Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Ambition in writers

Over a period which stretches back fifty years now, I have met a considerable number of writers; and I suppose I must have read about hundreds of others -- possibly thousands. Most of these writers have specialised in 'creative' writing, i.e. fiction or drama.

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.


ivan said...

Oh dear.
It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.
The English have had it so long.
Especially in the plays.
Wha' hoppened?

Anonymous said...

When I was a teenager I wanted to be hairdresser. It seemed so glamorous and creative.

I even went for an interview for a traineeship. Unfortunately though, I didn't get the job and ended up working as a writer.

I wonder what went wrong.

Anonymous said...

It is unfortunate that most people decide the course of their entire professional lives at about the age of 20.

In countries with plentiful university education and state study loans, this leads to the provision of university courses that wouldn't exist at all if there were any feedback involved from the labour market's demand. And so people end up at 30 with unmarketable skills.

Martin Rundkvist

Dee Jour said...

There was a point where I could wholly identify with the quote you mention:

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....

There's ambition that's linked to ego, and ambition that's linked to the inner need to create something, or to leave something behind, and sometimes these two things can cross over/blend together. My issue related to the inner need (and not giving a crap whether I looked an idiot or whatever), and it is a solo pursuit, or can be, and more often than not, more stressful than valuable.

And that related to my then position, which I abandoned shortly after a high up superior pointed out my 'ambition', as he saw it to be.

In regard to writing, it did reach that point, but in the sense of content not the idea of monetary advances/fame/celebrity - because that, to me, is just way too weird to consider.

Anne Weale said...

I'm convinced that writers, artists and musicians are born with a gene which, for those with access to their family history, can often be traced to someone a few generations back. Usually the gene reveals itself in early childhood and, if it's the writing gene, the sensible thing is to choose a career which will a) help to develop the talent and b) pay the rent until writing does.

It's going to be a hundred times harder to earn a living by writing in the future than it was in the past. Largely because there are now so many people without the necessary gene who fancy themselves as writers, even though, often, they haven't mastered the basics, correct spelling and punctuation.

Maria said...

It is more important to have a dream or ambition, than to have none at all--regardless of the impossibility of it all, regardless of the inner reasons for the dream.

It is this striving to reach a goal that brings us above the level of mere survival and above the level of waiting for someone to take care of us.

Anonymous said...

Maria, a lot of dreams have people ending up far below the level of survival, where society must take care of them through the dole. The life of a starving artist is only romantic from the outside and in retrospect.

Martin Rundkvist

ivan said...

Sort of a "leet" quote, Martin, but old Schopenhauer did say that
"Eyes fixed upon the stars, he stumbles into wells."
We get off on our adrenaline, our remanticism, and once that's gone, the angry dawn.

Anonymous said...

This has to be one of your best posts ever. I love your phrase, "lunatic ambition," from which I suffered for a short time. I'm proud to say that I have shaken it off and truly do my writing and magazine for the pure pleasure.

I delight in helping other writers "be seen" and even imparting a few helping hints along the way, and I've found that measuring my success by the number of readers I can attract is far more rewarding than judging success by "sales." I would get entirely too nervous being on "Oprah," and frankly I'm not sure I'd want to lower myself.

Your RATS IN THE SLUSHPILE is 'must' reading for any and all writers--it has to be one of themost insightful pieces ever written and does much to prepare the writer for the real world.

I hat to make you cringe again, but "you got game."

Maria said...

Ah Martin, I was not suggesting that our dreams should lead us to be starving artists! My only point was that we need dreams because without them, we have too little to make us get up in the morning, too little to motivate.

People without dreams often end up as bad off as the starving artists--sitting and waiting for life, motivated only so far as the next beer, motivated only in youth, but faded to a shell by midlife.

It is good to have dreams and as GOB points out, to keep a level head about it, to strive for a goal without letting the dream take over.

Yes, writers are often some of the most unhappy people I've ever met. Bitter too, quite often. Can't deny that. It is a good thing to strive for more than one goal so that some of the goals are reachable.

Maxwell said...

I don't know. Perhaps I've spent too many years doing office work. I'd rather have shot at my own lunatic ambitions and fail than to have to follow the lunatic ambitions of my employer and succeed. More often than I can count, I've been charged with doing the impossible. Constant abuse and berating, coupled with veiled threats of unemployment, my only motivating influences. Although in theory, jumping up and down and yelling accomplishes nothing, in practice, it's how almost everything gets done in business.

