This story begins three years ago, the night Ambition left me.
Ambition slipped away while I was sleeping; it took me a long time to make peace with her departure. Up until that night, I had this fire-in-the-belly that made me passionate about goals and achievement and being successful. And without warning, all of that was gone. The solid ground beneath my feet had become a sheet of ice. I slipped into the darkness below, spluttering.
Ambition’s departure set me on a different path than the one I’d planned. P and I began downsizing, and later we plotted our escape from corporate America. We traveled the world for a while, and a few months ago we came home.
I’ve written about those events, here on the blog. Reading bits and pieces, you might have put that story together. It’s the tale of my midlife crisis, spread out over time.
What follows is a piece of the story that I haven’t yet told. It’s about business plans, and fear, and the return of a long-lost friend. It begins with a sleepless night and ends with me shouting at the universe.
I hope you enjoy it. 🙂
The Business Plan that Fizzled
My story picks up in January, six months ago, while we were in Washington DC. I was doing laps around my friend E’s living room at two in the morning, brimming with anxiety. In a few days P and I would be in Spain, but I wasn’t nervous about that. Something else was keeping me awake.
After years of preparing for adventure, adventure had finally arrived! I paced the hardwood floor, first clockwise, then counter-clockwise. My body hummed with energy, without an outlet. I felt ready to explode! My career had always siphoned that energy off, before I went nuclear, but now there was nothing for me to pour myself into. Perhaps I needed a project?
Yes, I thought, with relief. That’s it! I need a project!
I already knew what I wanted. For years I’d squeezed my writing time around my day job. What if I treated my writing like a proper business? That’s the ticket! Hadn’t I dreamed of being a full-time writer? It seemed like an obvious choice.
I was one week into my travels, and already trying to sign up for a new job. Totally normal, right?
I gave myself a week to write the business plan, and by the time we landed in Madrid, it was ready to go. It was a beautiful plan, with a mission statement, and an editorial calendar, and checklists, and goals. The plan rolled out in front of me like a lush red carpet, and all I needed to do was walk forward.
That’s when the plan fizzled and died.
Like someone opening a gift to discover the box was empty, I sat down to write and discovered that I didn’t want to do it anymore! My motivation was gone. Absent. Kaput! The ideas that had seemed so exciting when I conceived them had fallen dead. My goals had become a list of odious chores.
Over the next few days, I tried to rekindle my enthusiasm and failed repeatedly. I fell into a state of depression. Unable to find my way back to being motivated, I got angry. See? I said. You took your one hobby and ruined it by treating it like a J-O-B. Don’t you ever learn? Can’t you just do things for fun? What’s wrong with you?
I returned to my journal to sulk, and I didn’t touch my novel for over two months.
Staying away seemed wise. I didn’t trust myself not to ruin it.
Are you familiar with the term cognitive dissonance? It refers to the way we humans can believe two opposing things at the same time. When this happens, your actions don’t match your words.
I started working on my novel again in April, which is great, but I’ve been a hypocrite these last few months. I’m writing almost every day and enjoying it. I even started up a mastermind group for writers who are making the transition from hobbyist to pro. If you look at me, you’d say “Yeah, Cheri is pretty serious about her writing these days.”
But talk to me, and I’ll deny it! I will tell you loudly and emphatically that this is a hobby dammit, that it’s nothing more than that, and that I’m not taking it too seriously. Nothing to see here, I’ll say, while I discuss marketing plans and point-of-view with other authors. This isn’t anything serious, I’ll say firmly, while blocking out a good chunk of my day to work on a manuscript.
My words are saying one thing, and my actions another. I seem hell bent on talking myself out of what I’m doing, tamping it down, diminishing it even in my own mind.
What am I so afraid of?
I sat on that question for weeks, like it was an egg and I was the mama bird. Finally, it cracked wide open! What I’ve figured out is this: no, I’m not afraid of having a job, or of writing books, or of making commitments. Nor am I afraid of hard work. What I’m afraid of is one very specific and terrifying thing:
I’m afraid of becoming a workaholic again.
