Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 5 March 2012



Ambition is the last refuge of failure – Oscar Wilde

“You need to start being honest about your ambition.” I read that advice a while ago in blog called Tribal Writer. The speaker was Justine Musk, a writer, and she was the person giving the advice to Sabine, a young dance instructor. The post was entitled How to Embrace Your Naked Ambition and Make Your Subconscious Your Bitch. And it made me think. While I was thinking I started writing. This is what I wrote.

I think I’ve always viewed ambition in a negative way: ambitious people weren’t nice people. I’ve never considered myself an ambitious individual. I’ve always wanted to excel at whatever I was doing but somehow the desire for excellence and the need to get ahead by fair means or foul don’t gel in my head. I’m not alone:

[A]mbition continues to suffer a longstanding, old-world, negative reputation. It brings up images of the wealthy risk taker and the mover and shaker, the political wheeler and dealer, and the one who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, even if it means sacrificing friends, family and colleagues. Today, for many, ambition is synonymous with mistrust, closely aligned with such international corporate leaders such as those as Enron, who mismanaged their ambition and destroyed their credibility with the general public and shareholders alike. – Ellie Rubin, Ambition: 7 Rules for Getting There, p.xiii

In the post Sabine finally fesses up: “I want my own television show … I just think it sounds so stupid because everybody wants their own TV show.” Justine doesn’t. I certainly don’t. I actually expect that most people don’t. But I can understand why she might say something like that because I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t want to be a writer. A few days after reading about Sabine I watched Frost/Nixon which features the TV presenter David Frost who, over the years, has fronted several TV shows and has always been one to revel in the limelight. I’ve nothing against him but when I watched the actor portraying him, if I was never certain before I was certainly certain afterwards: the last job in the world I would want to do is have my own television show. This is what The Telegraph had to say about the film:

Sheen brilliantly captures Frost's scary ambition and the eerie impression of vacancy that underlies it. He presents us with a man who only really comes alive when he is in the limelight, and who will fight to the death to stay there. – Charles Spencer, ‘Brief but Gripping Encounters’, The Telegraph, 23 August 2006

Well, it all depends on what you mean by ‘have’ doesn’t it? David Renwick has several TV shows that have been running for years and I’ve watched most of them if only in passing but I couldn’t pick him from a police line-up. This is because he’s the writer on shows like One Foot in the Grave and Jonathan Creek. Now that might be different, if I could just mail in my bit and be done with it. I wouldn’t object to my name appearing in the credits but I’d be perfectly happy, as I have been all my life, to be a backroom boy. There have been times I’ve had to stand up in front of people – I taught for a while – but the happiest I’ve been in my career is when I could just sit at my desk, not answer phone calls and get on with it. Of course I’ve done jobs where the phone rang off the hook all day, too, but my solution there was always to go in early before the switchboard went live so I could at least have an hour or two of peace to get on with things before all the fans started running for cover.

bambi-and-thumperI was certainly never interested in being top dog, the big kahuna, the one whose feet male rabbits and deer grind to a halt before (think about it), again, I’ve had jobs where I had to delegate or at least allocate work and I hated them. I’m not a very good boss. In some respects I’m a very good boss (I’m not very bossy for starters) but I don’t enjoy being a boss. The irony is that in group situations where someone needs to step up to the plate I inevitably end up wielding the bat because I’m good at solving problems and organising and I also can’t stand standing there watching others fumble around with something when I can see there’s a better way. And so I take charge even though I would far rather someone else did and simply assigned me tasks appropriate to my skill set.

I’ve had an odd working life. Every few years I’ve shifted jobs and ended up back at the bottom of the ladder, worked my way up until I was good at my job, liked and respected by my colleagues and pretty much thought to be indispensible when something usually happened and I left. So I’ve never really got anywhere but I enjoyed the variety of jobs far more than if I’d stuck with the one I got when I was seventeen which could have lasted for life, paid well and had a nice pension scheme. I simply lacked ambition.

