Ambition – blind or otherwise

Ambition is like love, impatient both of delays and rivals. – the Buddha


“I don’t want to be a writer any more,” I said to my friend a few weeks ago.

“What do you mean? You are a writer,” he says, inferring that I’d just suggested I stop becoming a woman or a Caucasion of German-descent.

“I’ll always write. But I’m tired of the aspirations.”

The aspirations are a lot to carry around. Or maybe I should say ambition, which is more about drive and less about hopes and dreams. Both – ambition, aspiration and even hopes and dreams – are all baggage, to some extent. Indeed, they get us places and push us on to the Next Thing. But at different junctures, they can become heavy and, ironically, hold on to our ankles when what we really need is some steam heat to help us float.

Ambition is something I’ve struggled with since becoming a writer and a mother – two events that happened nearly simultaneously. Before I published my first book, I was someone who enjoyed writing. I did it when I could. I published occasionally as opportunity presented itself. But I didn’t have grand dreams. I didn’t call myself a writer. I didn’t worry terribly when there was a dry spell.

This was thrilling territory. What I didn’t understand was that it also came with a slew of expectations from my self and from the world.

But then the book came out and I was A WRITER. This was thrilling territory. What I didn’t understand was that it also came with a slew of expectations from my self and from the world. There was a book out so surely there would be another. And there would be articles. And agents.

Last week, I was visiting New York and was invited by a friend who is an editor to attend a hoity-toity publishing luncheon at the old school restaurant 21 Club. It was like entering the belly of the beast. All around me were editors and agents. Women who do nothing all day but Make Books, and by extension, make people into writers. It was an entire room of women in glasses with natty book-filled handbags, tucking into bland chicken, sipping coffee, exchanging business cards, and listening to a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist talk about “why fiction matters.” I might have passed out with anxiety, but instead I looked around and thought, “I am not these people.” They didn’t feel like my peeps. I wasn’t at home.

New York - last week.

The most at home I felt was when the visiting author, Elizabeth Strout, who was lovely and a tad gawky, tried to answer the rather overblown question implicit in her talk. “We all desire every day to have an authentic conversation,” she said. “Whether with a partner or a friend or a parent – it’s what we most long for.”

authenticAuthentic. Amen. Yes! That’s why I write. To record my most authentic self. To share her with others. To have that dialogue that in some ways I can have with no one else but myself. That is why I write — not to sell copies or get an advance or see my name in a review.

The conversation in the room, however, was all about that stuff: “What are you working on?” “What have you sold?” I was increasingly uncomfortable with my nametag, which announced me as a Freelance Writer. Is that what I am? But if I’m not a writer, then what am I? A mother, indeed. A member of my community who works to improve it. A yogi. A swimmer. A daughter. A friend to many. But do I have a professional moniker at this point? And if not, can I live with that?

When we allow our art to just be — not to be something that defines us or that we’re constantly working on (and here I mean working in a sweat-inducing, teeth-gnashing sort of way) — what happens? What happens to the art and to us and our self-definition? Over dinner in NYC, a friend who went through an MFA program and has published short stories, all the while working on a novel, admitted that she no longer calls herself a writer. “I’m a copywriter,” she says of her job in advertising, “which means I’m a sell out to a lot of people. Writing is my hobby.” Another friend said that she too is increasingly uncomfortable calling herself a novelist, as she’s yet to sell one and grows further and further from the ambitions that got her through two years in the notoriously brutal Iowa Writer’s Workshop. “But if I’m not ‘a writer’, then I’m a ‘legal writing teacher,’ which is fine if I’m also ‘a writer’, but less fine if I’m not.”

I used to not want to be called A MOTHER because I had such issues with all that that inferred. I saw Betty Crocker. I saw crockpots and dustbins. I saw apron tails and clinging toddlers. I saw anything BUT ambition. And if one wasn’t striving toward something, then who the hell was she? JUST a mother, I thought, disparagingly.

And if one wasn’t striving toward something, then who the hell was she? JUST a mother, I thought, disparagingly.

Another friend who has had luck as a writer, gaining hefty advances and time on the New York Times Best Seller list, told me emotionally–even a bit desperately, “I am a career writer. That’s what I do.” She was reacting to the changing publishing climate, in which the kinds of advances – large enough to allow someone like her to live for two years in an upscale urban area – are drying up. I wanted to feel for her – her “work”, as she’d known it, was changing probably irrevocably, and that is indeed scary. But I couldn’t much empathy.

