Are You Too Ambitious for Your Own Good?

Ira Glass has some of the best advice I’ve ever read for writers, at
least in relation to great storytelling. He’s said that you have to be
willing to be bad at what you do for a long time until you actually can
achieve the vision of perfection you have in your head. He even puts
himself out on a limb and offers recordings illuminating how bad he was at radio when he first started.

was reminded of Ira when my writer-friend Teresa Fleming shared with me
the following letter from Charles Dickens, where he responds to an
aspiring writer.

Tuesday, Feb. 5th, 1867.
have looked at the larger half of the first volume of your novel, and
have pursued the more difficult points of the story through the other
two volumes.

will, of course, receive my opinion as that of an individual writer and
student of art, who by no means claims to be infallible.

think you are too ambitious, and that you have not sufficient knowledge
of life or character to venture on so comprehensive an attempt.

Evidences of inexperience in every way, and of your power being far
below the situations that you imagine, present themselves to me in
almost every page I have read. It would greatly surprise me if you
found a publisher for this story, on trying your fortune in that line,
or derived anything from it but weariness and bitterness of spirit.

the evidence thus put before me, I cannot even entirely satisfy myself
that you have the faculty of authorship latent within you. If you have
not, and yet pursue a vocation towards which you have no call, you
cannot choose but be a wretched man. Let me counsel you to have the
patience to form yourself carefully, and the courage to renounce the
endeavour if you cannot establish your case on a very much smaller
scale. You see around you every day, how many outlets there are for
short pieces of fiction in all kinds. Try if you can achieve any
success within these modest limits (I have practised in my time what I
preach to you), and in the meantime put your three volumes away.

                                                                  Faithfully yours.

Yikes, right? (You can read more Dickens letters here.)

Here’s the secret, though: If you’re the writer, do you read this and think: I should just stop trying.

Or do you read this and think: He doesn’t know how wrong he is!

Writers in training know they’re not good, but they know they’re getting better. And they go on to fight another day.

Photo credit: wallyg

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0 thoughts on “Are You Too Ambitious for Your Own Good?

  1. Elissa Malcohn

    I keep pointing people to one of my favorite quotes from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones:

    "Through practice you actually do get better. You learn to trust your deep self more and not give in to your voice that wants to avoid writing. It is odd that we never question the feasibility of a football team practicing long hours for one game; yet in writing we rarely give ourselves the space for practice."

    Laini Taylor, in her blog Not For Robots (, talks not about "first drafts" but about "exploratory drafts" — the draft by which a writer finds the story.

    I take the "love your crap" approach (, because I write tons of it. That’s what lets me ultimately get to the good stuff.

    I also point people to Marge Piercy’s empowering poem, "For the young who want to" (

  2. Monica

    Your closing was the most (only?) motivating part of that post. I really got a boost from your words. Thanks so much. And I will go on to fight tomorrow.

  3. Debra Marrs

    Yikes is right! That SIR must have been really really bad, way worse than Ira Glass ever imagined. But such good info for writer’s to weigh. Dickens’ letter makes me want to make a checklist:

    Are you too ambitious?
    Do you have sufficient knowledge (of subject)?
    etc. etc.

    Beside each check point on that list, I’d add how to fix. It’s the sort of information good editors offer their writers for each NO.

    Through tiny steps pointed out to them, much like Dickens infers, writers improve day by day. That builds their confidence to "go on to fight another day."

    I’m passing this one on to many of my newbie writers, Jane. Great post!

    @DebraMarrs (on Twitter)

  4. Cynthia Friedlob

    Timely. I’ll be sharing this next week with a student in one of my writing classes. She’s trying to tackle a novel as her first effort and I can already see that it’s too much for her.

    I think a useful response to Dickens’ advice would be to heed it!