Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Further Grappling with Meaning

I would never have admitted it to myself before recent years, but I have spent a large chunk of my adult life being quite ambitious. The most ambitious years were probably age 21 to 28. During this seven year stretch I tried on a lot of different jobs to support my writing, from massage therapy to vitamin buyer. I attended lots of writing classes, workshops and those conferences that I could afford and had lots of brush-ups with people who said encouraging things to me that led me to believe I had some kind of talent. I started projects like my life depended on it, from a women's magazine to a literary radio show, causing those who knew me well to chuckle when I told them of yet another new "thing" (and my poor husband to cringe for some of those over-booked years). I think now that the chuckle must have meant something like, "You're going to burn yourself out" but the hallmark of a good friend is that no one ever told me to quit or that I was foolish.

And truthfully I don't think it was foolish. I had great energy and a conviction that I could do just about anything I set my mind to. In truth, I could, and I often did. I am still surprised at how far a "can do" attitude will take a person, and it impressed upon me the fact that most of us believe we "can't" and therefore never try. I knew that I wasn't more special than anyone else, I was just driven to do these things and I had nothing to lose (okay, so you might find some answers to my ambition in my childhood... :) )

I also found that when you set something in motion, other people will surf the wake and hop on and add energy to the equation until you've got something bigger than what you started with. I've learned a lot this way.

But once I was knee-deep in graduate school some of that ambition gave way to an overwhelming sense of the vast odds against me, against any writer. I was not a newcomer to the submission process. I entered graduate school with a literary agent, in fact. But when I got a good look at just how many of us there were--in my one school alone--hungering to make a name for ourselves in the literary world, it dulled my ambition a little. It's been resurrected many times over since then, and is certainly responsible for any success I can claim now. But I'm going through something new these past six months or so. I can't decide if I've become un-ambitious, more realistic, or if my ambition is beginning to seem like a hollow thing in the face of other forms of meaning. After all is it more meaningful to have achievements, and success bestowed upon you by people you'll probably never meet, or from your loved ones? Is it more meaningful to make a lot of money or to have a happy life with exactly as much as you need?

We live in such a material culture that reinforces at every turn that we must have things and status to feel alive. If we aren't defined by our cars, our homes or our "toys" then what? From there, you get to qualify if you have children or a "great" career, so beyond that, what gives us meaning? I think the answer is in the arts for many of us. Music, literature and good cinema keep us connected to larger questions, remind us we aren't alone and that nobody really has the patent on how we got here or where we're going.

Is my meaning generated in the process of writing itself, before any person ever lays eyes on it? I sure hope so. That has to be the answer or really, I'm completely in the dark.

JPR

2 Comments:

At 7:57 PM, Blogger That Girl, The Writer said...

Jordan,

I love this post.

Who needs stuff?

I'd rather have meaning and a good book, any day.

Stuff is for sissies. Ha!

Hugs,
R

 
At 1:46 PM, Blogger Joy said...

It's interesting because a lot of people who do try to find meaning purely in the arts alone often ended up getting disillusioned with that too as time goes on. Meaning is a difficult thing...

As for your being less ambitious, maybe it's just that you have achieved a lot and can afford to slow down a little bit. :)

 

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