the gap between ability and ambition

Sam Cooney

On the 22nd of February of this year I saw a man on fire. He had doused himself head to toe in a couple of litres of petrol and had set himself alight. He flailed about and he ran straight, a human comet hurtling, looking like someone drowning in a private ocean of flames. It was like the movies and it was very much not like the movies. It happened on a wide busy street in Paris, France, in front of the main courthouse that sits next to the La Sainte-Chapelle, a tourist attraction with its beautiful stained-glass walls and gothic architecture. I was about fifty metres away, occupied with taking a carefully-framed photograph of a ornate Parisian streetlamp, when I heard a strange sequence of sounds, sounds that stood out from the backcloth of whooshing traffic and burbling hubbub of people milling about, sounds that—without wanting to seem histrionic—seemed to spear into my ears and demand my attention. Turning around to pinpoint the visuals to match the sounds I was hearing, I saw through a low moving forest of people a flash of burning orange, and then it was gone again. Above the tops of heads in the clear still air there was a dirty sluggish smoke, undulating slowly like dye in water. Despite the slivered obliqueness of these small sensory clues I think I had already somehow figured out what was going on, and my reaction was to run closer. By the time I was near enough to see anything, the man on fire had run across the street and thrown himself through the tall iron gates out front of the monumental courthouse, so that he was half lying, half crouched on the pavement, completely engulfed in flames. If he’d had any hair it was now gone, his clothes had peeled away from his body like how plastic blisters in intense heat, and his skin was orange and pink and spotted with large and small bubbles. He was moaning in pain. Two or three security personnel took off their jackets and started to beat the fire out. They succeeded much more quickly than I thought possible, although thinking back now I can’t say that time was behaving normally. A couple more men appeared with fire extinguishers and sprayed him white. Other people pulled out walkie-talkies and barked words in French. The whole time civilians had been swarming in and out of the scene, mostly smartly-dressed people, probably from the courthouse. They hovered about and pushed in closer like people do, trying to gain witness. They looked like blind puppies straining against each other to reach a mother’s milk, so desperate were they to insert themselves into the narrative. A mixture of security people and police started to form a cordon around the smouldering body, and in response to what I for some reason thought looked like a cover-up, I raised my camera and snapped a series of around ten quick photographs. I was overwhelmingly upset and indignant on behalf of this injured stranger: in my head at that moment was the belief that he’d obviously had a reason for doing what he did, and here was everyone else trying to draw a veil over the incident. In fact what they were trying to do was help, but I felt as if I was the only person out of hundreds there who shared his pain. I made it about me, and it’s embarrassing to think so now.

I’ve tried to write about the burning man in Paris on a few different occasions over the past five months, and struggled every time. The above passage is the first time I’ve finished an attempt, and though it’s my best go so far, I still don’t rate it. It’s not just the sensory nature of the incident that I find almost impossible to capture with text—although that is one part of it, as my memory is manifoldly more intense and detailed than words can ever be, and part of me wonders what the point of writing it down is when it’s never going to be as vivid or as graphic as what actually happened or even what is in my head—but more so is the dismay that I cannot even begin to encapsulate the feeling of those couple of minutes, the electrical surge that passed through that moment, the feeling that a giant someone was holding a giant magnifying glass over that particular stretch of street. And another dilemma that I’ve been fighting with myself over the writing the incident of the burning man in Paris has to do with something that I’ve tackled before: that the ‘real’ world, especially to the fiction writer, is more remarkable and momentous and thus relevant than most or all of what he or she can conceive of and construct. It feels to me that there is a real possibility that the event in Paris, in terms of drama and potency and believability, is beyond anything that my imagination could create if I wanted it to.

In an essay that was published earlier this year in The Lifted Brow, I mentioned how in 1961 a young Philip Roth, having just won the National Book Award for his debut novel, said with some despondency: “We now live in an age in which the imagination of the novelist lies helpless before what he knows he will read in tomorrow morning’s newspaper.” And just last year, writing in advance of his newest novel, 1Q84, Haruki Murakami discussed how he goes about writing fiction in a post-9/11 world: “Let’s call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can’t help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put it in different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world.”