I don’t mean to say that I view her as privileged. I’ve always ruffled at the argument that practicing art is a privilege. Having words always in your head, or images always in front of you, music in your ears – that is a way of Being. It can be viewed as a gift and even as an annoyance, but to be someone who tends to those words and pictures and sounds is not be a privilege any more than answering to an innate desire to teach or to medically cure others. One should be valued by society for sharing those imaginings with the world, for expressing them in such a way that helps the rest of us better understand ourselves and our world. “Looking at good art is like falling in love,” I read recently on a museum wall. Both are valuable experiences.

So I didn’t disagree with my friend that she should be able to keep doing what she’s done and be compensate it. Yet, there’s so much more luck-of-the-draw system in place in the arts than in other professions that I sometimes wonder if the arts can really be headed as a profession. We succeed and fail based on very fragile whims. There are many, many more talented people vying for a very small number of paying slots — that pay being decided in a pretty subjective manner by a small number king makers — as compared to, say, how talented accountants or dentists are rewarded. If you do good crowns or excellent bridges, chances are you’ll succeed sufficiently. Not so with oil painters and saxophonists.

As artists, part of our lot is to accept that the system is willy nilly. And in accepting that, perhaps our best choice is to settle down with it and let the art be. Allow it to ebb and flow and stop being wrapped up in success. Maybe by shedding our ambitions is the only way of doing our truest work.

Marilynne Robinson

I saw the novelist Marilynne Robinson speak a few winters ago. She lives in my town, so I see her at the farmer’s market in the summer and sometimes at her musician son’s performances in the winter. But this was a magical talk. She’d won the Pulitzer for her novel Gilead the year before. The book had come out 23 years after her first novel, Housekeeping. (Here’s a great NPR interview with her post-Pulitzer win.) She’d been busy in the intervening years, writing heady non-fiction about religion and teaching young writers their craft. But I got the strong impression that December late afternoon, as large snow flakes fell outside, that those two decades in between novels had not been a time she’d spent bashing her head against a wall, hoping desperately for something to write or fearing what would happen if she didn’t write another novel. Nor was it a time of ceasing to think of herself as a writer, for she is at her very core a writer. Rather, it seemed a time when she was sifting through ideas, letting some fall through the sieve and holding onto others – sometimes expressing them in alternatives forums, such as her nonfiction books or the classroom or even in her church where she sometimes gives sermons – and holding on to others, carrying them in her pockets and rubbing them, smoothing them out.

What would have happened to Marilynne Robinson’s writing if she’d felt compelled to get the Next Work Out? If she’d have an agent asking her when? If, in other words, she’d been led by the nose by ambition?

That day, I asked her how she’d managed to write Housekeeping when she had two young sons and was, I’d heard, a single mother. At the time, she was an academic, not a novelist, and it’s likely that no one in her life thought of her as such then. The moniker wasn’t yet attached to her person. She was teaching in France for a year, and her sons were in school nearly all day. The university went on strike, and suddenly she had time to go through the scraps of paper she’d been keeping in a drawer, on which she’d written ideas about characters and dialogue and questions. It was a collection of “What if’s” and suddenly she had the time to puzzle them together. She had time to begin writing a very slim but eventually very celebrated novel that would change – to the world, at least – who Marilynne Robinson was.My sense, though, is that it never for a moment changed who she was to herself. Her self-definition didn’t budge. She kept ambition calmly at bay – or so I’m guessing from how she’s portrayed herself and how she writes.

At 43, I think I’m ready to let go of the impatience of ambition. Of the foot race that comes with it. I want to be. Here and now. How long I can live without a moniker in our profession-obsessed culture, we shall see. (Ah, yes, another reason to move to France where, so I hear, no one asks ‘And what do you do?’ at parties) But I’m going to try to cultivate contentment with and appreciation for the multitude of things I accomplish each day, the infinite duties I hold, the people and beings to whom I tend in ways small and large. I am going to live on authentic conversation.

21 thoughts on “Ambition – blind or otherwise”

  1. Thanks for this piece! I’m struggling with the push of ambition myself. I just had a long conversation about it with my partner last night. As I prepare for the birth of my second child this winter I feel myself sinking into thinking that I have to give up art making to raise my children or follow my ambitions and risk doing a poor job raising them. I’m trying to remind myself to relax, to not think in extremes and to live in the present–while reminding myself that life is long and I can attend to my dreams in due time.

  2. After my second was born was when I had my biggest and hardest head-to-head blow out b/t ambition and motherhood. For some reason, I was flooded with ideas for projects, all of which felt very Important and Timely, and I really did take it out on my son a bit (embarrassing as that is to admit), for slowing me down. I got terrible insomnia and would get up and write in the middle of the night and then, of course, be a complete crab the next day. Not pleasant.

