The Dark Side of Ambition

As I work on my next newsletter (subscribe here!), I thought I’d re-share the reflection piece I wrote for the first newsletter I’d sent out a while ago, since it’s a topic close to my heart. For those of you who are also querying and are reading this for the first time, I hope it offers you the perspective I so desperately needed when I was also in the query trenches 🙂


We see so many success stories pop up on twitter.

Announcements about writers landing agents and book deals, writers becoming NY Times Bestselling authors or having their books adapted into movies, etc.

It’s hard to read these shining announcements without a twinge of grief and envy when you’ve been working toward that very dream for so long—without much results to show. You really start questioning yourself, and if you let it, the sense of failure starts affecting your self-identity.

This was my struggle for so long.

For many years, I was known as the ‘writing machine.’ I’d write from the hour I woke up and continue until late into the evening. It wouldn’t be unusual for me to sometimes write until dawn, when the night sky lightened and the birds began their vigorous morning orchestra. The birdsong would be my cue to roll into bed, catch a few hours of sleep, so that I could get back up to write some more.

After years of living this lifestyle, being a writer was the only identity I knew. If I wasn’t writing, I had no idea who I was, what else I was good at, what else I cared for. It was only me and writing. And so I gambled everything (my happiness, my self-worth, my future) on this dream of mine to get published.

I placed my life on hold. I told myself that once I succeeded, then I’d start living life. But not yet.

Around 7 years into this journey to get published, after an emotionally crushing round of Revise-and-Resubmits for two agents, I woke up to a terrifying thought: This dream of mine to publish, to even just land an agent, might not occur in the next few years…the next ten years…or possibly never at all.

A sense of failure, not just as a writer but as a person, weighed me so heavily.

Aneeqah shared a thought on twitter that basically consumed me 24/7 during this time:

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I was feeling this bone deep.

I had spent years fighting for my dream, and with no accomplishments to speak for, I felt irrelevant, and the thought of remaining irrelevant for the next several years of my life devastated me.

This sense of irrelevance got so bad, so dark, that I’d wake up some days with a very cold, seemingly logical voice in my head telling me, “Don’t wake up. Just keep sleeping. There’s no point to this day.”

Sleeping in for as long as I could became my way of coping. I didn’t know what to do with my life, how to get through another day, when it felt utterly deprived of meaning.

I must sound dramatic to some. But take away the one thing your life has been all about, and it leaves you in a place where you just don’t know how to function, you don’t know how to live life when all that sense of purpose— that sense of drive—is gone.

For the next few months, while dragging myself through life, with barely any fight left in me, I began to question everything about my dream.

I asked myself why I’d wanted to get published in the first place, why this badly. Was it for the recognition, for the big Twitter announcement-worthy achievements that I was so desperate for? Was it for a sense of confidence and fulfillment that my insecure self ached for?

Then a thought swooped into my mind one day: once upon a time, I wrote books not for the public achievements or for the title or any of these external reasons. I’d started dreaming of publishing a book because I wanted to tell a story, to let my words reach into the lives of others.

And behind this? It was a longing to live a meaningful life, a life in which I could give something of myself to others—whether it be hope, perspective, or simply another world for readers to escape into.

Until this point, I didn’t think that apart from my writing I could be or do anything of significance. But for the first time in my life, I wondered: maybe I actually could.

This realization threw me into a whirlwind two-years of exploration, pushing myself out of my comfort zone, meeting new people, mending neglected friendships, going back to school to learn about teaching ESL, trying out online dating, meeting someone special, dabbling in teaching full-time, pursuing a position at the library that opened my eyes to a new passion: the library and its community!

This period in my life taught me to see my worth apart from my ambition. Bone deep, I now knew that my life was meaningful, that my life still mattered even without an agent or a book deal. June Hur—without any glamorous awards and only an inbox filled with agent rejections—was still very relevant to others, in sometimes obvious and most times hidden ways.

Then lo and behold…

As I placed less pressure on myself to succeed as a writer, my love for writing returned, and with it, the courage to fight for my dream again. But this time when I queried, rejections hurt a little less. This time I was okay with the prospect of a journey that might last for years, possibly decades.

Why?

Because I’d realized that whether I published or not, I could live with that, I could still learn to love life, I still mattered to people.

There’s something very freeing in this realization that you can have an ambition—but it doesn’t need to define you. You can have an ambition, and still be allowed to enjoy life away from your writing desk.

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I don’t regret the sacrifices I made in the past for the sake of my dream.

I don’t regret wanting to publish so badly that every part of my life ached for it.

This was a season in my life where I was incredibly driven, where I chose to put everything on the line. It was all or nothing for me then.

But while I don’t regret this time in my life, and I definitely don’t judge those that choose to remain in it, this lifestyle was just not sustainable for me—it was suffocating me.

My hope is that by sharing this, someday if anyone needs it, my story will be a reminder of this: We all want to land on the stars. Specifically for those in the Query Trenches, we want to land on a star called ‘I’m a published author’. But as I shared before on twitter:

If you don’t land on the stars, redefine what it means to be among the stars. Redefine your definition of success. If things aren’t working out, remember there is a whole galaxy out there.

My point is not that I want you to give up. My point is, if you find that your ambition is bringing you pain more than joy, then once in a while, look away from your writing struggles and look around at the vastness of life. Be kind to yourself and strive for a balanced lifestyle. Don’t be ashamed that your journey seems to be taking longer than others. In the meanwhile, find other things outside of writing to look forward to, other things in life that will bring joy and a sense of purpose.

We are Creatives, so let’s be creative not only with our fiction, but with how we live our life as well.

Because the world needs you, not just your books, but you.

 

 

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