Like Erin, I turned 35 a few weeks ago, and perhaps it’s the age because my birthday made me similarly reflective. (Last year, I guess I celebrated by eating cake and not thinking at all because I remember nothing about it except that I got a biography of David Foster Wallace that I have yet to read, despite its great title.) I didn’t make an awesome list like Erin’s, however, as it turned out that I’ve mainly been reflecting on three things and how they’ve changed for me over the years: talent, drive, and ambition.
I’ve been blogging less often for the past few months because I’ve been trying to get back to my fiction writing in a more – dare I say it – businesslike way. That has been a long time in coming, getting back on track with both writing and submitting stories, something that I was admittedly bad at for far longer than I should have been. The renewed focus on my creative writing, on whether I truly want to try to make it a career, on what I would have to do to make a living at it, these sorts of things have now been on my mind for months, ever since attending AWP in March. In addition, I’ve been trying to build up my copy writing business for the past year so that my work life is centered around writing, too. Between this and me being halfway through my 30s, I’m in a place where I feel like the time to make these sorts of changes is almost gone. So basically I’ve been here, huddled at my desk, for a while now, giving myself pep talks that range from “You can do it!” to “Shit or get off the pot.” Clearly I do not have a career in motivational speaking ahead of me.
At one point in my life, I considered talent, drive, and ambition to be synonymous, at least when applied to creative careers. But that must have been a function of the blinders of youth because these days, I see how far apart they really are. Talent is inborn, but it can die out. Drive won’t make you succeed without something substantial behind it, but you don’t have to be the most talented one to make it big if you work hard enough. And ambition is all about how far you’re willing to go, what risks you’re willing to take, what you will give up. They are not the same thing at all. Ideally, however, they coexist, pushing you to develop your talent and hone your skills and aim high so that you get as far as you, personally, can get.
I would argue that you could survive in your career without ambition, but not without talent and drive. You could still, for example, have a successful career as a novelist if you weren’t obsessed with getting a Pulitzer. You could still put out a lot of excellent work, as long as you were just ambitious enough to believe you deserved to get published. But without any talent for building stories out of big ideas and beautiful words, without any desire to work hard to get those ideas and words down on the page, you won’t make it because you’ll have nothing concrete to put out into the world.
The fact is, there is so much out there these days. There are a lot of people writing, and a lot of the writing is good. Some of it is amazing. And there are a staggering number of platforms for it, both online and in print. If you have a story to tell and take the time to write it, there is an almost endless list of places you can try to find an audience for it. It’s overwhelming to think that your voice could ever be heard above the din. And without a serious and sustained effort to make yourself stand out, you won’t. Most people don’t have book deals fall into their laps just for being their fabulous selves, nor should they. Being yourself doesn’t mean you are owed anything.
As for me personally, I won’t try to assess my own level of talent because I don’t think any of us can reliably do that do. But I can say with certainty that I stopped trying to do anything with my writing for years, partly due to believing that I couldn’t make a viable career out of it. (The reasons why are a blog post for another time.) I lost my drive and am only now getting it back in any real, useful way. I might have been more relaxed without it because I literally spent more time relaxing, but I’m happier with it intact. My amount of ambition has shifted somewhat, too. I no longer desperately want prizes and recognition, I just want to make a bit of money doing something I love. And turning 35 has made me feel ready to try harder than before. It’s time to see what unfolds.
What about you, readers? Have you experienced anything like this in your own lives? What’s your story?