Sunday, April 09, 2006

ON WRITERS AND AMBITION


Take a Girl Like You, originally uploaded by Paula Wirth.

On the back page of yesterday's New York Times Book Review, Joseph Finder brings a refreshing candor to the dirty little subject of ambition. Serious writers, it seems, aren't supposed to have any. They labor for art alone; they write "for themselves," eschewing even the desire for an audience. And if they have any hope of making--err, excuse me for uttering the word, money, well they've obviously not attained the necessary purity. Maybe five or ten more years of fasting on contributor's copies and Ramen noodles will do the trick.

In fact, Finder points out, the true literary scribe is so averse to the crass desire for success that ambition has even been banished as a fictional subject in contemporary literature. Today's ambition free novelists struggle with sex, with the legacy of defective parents, with the endless struggles of the Self; but the yearning for power or worldly recognition as a plot device is as dead as the ill-fated striver in Sister Carrie.

Sorry, but I don't buy it. Maybe my experience is different. Maybe it's just that I don't know any editors or professors of Creative Writing or until recently, even any other writers, who might have helped me network my way to publication. But in my experience, achieving publication in even a literary magazine with a print run of 500, is damn hard work.

Without ambition, would anyone spend a fortune in postage and time putting together dozens--or even hundreds--of packets of prose or poetry and complete with a carefully worded cover letter and an SASE. Would they endure the dozens--or hundreds-- of anonymous rejections--for every publication in a "good" journal? Would they take out loans it might take years to repay to cover the cost of an MFA program?

Like most writers, I write because I'm mysteriously impelled to do so and have been since childhood. If I was never published anywhere, I would probably continue--simply because I have no idea how to stop. But writing only for myself has never been my goal. I write to share who I am and what I know, what I've seen and heard and felt; I write to resurrect the lost and to give flesh and voice to the ghosts who often take up residence in my study.

I also write with the hope of earning a living that will prevent me from ever having to hoist another waitress tray. Until the sale of my first novel last November, it looked like I might end up slinging hash until I drop. And really, I couldn't have complained. I was so obsessed with writing that I never consider another career. I tossed everything I had on the table; and if I lost, I could have blamed no one but myself.

I wonder how many Emily Dickinsons or Jane Austens we never read because they had no family to cossett them, no private wealth to nurture their dream, because their hours and days and lives were lost to the exigencies of making a living in factories and mines, in domestic service or on farms. Their stories remain untold, their novels and plays and poetry unwritten. By some accident of history, a few of us are getting a chance that our ancestors could never have imagined. Only base ingratitude could prevent us from making the most of it.


34 comments:

Amishlaw said...

I agree with you, Patry (I always do,) Finder is full of it. Although the questions of whether writers are ambitious and whether writers still write about ambitious characters are two separate questions, Finder muddles the issues. On both accounts, I think he's wrong. Writing is too hard to do, not to want to have it published and to be successful. And there are still ambitious characters. In looking over my list of books read for 2005, "The Time of Our Singing," by Richard Powers is one that jumps out that had an ambitious character. I'm sure there are other recent such books if I thought about it a little more.

Amishlaw said...
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Myfanwy Collins said...

As always: Well said, Patry!

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Dave said...

"I wonder how many Emily Dickinsons or Jane Austens we never read because they had no family to cossett them, no private wealth to nurture their dream, because their hours and days and lives were lost to the exigencies of making a living in factories and mines, in domestic service or on farms."

This question haunts me, too.

I agree with your point that no one goes to all that effort without some serious ambition prodding them on. I should know: I used to go to all that effort until laziness and lack of ambition got the better or me! Fortunately, the Internet makes it possible for those of us who do write mainly for the pleasure of it to share our work in a small way, at least. Not to mention, it allows unmotivated writers like me to live vicariously through truly hard-working writers like you!

Suzanne said...

Wonderful, Patry.

colleen said...

I think art wants to have an effect...to touch others...to move or change something. And when we share what we do...what we do grows.

kate said...

. . .yeah - I'm with you . . . have to write *and* I want people to read it . . . make $ from it? I used to think so, but now I'm not sure . . . somehow the blog thing fills the creative need in me . . . and my two novels gather dust on my shelves . . . and the hundreds of pages of notes for the next one hasn't been touched in a couple of years . . . who knows? alls I know is that we do what we must . . . and there will always be someone around to judge . . . and what does it matter anyway? Because there will also always be someone around to say yeehaw girl, what you just did rocks . . . . :)

colleen said...

PS At the very least, I don't want my writing to have to COST me money. I think it should at least keep me in printing ink...and you know how much that costs these days.

I love your line about writing because you have no idea how to stop.

Patry Francis said...

amishlaw: I know of a few gifted writers who are truly uninterested in the lures and rewards of the marketplace, but I think that most often, it's a disingenuous claim. Martin Amis, for instance, is quoted in the article as saying he doesn't care about the size of his advance. And yet, he achieved notoriety when he ditched his long time agent in favor of one who got him a big contract.

Thanks, Myf!

dave: Actually, I'm pretty lazy myself. Like you, I've pretty much stopped submitting my hopeful little packets to journals. It's much more gratifying to just direct my mouse to the word "publish", and voila, I'm communicating. What's more, when you publish in a litmag, you never really know how your work is received or even who is receiving it. On line, it's a dialogue.

Thanks, Suzanne. Good to see you here.

Colleen: You are a perfect example of that. Your writing touches me immensely.

