categories: Cocktail Hour
This post is about ambition. It’s a scary word, no doubt about it. It’s a word a lot of writers tip-toe around, though it’s always there, lurking nearby. As others have said, too much or too little can doom a writer; you need the right formula or at least the right balance. For some, grand ideas about the work, and the way the work will make its way into the world, can paralyze. This, I think, is particularly true of young writers, since it is hard to take those first tentative, stumbling steps while your mind is leaping ahead to future acrobatic feats.
But this is not a warning about ambition to young writers. It is instead a warning about not enough ambition to not-so-young writers. In fact, if this post were a ski run, and this post had an actual post, with a sign on that post, it would be marked, not with a blue circle but with a square, or maybe even with a black diamond. The type of ambition I’m talking about today is not about visions of glory, or maybe it is but a very specific sort of vision of glory, which is to say a vision of glory for your book, your project. Because there are times when we all play it too safe, when we get too comfortable within a particularly form, a genre and subgenre, and no matter what wonders we create within that little box, we can’t push beyond what we’ve done before, at least until we break out of the box.
Let me be more specific. A few years ago, almost by accident, I became a journalist. At that point I had already written three books, and even done a little journalism on the side, but what I am talking about was that suddenly I was doing regular work, on top of my own work, that involved some reporting, thinking, and interviewing. Now the literary cliché is that journalism is soul-sucking work, that it takes us away from our deeper calling, that it destroys our precious and oh-so-delicate literary tools. That might be true, but it also does this: it makes us encounter the world. Up until then most of my writing had been part memoir, part essay, often in the present tense and threaded with lyric description. I am in no way mocking this sort of writing; it is still my favorite sort of thing to write and read. But journalism helped break down a couple of the walls of my comfort box. Even more specifically, journalism helped me say “Hey last time you wrote a book about staying home and watching ospreys in your back yard…..what if this time you actually followed them when they fly to South America?” And journalism prodded me, last summer, to, instead of writing a plaintive essay about how the wetlands of Louisiana were disappearing, actually go down and get on a boat and see those wetlands.
I am not suggesting that everyone who reads this goes to work for their local paper. But I am suggesting that there are times when we need to ask ourselves, “How can I let more air into this thing I’m working on? How can I make it more spacious?” This does not mean grabbing your notepad and visor and heading off to get the story. But it may mean asking yourself if this poem, the one that sounds a lot like the last hundred poems you wrote, could benefit from another form, and possibly a greater form. Or asking yourself if the novel you have been re-revising for the last ten years could benefit, not just from more revision of the semi-colons, but from the introduction of more characters or greater themes.
In some ways, all I am suggesting is breaking out, walking more wild paths than your usual rote route. One way to do that is ask yourself: “What are some of the greatest books/poems/essays I have ever read?” And then “What makes them great?” And then, maybe, what might I do to make this thing I’ve been working on forever, not just better, but greater? Is this something a writer would ever really do? I don’t know. I think so. For most of us, the more we write the more we think about form, and maybe a more technical way of talking about this is to say “Question the forms you are using….be creative with them….rearrange them…..don’t settle forever into one or you get molded, like jello.” Now if Cormac McCarthy comments on this post and says, “Well, I’m pretty happy with my forms, young man,” then I will not argue with him. But most of us could benefit from some re-shuffling, and changing up, of our forms. And most of us, even if our chosen form is haiku (or maybe especially if it is haiku) could stand an airing out of our forms, an opening of windows if not a full-on breaking down of walls, an attempt at going bigger and inviting in the world.
P.S. There are points in the post above where I tread suspiciously close to the territory that Tom Wolfe tread in his criticism of Roth/Bellow/Updike etc…That his work was better, or at least more important, because it showed how humans related to each other in the “real world,” with a heavy emphasis on status, versus an intense focus on the interior life. The difference is that I love, and love reading about, the interior life, and think that that is where much of our greatest contemporary writing comes from. It’s just that we can use a little exterior life too.