Set Aside Your Ambitions for the Year Ahead

Happy New Year! You might have been spending the last few days reviewing what you’ve accomplished in 2018, and looking ahead to what you’d like to do in the year to come. (Especially those of you who joined this newsletter during National Novel Writing Month!) In doing so, it’s practically inevitable that you’ll end up comparing yourself to other writers. Maybe it’s one of the other members in your writing group, some novelist who got profiled in some magazine you like to read, or a bestselling author that you follow on Twitter who always manages to be dazzling, even when she’s telling the world how far behind she is on her copyedits.

As those last two examples suggest, and the first one might as well, those kinds of comparisons often shake out with you on the losing end.

So stop making them.

One of the things I decided to do during the holiday week was to finally finish reading a book that had been kicking around my office for the last six years, Sakyong Mipham’s Running with the Mind of Meditation.

Mipham is a marathon runner as well as a meditation teacher*, so the basic gist of the book is that the discipline of becoming a good runner is similar in some respects to the discipline of becoming a good meditator—cultivating a self-awareness of your body in the same way you cultivate a self-awareness of your mind, that sort of thing. This is one of the passages that jumped out at me as particularly helpful:

“When ambition is our main motivation, it throws us out of balance. Running on self-worth completely eliminates the need to become overly arrogant and put others down when they aren’t running on our level. We save energy that way. Self-worth even allows us to appreciate the talents of other athletes without feeling threatened by them.”

This felt like an excellent distillation of a principle that I’ve frequently cited in talking about the writing life over the years. Namely, that this isn’t a competition. You’re not working on your writing so you can craft better sentences and receive better reviews than John Doe, or get a better book deal, or sell more books—or at least you shouldn’t be. I mean, you could probably do any of all of those things if you set your mind to it, but those aren’t the markers of success you should be focused on.

You certainly shouldn’t be focused on them from a mindset where your success is dependent on outperforming any other writer, as if there’s a finite amount of success available in the literary world and you need to grab it before somebody else does. Publishing is not a zero-sum game. There’s room for plenty of people to succeed on those terms, and while there will obviously be quantitative differences between one writer’s success and another’s, you don’t need to fixate on them. You can be confident in what you’ve accomplished and have room left over to acknowledge, even admire, the accomplishments of others.

And “what you’ve accomplished” is, of course, more than just getting good reviews, or scoring a huge advance, or landing on a bestseller list. The success you really ought to focus on isn’t that success of ambition, but the success of self-worth. It’s the recognition that, by applying yourself to your writing practice, you’ve not only discovered something that means a lot to you that you want to share with the world, you’ve discovered how to share it in a meaningful way. You’ve realized something powerful within yourself—about yourself, even—and you’ve given it expression.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s fantastic to be able to do that and get thousands and thousands of people to buy into it. And it’s possible to get thousands and thousands of people to buy something totally market-driven that doesn’t actually come from the heart, too. Although I can’t imagine that it feels all that great, even as the checks come in. When you’re constantly writing to the market, after all, you have to continually second-guess yourself, wondering if you’re falling out of step with the trends. When you focus on listening to the still, small voice within yourself, though, you can always count on the results connecting with someone, somewhere down the line.

So, if you’ve been mentally sorting out what you’d like to accomplish with your writing practice this year… actually, if you want to focus on things like “this is the year I’m going to find a literary agent” or “this is the year I’m going to get a book deal,” well, those are things you should be thinking about at some point. Or “this is the year I’m going to pull the trigger on self-publishing,” that’s another big one. But you’ll have a better shot at fulfilling any of those goals if you can put the material markers of success out of your mind for a while, and keep two questions in mind: “Is this what I really want to say? And am I saying it in the clearest way I can right now?”

When you can answer both those questions with a confident, resounding “yes” on a regular basis, you might just find that other good things will start to follow.

Did you complete a novel-length manuscript in 2018? Congratulations! If you’re wondering if it’s strong enough to catch an editor’s or agent’s eye, or you know it needs a little more work but you’re not sure exactly what it needs, I provide editorial consultations on most types of fiction and certain narrative non-fiction formats. I can read your entire manuscript—or just the first fifty pages, if you’re not sure you’re ready for a full critique—and send you a detailed report; we’ll also go over that report, along with other questions you might have, in a phone call. Follow the link for more details, including my rates, and then email me to if you’d like to get on my calendar!

*I hadn’t realized when I plucked the book off one of my shelves that Sakyong Mipham is the Buddhist leader who fell into disgrace earlier this year after several allegations of predatory sexual behavior surfaced. I’d heard about those allegations when they came out, as anyone with at least a passing interest in meditation and/or the Buddhist publishing market did, but I didn’t pick up the book until several months later, and Mipham’s name didn’t leap out at me when I started reading, so it wasn’t until I Googled him, halfway through the book, that I connected all the dots. Anyway, I mention all this so that any of you whose initial reaction was “THAT guy?” know that I’m not ignorant of, or ignoring, the situation.