Patry Francis said...

p.s. to Kate: Had to go and check your link to make sure you were the Kate I thought you were. You are! After reading how busy you are with grad school and life, I'm amazed that you have time to blog--nevermind polish novels. From a creative standpoint, blogging is one of the most satisfying thing I've ever done--which can be a problem in my efforts to earn a living from writing. Some days my mind would much rather work on blog posts than novels.

Joel said...

Ayep, Patty. I wish writers wouldn't write about Writing and just write.

Waving The Flag said...
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Patry Francis said...

But Joel, sometimes writing about writing is so much more fun than actually doing it. Nice to see you here. I've missed you.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air....

Some mute inglorious Milton, here may rest....

Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

Sky said...

I think "ambition" is multi-faceted in meaning and is the energy which propels all writing, with and without regard for a large readership, money, or literary acclaim. Some people want it all, and others don't. Most want it all, I suspect. Why not? If one is "called" why wouldn't it make sense to consider it a profession and livelihood - so that one's "work" would revolve around this profession and would bring in benefits that could sustain it?

I understand the issue of it being an "art." As a young woman, I told my mother who wanted me to major in journalism or obtain a "job" of some sort in the field of writing, that I didn't want to ruin the joy I feel when writing by having a profession which mandated it. I was always afraid that if my livelihood depended on my writing, I would cease to enjoy it - that the idea of needing to write, or "having" to write to pay my bills would rob me somehow of the joy of writing. This joy exists simply in the act of expressing or creating with no other focus or mission. It is a response to a source inside me, a "well" of sorts, from where words flow.

I see both sides of this coin, and think both states exist and perhaps are not even mutually exclusive.

Apples said...

Hi Patry:) Thank you for dropping by my blog. I like what I read here:) Will definitely come back:)

Brenda said...

This is a great post on a very difficult subject for writers, well, artists in general. We like to focus on our work, and find the logistics of trying to get recognition, published, difficult. We should all honour our ambitions, for surely that is there along with the drive to create. Thanks for this!

ruth said...

hi patry, this is really heart warming. I am struggling a bit right now with exactly these judgements from myself and others. Thank you for airing the subject.

Rexroth's Daughter said...

Hi Patry-- I started to comment here yesterday, but I think Sky summed up so well what I was thinking.

I was listening to npr last night and heard this interesting piece, and it made me think of you. It's about non-fiction, but the complaint about the dictates of publishing is quite entertaining:
Non fiction lament.

beth said...

Amen to everything you said here, Patry! I'm sick of hearing that having ambition somehow "taints" the true and pure Artist. What baloney! It all depends on how you define ambition, I suppose, but wanting to write, be read, and (hopefully) estabish a dialogue is what it's all about for me, and I think for most of us who have done this crazy thing throughout history.

Patry Francis said...

Richard: Never more poignantly said.

Sky: Interesting point and well taken. Undoubtedly as many Jane Austens and Emily Dickensons were crushed by the callousness of the marketplace as were lost to obscurity. Thanks for making me think.

apples: welcome and please come again!

brenda: you're so right. So many of us artistic types are averse to marketing or of any kind. But in the current climate, it has become expected.

ruth: The struggle with ambition permeates all the arts: the desire to be heard, seen, appreciated vs. the natural distaste for self-promotion which many artists feel. Nice to see you here.

r.d.: tried to listen to the piece on npr, but was thwarted by technology. Anyway, there's enough darkness in my little novel to make up for any number of sweet doggy books. I don't know why. I don't consider myself a paticularly dark person, but sometimes the pen has a mind of its own.

beth: Dialogue is the key word for me, too--though I wouldn't mind making enough money to pay off my credit cards!

Carmen said...

Patty,
I'm trying to get an agent for my manuscript. Congrats on getting published. Any tips you could give on surviving the rejection letters? :)

Patry Francis said...

Carmen: When I first started my "campaign", a writer friend suggested I query ten agents. When five rejections come in, try ten more, and so on until you find the right match. That way no one "pass" ever feels final or devastating.

Best of luck!

Patry Francis said...
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finnegan said...

Foolish Finder believes in the tired old Romantic clichés about the long-suffering "individual" who, pure of spirit and heart, banish all unpure thoughts and desires for the sake of some sort of "Virtue Valhalla".

As Philip Guston once responded to Ad Reinhart's "Thall Shall Nots" on art:
"The artist should not want to be right".

Thanks for this well-written (as always) and witty response to yet another puritanical diatribe.

Haven't we had just about enough of these Victorian scolds who want to dictate what is right and correct for others?

colleen said...

Hi Patry, I linked to this post yesterday. I couldn't find out how to do a track back or a link that shows up on your comment page....so I wanted to let you know.

colleen said...

Hi Patry, I linked to this post yesterday. I couldn't find out how to do a track back or a link that shows up on your comment page...so I wanted to let you know.

Also, I've been thinking more about this question and realizing that I AM pretty ambition...at least about the writing part of it!

Swirly said...

I must admit it is a pet peeve of mine when artists and writers cling to the idea that earning a living and - gasp! - making money means they are selling out or not "real" artists. I do believe certains kinds of tension and heartaches can create great art, but it is not a requirement, and starving and struggling to pay rent eventually just drains our creative well.

Patry Francis said...

Finn: "The artist should not want to be right." An interesting statement. So much human blindness is propogated by the need to be right. Maybe an artist just tries to cleave to what is true--and leave "right" to the moralists.

Colleen: The link is much appreciated.

Swirly: I agree. There are certainly artists and writers who "sell out"; I wouldn't judge them, because people have to eat--unless of course their work was being used for evil purposes. But the goal for most artists is simply to be paid well enough for their skill, and passion, and time that they can continue to share it.

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