On Ambition

The other morning, I was chatting on the phone with Rebecca Solnit. Yes, that’s right, Rebecca Solnit. People often ask me, “How did you become friends with Rebecca Solnit?” And I tell them that she came here for our Lit Fest, and I gave her a very earnest introduction where I disclosed how much I loved her work, but then, later, she read my essay at Guernica and reached out to me. Then, she friended me on Facebook, and I had a moment of panic. I wondered if I should put her on a restricted list. I knew that I was not “professional” on my Facebook. But, there she was, commenting on my posts about my gym crush and my kiddo’s quips.

And then, I encountered her in the wilds of Idaho with her face buried in a White Pine. (though she will correct me if I’m wrong, as she has done it before).

Here’s the thing: Rebecca and I have a lot in common. We both grew up in the West. We both had troubled childhoods. We both experienced domestic violence in some fashion. We both love the outdoors. We both love writing. We’re both feminists. We were kind of made to be friends.

A while ago, another writer messaged me on Facebook, “How do you cultivate mentors? You seem to know all of the famous people.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to respond that I am earnest and authentic, and I work hard. I wanted to respond You don’t get to choose your mentors. They choose you.

When Rebecca and I were chatting, we talked about ambition. We talked about how ambitious we both are.

We talked about how risky it is to be ambitious as a woman. We talked about how men get to be “confident” but, so often, have no ambition. Too many men think that they should just publish and publish and publish, but they don’t have the ambition to drive them to that point.

We talked about how women work their asses off to achieve what they achieve, and that is ambition.


I am fucking ambitious. I will own this.  I am not ambitious to make money. I am not ambitious to have fame.

I am ambitious to make art.

I sold my book to a New York publisher, and I never expected something like that.

My agent told me, “Writers are jealous. When they ask you about your advance, just say that you got enough to write the book.”

To be clear, I really did only get enough to write the book, but I have also been living at poverty level for a while now, so my perception of “enough” is probably different than others.

I had a friend turn against me after my book deal. I had seen her do it to others, and I should have expected her to do it to me, but I didn’t.

Another friend said, “She only wants women that she can mentor or get something from, and you just jumped categories.”

That friend was right.

The price of female ambition is high.

So much of my marriage misery had nothing to do with Caleb’s physical abuse. So much of my marriage misery had to do with the ways in which I had to stifle my ambition.

I have been writing my book while teaching, and this has been tough, but on the nights when I have been able to give myself over to the writing, I have thought, “There is no other job that I would so willingly give myself to.”

I posted a picture on Facebook recently, and people kept commenting “You look happy!” I am happy. I am not happy because I have met a man, or lost a bunch of weight, or ran a 5K. I am happy because I think that I have created some beautiful art. I am happy because my ambition has paid off.

We women are allowed to want things. We are allowed to be greedy. We are allowed to be needy. We are allowed to be independent. We are allowed to be tough, or weak, or rough, or strong, or whatever the fuck we want to be. Most of all, we are allowed to be ambitious.

I am ambitious.

On Love

I divorced Caleb and moved to Athens the very next day. The day of my divorce was terrible, but not because of the divorce.

On my way home from the hearing, I had thought that I would cry in the car, but I didn’t. Instead, I felt euphoric, and that euphoria is why the day was so terrible.

When I arrived at the house, my parents expected me to be sad, to be broken, but that wasn’t the case. I was happy–manic almost–and I set to bustling around the house and finishing the packing. My mother was obsessed with cleaning, as though I was moving out of a rental. I was dismissive, “He can clean it,” I said (because Caleb was moving back into the home that we had lived in together). And, as the day progressed, my father’s mood darkened.

It was too easy for me, you see?

I had always been a flake, you see?

I left Caleb in November, and in the spring, my father sent Caleb an email and told him how much he hoped that we could work things out. He told Caleb that they loved him too.

Caleb’s parents never sent anything like that to me.

My father’s betrayal is a wound that will never heal.

My father didn’t believe me.

On the day of my divorce, my father and I had the worst fight of my life. I don’t remember how it started. I remember that he diminished me, diminished my decision to get divorced.

