Ambition In An Age of War

Image Courtesy CandyN @ Flickr

Now here’s something funny – life can take such unexpected paths. This post had its genesis in an idea more than a month ago, when I grappled with understanding my place in the literary world. I had intended it as an examination of the “outsider artist” accepting lackluster sales. I wanted to understand why I’ll never be a best-selling author and come to some level of acceptance, even if I didn’t care for the idea. Then something funny happened; no, I didn’t suddenly become a blockbuster author, so dispel any notions of that.

My perspective changed, not my situation, and I think that’s a far more meaningful piece of progress. Allow me to explain myself, and I apologize in advance if this post gets a little heavy and depressing. I am going somewhere positive with all of this.

The original notes for this post present something of a moody affair, and while this is still kind of a moody post, the tone is very different. I’ll stop short of saying the original concept was pretentious, but I did plan to discuss things like artist prerogative and posterity. That’s not to say that those things aren’t still valid; if you don’t think an artist has the prerogative to decide what he or she will write, then prepare to FIGHT ME. The events of the past weekend changed my perspective a bit, however.

Image courtesy Sacks08 @ Flickr

Saturday morning I felt somewhat despondent. As loathe as I am to toot my own horn, I’m well aware that I’ve been turning out some pretty good work on a consistent basis for well over a year, and while blog readership has grown, my sales have not really followed suit, and I became well aware of the issue that morning. In short, I fell into what my buddy Aniko Carmean calls “the ambition room”, which affected my mood for most of the day.

Things began to change when I stumbled upon an article about the ongoing Syrian conflict (if you need to know more, start on Google News, and prepare to be horrified). I followed the insanity of that particular war down its long, twisted rabbit hole, finding myself in a very dark, depressing place. That place had a common nature with the themes that have been expressing themselves in my writing of late: the true nature of our time on Earth, the nastiness and cruelty on display in everyday life, and looming death.

Finding myself surrounded by evidence of my most negative assumptions, it would have been quite easy to implode, as I have done on numerous occasions on the past. This time, things went down a different path, though it’s quite difficult to explain just why it happened. Perhaps it had to do with finishing Douglas Coupland’s excellent The Gum Thief, which also examines the nature of day-to-day existence in the face of impending disaster, both personal and on a global scale. I suppose combining a work like that with my own brooding and the situation in Syria would make just about anyone have an emotional breakthrough, but the icing on the cake was this image, drawn by children caught in the crossfires of war (no idea if it’s this war, but…):

That will put your life in perspective really, really fast. In moments, I realized just how lucky I am. Having the luxury of even pursuing a writing career puts me in a pretty rare bracket of humanity, and bellyaching about sales suddenly seemed like the whining of a spoiled child. I know, that’s being a bit harsh on myself as relative misery is still misery (and I never lost sight of that fact), but I badly needed perspective, and the drawing delivered that, in spades.

Image courtesy Pieterco @ Flickr

A lot of the velocity in my career is derived from a powerful fear of death and a near-pathological need to continue my existence past my own physical death. I suspect it’s behind a lot of other writers, as well; Shakespeare, for instance, kept a skull on his desk to remind him of his own mortality. This drive is quite useful in a certain context, and it can push you to examine paths that might otherwise go unvisited. The biggest problem is that it  also fills you with dormant fear, putting you on the wrong end of the whole thing, staring down the barrel of death. Your days become numbered, every moment just one more tick toward your inevitable demise.

Saturday, my paradigm shifted. I follow the rapper, actor, and director Ice T on Twitter.  Yes, THAT Ice T, and he has something to do with all of this. Sometimes the guy just talks to fans about video games, collecting guns, loving cars, and hustling for money – he is a rapper, after all. The thing is, he also has these pure moments where he shares the accumulated wisdom of his 54 years on Earth. The tweets that most capture me talk about how every day is a good day because he fully expected to be dead by the age of 25. Obviously, we didn’t all grow up with that expectation so our perspective is a bit different, but a statement like that sticks with me.

Every day may be a march to the grave, but it’s also one more day where you continue to exist. Not many people know when or where they’ll die, so of course it’s possible that this afternoon could be the last one you see. We all understand that on some level, though we may not have internalized it. Take me, for instance; I’ve been uber-aware of that fact for most of my existence, even allowing the idea to terrorize me, but it existed in the abstract. It would happen one day, and I dreaded its arrival, making it much larger than its reality. That kind of thinking becomes a trap: how can anything feel safe if lives are so ephemeral?

What I saw this weekend, those poor kids who have to live with death as a constant companion, the aging process as a reminder of your mortality…it showed me that not feeling the fingers of death creeping over our lives is the greater part of existence. It’s as simple as acknowledging that I woke up this morning, which means I didn’t die in the night, which gives me another another day to pursue my passions, be with my loved ones, and enjoy the world around me.

That idea, more than anything, is what will keep me going down this path and writing what I need to write, no matter what KDP or my Amazon ranking tells me.

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13 Comments

  1. Perspective is a valuable life tool, that is for sure! Just don’t mail me your ear, okay? 🙂

  2. Well, I look at it like this – anything can happen at any time, nobody is immune from bad stuff – so cherish the time you have, never take anyone or anything for granted and make sure the people you love know you love them.
    But then I died in an accident at the age of 15, and came back, so my perspective is a little skewed. And I’m a hospice nurse. Glutton for punishment I guess, but it’s the best job I’ve ever had because when people know they are going to die the extraneous bull shit falls away.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Wow, Julia, I’d be interested in hearing that story sometime. Have you written it down anywhere? I think you have a good point, though, about the extraneous bullshit. So many times I see people destroying important things in their lives because they seem to liver under the assumption that those things will always come back, they get infinite chances, and/or live forever.

