity, but because various and sundry radio programs and magazines and newspapers and podcasts and shares and mentions and likes and dings and dongs and film agents and foreign translations and lists say I matter. Some supposed authorities have deemed me worthwhile, and so now I “matter.” That is, until these authorities fade away, only to be replaced by new authorities. Gawd, I hope they like me. Just kidding. Fuck authority.
Last thought: I wish I had gotten some other lessons from my mother. More about what to make for dinner and how to move the peonies and just how tender and trustworthy love can be, for starters. But we get what we get, so I suppose I appreciate her gift (such as it is) of Don’t Fuck With Me. Especially because, have I mentioned? I’m busy channeling it, hard at work. (Hashtag blessed. Hashtag grateful. Like? Like???)
Last-last thought: I showed a draft of this essay to a trusted advisor. He didn’t like it at all. “You sound arrogant,” he said. “You’re not arrogant, so why are you putting on this front?”
“Uhhhhm,” I said. “Fake it ’til you make it?”
“You sound like you think you’re above all the bullshit, and that’s a real turn-off.”
“I’m trying to articulate something difficult about art and commerce,” I sulked.
“Try to be more vulnerable,” he said. “You’ll come across better.”
Come across? I don’t have time to orchestrate how I come across, dude. My job is to write shit down. More vulnerable? I feel like I’m walking around without skin most of the time, hello. Anyway, my vulnerability is not for goddamn sale. I’d rather suck a thousand dicks. I was overcome with weariness, and I thought: Fuck it, I give up. But no, that’s not true, either. Nope. Not at all. The snarling girl is still out there, in here, flailing, desperate, and who’s going to throw her a rope? I will. Onward.
This essay is excerpted from the anthology Double Bind: Women on Ambition, forthcoming from W.W. Norton in April 2017.