Weird! But it makes sense, given my history. When I love something, and I do it for work, it tends to consume my life. That’s why when I wrote that business plan back in January, and I got excited about it, it scared the ever-loving shit out of me.
Aha! I see it now!
Three years ago, my Ambition wasn’t the only thing that left me. That was also the year when I decided that I hated being a workaholic. And no, I wasn’t going back to that life, no thank you.
Again, I’ll say it. No thank you.
“Aha” moments are great, aren’t they? Now that I understood my fear, perhaps I could do something about it. But before I could come up with any sort of plan, I was visited by someone I never thought I’d see again.
Three weeks ago, in the early morning, I woke up and found Ambition sitting on the edge of my bed, swinging her legs and waiting for me to wake up.
Hey, I said.
Hey, she said.
Me: It’s been a long time. I didn’t think you were coming back.
Her: I needed to leave. You understand why, right?
Me: I do.
(there was an awkward pause, during which we didn’t make eye contact)
Her: You know how you want to write books?
Me: Yes. It’s a hobby.
Her: Fuck hobbies. (she laughs) Go knit hats if you want a fucking hobby! I think you should do the writing thing. For real. Not just one book, but like ten or twelve books over the next five years. And I’m here to help, if you want me to.
Me: But… You know I can’t go back to the way I used to be, right? I’m not that person anymore.
Her: I know. But I think we can find a better way. We need to be kinder to each other. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do interesting things together, and be kickass. Let’s be kickass again. Please?
Me: A better way? What would that even look like?
Ambition stretched out her hand, and I took it. She pulled me to my feet, and she whispered into my ear. I felt that old fire-in-the-belly light back up, only this time it warmed me gently instead of burning me up. I relaxed, and she seemed to melt into me, taking her old place close to my heart.
I wanted to cry! Okay, I did cry, a little. It had been so long since I’d felt like myself.
Ambition was back, and so was I.
Shouting at the Universe
It’s summer in Seattle now, and my world is blue water and green trees and bright skies and the rattle of my keyboard. Since picking my pen back up, I’ve finished one manuscript and started another. My slow trickle of words is gaining speed, becoming something like a stream. Perhaps someday, a river? Meanwhile, Ambition and I are learning how to work together, differently than we did before.
In the morning, she whispers ideas for spy novels in my ear. I smirk and tell her that the ideas are great, but that they can wait until after P and I have gone to the park because it’s a beautiful day.
Okay, she says. Have fun! I’ll be here when you get back.
This feels too easy! I guess when you’re used to doing something the unhealthy way, the healthy way feels too good to be true. I’m asking my friends to keep an eye on me. Any sign of that old workaholic bullshit and you pull me out, you hear? But I think I’ll be okay.
If I look like this, take my computer away. Please.
Ambition’s proposal of ten or twelve books in five years sounds… kind of scary, to tell you the truth. I haven’t decided if I’m going to accept that challenge, but I’m thinking about it, and seriously.
Perhaps it’s okay for me to dream again? And to set goals again? Hell, I don’t know why I’m asking, because it’s already happening. Mostly, I think it’s time I stop being so chicken-shit. I’ve decided this much: if you ask me what I do, I won’t equivocate. I’ll tell you I’m a writer.
You hear that, universe? I’M A WRITER! IT’S MY THING. I’M QUITE EXCITED ABOUT IT AND I WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW. I HAVE GOALS AND EVERYTHING!
The universe replies, yawning with boredom: Sure, that’s nice. No one really cares. Besides, it’s been obvious to everyone else for some time now.
Yeah… I know. I guess I needed to say it out loud.
Every day for the last ten days, I’ve sat down to work on my new novel. And every time I sat down at the keyboard, the only thing that would come out of me was this blog post. It arrived on the page unwieldy and way too long. And because it’s so personal, I almost didn’t post it. But I figure all stories deserve an ending, even mine.
Well, this may not be the ending, but it’s an ending. It’s time for a new chapter, in this life of mine.
Now all I need to do is write it.