      • Well, you may get another chance but you don’t know that for sure so I wouldn’t make assumptions. And if you do you won’t remember anyway…
        Yes, I have a book out about my experiences as a hospice nurse and my NDE under another name. I actually participated in the study by Dr. Melvin Morse on NDEs in children– the first two books – Closer to the Light and Transformed by the Light. No… I don’t wear a watch. They stop working.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      I’m actually fascinated by NDEs and have written about them in some unpublished works…they’re definitely coming again in the near future in my writing, so I’d love to read your book. What is the title and pseudonym?

  3. Don’t you just love those moments of perspective, Jonathan? I get them a couple times a year as well. I just lost my publisher, which caused me some panic for a few hours until I realized it was going to be the best thing in a few weeks when I got back on my feet. No matter what happens, we’re living a dream. Aren’t we?
    Take care and have a good week.

    -Jimmy

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Boy, yeah, that will give you some perspective and really make you think about what you want from your career (and life). Best of luck with it, buddy. Let me know if I can help.

  4. You don’t know you won’t be a bestseller, Jonathan. Just because that’s not today’s tune, doesn’t mean it can’t happen. I think the important thing is that you realize that you have something of value, something rare, right here and now, regardless of sales numbers.

    You’re right when you say we have the “luxury of even pursuing a writing career.” There are so many things that could make this impossible, or at least very detrimental to our lives. War is one, but so is oppression. I think of the Russian writers who were exiled for what they wrote, and how people would pass around hand-written copies of banned books even though possessing one could get them thrown in the gulag. Scarcity, too, of food or medicine, would make it harder for us to write – and live. We are fortunate.

    Yet, the ambition room is a real place. Sometimes I wonder if I go there because it is easier to face the knowledge of a certain type of failure than have the courage it takes to keep writing? At least in the ambition room, I know I can’t make a difference.

    Life, though, is the cumulative effect of our daily influence on the world. It’s scary to take responsibility for the freedom we have. It’s scary to think we can matter, and the only thing stopping us is us. Not war. Not oppression or hunger. Us.

    I love it that you follow Ice T. Don’t know why, but that makes me smile. Have you ever tweeted him directly and gotten a response??

    -aniko

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Great comment. I needed some time to absorb it all. Some of this is my way of rephrasing and digesting what you’ve said here; I think we’re pretty close on concepts, and this might make a good couple of companion posts some day.

      I probably should have added it, but the post was already kind of long…I think implicit in this is that I don’t really know whether it will happen or not and some of the illusion of control that I want to have over the outcome of my endeavors is related to wanting an illusion of control over my life in general. I don’t disagree that we can be the thing stopping us from getting us what we want, but I also don’t think we’re the only thing – that was the danger in my thinking. I felt that I could control all the variables if only I was bright enough or spent enough time on things, etc. That is, of course, not true at all. Certain variables are under our control but so much of life is out of our hands, and seeing the picture from that child really brought it home to me. The child is utterly helpless in the face of what is going on around him or her. It’s a reminder of privilege, but it’s also a reminder of the power that outside influences hold over us.

      I think the ambition room reflects some of that need to hold control over uncontrollable variables, and includes some magical thinking. Like you said, I imagine it has a lot to do with fear. I know yesterday I was terrified at the idea that I’m finally reaching place where I’m satisfied with the quality of my writing, and yet that could all be for nothing in the end. I worry about throwing all of this stuff out there and having none of it stick because I didn’t do something right. So I go to the ambition room to deal with that fear – at least if I blame myself for it, there’s an easily identifiable problem to fix.

      Hah, I’ve loved T for years and years, and his Twitter is a great bonus. We haven’t spoken directly, but he has RTed a couple of my tweets, which put a big smile on my face.

    • Aniko said much of the same things I would’ve said. You’ve put a good perspective on this. The control issue is a big thing. I think that’s a big part of why we write… we can create a world where everyone does what we want them to do (well, mostly). It’s an interesting point to think that we really can’t control everything that’s going on with our writing careers, but I know I can relate when you say that you worry that even with talent, maybe not doing something write can make all that talent for naught.

      When you say you were terrified because you reached a place where you were satisfied with your writing, it reminded me of a book I just read (that we might’ve talked about already), The War of Art. If you haven’t read it, it’s a quick read and has lots of snapshots of good information. Some of it you will probably already know, but still good reminders.

      And Ice T. Awesome. I’m certain you’ve seen this humorous image floating around, but just in case…

      http://karmadecay.com/r/funny/comments/kv0xf/the_most_epic_soda_fountain_ever/

      Paul D. Dail
      http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

  5. When we truly come to know, not just intellectually, but know beyond all doubt that every bit of suffering we experience is a product of our thought process, we can throw our heads back and howl with laughter. There is always choice as to what meaning we put on any situation we perceive. And that meaning dictates our experience of it. Of course some situations add a level of challenge that can be seemingly overwhelming, but that doesn’t change the fact that we can always choose that which feels true to us or that which incites further drama. Victor Frankl is an extraordinary example of someone who came to this truth in a Nazi concentration camp. Whenever I’m beginning to sink into my own morass, I think on Victor instead.

  6. Funny, I’ve been going through similar thoughts, Jonathan. Your source of inspiration (a child’s drawing) is perhaps more profound than mine, but I’ve really been working on my outlook.I look back on lost years where I let the petty stuff get me down, and feel determined not to let that ever happen again. Which is what I think Christina is saying so much more eloquently.

    There will always be dark days, but maybe now I know how to handle them better.

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