The Grumpy Old Bookman had an interesting post the other day. The subject was ambition in writers. He asserted that all of the writers he had known in the course of his life were all linked by the strength of the ambition they shared.
“They are ambitious in that they yearn passionately for success. They long to be famous, to make lots of money, to be favourably reviewed…”
I’ve always thought my writing ambitions were rather modest; sure I want to be published, but famous? I think I have always been realistic enough to accept that I am unlikely to ever make much money out of it. It’s perhaps unfortunate that I have mid-list ambitions at a time when the mid–list has largely disappeared.
The point made by TGOB, is that an ambition to be published in itself verges on lunacy. He refers readers to a long essay he wrote entitled On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, which made interesting reading. This clearly demonstrates that one’s chances of being published through submission to the slush pile are, assuming a certain basic competence at writing, essentially down to luck. While I had always suspected this to be the case, to see it in such black and white terms is rather brutal. Our problem seems to be that we focus on the survivors, the published, not the entire population of wannabee writers. We all assume that we share the characteristics of the survivors, rather than those who fell by the wayside. Since my best friend isn’t an editor or an agent, and I’m not as far as I’m aware, a z-list celebrity, I must rely on the slushpile as my best chance. Or, I could follow TGOB’s no doubt excellent advice and give up completely.
Which leads me to a writer whose work I have a great deal of respect for – Steve Kelner. He’s a psychologist, and his book, Motivate your Writing came out a year or two back. His thesis is also very interesting.
He asserts that all humans have three social motives that drive them. These motivations are subconscious and something we have no control over. They are affiliation, power, and achievement. While we have all three to some degree, we tend have at least one stronger than the other two. People who are focused on achievement are all about doing things better, those focused on affiliation are all about friendly relationships whereas those focused on power are all about making an impact on others. We can behave in the same way, but from different motives. So, many people write, but they will do so from different motives. It’s possible through indirect analysis to come to some conclusions about what one’s own motivations are and use that knowledge to focus one’s writing.
Here are some exercises Kelner provided on his blog, to help with this analysis.
1. List what you like to do for fun, including writing, and why you like it, if possible.
In other words, if you like to golf, say, do you like it because (a) you like testing yourself against your handicap and bettering it, (b) it’s fun to hang out with your friends, (c) you like trying to beat people, or (d) you like drinking beer and driving golf carts like a maniac? You can do the same behaviour out of different motives (and vice versa).
If you list “reading,” what genres do you like to read? Different motives relate to different genres.
2. What do you daydream about? Can you write it down in some detail? Not just “win a prize for my writing,” but “I picture myself going up and picking up the Hugo in front of a room full of cheering fans.” Get past the simple fact and explain what makes this daydream fun, if you can. This is a clue to where your thoughts tend to go!
3. What would you like written on your tombstone? Or, to put it another way, what would you like to be known for?
The Big Question: Are there any basic patterns to what you like, what you think about, what you want on your tombstone? The pattern should be about the feelings, or the domain of the goal.
I was surprised to discover that what seems to motivate me is power, which makes me tend to think that I’m unlikely to follow TGOB’s advice and give up, not yet anyway.