I remember that he said, “Well, you also said that your mother abused you, and that wasn’t true.”

I remember saying, “I have never claimed that what mom did to me was like what Caleb did to me.”

I remember all of the years in my life when I favored my father over my mother because my mother was so often angry at me, and my father so very rarely was.

I remember my mother working twelve hours shifts at the hospital, and the anger always came at the end of the second day, and the beginning of her days off. I remember that, on the first and third days of her shift, she was too tired to be angry, and I could hide in my bedroom.

I remember that the sound of the vacuum caused me anxiety because, if she was vacuuming, then that meant that she was catching up on everything my father hadn’t done while she was working.

I remember that I would be in bed, sleeping still, and the vacuum would bang against my door too many times to be an accident.




I remember that my mother was still working at the hospital when I married Caleb, and he was the first one to identify the pattern in the days, that, in my entire life, I had never been able to connect the anger to her fatigue.

I remember Caleb telling me that he used to panic for me, that my brother would make a peanut butter sandwich and leave his knife on the counter, and Caleb would go into fix-it mode. He would wash the peanut butter knife.

He would think, Her brother has no idea that their mother is going to scream at Kelly about this peanut butter knife that she had nothing to do with. He would think, Her brother has no idea what she lives with.

I remember my brother hugging me on a sidewalk and saying, “I don’t think that we experienced the same things when we were kids.”

I remember my mother’s car breaking down the night before my bridal shower. We were stuck by the side of the highway. We tried to walk to my friend’s house and entered a dark canyon. I was pregnant and tired. I was not sure that I wanted to get married, but I had no idea how to confront those feelings.

We walked into that canyon. The trees loomed above us like hands, and then, wolves started howling. My mother grabbed my elbow. She steered me back to the car.

I was so afraid, but her hand on my arm was steady. All of those years at the hospital had taught her how to not be afraid.

I remember writing in a poetry workshop during my MFA, “The child of an orphan is an orphan.”

My mother was an orphan.

My mother was the best mother that she could be, and she was a good mother, and I love her.

I forgive her for her anger, and I hope that she forgives me for mine.

I think that she does.

I remember meeting with an Executive Editor from Henry Holt in New York City at a breakfast place in SoHo. It was the same day that–just after Richard Price, the writer of Clockers and The Wire read from his most recent novel–I read from “It Will Look Like a Sunset” at McNally Jackson books, and people in the audience cried, but I did not cry.

I remember that editor telling me that she loved my book of essays, but that she could never convince her publishers to buy it. She gave me a list of agents instead, and before she left, she stopped and looked at me and said, “What I love most in these essays is your mother. Your mother is such a complicated human being. I respect her.”

I remember screaming at my father on the day of my divorce because he didn’t believe me.

I remember my mother saying, “Stop, this is not between you two.”

I remember my mother saying, “You both need me to admit that something happened, and it did. I was not the best mother that I could have been, and I’m sorry.”

I remember asking my parents to leave.

I remember looking at my father and saying with clinical clarity, “I forgive her because she couldn’t help herself, but you were a coward.”

I remember my father getting up and storming out of the house, but he came back. He pointed at me, and his hand shook, and he said, I am not a coward.

I remember asking my parents to leave my house, and my mother said, “But you need us, you’re moving.”

And I said “I have been doing this on my own for a while. I do not need you anymore.”

I remember realizing that, for the first time in my life, I did not need them.

And I remember realizing, at some point, that I loved them and wanted them in my life, even if I didn’t need them.

Because we are all human, you see?

I am human, and my mother is human, and my father is human too. And we all mess up, and sometimes, we have to forgive each other and move on.

I have never doubted that my parents love me.

I loved Caleb, but my love for him was sick. My love for him taught me that love was fraught, awful, and punishing.

Caleb loved the word punish. He said that his own mother punished him when he didn’t do what she wanted. It didn’t take me long to understand what he meant. She is passive aggressive when she doesn’t get what she wants.

Still, the other day, I dropped Reed off with her in the parking lot of a Western Sizzling. She hugged him, then held his face between her hands. She smiled at him so large, and I couldn’t help myself. As I drove by, I rolled down my window and said, “Diana, he is almost as tall as you now!”

