My Ambition

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9 August 2009

I’ve been accused at various times in my life, by well-meaning loved ones, of lacking ambition.  My bank account, my networking skills, my life goals (or lack thereof) might corroborate these accusations.  But after years of living (anxiously) with my head always in the future, never in the present, something clicked at some point (ok, actually, something crashed), and  I realized, in the words of the poet Czeslaw Milosz: Only this is worthy of praise: the day.

It’s not that I don’t have goals; it’s just that these days, my goals are small, modest.  Grow enough cucumbers for pickles throughout the winter; run three miles in under 30 minutes; post on your blog at least three times a week; make it to February without missing a house payment; read Kierkegaard.  It’s not much, but it’s a good life — hard-earned, I dare say, and built with care.

And, of course, central to this life is the writing.  The writing goals are perhaps the most ambitious, even as they are relatively modest as well.  As I prepare for the release of Long for This World in March, I ask myself, “What is success?”  What do I hope for, what will I work toward?  In my mind, I suppose there is a kind of abstract threshold  I hope to cross; one that enables me to continue achieving my small goals.  Making my house payments, for instance.  Having time to grow vegetables.

But these are “business” goals.  Artistically, my ambition seems to grow every day.  Simply put: write a good novel.  Write a very good novel.  Write a very very good novel.  The word count on Sebastian & Frederick is now just over 65,000.  I’ve had a good few days to step back and look at structure and characterization, and a wave of panic struck yesterday: God, this thing is ambitious.  I looked through my notebook, the one I’ve been keeping for two years as I’ve worked on this draft, and part of me thinks: Who am I kidding?  Can I pull this off?  Will I?  How will I resolve all these issues, how will I weave the threads?  Who are these characters? 

But how else could it be?  For those of you would-be fiction writers out there, you know that the impossibility of the work is part of what keeps us going.  The sculptor Henry Moore said this — that the definition of contentment is having a goal that is impossible to achieve.  Writing a novel — a good one — is such a goal, I think.  

So here I thumb my nose, good-heartedly, at my (also good-hearted) accusors: how’s that for ambition.

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5 Responses to “My Ambition”

  1. Eric Says:

    What are your daily writing goals? Do you shoot for a thousand words a day, anything like that?

    I like the Moore. That’s a model for life as well, I think. Running off of that, warping it a little, it reminds me of an idea of Shelley’s, that though a certain utopian future may be impossible to achieve, it’s a good thing to hope for, to work toward. It’s something I’ve written about, even before I’d heard of the idea. I like how that works.

    Thanks for the free association space.

  2. Surya Says:

    Excellent post, thanks for sharing.

    I have just started on my first novel, a bit past 62000 words and you seem to have read my mind! I feel like I would be doing an injustice to the story at hand, and a better writer would make it a beautiful story, while in my hands…oh well, time will tell :-)

    On the ambition part, I have a poster behind my wall. One of the lines says “Never compare your inside with someone else’s outside.” Ambition is such an internal thing – how can anyone really know what you want? And if they do, how can they ever really understand what it means to you? how important it is to you? and that’s what makes an ambition lofty or modest, isn’t it?

    PS. I started following your blog quite by accident a week or so ago, and am loving it. Keep writing! :-)

  3. sonyachung Says:

    Eric, it’s never occurred to me to have a daily word-count goal. The time I spend not-writing is often as important to the process as the time I spend writing. Research, structural outlining, character notes, etc. EL Doctorow’s notion that writing a novel is like driving in the fog–you can only see as far as the headlights, but you can go the whole way like that–is one that resonates with me. Congrats, by the way — I see you made it to Riverside!

    Surya, thanks for reading and commenting. I have a link to send you (about “pulp”) if I can get organized sooner than later. Take care.

  4. Eric Says:

    Thanks, it was quite a trip. I’ve heard the Doctorow before, somewhere. I was just curious about your daily routine. I hear all kinds of noise about writers going 9 to 5, and it’s not something I’m really able to do, but I still have a blue collar goal like 1000 word per day in mind.

  5. Eric Says:

    I see you’ve got Suttree on deck. I hope you enjoy it.


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