    But I do think that slowly making peace with these different aspects of ourselves and allow them to be (kind of a weak phrase, but I can think of nothing better) is the kindest thing to do for them and for ourselves. You will always be an artist, Carrie. Knowing and honoring that Essence seems to me the most crucial piece of understanding. Hold on to that and the rest will sorts itself out.

  3. In writing about not wanting to write, you’ve written a spectacular piece. You find the words to say what so many of us think but can’t get out of our heads onto paper, and that is, my dear, why you are a writer.

  4. Is it in the air? I was having a conversation along these lines with my husband just a few hours ago. The dark is already making me a little tired and somehow the effort that ambition requires doesn’t seem quite worth it. I can’t tell if I’m being depressive or Zen.

  5. I stumbled on to this blog, and I keep coming back exactly because it feels like such an authentic conversation. You really capture the moments of poise in the balancing act.

  6. There is no art but life. There are no artists save for those who choose to breath. Authenticity is always an act of surrender. Surrender to what doesn’t matter, because the result is always Art. Art works. It just does. It’s the ONLY thing that works. Should we attempt to control the shape and trajectory of our lives, the result is bad art which is suffering. Art is beauty. You are Art, Jennifer. Art is loving. You are Art Jennifer. Art is the experience of pleasure and blissful union with Life, even when there is pain and the resistance to things that are. I believe in your words. I believe in tending to the small things, things invisible to most people. The subtleties of movement in dancing children and the deliberate gestures of a woman making dinner. Relationships. Making a refuge for the Body and Soul. Only these things matter. Nothing else. Seeing the Self is maybe the greatest art. It sounds like you are on that path. Travel well!

  7. Thank you for these kind comments. This is an issue with which I really struggle and am trying, at long last, to untangle sufficiently that I don’t feel so smothered by it. Years ago, a therapist suggested that I stop writing. As lousy as that advice turned out to be, I think this is what he was weakly trying to get at — as long as the writing and the drive behind it is so all-consuming, you won’t be happy as mother, nor will you even necessarily be happy or effective as a mother.

  8. This piece is so spot on perfect. It is exactly what I needed to read on this dreary November morning. I am certain that reading this would help many artists (dare I call myself that?) navigate the holiday social and family events that come at this time of year. Thank you!

  9. Beautiful, wonderful piece (I found you thru Aimee) thank you so much for writing in complete sentences SO many of the thoughts that I have struggled with for many years… aaah that I could write like that!

  10. One blog leds to another, and somehow I landed here. Just yesterday I was writing to myself about this very thing. I love art making. I want to be immersed in it all day long, (and I truly need to leave my day job for many reasons) but I’m not sure if I would still love it as much if it were my livelihood. The synchronicity of these thoughts among those of us who have responded is surprising, but comforting. We are not alone.

  11. Thanks, Jennifer. It’s so great to read you.

    I’ve also been struggling with this. A friend and I both teach and write, and we’ve been meeting bi-weekly to egg each other on (as writers) and we talk a lot about teaching, too. But at some point, I realized that it seems important to make sure I’m a writer who teaches, not a teacher who writes. This is a flat way to put what I mean. In practice, when it works, it means that I spend some time in the day doing something to nourish my writing self before I do the work of being a teacher. It’s a hard balance, but I find that putting it in the front of my thoughts like that helps. I love your story about Marilynne Robinson. A good reminder to re-read Housekeeping soon. Thanks.

  12. I enjoyed the romp through your thoughts on ambition, especially your take on the New York scene. Very amusing to read what I’ve always thought.

    I am 56 and have always written. As they say, “I breathe therefore I write.” I didn’t become serious until three years ago when dear, lovely Madeleine L’Engle passed away. Losing the author who sparked my imagination during my youth simply broke my heart.

    I have since dedicated myself to the craft that I’ve always loved. I’ve even let others read what I put on paper…after a life time of never having a soul read my wanderings–it was a huge step.

    You are exactly right Jennifer, your writing soul can’t be shut off, but I’m convinced that it can be choked to death if forced. When it starts to need a DNR order, treat her kindly–she will revive with amazing, amazing insight.

    Best wishes on your writing Jennifer.

  13. Thank you, thank you, Jennifer. I love that you give voice to the thoughts and feelings inside my heart and head.

    My kids are older now, and I’m more settled with my work and what I’ve gained from being mom, artists, community activist, teacher, and how that works together. Ambition tempered by patience and surrender, both to self and others, was not an easy lesson, but a good one.

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