“I want to be the most famous writer alive and the greatest writer ever.” T. Coraghessan Boyle
In her chapter “The Personalities of Creative Writers” of the book The Psychology of Creative Writing (by creativity researchers Scott Barry Kaufman and James C. Kaufman), Jane Piirto includes a section on Ambition and Envy.
She notes “Ambition and its doppelganger, envy, are not unknown among writers. For example, the writer T. Coraghessan Boyle said he wanted to be ‘the most famous writer alive and the greatest writer ever.’
“Other writers who, like Boyle, have studied at the famous Iowa Writers’ Work- shop have also asserted this ambition,” she adds.
“The writer Jane Smiley, then a recent graduate of the University of Iowa with a PhD in medieval literature, told me the same thing late one August night in a darkened van on our way to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 1977 when we were confessing our dreams and hopes.”
Smiley has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 2006, she received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. [Info from her site.]
The underside of ambition
Piirto notes “Writers need ambition, as do other creative producers, but that ambition often produces horrible feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.
“This may be because of the intimate subject matter of the creative writer – the self or the self, coded. The high rate of rejection that creative writers experience when they try to publish their work may also contribute to the intense feelings of envy paired with intense ambition.”
Piirto includes comments by poet Molly Peacock about her ambition [from an interview for Poets & Writers Magazine]:
“From when I was a little girl I wanted to be an artist, and I said to myself, ‘Somehow I’m getting out of Buffalo, New York.’ I had a drive to get out of that house and that town. That takes ambition, and my ambition is located in that very early desire to succeed.
“Of course, you can’t be published in The New Yorker without a drive to succeed. But also you can’t be published in issue one, volume one, of a brand new, teeny-tiny literary enterprise without a similar hunger for success…Ambition is a fact of anyone’s life who aspires to anything.”
Drive and envy
Piirto thinks “The shadow side of the drive and resilience it takes to continue in the creative writing profession is the envy that one feels at the success of others.
“Envy can paralyze, but it can also serve to motivate. Friedman [Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, by Bonnie Friedman] called envy ‘the writer’s disease’.
Friedman wrote, “It’s desire that causes envy. Isn’t desire the villain here? Yet how to be an artist without desire.” Writers project that other writers are happy, successful, famous, and admired, and in so doing they give part of themselves away to the power of the extrinsic. How much praise and adulation is enough?”
How do these aspects of ambition and envy play out for you?
Especially as I am getting ready to publish a “real” book (as opposed to my brief Kindle titles), I feel even more envy of those who are not only able to make a living from writing, but have a positive impact on many people through their creative work.
And I have been enjoying the teaching and (sometimes frenetic) video presentations of Brendon Burchard about developing and marketing information products based on one’s expertise. You can learn more and see a video of him in my Inner Entrepreneur post Publish your expertise to help other people.
Photo of Molly Peacock (by Marc Royce) from her site mollypeacock.org
Jane Piirto is author of many books including:
“My teeming brain”: Understanding creative writers