The one outstanding characteristic which nearly all these writers have had in common is their immensely powerful ambition.
They are ambitious in that they yearn passionately for success. They long to be famous, to make lots of money, to be favourably reviewed in prestigious journals, to be interviewed on TV, to be asked for their autograph... and so forth.
Here, for instance, is an extract from an email that I received from a reader who had read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.
I suspect that you are right about everything. Nevertheless, I do expect my fifth or sixth novel (learning narrative technique being the slow job it is) to command an advance of $750,000 or so. I also expect the book to top the New York Times bestseller list for at least a year, during which time I will tour the United States at my publisher's expense, fighting off beautiful graduate students at every airport. This analysis does not even include the royalties, or whatever you call them, from the movie deal -- and considering the the movie Titanic grossed over a billion dollars, I think I can quite reasonably expect to quit my job and purchase the Mideast, which I intend to turn into a paradise of peace and plenty.The tone is jocular, but the sentiments are but little removed from those of many a young and naive writer; and I, for one, have definitely been one of those.
In the past few months, after I have made similar statements about the prevalence of lunatic ambition, I have had emails from perhaps four or five writers who claimed that they were not ambitious at all. They said that they were in the writing business purely for the pleasure and satisfaction of it.
Since these people all seemed perfectly genuine, and did not appear to be delusional, then of course I accept what they say. But such people are, in my experience, in a tiny minority. To put their number at 1% of the writing community would, I think, be an overestimate. More like 0.1%.
And the thought which has again been expressed here more than once is, can this overwhelming ambition, which is present in almost every writer breathing, be entirely healthy?
It was with that question in mind that I re-read, after a gap of 45 years or so, W. Beran Wolfe's How To Be Happy Though Human. And so, having done that, I thought I would share with you some of Wolfe's comments on the subject of ambition, and see where we go from there.
Dr Wolfe, I have to say, is less than enthusiastic on this matter:
A word about ambition, which rates as a virtue in the copybooks, but on investigation, betrays itself as a vice in nearly every instance....
The ambitious man has very little time for the communal fellowship that is so necessary for true happiness....
Beware of ambitious men and women. They are usually more courageous than those who are patently vain and egoistic -- but the unsocial nature of their striving is apparent the moment its goals are examined....
More often than not [ambitious individuals] ask a prestige which is entirely incommensurate with their actual contribution....
The ambitious are constantly in a state of tension....
The special difficulties that lie in the wake of ambition deserve further discussion. Nearly every neurotic is an individual whose ambition has been frustrated. This is almost axiomatic. Just because ambition is so generally egoistic in form and meaning, its goal is one of personal superiority which runs counter to the commonweal and the logical laws of common sense.
Sooner or later the ambitious individual is forced to admit that he is beaten and frustrated..... He must either retreat, or shift the blame for his failure to some external circumstance over which he seems to have no control.
If you pride yourself on your ambition, take a mental inventory of its ends, and ask yourself whether you desire to attain those personal ends and forego the opportunities of being happy, or whether you prefer to be happy, and forego some of the prestige that your unfulfilled inferiority complex seems to demand....
The only normal goal for human ambition is to know more about the world we live in, to understand our neighbours better than we do, to live so that life is richer and fuller because of the quality of our co-operation. All other ambitions end in death, insanity, or the tragic crippling of body and soul.
Not very encouraging, is it?
Of course, as you will quickly point out to me, and as I will readily agree, Dr Beran Wolfe is not the fount of all wisdom, whether on the question of ambition or anything else. Nevertheless, I think he talks much good sense about human psychology in general, and over the years I have borne his ideas in mind, even if I have not always acted in ways which he would consider wise.
In particular, over the last decade or so, I have devoted some thought to my own literary ambitions, which as a young man were undoubtedly as powerful as anyone's. And I have been interested to try to work out what lay behind that ambition in the first place.
As I hope I indicated briefly in my review of How To Be Happy Though Human, and as is indicated even more briefly in the penultimate paragraph quoted above, Wolfe takes the view that ambition is motivated by a sense of inferiority.
