“One must avoid ambition in order to write. Otherwise something else is the goal: some kind of power beyond the power of language. And the power of language, it seems to me, is the only kind of power a writer is entitled to.” – Cynthia Ozick
Avoid ambition? Is that even possible? It’s always seemed to me it takes a serious ego to write a book you believe people should read. But Ozick seems to be saying that ambition can usurp the primary power of language. Ambition for anything other than a love of words can skew the work.
I heard of a famous author who was asked by an acolyte if he thought he had what it took to be a writer. The author sized him up and finally asked, “I don’t know. Do you love words?”
I’m attracted to the purity of that question. It seems so perfect and fitting that the goal of writing should be a love of using the power of language and language alone–not kowtowing to the usual dreams of fame and fortune and validation, or proving something to your friends or family, fulfilling the expectations, following trends or promoting ideals (pause on that thought, dear Christian), or anything else that might get in the way of the beauty of the pure inspired word. Yes, all is vanity. And to wield language like a scythe through the fields of men’s minds, to clear a path for logic and fresh imagination, and to harvest the untapped bounty that lies dormant within… Yes, language alone–the almighty word–can inspire the delight that leads men to shift course, change direction and commit to the path their lives were intended to go.
This, indeed, seems to me the true ultimate goal.
Yet avoiding ambition, is it possible to love words, love language in such a pure, undiluted way?
Maybe the issue is simpler than it seems. Maybe, as usual, it’s one of digging for that deeper appreciation….
There is such a wide variety of plant life and foliage in the pacific northwest, it can be difficult to realize how miraculous it is that individual species can grow and thrive among such diverse friends and foes. All are competing for the same space, the same water, same dappled sunlight through the high ancient trees. And yet, still, somehow, they spout, take root and grow, strong and luxurious, regardless.
Trillium. Lupine. Hellebore. Dogwood. Columbine. Over 220 native flowering plants alone. Springtime in Oregon is a cacophony. And yet amongst the seemingly endless varieties, certain fragile, needy plants find the proper conditions to prosper and even profligate.
Do you see a connection to our frangible goal — writing for the pure love of language?
How easily crowded out could it have been? How delicate its roots and dependent its gossamer leaves. And yet somehow, this initial love finds the water, the sunlight it needs. That magical awakening of language holds the imagination captive still, the first inklings of meaning breaking through the dark wilderness of our young minds. The understanding blossoming across our fertile, hungry ground, waiting to absorb more of this mysterious symbology of shapes on a page or formed with the lips, somehow connected and representing the ideas and objects and loved ones themselves.
Mama. Dada. Ball. Book….
The words spread and fertilized the willing earth inside and cultivated our gardens, defining and laying claim to the seeming infinite capacity, soon filling and interweaving and overwhelming anyone’s ability to trace where a word came from and where a definition attached itself, much less where language had begun to form us until we’d become these constructs of indefinite impressions and tender meanings, pliable to environmental forces and yet continually adapting according to our needs.
Too long it’s gone unacknowledged how much we owe to language for forming who we’ve become. Let it not remain unnoticed how much language continues to form who we are still becoming.
Balanced between the permeable and the permanent, the soft and the hardened, our awareness of our only power as writers remains our greatest source of ambition and delight. It isn’t in showy or dense and difficult language, but in the original elation and discovery of that elemental connection between sound and sight, symbol and meaning. What could be more elegant than language, expressed from the mind, through body, and entering spirit? What else but language can blend and balance all of ourselves and states in such a fundamental way?
Let your appreciation of words grow into the garden it’s destined to become. And let your speaking as well as your listening and understanding be formed by the love and comfort of this ethereal power to paint meaning in men’s minds with a simple alphabet, your paltry handful of seeds….
For the higher purpose,