Ambition, Perfection, and the Telling of a Dream

I had a dream the other night that a man was talking to me. I don’t remember his face, but I know it must be a face I’ve seen in real life. The man told me, his voice full of scorn, that I was one of the worst abusers of the comma that he’d ever had the misfortune to come across. I was a sham, a mockery, and I should never write again.

I’ve had my fair share of dreams. Almost every night in fact. Most of my journal entries begin with re-tellings of my most recent dream, and many a short story has found its way to life through the portal of my sleeping mind.

But this dream jabbed at me.

It may be because I’ve never been a great grammarian. Shocking, perhaps, but I’ve always seen language as a moving target, a growing and evolving being full of its own comings and goings. I have never loved to keep my language confined, always wanted to let it flow beyond the strictures of form.

Although I love sonnets.

It is more likely, though, that this dream stuck with me not because of any external chastisement, but because it so perfectly encapsulates my internal monologue.

I have great expectations for myself. (Yes, this is a Dickens reference.) I don’t just want to be the best writer I can be, I want to be the best writer that has ever lived. I don’t just want to write short stories, I want to write life-changing, earth-shattering revelations of the human spirit.

Which might be a bit much to ask of a twenty-four year old.

But my expectations have never been rational.

When I was a child, I took piano lessons for a few years. Every day when I sat down to practice piano I would tell myself a story.

“If I play this piece perfectly,” I would say, “then all my hopes and dreams will come true. I’ll get an A on the test tomorrow. My parents will be happy. Everyone will stay healthy, and I’ll get to eat my favorite food for dinner.”

Kind of sweet, right? Except that right after that I’d tell myself another story.

“And,” I’d remind myself, “if I make a single mistake then everything will be ruined. People will mock me. My family will suffer horribly. My cat will choke on a fish bone and die, and it will be all my fault.”

Not surprisingly I very frequently made mistakes.

I’d like to tell you that I’m a different person now. That my expectations have been tempered by my increased understanding of reality. That I am driven now only by the willingness to do the work.

And certainly this is true… to an extant.

But the shadow voice remains, dogging my steps and haunting my dreams.

Is there a balance to be found? A nexus of ambition and reality? Or this simply another quest for unsustainable perfection?

Perhaps the answer lies in the medium of the dream itself. The awareness that the brain is constantly learning and changing even during sleep. Perhaps my mind, like language itself, is a moving target.

And perhaps allowing myself the room to make mistakes, to misplace, commas, to fail miserably, is simply another step on my way towards fulfilling my dream.


Signs You May Be a Bookish Human

Yep, I’m still here. Still searching for a job and a place to live. Still scared out of my mind most days. Still angry. Still ranting. Still writing.

I thought I’d write a fluff post for the fun of it. It’s a list, because I guess we all think in lists now.

Signs You May Be a Bookish Human

1.) As a child the worst punishment was being told you couldn’t read for an hour.

2.) Likewise, while a small human, you were told multiple times not to read while walking (especially while crossing the street).

3.) A common tactic to infuriate you was to hide the book you were currently reading. (Staying mad, Sarah. Staying mad.)

4.) You knew the librarians by first name.

5.) You were shelving books before you were riding your bike.

6.) You got frustrated with your elementary school’s library because you’d finished all the books by the time you were in fourth grade.

7.) You knew how many pages per hour you could read (the answer was 100).

8.) You memorized the Dewey Decimal System before you knew who Britney Spears was.

9.) You nearly bankrupted the school by over-achieving in the Accelerated Readers program. Eventually the teacher said you couldn’t get candy bars every time you finished a book the same as the other kids. Probably better this way.

10.)  People have been asking you for book suggestions since you were ten.

11.) Although basically every other aspect of your dream house has changed over the years, there is always a library and there is always a reading nook.

12.) When packing, you fit your clothes in one box, your dishes in three, and your books in five.

13.) You are always working on at least two books at any given point in time. In case you get bored of one, you can always switch to the other.

14.) There is no greater source of shame than when you must admit to not having read one (or many) of the classics. Don’t talk to be about Moby Dick.

15.) You giggled at at least half of these.

There you go. I made a list for the internet. My work here is done.

P.S. I totally solved another Agatha Christie mystery! At Bertram’s Hotel. This brings my total up to two.


It’s difficult to miss something that you’ve never known. This was driven home to me recently when I met my great aunt Hulda.

I knew that I had a great aunt in Iowa, of course, and I’d heard that she, too, was interested in writing, puns, and literature, but I had no idea what sort of person she’d be as I hadn’t seen her since I was three years old. I was overwhelmed by her warmth and generosity when we arrived tired and cold on her doorstep. We were welcomed with open arms. And I do mean welcomed. It’s rare for me to feel so instantly comfortable in a new place. There was one bookshelf completely filled with dictionaries and one bookshelf completely filled with books on the prairie. It was divine.

But the whole visit was colored in many ways by what was missing. It was amazing to meet my great aunt, but what saddened me was not being able to meet my great uncle, Don, who passed away recently.

With an odd feeling of both joy and regret, I found out through Aunt Hulda that my Uncle Don was also a prairie enthusiast. He spent most of his life photographing wildflowers, many of which I had learned to love this past summer. He spent time in Hayden Prairie, the remnant in Iowa where I was lucky enough to work for two days. It was both strange and uplifting to discover this connection, and brought home to me once again the purpose of conservation:

To save that which we love so that in the future others won’t have to miss what they never knew. Preserving remnants and restoring ecosystems means giving more people the opportunity to love the land they live on, giving more people something to get excited about: the sweet yellow and white of the butter-and-eggs flower, the spiky dignity of the rattlesnake tamer, the simple joy of a black-eyed susan. Preserving the prairie means keeping those connections that sometimes unknowingly bind us across time and distance.

