Ambition is Not a Dirty Word

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Photo by Tom Swinnen on


I’m going to say it loud and clear, for all to hear: I am ambitious. I want to be the very best that I can be. I want to create the best work that I can create. I want to set goals and meet those goals.

My main ambition in life is quite simple: I want to be able to be a professional creative, doing the work I love for a wage that equates to the one I left behind as a microbiologist. I want the work I produce to be of high quality and to reach a wide audience. I want my work to have value, to mean something, to help people and I want it to help me too.

Why, in the creative arts especially, is ambition seen as something wrong? It’s seen as greedy, something that leaves a bad taste. It’s seen as uncouth, bullying, grabby and self serving. But sending the elevator down, helping others be successful and being ambitious for yourself are not two mutually exclusive things, they can and should go hand in hand.

I recently had a bit of a spat over on twitter with a gentleman who had an extended go at me. I had a great deal of respect for this writer so I was surprised when he became so offended by something so trivial. It came out of nowhere. And ended with him telling me he’d bought one of my books, but had I bought one of his in return? The answer, incidentally, is no I hadn’t. Selling books is part of my income, I’m a professional writer, and while I try very hard to buy the books of my colleagues, in support, I mainly do it because I think I’ll enjoy them. What I do do is review other people’s books, when and where I can, and encourage them to submit to publications that I have a hand in, so that I can promote them. That’s all beside the point. The whole thing came about because I’d posted something following the brilliant night I’d enjoyed at the SJT (Read about it here) and how valuable it was to meet other writers at different stages to see how they were building their careers. He insisted, at the end of a prolonged exchange in which he repeatedly told me that I was wrong to be ambitious and that other female writers in history hadn’t been ambitious (to which I wanted to bang my head against a brick wall because without the ambition of the women that came before me I wouldn’t be a able to do what I’m doing now) that I had misinterpreted what he was saying. With all the good will in the world,  even accepting that I had misinterpreted what he was saying (I don’t believe I did) at the very best he refused to acknowledge that my opinion and my point of view were valid at all. It was very disrespectful, in fact it was rude and I ended up blocking him. I only ever really block racists, randoms who comment with sexually explicit comments and accounts that are obviously fake. It all threw me a bit, and upset me a bit in the way that horrible behaviour takes one by surprise and leaves one feeling vulnerable, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since because, actually, this is a commonly held view in the arts sector. I’ve talked about it before, this overriding impression that because we aren’t fixing plumbing or whatever,  we are all supposed to work for the joy of creation, rather than payment, and at some point some rich aristocrat will become our patron and buy us a house and we can just create forever. Alternatively we should be impoverished, living off orange rinds and the generosity of our friends so that we can create. And we should never, ever want to better ourselves because creation is a reward in itself.

I guess ambition can be seen as something ugly, if, for example, you trampled over the heads of your fellow artists, didn’t share the opportunities that were available, perpetuated the smoke and mirrors effect of the arts world which is that success simply happens and anyway, you shouldn’t want to be successful because, again, creating art is its own reward.

Wanting to be the best you can be, wanting to make a career of your work, wanting to reach a wider audience because you’re an artist with something to say, that’s not wrong, far from it. Ambition is not a dirty word.

Perhaps the thing that annoyed me the most was that this sort of ‘ambition is wrong’ viewpoint keeps the working class writer exactly where they have traditionally been – the cogs for middle/upper class machine. If you can afford to not be ambitious, if you can already simply be an artist and enjoy the gateways to platforms where your work will be enjoyed and recognised, good for you. But we don’t all have that.

The psychological impact of coming from a background in which university isn’t a given, upward mobility has a glass ceiling and you are expected to go into roles that are financially secure and safe, is that working class people tend to worry about ‘getting too big for their boots’ and ‘knowing their place’ and it’s a real struggle to even make the break, to move away from the traditional employment routes that we are brought up to accept are our lot. The working class person might never have experienced true poverty, though many have, but they’ll have seen it and they’ll be aware of how close it is, how easy it is, with just one or two experiences of very bad luck, to fall off the world and become un-personed, to lose their place in society.

Necessity is a driving force in most working class writers, once you make the leap to being self employed and relying on your art for an income, it becomes quite important to get the money to pay your bills. I don’t make a great deal from my creative work, I tend to butter my bread by running courses, mentoring, editing and freelancing for magazines and journals. Some months are better than others, this month, for example, is particularly poor; I’ve been waiting for a client to pay me so that I can replace my broken fridge freezer, which has been out of use for two weeks. We have limited savings and I’ll need them to live off if work doesn’t pick up, but my dream – no – my ambition, is to make a living solely from my creative work. This was my choice, I chose to take this route and I have no regrets, but pulling that self worth out of the hat to keep going, to keep pushing forward, inching forward is hard. So it’s a bit shit when people slap you down for moving forward.

And I will get there, not by trampling on my colleagues, but by sharing knowledge and with my colleagues. The best thing about being working class is that we help each other out where we can.

So, yes, I’m ambitions. You can choose whatever you want to be. The great thing about life is that you are in charge of your own choices, if you are where you want to be, great! If your life plan isn’t as go-get-them as mine, it doesn’t make it wrong, it just makes it different. Different is not the same as less than, and I think people forget that. But it is a shame when people feel the need to slap others down, I’ve noticed it quite a lot lately, it makes it a bit scary to share news of success because who wants to be faced with the snide facebook posts or the out and out offensive twitter posts. However, I WILL share, and I will remember how I want to be treated by others and I will congratulate and celebrate with other writers and I will push on, push forward. I want to be the very best that I can be, and I’m happy that I am doing my best to do that.

Don’t forget the new course starting in June . It’d be nice to have you along for the ride!


2 thoughts on “Ambition is Not a Dirty Word

  1. smartrachael

    I find Twitter can be a hostile terrain with exclusive packs and wolfishness and ranking systems that exclude as much, if not more than they include. That said, artists like you inspire me to keep writing, to withhold my class values, to aim high. So thank you and keep on climbing.


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