Some part of me believes that one day I will be able to write (and publish) fiction that I can justify to myself as being worth its place in the world. If I didn’t believe this I would probably give up. What I do know is that the majority of what I write now never seems to pass this test. I know that this isn’t unusual; introduce me to a fiction writer who loves every word they write and I’ll eat my MacBook between two slices of Wonder White. But the gap between what I want to write and what I am able to write seems to be less a gap, and more a chasm, or a strait. And it makes it extremely difficult to take pleasure in the day-to-day process of writing.

I remember some time ago reading or hearing an anecdote by Kurt Vonnegut that told of a dinner party he once attended at the house of a writer, where all the guests were writers, and the topic quickly moved onto the daily trials of sitting before the page, and just how unpleasant it was. They all hated it, and bonded over their shared antipathy. But one voice piped up, a writer who said that actually she enjoyed every minute of the writing process and loved being a writer. Vonnegut said that the room fell silent, and that he thought of only one thing, and reckoned he could see the same sentiment in the faces of everyone else around the table: that this particular writer who’d spoken up was the only person in the room whose writing was actually really quite crummy, really lousy and insubstantial, and therefore, was that the sacrifice of doing good work as a writer: being continually disappointed?

Another fabled Vonnegutism is how he was known to go around and openly rate his books in terms of quality. You can see him do so here, in this old Charlie Rose interview:

(As an aside, if you haven’t already plundered the Charlie Rose website, when you have a few minutes-slash-hours it is entertaining to trawl through the myriad of interview clips. It’s like stepping into some sort of wonderful limbo-slash-time machine or something.)

(A second aside: this recent piece at The Millions by Frank Kovarik also cites the same Vonnegut clip and self-grading habit in a short discussion about doing away with perfectionism when wondering when to publish.)

I’ve been writing mostly short fiction this year, and apart from a two-week high in which I was pretty much hypomanic, a period in which amongst several other things I wrote and rewrote two long stories that I liked them and can still read now without instantly dragging them from my desktop into the trash, I’ve been repeatedly diving out into the gulf that exists between my ability and aspirations, and ending up smashed on the jagged rocks at the bottom. It makes it hard to sit at the desk/on the couch/in the café/at the park and try again.

Editor and founder of the journal New American Review, Ted Solotaroff, thinking back to some the writers he published in his first years as editor, in an essay called ‘Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years’ wrote that, “Some of the most natural writers, the ones who seemed to shake their prose or poetry out of their sleeves, are among the disappeared. As far as I can tell, the decisive factor is what I call endurability: that is, the ability to deal effectively with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment, from within as well as from without.” This to me mirrors the message that Ira Glass, host of radio program This American Life, gives to budding creatives in the third segment of a four-part YouTube interview:

“…all of us who do creative work like, you know, we get into it and we get into it because we have good taste…Because there’s stuff that you just like love, OK? So you’ve got really good taste and you get into this thing that I don’t even know how to describe but it’s like there’s a gap. That for the first couple of years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean? Like you can tell that it’s still sort of crappy. A lot of people never get past that phase and a lot of people at that point quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short, you know, and some of us can admit that to ourselves and some of us are a little less able to admit that to ourselves.”

But we knew that [the work] didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have and the thing what to do is… Everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase or if you’re just starting off and you’re entering into that phase, you’ve got to know it’s totally normal and the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. You know what I mean? Whatever it’s going to be. You create the deadline. It’s best if you have somebody who’s waiting for work from you, somebody who’s expecting work from you, even if it’s not somebody who pays you but that you’re in a situation where you have to try not to work. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

What I wonder is, does everybody need to go through this process to sooner or later create good art? And is it ever possible to completely close that gap between ability and ambition? Would you ever want to; does it signal defeat if you feel that you’ve reached your desired level?

Is the enjoyment in writing not in the everyday slog, but in the achievement that comes at the end of a project, when you can say: I made something that is somewhat close to what I hoped it would be, and so that and everything is okay?

5 thoughts on “the gap between ability and ambition

  1. The worst thing about the article is the use of abusive language. It so preoccupies the mind that one finds it almost impossible to read on and concentrate on the subject matter. Why this psycho-complexity and absurdness being promoted at such a level!

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