The major obstacle to my personal success is that I’m not nearly as cruel a taskmaster as my employer. If I could just beat myself up with the utter disregard for my health and sanity as he does, surely I’d have the seven figure, multi-book deal in the bag.

Seriously though, if you shoot for the moon, you might miss and end up on a mountaintop somewhere. If you just shoot for the mountaintop, you aren’t likely to miss and end up on the moon.

ivan said...

Bravo, Maxwell!

ivan said...

Bravo, Maxwell!

Anonymous said...

Indeed; bravo Maxwell.

Terrific posts but dear old Grumpy you sound so sad.

We have only a single life to live.

I thought I had written a novel because I wanted to make a living writing fiction but I have since discovered that feeling when you meet or hear from someone who's read and enjoyed your book.

There are many ways to make a living from wrting. I've made a living from writing the most boring articles in the world to fiction disguised as market analysis to software manuals (my current 'occupation').

It took me until I was in my late forties and had earned a living at writing for almost fifteen years before I could even consider calling myself a writer.

I remember talking to a writer while on holiday in Manhattan years ago and he implored me to call myself a writer. I couldn't understand, at the time, why he gave a shit.

And now that I do I find myself spotting hundreds of authors who are not writers at all. Is that not what turns us all into loonies? I have no objection to marathon runners shitting themselves in the name of literature or Rushdie casting a spell upon the simple-minded but I haven't figured yet how not to turn purple because I don't get to join them for reasons which seem truly bonkers.

But when a regular human reads your book and actually 'gets it' or even sees something you hadn't noticed youself, you know you created a kind of life (until Wayne Rooney's potato head stares back at you from Waterstone's shop front, and you go purple again).

But Maxwell nailed it. I once had such a boss and I tried to kill him by feeding him bacon and fried egg rolls twice a day; but to no avail. He's still alive somewhere and I am ashamed I was too cowardly to use a blunt instrument and finish the job properly.

And there's another thing: I get a nervous stomach if I don't write. I feel ashamed if I don't write. Do other people ever feel that?

I should be earning a living from fiction but I don't have the stomach anymore to send it off to be skimmed by dimwits. My own agent thinks my writing is in bad taste so I'm not expecting a deal any time soon.

I may only get one sale every couple of months by doing it myself. And I may miss many howlers during the impossible task of self-editing but when someone 'gets it' you know you have lived in this world not entirely in vain.

It's not about ego or self-esteem. Perhaps it's the same kind of thing that religious people feel but there is something more going on; it makes one feel part of something.

ivan said...

Yes, yes Francis Ellen.

I have published a million words.

Your way.

Paul Ekert said...

I think you are either a writer or you are not. Spotting a writer is easy - when you are at a party and you say you write, others will say they do too, short stories and poems and books, but they can never seem to finish anything - these people are not writers...

Writers will be talking about how to tailor a story to fit a particular market; how they worked hard to reduce a story by 1,000 words in order to comply with a competition; how many MS's they sent out and how many they got back.

You will meet very few real writers at parties... Possibly for the best, but one thing they all have in common... They want to do it....

Max has it sussed though... Dreams are there to give our lives meaning and Grumpy old Bookman is there to keep our feet on the floor.

And thus the universe is balanced.

For the record I am a writer. I keep myself in beer and ciggies by writing computer related material and books. I also write books, plays and film-scripts, whatever takes my fancy really. The wonderful thing about being your own boss is that you can make these decisions and the un-wonderful thing is only you can take the blame :)

ivan said...

Paul Eckert,

High on six Tobys,I've got the nasty-uglies.

You become a writer when you stop using MS for manuscript or typescript. Or e-mail submission.
Ain't no such thing as an ms.

Anonymous said...

Ambition is a slippery concept. The scientist who finds a cure for cancer is sure to be praised for his selfless devotion to humanity. But what if, a decade previously, he had had the option of working on the development of biological weapons, and had plumped for cancer research solely because the alternative wouldn’t get him a Nobel prize?

Or take a concrete example. There never was a more ambitious politician than Winston Churchill. From the first, he was determined to make the world acknowledge his Greatness. But had Hitler never existed, Churchill would be one of history’s footnotes -– a politician whose brilliant potential was never realised because none would ever fully trust a man of such naked and ruthless ambition. That he is remembered as the selfless leader who embodied the qualities of his nation in its darkest hour is, on one level, attributable to little more than luck.