And she smiled, surprised, and said, “All of the grandchildren are shooting by me now!”

This is the first pleasant interaction we’ve had since the divorce, but I am no longer angry at Diana. She didn’t make Caleb into the person he is. She, too, is human.

And she loves my son. I know this.

I was interested in someone recently, and I just found out–just this moment–that he’s kind of a scumbag.

This guy being a scumbag could be a tragic end to a long saga, but it’s not tragic at all because I have had fun.

Can I tell you how important it is to have fun after years of misery?

Fun is not serious. Fun is not commitment. Fun is not love.

Fun is flirtation.

(Expect more on this subject later.)

I submitted my full book manuscript last Sunday. I received an auto-reply from my editor that she was out of office until April 24th. This was probably for the best because I’ve had time to re-read the manuscript, and to realize how much needs changed. Everything that I’ve written here is not included in the book manuscript. You are the first readers.

I left a lot out that needs to be included.

In the stairwell at work yesterday, one of my favorite professors said, “Well, you have so much to write about what’s happened since you’ve left Caleb.”

He thought that was going to be a part of my book because he has only known me since then, but I told him, “No, that stuff is for the next book.”

Here is a preview of the next book:

Reed and I in a hammock, and Reed says, “Everything is just better now, isn’t it?”

Laying in the grass under a dry lightning storm with a man who would open my heart again.

Selling my memoir to a humongous New York Publisher.

Sitting at an outdoor patio in Brussels drinking beer with a Scottish visual artist I had met at an artist’s residency and thinking, “I am living the redemptive ending to my own story.”

Celebrating on my friend’s porch that I had received the contract from my German book publisher, and realizing that the sweet cat cuddling up to my legs indicated that I needed my own cat.

Adopting my own cat.

Cultivating and joking in a semi-public fashion about a crush on a guy who would turn out to be kind of a scumbag.

Realizing that I didn’t care if he was a scumbag because I had already known that I was too good for him.

Realizing that the me who met Caleb had that same impulse–that I was too good for him–but was unable to fully acknowledge that impulse.

Being the person to turn down a Facebook friend request from a man who used to be my friend, but who I know raped another friend.

Realizing that the new me is tough.

Realizing that, as trite as it might sound, I’ve finally learned how to love the one person who would be with me through it all.


(Also, my cat and dog and amazing kiddo).


On Being Alive

Can I admit something? I kind of hate the word “survivor.” I actually prefer the word “victim.” The word “survivor” doesn’t really imply that one had any agency over the situation, only that they endured it. The word “victim” implies that someone else actively victimized the person. So I will own it. I was a victim. Caleb victimized me. I may have survived his abuse, but he was my victimizer, and the agency there was his.

I = victim.

Caleb = victimizer.

I just sent the complete draft of my book to my editor. I was greeted with an auto-reply that she’ll be out of the office until the 24th, and I’m dying. A friend said that this gives me time to relax, but I am so adrenalized right now. I finished this book, and it will need many, many revisions, but the bones are in place, and I am proud of that.

What does it take to let go of a story? Can I let go of this story now? Will I ever be able to let go of this story?

I have been flirting with someone. I have not told him my history. How do I tell someone I am interested in that I have been broken?

I know that I am not broken now, but how do I convey that over a beer or coffee?

To survive is merely to be alive, but not to live.

I am not a survivor. I didn’t survive that shit; I lived through it.

After I sent my final chapters, I felt euphoric. I wanted to cry happy tears. Then, I felt something else. I felt alone.

I had achieved something so important, yet I had no one to share it with.

I sat on my couch with my aloneness, and I allowed myself to feel it, then I realized that, if I hadn’t been alone, this book would not have been written.

So much of what I have accomplished has happened in solitude, so, though it has been lonely, I give thanks for my solitude.

And after sitting with my solitude for a while, I decided to write a blog post because I knew that would be a way for me to connect with other people. I knew that would be a way of expressing that I’m alive.

So, thank you dear readers, for helping me to feel less alone and more alive. I appreciate you.

I am alive, and so are you, and we are all survivors.