And it wasn’t as if I left to follow my dream because I never did that either. I should have. I could kick myself from here to kingdom come for never following my dream but I was brought up to believe that duty came before everything else. And I do take some pride in the fact that I’ve always done what I have seen to be my duty. I suppose there might be instances where duty and ambition aren’t incompatible but I’ve always found doing my duty to be like driving with the handbrake on; you can get where you’re going but it takes a lot more effort and it damages you at the same time. But it has been ingrained in me and so, irrespective of the cost, I’ve done what I believed to be the right thing.

Ambition is the desire for personal achievement. It provides the motivation and determination necessary to achieve goals in life. Ambitious people seek to be the best at what they choose to do for attainment, power, or superiority. Ambition can also be defined as the object of this search. – Wikipedia

You see I read that and it feels like something I wouldn’t like. I don’t want to amass things or be the king of the hill. I simply want to do what I do to the best of my ability and be left alone: the work matters, I don’t. I’m not ignorant. I realise that I am the one who has done the work and it matters greatly to me that the work I produce is all my own work. I don’t have much time for artists who employ teams of helpers to do the grunt work recasting the artist as designer. That doesn’t mean I’m not happy to have others edit and proofread my work, but on the whole I’m still the one who fixes my mistakes. Anything else would feel like collaboration.

So, surely there’s something of the egotist about me? No, not if you define an egotist as someone who has an exaggerated sense of their own worth. I’m only interested in the work being authentic. If my name goes at the bottom of the page or on the front cover of the book then I’m taking responsibility for everything contained therein. This is more akin to duty than ambition. Yes, I might get some praise for what I have written and praise is nice (we like pats on the back – who doesn’t?) but I never want to be in a position where I can blame someone else for something I’ve supposedly written. As the saying goes: the buck stops here. (That’s what I was on about with the deer and rabbits earlier.)

Ambition has always struck me as a by-product of selfishness and I don’t like to be thought of as a selfish person. I agree that selflessness can also be taken to extremes but the kind of selfishness I’m thinking about is the kind that always puts its own interests before those of other people. Ambitious people use people – well, we all need to make use of others from time to time – but ambitious folk aren’t always too concerned about a fair recompense for their impositions on others. One of my wife’s pet phrases is: What goes around comes around. I need people to review my books and so I review books for other people. I don’t automatically review the books of the people who I have asked to review mine but then what goes around comes around and – hopefully – in the grand scheme of things it all balances out.

What drives you? A lot of people have given that matter careful thought over the years. Freud, famously, proposed sex as Man’s dominant driving force; Jung suggested the need to belong and Adler decided that mastery was top of his list. Love is something worth considering but for me what drives me is the need to matter, to have made a difference. How does one do that?

Morris Rosenberg, the late distinguished Sociologist from the University of Maryland, coined the phrase "mattering" as the universal, but overlooked, motive to feel noticed, appreciated, and depended upon. Rosenberg found that teenagers who felt they "mattered" to teachers, peers, and parents were less likely to engage in delinquent behaviour than those who did not feel they "mattered" to others. – Nancy K. Schlossberg, ‘Transitions Through Life’, Psychology Today, 12 November 2010

truffaut_3Philip Larkin wrote a poem that matters to me, Samuel Beckett wrote a play that matters to me, Keith Waterhouse wrote a novel that matters to me, François Truffaut directed a film that matters to me. There are others, dozens, hundreds of people who have done things that have enhanced my life; changed the direction of my life; made me the man I am today. I know their names, some of them, but if I didn’t know any of their names it wouldn’t matter; what matters is the work. Of course I’ve done things for people that have made a difference to them, that have mattered to them, but there’s only one of me and never enough opportunities to make a difference in person, but a few words on a scrap of paper can last for hundreds of years and have the potential to make a difference to a great many people.

Question: If you had the chance to have one of your works published anonymously and you were going to receive a decent sum in return would you go for it? It’s a good question. What matters, being read or “Getting known” as Krapp put it?

