“She considered the day a success because she had perfected a single sentence.”
—a profile of Marilynne Robinson
In his latest newsletter about ambition, Rob Walker quotes an interview with the actor Mads Mikkelsen:
Mikkelsen said that when it comes to work, “everything I do is the most important thing I do.” This seems cryptic, but as he elaborates, it becomes clear that he means he takes each individual professional task he has agreed to perform — large or small, prestigious or obscure — as seriously as he can. And that’s actually distinct from career ambition:
“That means I will be ambitious with my job and not with my career. That’s a very big difference, because if I’m ambitious with my career, everything I do now is just stepping-stones leading to something — a goal I might never reach, and so everything will be disappointing. But if I make everything important, then eventually it will become a career. Big or small, we don’t know. But at least everything was important.”
I’ve heard several great filmmakers say something like this.
Herzog: “I’ve never planned anything. I haven’t had any career at all. I only have a life.”
Varda: “I had a world. I don’t think I had a career. I made films.”
I wonder if this attitude aligns withs the project-based, collaborative, time-sensitive nature of filmmaking: working on one movie, then another, then another.
I also feel it’s worth pointing out that none of the three artists I quoted are American.
* * *
This one-thing-at-a-time attitude can be performed on the macro level, but also on the micro level.
In Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about the perils of being ambitious when working on a single piece.
He suggests that writers focus on one sentence at a time, even going so far as to turn each sentence into a paragraph while you’re composing. By putting line breaks in between each of your sentences, you can focus on their length and what they’re doing.
He cautions against getting ahead of the sentence you’re working on:
You’re looking past [the sentence] toward your meaning somewhere down the road,
Or toward the intent of the whole piece.
Somehow that seems more important than the sentence you’re actually making,
Though your meaning and the intent of the whole piece
Depend entirely on the sentence you’re making.
In fact, you’re distracted from the sentence by your intention
And by wondering how soon you’ll be done.
You’re distracted from the only thing of any value to the reader.
For the writer, your career will be the result of whatever piece you’re working on right now, and the piece you’re working on right now will be the result of whatever sentence you’re working on right now.