In the 1970s, when Helen Garner was starting to write, ambition was a dirty word. Now, looking back, she sees that she was ambitious and still is: “I’m ambitious to do it right, to do it right.”
But different writers have different kinds of ambition. At the Melbourne Writers Festival last weekend, Garner said she was called once by the editor of The Australian and asked her if she would write regularly for the newspaper. Think about it, said the editor, you might have the opportunity to interview the Prime Minister! She was “a little insulted… I thought, is there anything in my work that shows that I care about this? Then I thought he hadn’t read my work. She did not accept the job.
After two years of being canceled by the pandemic, the festival was back, along with a few appearances on Zoom, on the theme of ambition. A goal that all writers shared was to survive financially. However, they did not always pursue him fiercely. Garner said that as a freelancer, she was paid the same rate as decades earlier and never asked for more. She had been “baffled” by the big sales of The first stone.
Garner’s interlocutor, Chloe Hooper, had interviewed a prime minister (Julia Gillard). “I have ambitions for the story, not for myself,” she said. But it must have been alarming when a bookseller friend said, “If you write about death, what are you going to say to all those people who say you’re just copying Helen Garner?”
Others wanted financial security too much. When Ottessa Moshfegh wrote her first book, Eileen, she tried to write “a commercially viable novel” because she was broke. It was a horrible idea that she wouldn’t recommend to anyone.
Her thinking was delusional, she said. “I wanted it so badly, to be a working writer and not have to devote my time to work that I felt was not worth the sacrifice of my passion… I have never been so desperate again. I grow a lot when what drives me isn’t despair and pain and fear, but curiosity and the willingness to be vulnerable and do the really hard work.
Writing has not always been the first ambition. Sheila Heti and Sarah Winman were both actresses. But Heti said she felt very wooded: “I can still act through writing books.” Sitting in front of a computer was not a pleasant way to spend time, however: “I prefer to spend my days painting… You see your limits, but it’s very liberating, because you can only be yourself. “