A Pure Ambition: Being About the Work

My Bright Abyss by Christian WimanWriting is something I envision myself doing more than I actually do it.

I have thoughts on certain topics that I believe I should make available for people to read: what the Bible is, for example, or the significance of the fact that Jesus taught in parables for how we think about God, or church and salvation as  inclusion, or what humanity is about.

I am even convinced that a fictional story about Memphis, Tennessee during the Civil War era and the years soon after is waiting to be written– or perhaps unearthed from the richly complicated world that Memphis was during that time. I also believe, although the subject matter belongs outside the realm of my expertise, that it falls upon me to write that story.

No matter how far I have gotten–or not gotten–with these projects, the work to be done is my motivation for writing.

I’ve thought about it, and I’ve decided–to add any other motivation to this would be to exploit the work. Either I’m fully interested in and invested in the questions to be answered and the stories to be told, or, I’m seeking the next stepping stone on my career path. Or I’m using it as a way to impress people. And then I’m not about the work. The work is about me.

I readily admit that my ambition is such that my confidence in the value of the work to be done leads me to believe that there are some things I have to write that people should read.

Now that’s quite a remarkable statement I’ve just made. In a world in which endless streams of prose are available through our keyboards, I’m actually surprised I can say that.

But I can only say that, and be justified in doing so, if I’m all about the work, and not if the work is about me.

So how do we justify, and how would we ever manage to find genuine virtue in, “how to get more traffic on your blog”?

Here’s the struggle: I want that, because I want the work to be about me.

But, God forbid. Seriously. Goodness and virtue and a life well-lived come through generous enrichment of the shared human experience, not through pouring into that which I only end up hoarding for myself.

I have to decide, and put some energy into the decision, to not live for the number of followers, likes, mentions, or favorites. That’s a master I refuse to serve.

I’ve been reading bits here and there of the poet Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.

Wiman writes:

I once believed in a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than oneself. But now? If a poet’s ambition were truly for the work and nothing else, he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world. No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self … the need for approval, publication, self-promotion–isn’t this what usually goes under the name of ‘ambition’? The effort is to make ourselves more real to ourselves … So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.

Were Wiman and I to ever have a conversation about this, I would submit that it’s actually quite important to have a name, a face, and a story behind what is written. Every work of art or piece of craftsmanship is in some sense communication, and in communication it’s important to know who we’re speaking with. Names are not the problem, and so anonymity is not the solution.

Wiman cuts to the heart of the issue, however, right there in that last sentence.


2 comments on “A Pure Ambition: Being About the Work

  1. Tori says:

    Really good thoughts here. I, too, live in Memphis and struggle ensuring that the motives behind the practice of sharing my thoughts are for the glorification of Christ and simple mental purging. But, you’ve hit the nail on the head, I often look for approval. Honestly, I’ve been praying lately about starting a blog, simply to air some of clutter in my head, but have yet to do so on account of fear of not being liked, or worse, making the work all about me. Thanks for sharing this. It gives words to my thoughts and I am sure many others.

    (I live in Memphis, too!!)

    • Thanks for the comment from a fellow Memphian, Tori! Wiman gave words to my thoughts, too. That always makes for the best kind of reading, so I’m glad you were able to find this. I confess that I wrote this and paid some attention to how many views it got at first, but I’m practicing more and more to write, share, and let it go.

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