Attention mattering is a cognitive perception of mattering to others; we matter if others simply recognise us and acknowledge that we exist. We perceive that we matter when others pay attention to us, and if we do not receive their attention, we may feel ignored. To lack in the form of attention mattering may have some of the most detrimental effects on our self-esteem and self-concept. – Andrea Dixon Rayle, ‘Mattering to others: implications for the counselling relationship’, Journal of Counselling and Development, Volume 84, Number 4 / Fall 2006

As TS Eliot put it: "To be of importance to others is to be alive."

If ‘ambition’ is a dirty word, what about replacing it with ‘aspiration’? It certainly has a nicer ring to it: it suggests breathing as opposed to biting, but that’s the poet in me talking. I aspire to greatness. No I don’t. Maybe I aspire to do great things but not necessarily be great. It’s a challenge. People usually rise to challenges. Challenges are a way of testing ourselves and stretching ourselves. Often, as in a race, there are others involved but before you beat anyone in a race you first have to master yourself and that’s the one challenge each one of us has to face all our lives long; living up to ourselves and then coming up to our expectations of what we believe we are capable of being; being the best you that you thought you could be and then finding a little bit more you never knew you had.

The trick, of course, when it comes to challenges is that they need to be attainable – just. If the difficulties chosen are too easy, life is boring; if they are too hard, life is defeating. And with every little achievement we feel that bit better about ourselves and so move the goalposts. Yes, and no. There is a tendency to minimise our achievements especially if we reach them earlier than we expect. Or what about if we achieve success in an area of our lives that doesn’t matter to us? In every job I’ve done I’ve succeeded. I was industrious and dedicated and I’m not saying success was inevitable but I never felt that I had to work especially hard to achieve it and although there were inevitably other contributory factors involved, a part of me was always a little glad when I needed to move on or away because I was usually getting a bit bored by then. Success, doing your job well day in and day out, can be downright boring. We need to keep challenging ourselves and no challenge is worth its salt if there is little or no chance of failure. I have written five novels and logic dictates that if I ever write a sixth it should not take me any more effort and quite possibly less effort than the previous five and that would be true if ‘a novel’ was a reliable measure but it’s not.

Ambitious people are achievers: nothing ventured, nothing gained. You only get out of something what you put into it. Is success purely a matter of never giving up, never losing faith in yourself? What if you’re deluding yourself? You could waste a lifetime chasing something you are simply incapable of attaining.

I said that what drives me is to matter, so really I could say that my ambition is to matter to people. I do matter to people. It’s not an especially long list these days but I cannot deny that there are people in this world who I have affected in the past and continue to affect in a positive way. I hope I’m affecting you in a positive way just now even if this is the first thing you have read by me and the only thing you ever read by me. It matters to me that what I’m writing just now matters, that it has the potential to make a difference to someone’s life. It’s nice when I get feedback, like the guy who stuck my poem ‘The Art of Breathing’ on the cork board beside his desk, but that is not why I write. I want to feel good – no one in their right mind wants to feel bad – and so I do things that make me feel good. Typing this right now is making me feel good. Wondering what I might think of to write next is exciting; the possibility that I might find just the exact words, the right words in the right order, that someone out there might read and go, “Yes! That makes sense. Christ. That is so obvious. Why did I never thing of that myself?” It’s a challenge.

It is easy to get confused. A lot of people want to publish a book. Publishing a book is an achievable goal. So is climbing Everest. But before you climb Everest you need to be capable of climbing Everest. The actual climbing of Everest is academic once you have the ability to make the climb. If I had never sat my O-Level in English it wouldn’t change what I’d had to learn to pass the exam and I think sometimes we can get things mixed up in our heads. Most people don’t want to publish a book, they want to write one; publishing is just something you do once you’ve written a book. I think this is one of the reasons I’ve never pursued traditional publishing as aggressively as some of my peers – Jeanette Winterson is only a few months younger than me, Ben Okri a couple of months older – I lacked the necessary ambition to be an author.

All I do now is write. I am a writer. I have achieved my ambition. Yay, me. Only it was never really an ambition of mine to be a writer because I never imagined that it was achievable. Now life has made it possible. I guess it felt the need to make up for the hard time it gave me when I was young. Thank you, Life. Not quite sure if that’s us even, but thanks anyway.

