Identity And The Graveyard Of Ambition

Still from ‘Blind Ambition’ (2016)
Anne Murray

A long time ago, a close friend and I were sat in the pub, trying to make sense of the world. We were discussing the various merits of the creative ‘act’, specifically our ownattempts at, some kind of creative output and what any of it might mean.

We were both in our early to mid-20s at the time and similarly,  were  in the first or second, of a series of shitty, meaningless jobs. We already knew that the 9-5 grind wasn’t for us. But if we couldn’t escape it, could we at least do something constructive or creative with our spare time, to ward off the inevitable existential crisis?

I can’t recall the exact reasons for my creative inertia, but I was impatient. I just wanted to be making music. I was young, full of romantic delusions and naively assumed that creativity = fulfilment or some such meaning. My friend was a few years older than me and had clearly already given it some thought (or possibly too much).

‘But why are you doing it?’ he asked, of my nascent musical endeavours, no doubt in an attempt to provoke me, as much as he was asking out of curiosity. Or perhaps he thought, I  had an answer.

I forget the response I gave him, but it was probably along the lines of ‘I’m doing it for me.’ While this was true, I might as well have trotted out the old indie music adage ‘we just make the songs we like and if anyone else likes it, it’s a bonus.’

‘But surely you’re making it for someone to listen to?’ My friend argued.

He had me there. I had to think about that one. I wanted to say ‘no’ but…

As we carried on, debating why I wanted to create something, his philosophy became clear: if you wanted to make something that was real / genuine / honest / unfiltered / raw / uncompromised (delete cliché as applicable), then you could never show it to anyone. You could create it, but you should then proceed immediately to the middle of a remote field and bury it. As any contact with the world would invalidate or contaminate it. This was perhaps an extreme point of view, even a self-centred one, but equally you could also argue that inflicting your music, writing or art on the world is a pretty selfish, arrogant, ego-driven act in the first place.

My friend had already made the decision that his musical efforts did not need validating by anyone other than himself. To the point where it was ok if no-one ever heard it.

This conversation stayed with me, but, did not stop me from spending the next ten years making music. Though my own ambitions never went beyond the delusion of one day, being paid money to make the music I wanted to make. Allowing me to escape from the drudgery of regular work. While whatever I created was always personal, it was never about me in the sense that I wanted to be famous or important.

My friend had a burning desire to express himself through music. But the idea of sharing it with the world or asking for someone’s approval was so off-putting to him. For a long time, it stopped him from creating anything. I think he couldn’t detach himself from the idea of ambition, and, in the end, it was easier for him to let this lack of ambition (by others’ standards or definition) win. It was just easier, less painful, to not bother in the first place.

Part of what I loved about making music was the freedom to hide behind any number of aliases. It meant I could construct a fiction around the music, and, send it out into the world with an aura of mystery about it. After all, this alias was far more interesting than I was. Who was I anyway? I was just a guy who wanted to be left alone. This other person / duo / group-of-unspecified-size was out there in the real world acting on my behalf, even though they themselves weren’t ‘real.’ 

All of this allowed for a certain detachment from the aforementioned ‘problems’ with creating the work. In that respect, you could say I was sending my ego to the graveyard of ambition. Timed as it was, when talent shows like the X-Factor were on the rise and it was becoming increasingly clear how desperate some people were for attention. They didn’t care what they were doing, just as long as, they were famous, even if they were famous for just being (in)famous.

For me, it wasn’t about that at all. I had to laugh when Radiohead unveiled their crazy new experimental direction with ‘Kid A’ and talked about wanting to get away from people’s expectations of them and their music. To be able to just make the music they wanted to make and not have it judged as ‘the new Radiohead album.’ Yet they still went and released it as a Radiohead record. If they meant what they said, they would have released it under an alias, told no-one and got the honest response they were supposedly looking for. Instead, I had to assume, that what people thought of them was as important as anything else. Their ambition needed validation, and, I’m fairly certain, they wouldn’t have got it for that album if they weren’t Radiohead.

That original conversation with my friend took place around 1997-1998. The world was a different place then. The internet wasn’t everywhere, no-one we knew had mobile phones, there was no reality TV and there wasn’t the constant self-promotion and attention seeking that is now part of everyday life.

As a culture, we are now so much more aware of what everyone is doing, all the time. Any attempt to do anything creative will probably be branded, exploited, advertised, tweeted about, liked, disliked, shared… You need to fight to be seen, to be heard above the roar of everything else. It’s almost as if we feel all feel forced to participate in this constant noise, for fear of being left out, left behind or just plain ignored. I don’t use social media much but even I get caught up in it sometimes. I see a tweet that has no likes or visible acknowledgments, and I know that in a few seconds time it will have been obliterated by a slew of new tweets. Somebody believed that thought was worth sharing. But how much of that was actually someone, seeking approval or attention?

Inevitably, I ran out of steam with the music-making and returned to my first passion, writing. Again, I would never make a living from it, not without some kind of compromise, and I’m too stubborn for that. But like the music that came before, it allowed me to exorcise some demons. More importantly, it introduced me to the world of D I Y publishing and eventually led me back to University where I finally earned a degree and escaped the 9-5 slog for a few years. Sitting in a class with people almost half my age who had grown up with social media as the norm, I was reminded of how much I disliked the idea of self-promotion.

I still struggle to talk about my own work. I regularly exhibit at book fairs and sometimes I think I should just pretend to be the hired help. A nobody. Someone with no connection to the work for sale in front of me. But then that wouldn’t be fair to the people who have made the effort to come to the event and engage with us creators in person, rather than just hitting ‘like’ and scrolling on.

As I wrote again properly for the first time in perhaps 15 years, I realised I had a lot of things to say, with my voice. But found I wanted to tell other stories, in other voices. I became obsessed with who was telling these stories and why. How had they come to exist? And why did they have to be stories? What if I treated them as real, and just took my name off the work altogether and gave the credit to someone else, with their own story, someone who appeared to be real? Old habits die hard, it would seem.

There’s a line in the film, ‘North By Northwest,’ where a fake shooting of a non-existent man acquires ‘the authority of the printed word’. While the printed word might not have the same value today as it did back in 1959, the sentiment is still true. There is something both incredibly satisfying and naughty about sending work out into the world under an alias that no-one knows is an alias. For people to interact with and be confused, annoyed, intrigued or charmed by. You won’t see my name on any of this work and it won’t matter who I am.

I just tell the stories I want to tell, and if anyone else likes it, I probably won’t even know about it.

Vic Spanner