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.