When a writer finds success, he or she is also visited by the pressure to sustain that success, and with that a constant pursuit of new stories, characters, and themes. A Story Larger than My Own (University of Chicago Press, 2014) explores the frequent crises of confidence faced by women writers as they approach middle age. Janet Burroway collects the thoughts of writers who are all over the age of sixty, and shares their challenges of a changing publishing scene and the difficulty of combining writing with the ordinary stuff of life—family, marriage, and jobs. In this excerpt from "Parsing Ambition" Rosellen Brown addresses the waxing and waning of the creative drive, or what she refers to as her "writerly ambition."
Every Sunday, like so many who are still addicted to paper, I sit at the kitchen table and turn to the New York Times Book Review, whose attention, for better or worse, is a measure of a certain kind of public notice. I used to find myself idly thinking, as writers will, “Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely to have your book featured on the cover of the Book Review?”
And then I’d stop myself and, with that temple-bopping gesture from the old TV ad for fancied-up tomato juice (“I could have had a V-8!”), I would be forced to remember that I have had a book featured on the cover of the Book Review. I am not boasting; being reviewed so prominently is as much a matter of luck and marketing as it is of talent, as witness all the wonderful books that are born to blush unseen on the tables at the Strand bookstore, where reviewers cadge a little money for their unread copies. On the contrary, I have come to terms with the fact that, for whatever reason we drink from this sweet and bitter cup called writerly ambition, and no matter how, at its best, it should quench our thirst, it will not satisfy us. Our ego needs are deep—unassuageable—or we could never have done this difficult thing, and done it for so long; we wouldn’t have found it worth the dangers.
But what, in fact, is that “writerly ambition” about? And is it a constant over time?
Many years ago I had a dream so potent I’ve never forgotten it. I tend to interpret my nocturnal wanderings in the most obvious and conventional ways, but this dream didn’t worry me as much as it amused me for the dramatic way it posed a foundational question.
When I was in college I was at first a contributor to, and then the editor of, our campus literary magazine, called Focus. I was writing only poetry back then, earnestly, wearing the requisite black and taking myself very seriously indeed; the only writerly accessory I lacked was a cigarette habit, for which I’ll be eternally grateful. On the day we brought the finished magazine from the printer’s, we would put large boxes of Focus out on a table at the crossroads of the campus, Barnard Hall, so that students and faculty could pick them up as they passed. And I was accustomed to receiving comments on—read praise for—my writing. Sometimes a faculty member would even be kind enough to send a letter of appreciation for one of my poems, and you can imagine how I cherished those, and how much of what little confidence I had was bolstered by, even built on, such small local fame.
And here’s the very simple dream which I think I had while I was still at Barnard, or perhaps soon after. On the day the boxes of Focus arrived, I stood behind a pillar invisibly watching the passing crowd as it picked up the magazine, presumably preparing to gloat, until I realized that I—or we, the staff —had forgotten to affix my name to my poem. And in the dream the question was clear to me: Did that matter? Should that matter? Wasn’t it enough that the poem was read and maybe appreciated for its own sake? Or did it only have value if I could take credit for it, as coin of my realm?
Was this about me and my social standing—such as it was—or did I truly, as I hoped in my sober moments, want nothing more than to think the work’s quality would allow it to dwell in some small corner of the world of literature, not my personal kingdom of ego gratification?
What, in other words, were the uses of ambition? What should they be? What was craft for, or any kind of longing to do something well? To make something fine: Was that ambition? Did everything well done need public acclamation, and, if not, in whose name was it offered, and to whom? And then, was language different from other “made things” because without a listener to receive it, it became that most famous of all trees, the one that falls in the deserted forest? Eudora Welty said she wrote for the “it” that inheres in the pleasure of doing the work itself and not in the adulation that might follow it. In one of her poems, Marge Piercy says that better than I can: “Work is its own cure. You have to / like it better than being loved.”
My friend Lucia is multitalented: she weaves, she knits, she creates incomparable ceramics; she used to make welded sculpture; she wrote and drew delightful books for children. But never once did she feel the need to “go public” with any of that (except that she used the books when she was a teacher, and now she does clay work with children). “Why don’t you show the pieces you’ve welded,” I would ask, perplexed, “these beautiful coats you’ve sewn out of fabric you’ve woven? Why don’t you publish the books?”
“Why?” she would challenge in return.
“Why?” I would echo. “Why not?”
“Isn’t it enough that making them gives me pleasure? Why do I need anybody else to approve of them?”
I have never had a satisfactory response. This is not art for art’s sake; it is making for making’s sake.
Kipling advised, in an acid remark that makes more and more sense to me, “Beware the twin imposters success and failure.” These days, I find that acknowledgment something of a relief. I have many published words behind me, and many jobs they have, incidentally and after the fact, secured for me. Being free—or freer—of the temptation to be preoccupied by questions of reputation is a little like the way so many postmenopausal women are pleasantly surprised to discover that sex has a new piquancy once it’s not shadowed by the dangers of pregnancy and the exhaustion of early motherhood. There’s a certain unanticipated delight at such freedom from consequences, and a chance to concentrate on essences, not appearances.
But no one would pretend there aren’t losses, and for us, we of a certain age, there’s the sense that we’re running out of time to write our Platonic ideal of a book. And, much as we recognize its inevitability, it still shocks us to feel the hot breath of our successors on our not-so-firm necks. The farther those successors disappear into the forest of technology—publishing online, Blackberrying, Facebooking and blogging and texting and tweeting in what must be a forty-eight hour day to accommodate all that communication and hasty opinion—the more I find my hopeless, helpless self returned, pen in hand, to the thing itself, not hors de combat but hors de competitiveness. However hard we work at learning how to manage the new machines, my generation will always be immigrants in a land our successors were born into. (Note to self: it’s all over if you ever use the word newfangled.)
It follows that one of these days we will have more trouble than we already do attracting publishers devoted to the flavor of the month—it’s a lot more satisfying to take a chance on a new (preferably photogenic) writer with no midlist track record—but we can still speak to each other, and I think we listen with a bit more patience, a bit more focus than the children who can type so fast with their thumbs. At least I know that every woman of a certain age to whom I’ve mentioned that I’m writing a book of stories to be called Late Loves has promised to buy a copy!
. . . each time
something happens that we have always expected—
events tolling like bells, never quite surprising—
what can I think of but the final
stone to come, the day they tell us will also arrive,
sooner, later, but no way not arrive? They haven’t lied
yet—we’d better believe them.
I am forcing myself to forgive the narcissism of quoting from myself (in the guise of my “character” Cora Fry) to acknowledge the inescapable. True, too true, they haven’t lied yet, those threatening voices. Dante was an innocent: We do know how many death has undone.
But what they can’t tell us is how that death will approach and take us, suddenly or slowly, in a single garroting or a slow dwindling or…the variations, we know, are as endless as they are unpredictable. Nor does it help to recognize that we have been dying piecemeal all our lives, or at least since our so-called physical peak so many decades ago.
No news in any of that, but what’s begun to be hard is the impossibility of knowing the speed and depth of our losses. All of us joke about incipient Alzheimer’s. Every time we misplace our keys or forget a name, not to mention an appointment, we say, with a cheerfulness that surely masks a depth of genuine terror, that maybe we’ve got a touch of one kind of dementia or another. So we whistle past the graveyard but keep on walking.
Read more about the creative process of women writers: Writer’s Block and the Thirst for Inspiration.
Reprinted with permission from A Story Larger than My Own: Women Writers Look Back on Their Lives and Careers, published by the University of Chicago Press, © 2014 Janet Burroway. “Parsing Ambition” © 2014 by Rosellen Brown