The Teeth of my Ambition
7th Mar 2010 in Writing
I always thought I was an unambitious person. I didn’t care about building a career or making lots of money or having a big house or my own office. I didn’t care about impressing anyone or causing jealousy or getting a pat on the head. I never worried about what I was going to say at high school reunions.
I went to university not to get a decent job, but just because I wasn’t sure what else to do. As of 2008, university degrees in Scotland are free; when I started, it cost £3,700 (about US$5,700) in total for a 4-year degree, and I figured that was worth not having to get a job for a few more years. My only ambitions in life were to be happy, read lots of books, and stay up late. But then I started writing.
Like most writers, I had always written: childhood fantasies, angsty teenage poems, journals full of scrawl. It was dreadful, of course; but I loved it. At 22, I finished my undergraduate degree and then took a year off to travel and work in a bookshop and stay in bed for a month after having my tonsils out. After a drunken suggestion one night, I applied to a Creative Writing Masters course. It was only after I got accepted that I realised I was going to have to start taking my writing a bit more seriously.
At first, it was still just a bit of fun. I’d always enjoyed writing stories, and was glad that I could now spend a few years stringing words together rather than having to do anything difficult or boring with my days. I must have taken it seriously at some point as I got good grades and ended up with a Distinction, but it just felt like fun at the time. Playing around with prose sestinas, cobbling together screenplays for my filmmaker brother, writing a new NaNoWriMo novel every year – surely they weren’t going to give me letters after my name for this. It wasn’t work. I could do this shit forever, if only some sucker would pay me.
By my second year it was still fun, but it wasn’t just fun. Maybe I couldn’t be the best writer in the room, but I wanted to be one of the best. I didn’t want to just turn up to class; I wanted to be noticed. It wasn’t only about class, either: I started to think about how my writing would fit into the literary world rather than just how it would fit into the pages of my notebook. Not only did I take opportunities that came my way, I started looking out for new ones. I was still finding it hard to imagine people reading my writing outside my critique group, but I was considering the possibility. I accepted I was going to have to look further than the tips of my own shoes.
It’s really only now, a year after graduating, that I really feel my ambition whipping its tail. My girlfriend gets up at 7am for work, so that’s when I get up too. I’m at my laptop with a cup of coffee, knee-deep in emails, before she’s even put on her socks. I skip meals because I’m too busy writing. I think about writing just before I fall asleep and just after I wake up. I cancel on friends, forget to call my mother, court repetitive strain injuries; all to write.
If I put this sort of time and effort into a ‘proper’ job, I’d be at the top of the corporate ladder by now. There would be twelve photos of my face, lined up along the wall, labeled Employee of the Month. But I do all this for writing, and none of it feels like work.
It’s not all fun either. Sometimes I don’t feel like it. Sometimes I have to force myself to sit at my laptop. Sometimes I have to bribe myself with a fancy lunch or an early night or an extra-large mocha if I can just finish another page. So then, I ask myself, why do it?
I don’t have a boss leaning over my shoulder, making sure I don’t watch chat shows instead of writing. I don’t have a job description or a set of goals I must meet. Whether I write or not, I’ll still get paid the same – ie. nothing. It doesn’t matter to anyone whether I write 6,000 words a day or 6,000 words a year. No-one really cares except me. So again, why do I do it? Not because I always like it. Not because it’s always fulfilling. Not for the money or glamour or screaming fans or world tours or sexy girls throwing themselves at my feet – if these things are consequences of writing, I’ve yet to experience them. So why bother?
Because the ambition I thought I didn’t have has finally got its sharp little teeth into something, and it’s not letting go.
(This previously appeared as part of PANK‘s This Modern Writer series)
Hello – found you through Christopher Fowler’s blog… great post!
This resonated with me because I write non-fiction all the time in my day job and I’ve got to the point where I can shape a new piece of that sort of writing at the drop of a hat. On the other hand fiction is something I really didn’t start taking seriously until very recently, but now I’m feeling the same kind of impulse to step up and do it Properly…
Glad you liked my post, thanks. Now I’m worried that I’ve talked a big talk and my little story won’t live up to it!
What sort of non-fiction do you write? I’m only just getting into non-fiction (personal essays, articles etc.) and I really love it. After years of writing fiction and poetry, it’s refreshing to be able to come right out and say “You know what? This is true”. Though I really struggle with the ‘journalistic tone’; I’d be useless writing for a newspaper.
P.S. Checked out your blog – anyone who likes After Ellen, Genderfork AND Cake Wrecks has got to have her head screwed on right 🙂
Yep. I find that my ambition is still wavering some, but I’m totally glad that you’ve found yours.
I’m a writer – but also a performer, a filmmaker, and an occasional visual artist and musician. The “focus on just one thing” thing is still something that eludes me. And now (at 40), I think I may just give up trying to focus on just one thing. It doesn’t seem to be me.
Which is why filmmaking is such a good thing for me – writing, performing, shooting, directing – it encompasses a lot of who I am (did I mention control queen?).
Thanks for the post.
Let’s make a movie!
@ Kirsty – sorry, I was pretty sure I’d subscribed to comments on here, or I’d have come back to reply about, errr, 20 days earlier, but it turns out there never was a comments feed to subscribe to! Eek 🙂
I use a different name for fiction/blogging than the non-fiction I get paid to do, so I’ll just say ‘something vaguely academic’ and leave it at that… although sometimes I do fantasise about branching out on my own as an oral historian… hmm!
Ian, I think I focus on one thing because I just can’t do anything else! I’d love to make art or music or films, but I understand the world through words and that’s just how it is. My girlfriend is a graphic designer/musician/artist and she worries sometimes that she’s spreading herself too thin and nothing really gets done. I think it’s awesome that you’ve accepted that you’re a multitasker. I guess filmmaking is ideal because it require so many different skills.
Alex, I didn’t realise that people couldn’t subscribe to comments! I shall get my tech girl on that immediately. Writing academic stuff sounds ridiculously exciting to me, but perhaps that just means I’m a nerd…