Mcvities Digestive BiscuitWe live in a world that loves to quantify things. And so many things are easily quantifiable. The digestive I had with my coffee a few minutes ago contained 84 calories made up of 5.1g of sugar, 4g of fat, 2.1g of saturates and 0.2g of salt and since it weights 14g I can only conclude that the remaining 2.6g is pure yumminess. Do I matter to you? It’s a rhetorical question but bear with me. How many of us have asked our kid how much they loved us expecting them to throw their arms out wide and go, “This much!”? With adults, if they’ve asked me how much I loved them, I’ve usually said something daft like, “Four point one,” and if they’ve griped I’ve added, “Out of three point two that’s not bad.” (See, I can do cute.) But how do I know how much my writing makes a difference? Most of the time we don’t. We just have to believe it does. We take what little feedback we do get and extrapolate.


Danish dog said...

This matters. On a scale? Shit, now it gets hard. I give grades in my daily life (I'm a teacher) and I've learnt how poor grades are at reflecting what things are worth. I teach English in Denmark, so even if the argument is fantastic, then if the language is poor, then "bye bye, top marks". So outside of school I tend to give all grades a wide, wide berth. They're odious, divisive, and less than meaningless.

One of my headmasters left because she couldn't handle the grades system. And it's got worse since then. I think if anything matters then it's the time we spend with others. So I tell myself that the student that I have to give a poor grade to will be consoled by the long scrawl I write at the bottom of his/her essay.

So, Jim, no grade, but a (fairly) long scrawl, because you matter to me. And please do extrapolate.

Tim Love said...

In the papers a few months ago there were articles about the regrets of the dying - ambitions people wished they'd had.

My life's been dominated by little plans to get me thru the day, some of which got way out of hand. I've 2 teenage sons - I don't think I could cope with the amount of life-shaping, ambition-creating decisions they have to make.

who said...

I believe your writing has a positive affect on the reader. I haven't read any your books in their entirety, but from what I have read here and in your comments elsewhere I think it's safe to make the opening claim I made. It's just a feeling that the reader gets, like when perusing the back and forth of the history behind the scenes at wikipedia.

I hope you realize that you do matter Jim. Everyone goes through periods when they temporarily start to believe that they don't and I hope that if you do ever experience such an emotion that they are extremely short lived.

And just so you know, and anyone else who reads these comments, if you order any Braille book you can get FREE MATTER. But if getting shipped to a different continent it could take four or even up to eight weeks depending on where you live or more importantly, where you are having it shipped to.

Marion McCready said...

I wish we had many lives to live out and achieve different ambitions, lifestyle choices etc! The main thing for me is that I pro-actively chose my life, I decided the person I wanted to be and worked hard (and was facilitated) to become that person. And since I'm not rich, famous or powerful then my ambitions can't have been very ambitious. Yet just surviving life, having loving relationships and being in a safe and finacially secure environment seems a great achievement (luck) compared to the lot many others have in life.

Art Durkee said...

I lack what most in the financial world would call ambition. That I don't seek what they seek makes me, in many eyes, a failure. My father thought I was a failure for many years, because I didn't have a stable career that made me a lot of money and provided financial security. (I never had that, and still don't.) But I don't think I'm a failure.

it's just that my ambitions are not the same as THEIR ambitions. I think a lot of the problems people have with ambition, and a lot of judgments about ambition, are category errors.

I recently called a non-artist on the carpet about an entire essay based on the assumption that the reason artists make art is to make money, to make a living doing so. I quoted your own definition of what a writer is—someone whose first response to life is to write about it—in order to make the point that artists make art because they have to make art, not because it's their job. it's great when it IS their job, but for most writers or artists it isn't.

I don't think ambition is a negative thing. I think that's another category error, of a sort. i think ambition is neutral. Just like any other tool of consciousness, it all depends on how you apply it, where you use it, and how ethical you are about using it. (Your own ethic being the determinant therein, remembering that a personal ethic may not be in strict agreement with the tribal morals.)