I was unable to meet my uncle, but his memory remains, witnessed by my family members who knew and loved him, eulogized in the beautiful photos he took throughout his lifetime. It is up to us to prevent the loss of the prairie and other natural landscapes so that this echoing feeling of missing something unknown does not continue into future generations but instead is replaced by feelings of connection and delight.


The Death of Literature

As a self-professed writer (and believe me I understand the pretentiousness of this title), I have given quite a bit of thought to what it means to be literate in the age of the internet. Even before the internet the world was inundated with writing. That’s the appeal of being a writer after all, leaving behind a record of your thoughts, your characters, your life. Achieving immortality and the thrills of creation.

But for we who are writing now this very phenomenon has thrown up an insurmountable barrier.

My older brother recently shared an article with me about this subject: you can read it here. And while I’m not nearly so pessimistic and I don’t name drop nearly as much, I have to say I agree with the bulk of this.

The world is saturated with literature and literature about literature and literature about literature about literature. The scraggly little words I type out daily or scratch across the bound pages of my notebooks mean less than nothing. There is no traction any longer. Nothing to be said that hasn’t been said and nothing new under the sun. And it tires me more than I can say. And there isn’t a word I type or write or dream up that doesn’t fill me with the great sickness of cliche.

So why do I still want to write? Why do I still want to be an Author? Why do I even think such things are still possible?

Because I still believe in human life. Despite my pessimism, my belief that the world would be better without us, my knowledge of the psychological, environmental, and genetic controls dictating our every movement. I still believe that each and every one of us homo sapiens on this planet is special. I drank the Kool-aid. I bought the dream. Whatever.

I believe in my own uniqueness and the inherent worthiness of this as a motivator for creation. And I believe in the worthiness of every other living being. And maybe this means the death of literature. And maybe this means that all I write will be one more dying scream in the cacophony of the apocalypse. I’m still going to do it.

Call me Sisyphus, but this is my damn rock and I’m going to roll it.

(Bonus points if you can tell me whether I’m a positive person trying to be negative or a negative person trying to be positive!)

Ecology and Watership Down: Giving the People What They Want

People talk a lot about the allegory of Watership Down, but that’s too mainstream for me. I’m nothing if not a niche writer (get it?), so here are some of the ecological highlights from Watership Down. It’s what everyone wants. Or at least what I want. Time to tear down the “wall” between biology and literature.

Let’s start out at the home warren, shall we, as the primroses are beginning to die out on the downs. Cowslips, we are informed, are particularly difficult to find this time of year. Boom! Right off the bat we’ve got interspecific competition. Not to mention, the rabbits are preferentially browsing cowslips for their low levels of recalcitrant carbon. (For a certain branch of ecologists, competition represents the most fundamental driver of population size and community is competition. Mayhaps Mr. Richard Adams falls into this category as well.)

From all indications, the home warren is hovering right around its carrying capacity (k) with a low level of predation (D), high birth rate (B)–Fiver, for example, rabbits being unable to count over four, anything after four is called “fiver”– and the available resources about to give out. Hazel makes the right decision in following Fiver. Even if the humans weren’t coming with gas, ferrets, and tractors, still the rabbit population might expect to see a bit of a decline in future years.

So the rabbits strike out for a new land. Migration! Gene flow in the making!

The intrepid band encounters a series of borders in their early travels, specifically a river and a soybean field. These reveal possible edge effects (that is changes in ecosystem closer to edges as opposed to the core) both from natural and man-made landscape features. The soybean field in particular also reveals the difference between an agricultural field and a natural grassland. The rabbits note a distinct and rather unsettling smell. And the lack of cover from predators leads to Pipkin being attacked by a crow.

Then we encounter other warrens: reproductive isolation overcome to eventually lead to homogenization! No new species coming from this area, folks.

The first warren they stumble across is set up close to a farm which has led to a strange form of hunting, in which the farmer poaches the rabbits in return for keeping natural predators down. In response the rabbits have become sleek and strong. Here’s an example of human intervention in natural selection. The reproductive fitness of the rabbits is now dependent more on their ability to accept their fate and to observe the shining wires. They evolve in different ways than Hazel and his crew. (Of course the evolutionary changes may not show up yet depending on the rate of generation in the rabbits.) These rabbits have evolved art and poetry while losing their natural instincts to bolt. This is in many ways an interesting critique on the human species. We have also removed ourselves from the process of natural selection. We now must evolve either a sense of predestination or an ability to view our own pitfalls. The shining wire! The shining wire!

The second warren, Efrafa, is a very different story. Here we have behavioral changes as an overreaction to predation. These behavioral changes-feeding at unnatural times, burying feces -have led to overpopulation and indications of possible inbreeding. Without new genes to strengthen and diversify the young, rabbits are being born who, like Blackavar, have little chance of a successful life especially in the over-crowded warren.

And let’s look at General Woundwart: if that’s not a case of beneficial mutations I don’t know what is.

Thankfully in this case, however, brain triumphs over brawn and nature, red in tooth and claw, removes General Woundwart from the species list.

There’s quite a bit more ecology and evolution present in Watership Down than what I’ve written about, but this is a taste for now anyway. I have found it interesting and rather encouraging to think about. As I firmly believe, biology and literature are not such distinct categories as is generally thought. In my opinion it is an unWARRENted division!

Keep a weather eye out for more examples and send them my way when you find them!