Writers of Ambition: a roundtable interview
This may be a first: I don’t know that I’ve ever interviewed several of my favorite writers at once. But Ambition has made me ambitious.
In Ambition, the Chrysostom Society’s latest collaborative book of wisdom and testimony, nine members of the Society — Diane Glancy, Emilie Griffin, Bret Lott, Erin McGraw, Gina Ochsner, Eugene Peterson, Luci Shaw, Dain Trafton, Jeanne Murray Walker — asked themselves what role ambition has played in their lives.
I highly recommend it to you for yourself or for anyone on your Christmas list who might be ambitious, who might struggle with questions of ambition, or who might need a nudge to aim higher and dream bigger. Pick up a copy… or five.
And by the way, I’m giving away a big stack of copies to winners of this contest, which ends tonight (Sunday, December 13).
I find myself comparing and contrasting the contributions in this book, finding that the Society is, as usual, quite a motley crew of perspectives. In print as in person, their opinions sometimes clash and sometimes complement one another — a blessing for readers, in that it gets us thinking for ourselves.
I began reading their collaborative collections when I was in high school. Specifically, Reality and the Vision, a gift from my father, and a book that introduced me to many of my favorite authors. I’ve learned much from their subsequent works as individuals and as a collective. A Syllable of Water will be required reading in any creative writing course I teach.
So it is with great pleasure that I get to introduce you to writers who continue to inspire me. Some of them — Glancy, Trafton, and Walker — have contributed to the book. Others — Matthew Dickerson, Paula Huston, Paul Willis, and Sara Zarr — are members of the Society who have participated in conversations surrounding the development of the book, and who have plenty of insights from their own experiences to offer.
Ambition is dedicated to four members of the Society who have passed on: Doris Betts, Madeleine L’Engle, Keith Miller, and Robert Siegel. Is there anything we might learn about ambition from them?
Bob Siegel was the least self-advertising guy on the planet. Tall, professorial, occasionally bumbling, at other times wickedly funny, he did a PhD in British Romantic Poetry and taught English most of his life at The University of Wisconsin.
He and I got to know one another when we were in our early twenties, when he offered to comment on my early poetry and then promptly taught me how to send it to journals. Bob Siegel, Jack Leax, and I wrote one another iambic letter poems about “The Seven Deadlies” over the decade or so just before Bob died.
Bob had an astonishing talent for separating his own ego from his work, for which he was deeply ambitious. He published many books, often appeared in Poetry magazine and was honored by prizes. Before he died he saw through the presses two books of his most recent poetry. He made all of it look easy.
To whom would you recommend this book? Is it primarily for writers?
The essays in Ambition are surprisingly varied and addressed to anyone who wants to think about our current culture of instant fame, selfies, and advertising. The essays in the book take on a constellation of deeply human issues: self-promotion, humility, obsession, gratitude, role-playing, the history of gendered power in our culture, guilt, and ego management.
As a writer, I can say that the book certainly speaks to me in ways both challenging and encouraging. Most of the contributions, since they come from writers, do connect ambition to writing. But it also deals with parenting, pastoring, culture, the Bible. I think it is both broadly applicable and so well written that really anybody should be able to benefit from and enjoy this book.
This book is for anyone who feels the powerful lure of ambition. It is not for people who think — or say — that their ambition is to be a good boy or a good girl, unless they are willing to think their way beyond that deluding fantasy.
Most Society members have been writers for many years. How has your sense of ambition changed from the days before your first publication to now? Do you feel more or less ambitious?
I feel less ambitious as far as the external markers of success go — publishing contracts; how frequently I can get a book out; what sorts of conferences and events I’m invited to; how many sales, likes, favorites, and ratings I can get.
When I started out, I was very driven by feelings of competitiveness and having something to prove. Discovering how fleeting and fickle those things are, my ambition has shifted to the “what exactly am I doing here?” side of things. I try to channel it into having the guts to try new things, to risk failure, to risk being unsuccessful. My ambition is to slow down in hopes of greater excellence and compassion in my work — both in the results and in the process.
I’m not sure if my ambitions have changed, but my expectations certainly have. My ambition is still to write beautifully, to tell compelling stories, to explore important ideas, and to have my books reach a broad audience. But I also want to write from a place of obedience and faith. I am now more aware that I was 25 years ago when my first novel was published that God can use my books is in very significant ways in the lives of individual readers even if the books never achieve anything resembling critical or popular acclaim.