Compared to many other artists/writers, I show a lack of ambition. If I do show ambition, it's to always make art at the peak of my game. I don't always succeed at that, but that's always there: to make the best creative work that I can, every single time. I guess that's an ambition, because I can't always do it, but I always aspire to.

Nonetheless, ambition like competition is something I almost never think about. It just doesn't matter. If I do the best I can, that in itself is satisfying. Of course it's nice to be recognized, and nice to get paid to write music or make art, etc., whenever I can. But that's not WHY we do it. we just realize that that is all we're really good at, and try to make it pay if it can, so we don't have to struggle hard "failing" at something else.

Jim Murdoch said...

You’ll also note that when I do my book reviews, Danish Dog, I don’t give stars or any kind of grade. I made that decision early on and I’ve seen no reason to change it, in fact I hate when I’m asked to put the review up on a site like Goodreads or Amazon because there you’re required to enter a star rating and that’s the first thing people look at. In some cases that’s the only thing they look at. I mentioned in the article that in a precious life I taught. I was also an assessor and so I’m very used to marking people’s work but the nice thing for me about the system I was working with was that I wasn’t interested in what the students got wrong, only in crediting them for what they’d done right; it was a cumulative system and quite a good one all in all.

I’m not sure I’m a big one for regrets, Tim, although it goes without saying that there are things I do regret. I am, however, the kind of person who will never be satisfied with what I’ve achieved. I tend to use Larkin as a bit of a benchmark. I’ve written more poems than him, published more novels than him and I bet I’m well on the way to having written more articles (albeit not about jazz) than he did so if I dropped dead today I really have no reason to feel disappointed by my output. Yes, I can regret the fact that I was born too late—my parents waited twenty-one years before they had me—and I might have stood a much better chance at some kind of literary career if I’d been born in 1938 but we’ll never know. I have only one daughter—she’ll be thirty-two this year—and I’ve been very impressed by the life decisions she has made; even as a young girl she was so grounded. I don’t think I’d like to be young now though.

I’m glad you think I matter, who, but I didn’t write this post so that my friends would all comfort me although one never turns ones nose up at any kind of reassurance. With most writers we just get the words on the page and we’re left on our own to decide what their intentions were. The nice thing about blogging is that I can afford to take an aside like this and remind my readers, my regular readers anyway, just what my motives are so that when they read the next post and the one after that they’ll keep in mind why I’ve probably written it.

Money, Marion, yes—you mention it twice in the one short paragraph—and the sad fact is that so often it’s not what we’re capable of that determines what we do with our lives but what we can afford to do with them. I, too, have been acutely aware that things need to be paid for and although there have been times in my life when I have been poor—literally with pennies in my pocket—I’m glad to say they were few and far between and now, although certainly not rich, I’m comfortable. I have all the things that are important to me. There are things I’d like to see happen but I accept that, as you say, luck has much to play in these thing and the only thing we can really do to improve our chances is hang around where we might get noticed and try and look conspicuous—not something I’m very good at.

Jim Murdoch said...

And, Art. Is ambition necessarily a bad thing? No, in just the same way that pride doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Both can be. I take great pride in what I do but no one would ever call me a proud person. And the same goes with the things I aspire to. All of us creative types want to stretch ourselves—the idea of repeating ourselves over and over again is quite repugnant—and so, yes, we aim a little higher and, on occasion, a little too high.

I’m flattered that you quoted me in response to your friend and if that’s the only thing I ever get remembered for I could live with it. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the effect being online and especially in groups where all people go on about are their sales, who literally churn out books one after the others and I do feel wearied by them; their ambition is not contagious, they don’t encourage me, they make me want to avoid their company and get back to what writing used to be all about for me when I never have a hoot about demographics or if anyone would ever read what I was writing. I was always aware that my books might be read someday—I wasn’t that naïve—but that was never the driving force, to be read and to be paid to be read.

