May 4, 2010


My diaries are a testament to the optimism of self-improvement. They are exhortations to lose weight, to work harder, to spend less money, to be better.

Not that I keep a regular diary. I use them to figure things out when I’m really upset or to assess progress and to set goals. When I’m really upset or faced with a huge life-altering decision, I’ll take to my diary and I’ll write through it. I’ll write down the pros and cons and consult my heart and come to a decision. I’ll think it through on paper. Likewise, when I feel stuck or feel really down on myself, I’ll write about my feelings and then set goals to try to do better.

And I don’t have “a diary.” I just write things out in my writing notebooks as I go along. Turn to a fresh page, put a date, and start.

Someone getting to know me just through my very sporadic entries would think I am totally neurotic and I hate my husband and Life Sure Got Me Down. But my diary entries serve a very specific purpose: they focus me.

Which brings me to what I wanted to talk about, which is writerly ambition.

These diaries show my ambition to do better, to do more, to get ahead. Yes, I will admit it: I am ambitious. Oooh. It feels kind of wrong to put it in black and white, but there it is.

No matter how much they protest, writers who make it (however you define that term) are ambitious. Scratch their oh-I-really-don’t-care-about-all-that-stuff surface, and you’ll find someone who is deeply committed and competitive. It takes ambition to stick with it for yet another 10 years. It takes ambition to read other writers’ works to see how you can improve your own. It takes ambition to send that novel out yet one more time after the twenty-third or sixty-fifth rejection.

How established writers show it is another matter. Some hide it deep under very gracious manners, while others treat every other writer like night soil because they feel threatened. But it’s always there.

There are lots of specific examples, but I’ll just touch on one. I was just reading Lillian Ross’s 1999 “amplification” in the New Yorker of her controversial 1950 profile of Ernest Hemingway. She writes that he was more straightforward than most writers about his ambitions:

All writers yearn to be considered the best. Some conceal the yearning; others deny it. Hemingway, more than any other writer I’ve known, was forthright about this wish, and as touching as a child.

Lillian mentions how Hemingway had strong opinions about other writers, and he talked about them a lot in their letters. He was honest. He wasn’t afraid to talk well about someone he admired nor to dis someone he didn’t like. But he was also encouraging to young writers.

So, I guess I would just say that it is okay to be ambitious, even necessary. It’s a part of life, this desire to do well at what you love. However, since I seem to be in an exhortational mood, I would urge you to use it to fuel your creativity, rather than to tear down fellow writers.

Now I’m off to write my 10-year, 5-year, and 1-year goals.

What I’m Reading Today: John Williams’s Stoner. I had heard about this book for years, but I had resisted it because I thought it would about someone who smokes pot and other things, and (with apologies to the excellent Denis Johnson) I wasn’t in the mood for that type of book when I came across it. Turns out, it’s about a young man who grows up on a poor dirt farm but then goes to college and the affect that that has on him. I picked it up solely on the recommendation of Steve Almond. And, boy, is he right! Quiet and elegant, not to mention close to my heart. Just take this excerpt. The main character Stoner is telling his parents he will not be coming back to the farm after college:

He listened to his words fall as if from the mouth of another, and watched his father’s face, which received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist. … His mother was facing him but did not see him. Her eyes were squeezed shut; she was breathing heavily, her face twisted as if in pain, and her closed fists were pressed against her cheeks. With wonder Stoner realized that she was crying, deeply and silently, with the shame and awkwardness of one who seldom weeps.


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