Tell us about one of your success stories — an ambition you’ve fulfilled.
I used to fantasize about being represented by a famous New York literary agent who would sell my first novel to a major New York publisher. Then it actually happened. And in many ways, the experience lined up with my fantasy. I got to fly to New York. I got to ride in golden elevator to the upper floors of International Creative Management. I got to have lunch in a classy restaurant and hang out in the offices of Random House. And when my book came out, my editor sent me a dozen red roses and a gigantic box of Godiva chocolates. It was easy to mistake all this for evidence that I’d arrived.
Not so. Three years later, the same editor refused to publish my second novel, despite it’s being written under contract. And I was back to square one — a crushing experience that prompted me to look at myself and my writing with a more realistic and more discerning eye.
Getting my first novel published was very exciting. It was exciting to get the offer letter from the publisher. It was exciting to see the cover design. It felt wonderful to finally hold the physical book in my hand.
But all of those feelings faded fairly quickly, and it was fifteen years before my next book was published. Fifteen years with lots of doubts and insecurities and crushed ambitions. I certainly have learned (or, at least, am in the process of learning) not to evaluate my worth by moments of worldly “success” — by whether certain ambitions have or have not been achieved.
If you could write to your younger, pre-publication self about your ambitions, what would you want to communicate to that version of you?
That popularity and success are not the same things. I guess popularity is a kind of success, but I’ve had it to some degree and it’s both unsatisfying and addictive. You can get addicted to approval and attention in a way that diminishes you, and infects the day-to-day work with an anxiety of losing that. It’s something that’s more like craving for a drug than a fulfilling (if challenging) interaction with the work you have in front of you.
I’d advise myself to come up with a definition of success that is about showing up for the work rather than for whatever my ego thinks it needs.
I would tell my pre-publication self that publication is overrated — that it is the tinsel on the tree of the writing process.
But the grass is always greener in the other genres. I have published zillions of poems and a good many essays, but have always wanted to have a YA novel in print. Gary Schmidt, a very successful YA novelist, was telling me a few months ago that even though he has often tried, he has never been able to write a poem, let alone publish one. Why is it that envy for the gifts of others so often replaces gratitude for the gifts we have already been given? Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 is popular for a reason.
I remain interested in stories of writers who “failed” in one genre and succeeded in another. Joyce, Faulkner, and C. S. Lewis all set out to be poets. All were much more gifted in prose, of course, but prose of a particularly poetic kind. The best parts of Lewis’s essays are his sparkling analogies. Or take Robert Browning, the failed Victorian playwright who succeeded as a poet by perfecting (drum roll) the dramatic monologue. All those plays that nobody wanted to watch were eventually grist for a new kind of poem. In the divine economy of our lives, I’d like to believe that nothing is lost.
Don’t get overly excited about good reviews. Don’t get overly discouraged about bad reviews. Don’t expect to know the impact of your books; you might never know how significant one book might be to one reader. But do keep writing. (That last piece of advice I probably wouldn’t need to give myself, since it’s what I did anyway.)
I’d inform myself that success, if measured in book sales, name recognition, and money earned, is ephemeral and actually pretty meaningless. Public taste is fickle, the industry is often in crisis, and what’s popular today is forgotten tomorrow. So, I’d say to my younger self, don’t set out to gather the most readers; set out to write the best and truest thing you can and you will find the right readers, those who will stick with you over the long haul. Those who eagerly await what you will publish next. For a writer, there is nothing more affirming than loyal, intelligent readers like that.
This is a time of megachurches, celebrity pastors, big-budget “Christian movies,” and controversial fusions of religion and politics. If you could draw our attention to one aspect of the Scriptures that could speak words of wisdom about ambition into this present cultural cacophony, what would that be?
For me, work has been a gift and doing excellent work is a profound pleasure. As a person whose work is writing, one of my jobs is to connect with readers. Social media and advertising are a means to do that. But they are only a means. I try to stay centered on what ultimately matters. Acts 17:28 tells us that “in Him we live and move and have our being.”
I Peter 1:15-16: “He who has called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of life because it is written, Be ye holy as I am holy.” Leviticus 11:44 is the first mention of that scripture. It also appears in Leviticus 19:2.
