Ambition in writers

Cartoon of a man writing
In 2006 I read an article about ambition in writers written by Michael Allen.

I knew it was a good article. (I printed a copy and reread it every year or so.) But ironically, I was so deeply mired in my own ambitions, I didn’t realise quite how good it was until now.

Michael is a 73-year-old author living in Dorset. Over the past fifty or so years he has met a lot of fellow writers. And, he says, most have one glaring thing in common: “Their immensely powerful ambition.”

They all yearn for success – to be famous, to make stacks of money, to be interviewed on TV, to be critically acclaimed.

Michael estimates that only 0.1% of writers write for the pure pleasure and satisfaction of writing and 99.9% write because of an “overwhelming (sometimes “lunatic”) ambition”!

He knows because he used to belong to the latter camp himself.

The question is, is all this ambition healthy? Not according to psychiatrist Dr W. Beran Wolfe, who is not a man to mince his words:

“The ambitious man has very little time for the communal fellowship that is so necessary for true happiness.”

“The ambitious are constantly in a state of tension.”

Of course, not all creative ambition creates such tension. There are different sorts.

Tension-inducing ambition is usually linked to the ego (by a sense of ‘lack’, of not being good enough, or of needing to ‘prove’ yourself). Specifically, Dr Wolfe says, ambition is motivated by a sense of inferiority. (Oh.)

Whereas the sort of ambition not noted for causing tension-induced migraines, is motivated by the pleasure and satisfaction of simply creating something; the love of creativity itself.

Luckily, there’s an easy way to tell which type of ambition you favour:

Just think about your most extravagant daydreams. What do you imagine when you fantasise about achieving success as a writer? What happens? How do you feel? And who, if anyone, are you trying to impress? (This works for any ambition, literary or otherwise.)

For me it has never been about fame, fast cars or mansions (which is fortuitous, as none of these are likely to be making an appearance in my life anytime soon). However, confidence, money, freedom, and approval (from friends, family and myself) – these are all high up on the list.

The next step is a little scary, so brace yourself…

Michael recommends figuring out what in the past has made you feel inferior to the person, or people, you are trying to impress:

“Ask yourself 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?”

Before you pack your typewriter away, he’s not saying that we shouldn’t have dreams and aspirations. Or that we should give up writing altogether.

What he is saying is that sometimes ambition can get out of hand. And when that happens, it’s a good idea to take a step back.

I happen to think he has a point. Because I have fallen into the same trap myself.

Remember when I said last week that I was waiting to hear back from a literary agent before starting to write any more stories? And that I thought this was a convenient excuse to avoid sitting down in front of a blank page?

Well, ambition plays a key part in this. The more ambitious my dreams, the greater my anxiety about falling short and not being able to produce the goods. Hence the stalling.

If you’re anything like me, you can bet you’re not enjoying yourself as much as you could. In fact, your ambition could be making you downright miserable. Because when you’re focused on the end goal all the time, and on constantly striving, you forget one simple, inescapable fact: that happiness lies in enjoying the steps along the way.

(Oops, in my hurry to get somewhere, I kind of forgot that!)

Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is an expert on this topic. He says;

“When you have a path and you enjoy every step on your path, you are already someone. You don’t need to become someone else.

We don’t put a goal in front of ourselves and run after it constantly. If we do, we’ll be running all our life and never be happy. Happiness is only possible when you stop running and cherish the present moment and who you are.”

So thank you Michael Allen, for reminding me of the importance of writing in the present moment. And of the benefits of adopting this approach:

“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.”


P.S. A few days ago I emailed the literary agency I was waiting for a response from to check they had received the submission I sent on April 7th. Within hours I received an email explaining that they sent me a reply on May 16th and they were sorry they could not make me an offer of representation.

I never received their email – so I ‘waited’ 3 months for a rejection which was actually sent 2 months ago!

Serves me right!!!

4 thoughts on “Ambition in writers”

  1. Hey, at least you tried to get an agent, and I’m sure you’ll try again. But this time you won’t put yourself under so much pressure or feel so tense, I bet. I worked at a literary agency once and they were swamped with unsolicited submissions every day. Don’t lose heart; good writing does get noticed eventually because it stands out from all the c*@p!

    I think the reason I write (or draw) is that I’ve always felt an urge to ‘get it out’ of me so I don’t bottle it up and feel frustrated. I used to write lengthy scripts for TV/film and was convinced they would bring me success. Nope. These days I’m happier just to write a few lines or knock out a quick sketch that amuses me and hopefully a few other people, and that’s enough.

    Thanks Sparky! x


    1. Thanks Richard! You’re right – too much tension and pressure are not good for creativity. Next time I’ll chill out a bit more and I’m sure my writing will be better for it. I really admire what you’ve done since the 30 Day Challenge and how you just go for it and ‘get it out’…Interesting how you initially thought script writing was your thing but are actually happier writing a few lines or ‘knocking out a quick sketch’! I wonder how many other people out there think something is ‘their thing’, only to realise it’s a slightly different medium that really suits them? (That’s food for thought for me…). Yours with sparks on x


  2. Enjoyed this post immensely – I think one of the reasons I’ve slowed lately is that I’ve been trying to write my MS as though it’s already a finished product, always thinking of the ending, and what comes next. I need to sit down and enjoy writing it, and then see what happens next when the time is right for that.
    Thanks for the insight!


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