On Ambition

vanitas vanitatum!

I recently set about the challenge of writing a novel in one month. If this is a confession, then I must say that the novel was not finished. I console myself by wondering if a novel can ever be finished. I have learnt a few lessons from this experience: that it was a habit-building experience; that it showed the limits of vanity; that it remains an ambition.

It was a foolhardy mission, loaded with bravado and spunk. I told people almost everywhere I went that my objective was 80,000 words in one month. All of this was in the hope of spurning me on in the process. In the end, I managed 55,000. (But, again, who’s counting?).

In those recent heady days of a beautiful August, when I had fuck all else to do, I would pack my lunchbox and head over to the Pompidou Centre Library. I toiled away for about ten days, although in my imagination it was of course the whole month. Here, I developed a method or indeed habit from which advice was given me by someone I met at the PLU Writing Workshop. Here it is:

1. Read literary criticism (in this case, I am thumbing ‘Relire *L’Education* *sentimentale’*, edited by Glaudes and Reverzy.
2. Analyse another work (the book I am dissecting is *Les* *Mandarin* by Simone de Beauvoir.
3. Handwrite some elements of novel (passages designed to temper a certain style, a theme or other)
4. Open up the laptop and start writing (either typing up handwritten notes or launching oneself into the abyss of tell a story).

I shared with a friend over a glass of Petit Chablis that if such was the life of a writer, I wouldn’t mind being one. The ability to go to a quiet space, find a book amongst the yards of book stacks, and cogitate for up to 7 hours at a time. Et, o quel monde se retrouve aux tables de la bibiliotheque…

Now that the 8th month is over and the 9th hammers back into rhythm, I still smart at not finishing the novel. My ambition was cocky and I bragged about it to people, repeating often, ‘oh, in my novel…’ or ‘so, I’m writing a novel.’ Always a novel, sometimes a book, not yet finished. Maybe this is when I realise that either a) I feel no shame in not keeping my word, or b) I accept that as a natural consequence of human ambition, namely, failure.

Here we see the limits of human vanity: we aim big, as Machiavelli instructs the archer, and when we fall short, that is the end of the ambition. But do we go home? A shooting star that crumbles into the darkness of the night is at the end of its life; the chaos it left behind in its lifetime will remain forever lost from human view. If we give up our travails, and let the energy that propelled us in a time of fleeting (in this case, literary heroism), then we will come to naught. So, thus will I keep chipping away at this goddam book until it is done.

I now find myself back in the library, having finished a chapter on Flaubert’s use of money in his storytelling and writing a brief scene with my protagonist in a pub in Northern England. I have not given up the project, rather the ambition is tampered. Like a vintage model car you tinker with on the weekend, before taking it out for a spin in the summer next, the story I want to tell will take some weekly polishing before it may ride free in the minds of others.

To return to the subject of failure, it is precisely this that the work deals with. I am convinced that we only ever do the things that we want to do. If you look back at the narrative you tell yourself, there may be parts that you wish you could rewrite, that you would have transposed to another time, or that you would simply erase. But that’s unkind to yourself; it is denying the fabric of your essence its own existence. Everything that we do, we want to do it.

I suppose, though, understanding and even accepting your own desires is a whole other story to be journeyed. When we turn the mirror of the pen to our own psyche, we will find angels and demons. If we keep looking, then we will see the cavern that they inhabit. When we put away the mirror, we will see the Book of Nature in all clarity.

Back to the library.

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