That to me is the height of ambition. Not only spiritual ambition, which is higher than plain ambition, but ambition to be like the Holy One himself. How can I achieve that while stuck with this body, this human will, and this fallen world in which I live? It seems impossible, especially since I have to live with myself and know my repeated failings and shortcomings. Nonetheless, it is an ambition given in scripture.
I have ambition to hold that ambition above all other ambitions in this ambitious world full of so many voices that would pull me away from that ambition that for me stands before all others.
It’s really difficult to be focused on the self and its next big success when that self is busy praying — praying, in fact, without ceasing. So I’d recommend practicing lectio divina on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
What does it mean to “pray continually?” The Orthodox recommend the Jesus Prayer: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Catholics with a monastic bent repeat, “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.” The medieval monk Brother Lawrence taught the “practice of the presence of God,” which is to say, reminding ourselves every few moments that God is indeed with us and that it is the enormous distraction of rampant ambition that gets in the way of our remembering this basic fact of the Christian life.
God, by his grace, managed to accomplish amazing things through our obedience, and through our gifts, but despite our bungling.
Tell me about one of the chapters in this book that spoke to you.
I was moved by Jeanne Murray Walker’s reflections on parenting. They affirmed decisions I made to make raising my children well a higher ambition than being a famous or great or successful writer. To the extent that the nearly fifteen years that passed between my first book and my second book was the result of my investing time in being a parent, I have no regrets.
Tell us about a specific ambition you’d still like to achieve.
Well, I’m always writing my Oscar speech. I’m assuming that would be for screenwriting and not for, say, actress in a leading role?
Seeing the book I am currently writing come into print. I think that has always been the ambition for every book I have worked on. When I finish one book and start the next, then seeing that next book in print becomes my new ambition.
I also have an ambition of catching trout in every one of the fifty states in which trout can be found in a river or stream.
Do you have a particular role model when it comes to ambition?
I think my role model is my father who did his work and received little recognition for his steadfastness in my life.
I really admire the filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. He doesn’t seem to ever play it safe or see anything as too big to try to wrestle with. The scope of movies like Magnolia or There Will Be Blood are the very definition of ambition — he wants to do work on a grand scale and do it as well as he possibly can. He seems dauntless, and I love that.
J.R.R.Tolkien had an ambition to write a myth for all of England. When he acknowledged that ambition, he laughed at himself for his presumption. That was before The Lord of the Rings was published and became… in a sense… a myth for all of England.
What are you most pleased about with this finished book?
I am pleased that every chapter in the book is well written and intellectually engaging, ambitious to say something important. It irks me tremendously, of course, that not everyone agrees with me, but I will put that down too as a feature of the book that pleases me.
I think I am most pleased that it is finally published, and that I am in it among a company of writers I like and admire.
Has membership in The Chrysostom Society inspired, tempered, or otherwise influenced your own sense of ambition?
We often exchange manuscripts by email and comment on one another’s work. At our yearly meetings we talk about writing strategies, our current projects, and things that drive us crazy. We write books together and support one another’s publications. But the meetings are full of mischief, too, and high-jinx. They’re always a reminder to lighten up.
Membership in Chrysostom has perhaps increased my ambition to write well, and lovingly, and carefully. It has probably also made my ambition less tied to the commercial success of my writing.
The Chrysostom Society has been integral to my Christian life. For many years I was in a secular institution. Academia is not often welcoming to believers. I could have counted other believers on one hand (though there may have been others). I looked forward to our annual Chrysostom meetings. There was something about our weekends together that was fundamental to knowing who I was and what I wanted to write. I had to publish in the field in which I taught, but I began writing about my faith. My ambition to continue with religious writing was substantiated during those readings.
I think one of the important parts of our meetings is reading our work-in-progress before others. I still can see the members standing before the group to share their work.
What further reading on the subject of ambition would you recommend?
For complementary reading, I recommend: 1) Genesis (all the way to the death and embalming of Joseph); 2) Milton’s Paradise Lost; 3) Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida; 4) Machiavelli’s The Prince; and 5) the Gospel of John.
I did recall this morning that I once wrote a poem called “Ambition.” It was published in a now-defunct journal called Inklings.
One oar, then another, stirs
the water. Ripples gather
at the prow, a wake appears.
You watch them as if they
measure destiny. This takes
a life. Finally you learn to drift.
The horizon is enough to see
on every side. A boat
will carry you where you are.