Here, as with the patients of Dr Sarno's, referred to earlier this week, we immediately run into an emotional reaction. People don't like the suggestion that they might have an 'inferiority complex'. It makes them feel insulted. And yet Wolfe (basing his ideas on Adler) would argue, I think, if he were here, that feelings of inferiority are perfectly normal and indeed inevitable. The human child demonstrably is inferior, physically and mentally, until quite a few years have gone by.
The trick of living a successful and happy life, if we are to believe Wolfe, is somehow to get a realistic and true picture of the nature of that inevitable inferiority, and not to let mistaken and misunderstood ideas about its nature dominate your life and disrupt it.
Easier to say than to do.
For my part, after a certain amount of introspection, I have come to the conclusion that my own ambition was fuelled by a basically flawed interpretation of certain facts and events in my childhood.
Am I going to share these details with you? No, I'm not. I'm not going to let you stand in the bathroom door while I take a crap, either, because I think that some things are best kept private. What I am going to say is that now, in my sixties, I feel much more relaxed about those twin impostors, failure and success, than I did as young man. Which is just as well, otherwise their impact would have destroyed my sanity by now. (What do you mean, it already has?)
One other point that occurs to me is that most writers' ambitions fly in the face of what Wolfe refers to as 'the logical laws of common sense'.
Suppose that you are a young woman of sixteen or so, and you conceive the ambition to be a hairdresser. This is an ambition which is perfectly capable of achievement. Every small town has a technical college which will train you in hairdressing. Every village, almost, has a hairdressing salon in which you can gain employment. Your ambition is therefore sensible and realistic.
But suppose you are a highly intelligent young woman of sixteen -- far too bright ever to contemplate anything so modest as a career in hairdressing -- is it sensible to think of a career as a full-time writer? A career which might last a working lifetime?
It is possible, as anyone who has ever had contact with a university knows, to be, on the one hand, absolutely brilliant intellectually, and yet be, at one and the same time, a complete fool. And surely even the most rudimentary acquaintance with a few publishing statistics will demonstrate that achieving a career as a full-time writer, a career which lasts for more than a few books, is a rare achievement. One which is about as likely of fulfilment as becoming a member of the Cabinet (in the US read: becoming a US Senator). It happens, but not often.
What then, if anything, is to be done? Are we to leave the young, and the not so young, to wallow in ambitious naivety and ignorance and do whatever they will with their life?
As an early employer of mine once said to me, everyone is free to ruin their own life in their own way. And indeed they are. But perhaps, just perhaps, the older and case-hardened among us might offer a little useful advice. Experience suggest that it will not be heeded, but never mind; our consciences will be clear.
For what it is worth, here is my twopennorth.
The young and ambitious writer should examine the motivation of her ambition carefully, and would be well advised to identify its cause.
Identifying the cause of ambition is certainly possible, at least in my own experience. Hint: consider your fantasies. And here I speak not of sexual fantasies, but of fantasies relating to success as a writer. Thinking about the situation which will arise from achieving your imagined success will, I believe, give you some guidance as to whom, or which group of people, you seek to impress.
Having identified the impressees, so to speak, you may then be able to work back and identify the events and circumstances which made you feel inferior to that individual or group. Those events and circumstances are likely to lie in childhood or adolescent memories. And then you can ask yourself, with the benefit of hindsight and some adult insight, whether the sense of inferiority which you then felt was actually justified or not. And even if it was justified, and not based on some misapprehension, does it really require that you should devote endless hours of time, money, and effort, sacrificing much else along the way, in order to 'prove', through achieving success as a writer, that you are no longer inferior?
Such self-analysis may prove valuable. It certainly did for me.
The completion of such analysis does not necessarily mean that you have to abandon all interest in writing. Far from it. You may now be able to undertake writing with a more relaxed attitude towards the outcome, taking a greater pleasure and satisfaction in the actual work. Who knows -- your work may be all the better for it.
A final thought. I would not wish you to think the Beran Wolfe regarded all creative work as selfish, antisocial, and not conducive to long-term happiness. Far from it. He himself, for example, was a sculptor.
There is a certain quantum of creative energy in every human being which is not absorbed by the business of a work-a-day world. Even people who are engaged in some eminently satisfactory occupation have some creative energy left over.... We must all create something -- or class ourselves as human vegetables. No one can be happy who does not find some channel for this creative energy.
You just shouldn't let it get out of hand. That's all.