In all honesty I’m not sure what my dad would think about where I’ve ended up. He always tried to be supportive and understanding but he never got me and although he didn’t beat me about the head with his disappointment he could never quite bring himself to be proud for me either.

Art Durkee said...

That fatherly pride thing can be a real wound that men carry with them. I've certainly suffered from that. And I've seen it in a lot of my artist friends who are men; I think it's somehow less "manly" in our culture to be an artist, so there's that burden, too.

But I had a great gift from my father in that, when I moved back in with my parents to take care of them till they died, my Dad learned a lot about me that he didn't know, hadn't understood, and so forth. It was pretty healing for me, after a lifetime of conflict mostly around his image of me what financial ideas he had had for my life. He finally realized that i wasn't a total flake. He never did fully understand my need to be creative, or that I was meant to be an artist. But the money drama was mostly healed.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve had to bite my tongue a few times with my daughter, Art, not that I’m not proud of her (because I am, very) but because she’s made decisions that I wouldn’t have and haven’t always agreed with (e.g. the tattoo). I don’t, for example, understand why she married the guy she has. He’s so unlike me and as my daughter is very like me that must mean he's very unlike her. Personally I struggle to hold down a conversation with him—my wife, the engineer, however, has no such problems—but it’s obvious that they make each other happy and so who am I to open my big trap? I find stuff to talk about and do my best to make him welcome and feel part of the family. I think my approval is important to her. It’s not essential—she’s strong-willed and very independent—but I think it helps. I learned a lot from my dad about how little it takes to show ones … I was going to say ‘disapproval’ but that’s not the right word … lack of appreciation for the choices ones child has made. The thing with my dad—and the rest of my blood relations come to that—is that I wanted their approval; it wasn’t enough that they didn’t disapprove. I’m not 100% certain that my daughter believes I wholeheartedly approve of her choice but I’m not very good at playing my cards to my chest and she knows that.

Dave King said...

I know where you're coming from, as they say. It's a place I know very well. I started from there. Trouble, is, so many people along the way - mostly authority figures, it must be said, have conspired to make me feel guilty about having no ambition. I guess what I'm saying is that I am now confused about the issue. I agree with you that ambition does unpleasant things to many people, but sems to work well enough for some. What is important, it seems to me, is that ambition should not be your main motivation.

Danish dog said...

If you have ambition outside the sphere of what 'normally' passes for ambition, then that's a rather ambivalent sort of ambition to be lugging around.

It often feels like non-ambition, and yet it is still ambition.

I find that having ambition as an artist gives me wide scope because sucess and failure as an artist are difficult to measure.

Just beacause an artist has huge ambitions doesn't mean that he/she can't do things that fail to realize these ambitions, and not be fairly satisfied with the outcome.

Often our ambitions are so wild that we end up pursuing things without much more ambition than just having some fun,

I think ambition is a variable too. At certain times we might be more ambitious than others. And our ambitions can certainly change. Which is as it should be.

I see ambition as being close to dedication. We would not be dedicated to anything if we weren't ambitious about doing it well.

We might also be unsure of what our real ambitions are. Surely life is about finding this out? Maybe ambitions can/should never be realized (in both senses of the word).

For some artists non-recognition is almost a value in itself. And perhaps this is partly because so few recognized artists are able to maintain their artistic integrity.

Jim Murdoch said...

It’s words, Dave, they spoil things because there’s not enough of them and we get confused. Is pride a good thing? Fatherly pride seems to be okay and it’s okay to take pride in your achievements but then why does pride come before a fall? Are we talking about the same ‘pride’? And what about ambition? If no one had any ambitions would anything get done? Is ‘ambition’ okay when we call it ‘hope’ or is ‘hope’ a bit laissez-faire, a bit we’ll-wait-and-see. Do ambitious people keep their eye on the prize?

