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*Apologies to REM and to all of you for the earworm.

Sometime last winter, early in the days of the pandemic, I had a conversation with one of my oldest and dearest friends about how I was no longer ambitious about anything. It was a strange concept to be exploring and I couldn’t articulate all that I was feeling, but this I knew: I was exhausted. Something had to change. I was done with endless striving. Everything in my life had been pressure-driven, from excelling in college and graduate school, to succeeding in my profession as a physical therapist, to working to create and sustain a family, to fulfilling my dream of being a published author.

Imagine a road lined with mile markers; each one needing to be reached, counted, and passed, only to see the next one and the next one and the next one up ahead. Ambition can be the driving force of so much accomplishment. But it is also never satisfied. It had me convinced that there was a specific destination somewhere up ahead, a place those mile markers finally led to. I’m not sure what that place would look like, but I knew I’d recognize it when I got there.

Spoiler alert: there is no such place. It’s called a vanishing point for a reason.

My writing community knows I’ve been stalled on a new novel for several years now. This is the longest I’ve ever gone without finishing a work-in-progress since I began writing novels in 2004. I kept leaning into my long-ingrained habits and discipline. The words didn’t flow. I tried harder. I’ve let this project sit while working on other writing. Got a huge white board to diagram the story. Tried scene cards. Outlines. Freewriting. I’ve even been working with several zoom-based writing groups, exploring craft books, discussing process and doing writing exercises. And while I have poked away at the narrative all this time, I’ve made very little progress, despite believing in the story and the characters in it.

Ambition got me to where I had written thirteen novels in fourteen years and published eight of them over six years. Sure, ambition and its companions – sheer, unremitting stubbornness – can take you pretty far. But it comes with a price.

I’ve written before about how I haven’t been able to complete this story and while I’m frustrated, I haven’t been distressed. I think I finally understand why and it isn’t only what may seem obvious on the surface: that the sense of containing a universe in my head eluded me because there was far too much background noise, not to mention the anxiety brought to a fever pitch (pun intended!) by the pandemic.

The deeper answer came easily and fluently in a recent conversation with that same friend I talked about earlier. In this conversation, she confessed that when I had told her I was no longer ambitious, it didn’t square with how she saw me and she had been trying to sort it out ever since. And this was my reply:

I want a life filled with purpose, not ambition.

During the past year while I have spent most of my time on our farm, I have found purpose in weeding and harvesting the gardens. In stacking wood for winter. In baking bread. In designing and creating ceramics. And yes, even in words. That sense of purpose is as strong and as satisfying when I put-by vegetables as it is in working on my novel. Both are important. Both are essential because they help give my days meaning. But in focusing on ‘chop wood, carry water’ I was able to look at everything I was doing as creative work, which fundamentally changed my perception of what living a creative life means for me and cracked open the answer as to why my writing had been blocked.

To me, feeling filled with purpose means being fully present and authentic in all that I do without the grinding pressure of fulfilling expectations – internal or external.

It also helps me see my writing as just a part of my full life, not the only way to value myself or be valuable to others. Now I can return to the work of words in a joyful, playful way, rather than castigate myself for being lazy or unmotivated. And because of this, the story that had eluded me is revealing itself.

Not ambition. Purpose.

It wasn’t enough to know what I didn’t want. Now I understand what I crave and need.

It is both freeing and, if I’m being honest, more than a little terrifying. Before this, I’ve always had a map and a route to follow, even if the journey wasn’t easy. Suddenly it feels as if I’ve pulled off an unmarked exit and am bumping down a gravel road to an uncertain destination.

But, oh, what I’m learning to experience and enjoy along the way!

How about you, WUers? Have you ever felt as though you lost your ambition? Or just plain exhausted by it? Do you also find a difference between purpose and ambition? Do you find the concept of letting go of ambition frightening? 

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About Lisa Janice Cohen

LJ Cohen is a Boston area novelist, poet, blogger, ceramics artist, and relentless optimist. After almost twenty-five years as a physical therapist, LJ now uses her anatomical knowledge and myriad clinical skills to injure characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. Her most recent book, Dreadnought and Shuttle, (book 3 of the SF/Space Opera series Halcyone Space) represents her sixth published novel. Derelict, the first novel in the series, was chosen as a Library Journal Self-e Select title and book of the year in 2016.  LJ is active in IPNE (The Independent Publishers of New England), SFWA (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America),  and Broad Universe and blogs about publishing, general geekery, and other ephemera on her website.

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