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)