And, Danish Dog, I agree. Too many people have unrealistic expectations. I see it all the time when people self publish. The punters are simply not kicking the door down desperate to read their book and they don’t get it. That goes for everything to do with being a writer and although it’s fine to believe in yourself and gain comfort from the fact that others took a long time to make their mark we also need to realise that things are moving on and it’s not fair to compare what we’re up against nowadays as being anything like what Stephen King had to face (30 rejections of Carrie) or Richard Adams (26 rejections of Watership Down). It also makes a difference if it’s something one can control. I might have an ambition to climb Ben Nevis or learn how to bake my own bread or any of a thousand silly little things that only require a few quid, a bit of time and some resolve to achieve. But selling books, no matter how much time I spend plugging them, depends on too many factors I have little or no control over. That bothers me but I try and not let it get me down. Easier said than done.

Poet Hound said...

I am so glad I read your post today. I needed to read it, I've been beating my head on the wall, so to speak, about working to make a living and writing because I must write but make no money at it. Ambition is often thought of as a negative term and I'm lucky to know people of integrity who are ambitious and wish the word did not have such negative connotations. You hit the nail on the head when the bottom line is "to matter." That's what all human being want: To be acknowledged, understood, and to matter.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think one of the hardest things, Poet Hound, is how we assess how we matter. Online, for example, we don’t have much to go on, the stats from Google Analytics or the number of comments we get on our blogs and neither are really a good gauge. I read (or try to read) far more blogs than I could possibly comment on (including yours) but I find I’m commenting less and less these days. I worry sometimes that we treat comments like tips; if we enjoyed a meal we make sure and leave a decent tip and if we enjoyed a blog we leave some sort of comment. I’m not sure though that that’s a fair comparison. I can always put my hand in my pocket and pull out a couple of quid but I can’t always think of anything that I think is worthwhile saying. In your case I always appreciate the effort made to bring new information to us but I don’t always appreciate your choices so, rather than say something negative (which the Internet frowns on for some reason) I stay schtum which doesn’t help you assess how successful you’re being, does it?

It’s easy to think we don’t matter but the fact is that most of us are very bad at telling our nearest and dearest that they’re important to us; we expect them to just know and not need to be told all the time. When I make comments on someone’s blog I try to make that comment significant. I think it’s better to say something only occasionally and it be heartfelt than to trot out comments like, “Good blog. Really enjoyed it. Keep up the good work,” which, although I wouldn’t say that unless I meant it, somehow doesn’t ring as true as it should.

Empathy is a big thing. I try to encourage others and, based on the philosophy that what goes around comes around, I hope that occasionally I’ll get the odd pat on the back like this to keep me going. It helps to hear that what I’ve written has affected someone in a positive way. It’s a good reason to keep going. Like you I don’t need to receive constant praise but we all need an occasional something. The thing is to try and make it last.

Danish dog said...

Pats on the back are nice, but they're often more a measure of those patting than what one's being patted for.

If we guage the value of something by how much attention it garners, then we'll end up totally confused.
The crowd is fickle to the extent that it will praise you extravagantly when you're having an off-day and ignore you totally when you're playing a blinder.

Jim Murdoch said...

It’s easy to get cynical, Danish Dog, but I think context helps us realise when someone is being sincere or not. Many of the ‘pats on the back’ that I’ve received were probably not even intended as such, they were simply individuals expressing how they felt. One I remember from, Christ, it must be about twenty years ago now; it was a time I cobbled together a little collection for a friend of the family to read and when she returned it there was one page missing. She really had little to say about the poems and was apologetic about keeping the one poem (for the life of me I cannot remember which one it was) and she couldn’t even put into words what it was about that particular poem that had touched her but it clearly had affected her—to the point of embarrassment I’d say—so much so that, as I’ve said, she felt the need to hang onto a copy. If that wasn’t a pat on the back I have no idea what it was. It’s public displays of solidarity that are often suspect, praising someone because they’re flavour of the moment. Since I have never been in fashion I have no idea what that must feel like. Nor do I expect to.

Danish dog said...

I didn't intend to come across as cynical there, Jim. Any appreciation is welcome, and of course the heart-felt variety is to be treasured.

What I was trying to express was the fact that often what people praise says more about themselves than what they praise. In the end we have to be able to assess our own worth. And that means not always being reliant on being appreciated. And not always being guided by what finds favour with others.