That’s ambition seen from without. From within, the GOB is surely right in saying that it’s always a symptom of neurosis. It’s like the grit in the oyster: it may become a pearl, but it’s horrible for its host.

And I suspect that literary ambition may be uniquely destructive.

Let’s make a couple of comparisons. If you want to be a professional golfer, talent plus application will get you there, because the standard by which you are judged is objective. If, on the other hand, you want to be a pop star, then you’d have to be terribly stupid not to know that, whatever your ability, luck will be absolutely crucial.

The difficulty with writing -– it’s especially true of fiction -– is the stubborn survival of the illusion that talent will be rewarded. Decisions to publish or reject being made behind closed doors, it is very difficult to test the frequent assertion of publishers that they really are always on the lookout for new writers. The dissenting voices are almost always those of the embittered rejects, who (to paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies) would say that, wouldn’t they.

Well, I’ve made it my business to look into the backgrounds of many novelists published since 1990. (The date is somewhat arbitrary, being intended simply to exclude as far as possible those whose careers began in the days when some editorial departments were still strong enough to stand up to sales and marketing.) It is -– and I’m not going to help you here, because you’ll understand me far better if you make the effort for yourself -– almost impossible to find anyone who has made it without being in some way connected. (The connection, if you’re interested, usually comes from employment in journalism, in publishing itself, or from study on a prestigious creative writing course.)

Talent alone will certainly not determine whether or not you find a publisher, and neither will pure luck. (I think the GOB exaggerates the operation of randomness in the otherwise excellent Rats in the Slush Pile.) There’s a sliding scale. At the top end, A-list celebs are published regardless; at the bottom end, there is just a chance for those who are simply known to someone in publishing to be intelligent and literate. Below that level, your chances of finding a publisher are, regardless of the quality of your work, so slight that they might reasonably be dismissed.

I have mentioned previously in these pages Francis Ellen, who has made one of his own swashbuckling appearances in a comment above. Now he isn’t alone in thinking that his novel, The Samplist, deserves the chance that only a major publisher can give it. A number of literary critics agree with him, many other readers have told him privately how much they have enjoyed his work, and he’s even got me on his side. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that if Francis Ellen had only known the right people, The Samplist would have been published on the nod. But he didn’t, so it wasn’t.

If anyone wishes to read one observer’s fictionalised (and admittedly satirical) take on how trade publishing has worked since the giant multinational conglomerates have taken over, they might look at Chapter Two of this novel. (Come to think of it, Chapter Six might also be of interest.)

Back to ambition. As the GOB says, the ambition to be a hairdresser makes perfect sense, because it is clearly achievable. But I would contend that the ambition -– to take another of his examples -– to rise high in politics is much more realistic than the ambition to succeed as a novelist. At least in politics, you can form a pretty good idea of what you are up against, and, given ability plus application, you have a serious chance of getting somewhere even if you don’t get to the very top. The trouble with writing is that, if you are totally unconnected, then total failure is virtually inevitable. And that’s horrible.

Ambition, as the GOB says, is all right if it’s realistic and kept under some sort of control. The ambition to become a novelist (i.e. a writer of fiction, published by a serious publisher) is utterly unrealistic for all but a small minority (defined by connections rather than ability), and is thus out of control from the moment of its inception.

If you suffer from it, treat it as you would a malignant growth.

Paul Ekert said...

Oh Ivan you are tiresom...

Go there and eat humble pie then return and tell me why you are not wrong and at some point, if you cannot spell my name correctly, just do a copy and paste... Thanks.

ivan said...

No ego satisfaction; no compromise of self.
What the hell are you talking about and why did you have to google for it.
On balance, I see you are multilingual. If you were to take an IQ test in all three languages, you may end up with an IQ well over 200--and that's something.
But you may end up a crashing bore in all three languages.

Paul Ekert said...

Excellent, my own private Troll. I've always wanted one.

In the words of the bard, go fuck yourself ivan.

You can't spell my name right, you can't understand your own arguments and your insults are petty.

Please tell me great one... Where are your published works?

ivan said...

Use your google.
You are good at that.
--And then a troll could be a lucky portent.

p.s.: I would wager you are gayer than Richard Simmons in a sportsware shop.