I'm certainly not saying we should never navigate by what finds favour. If something I do wins appreciation, then I may well be encouraged to do something more in that area. But it's important to stay grounded and stay true to some kind of artistic integrity. I would imagine that this would be much harder to do if I were famous.

In many ways success can be harder to tackle than failure. I think a good way of staying grounded is to be very open about what constitutes success and failure. I might win all the laurel leaves in the world, but if I myself am dissatisfied with my performance, then I wouldn't call it a success. Conversely, I might be ignored and ridiculed, but if I myself am content with my performance, then I wouldn't call that a failure. As an artist, I must have some kind of belief in myself at the outset. If I didn't believe at some deep level that what I do matters, I wouldn't bother.

I'm not saying appreciation isn't important. Far from it. When I receive little appreciation for my artistic endeavours, then I find I lose interest a bit. Conversely, success often breeds success, so that I find myself riding a wave of self-confidence and creativity. But in essence the artistic impulse is like the miracle of life itself. It comes out of nowhere and has no goal other than celebrating its own creative spirit.

Jim Murdoch said...

The importance of failure in any creative process cannot be minimised, Danish Dog. I’ve just finished reading a book about creativity which I’ll start reviewing this afternoon and I was struck by the number of times people talk about its importance (and not once did the author reference Beckett, much to my surprise). I suppose it depends on what drives you as a writer. For some what they want to do is find a niche that no one else is exploiting and, well, exploit it. I’ve never been very good at replicating what I’ve done before. Yes, I did write a sequel to Living with the Truth essentially to please people because as far as I was concerned the first book said it all. The thing was I was in the zone then and essentially the first two books form a single storyline which did turn out to be a good thing in the long run. I’ve never been able to, or been interested in, going back and trying to do the same thing again but then nothing I’ve ever done has garnered that much praise. If I was selling books hand over fist then I could see myself being tempted to give the public more of what they wanted but I’m not sure that no matter how tempted I was I’d be capable of it; I’m not that kind of writer.

The sad thing about lack of appreciation is that it can turn a success into a failure. I’m feeling quite down about my latest book for example because I’m struggling to get people to review it. The book did exactly what I intended it to do, it pleased the hell out of me when I wrote it and yet now I have this bad taste in my mouth. Totally irrational but who said I was the most rational of people anyway? No one who has read it has had a bad word to say about it and most have had several good words so I should be pleased. But praise doesn’t have a very long shelf life. It only lasts a day or two, a week tops, and then you need another hit. As I wrote somewhere recently I was so much happier when I was a secret writer (to use the term Gerald Murnane uses): I wrote, stuck the stuff in the proverbial drawer and got on with the next task in hand.

Danish dog said...

I can certainly sympathize with your feeling somewhat disillusioned about the lack of response to your latest book, Jim. But so many factors come into play here, several of which are presumably unknown or unknowable. It may be so damned good that people don't know what to say. Perhaps you've said the last word, and what's the poor critic to add?

But being below the radar in general is also something to take into account - it doesn't take very much to fall out of sight completely.

The curve of appreciation of our work will always go up and down, and we enjoy its upswings all the more for the downswings it has.

You can console yourself with the thought that you're not economically dependent on its sales. I must say I feel for professional writers on that score. I don't know how they survive, and for myself I can't imagine what it would be like to have to do stuff like sound out the market before deciding what to write.

But you, hey, you can write about whatever you fancy. And all your experiences go into that melting pot.

I read something really great in Oriana Fallaci's book "A Man". It was put more elegantly put than I can remmember, but the gist was: "When you expect everything, you get nothing, and when you expect nothing, you get everything." I think this ties up somehow with the type of artistic impulse we're working with. Sometimes I create out of pure necessity, without really trying, and the results often garner high praise. This praise is very welcome, but to me it almost feels unearned. At other times I struggle and sweat to produce something, and the world will more or less file it away as its due.

God has a marvellous sense of humour.

Ping services