The danger of wanting to be a writer is that it generally means “I want to get published, I want to win an award, I want to have a book.” And if that’s what’s driving you as a writer, you’ll never create anything worthwhile—even if you’re capable of it.
The title of this post comes from another quote mentioned elsewhere in the piece, and between that and the quote excerpted above I had plenty of things to chew on.
There is little that's worse for any artistic endeavor than mixed motives. It is too easy for people not to be sincere with themselves about what they want and how they plan to get it. You tell yourself you want something for reasons that have nothing to do with you or the thing itself, and after a while, you believe it — even if the whole process of telling yourself such things is a product of some misdirected motivation.
I've been there myself, enough times that I ran out of fingers to count them on. Example: I wanted to be an artist, so I took some time off to refine my primitive drawing skills — but I found myself in the middle of a session, pencil in hand, looking back over my shoulder at the keyboard. I didn't want to be drawing; I wanted to be writing. Eventually I put the pencil down, turned off the lightbox, and continued the novel I'd abandoned months earlier. I wasn't thinking about finished drawings; I was thinking about how I could brag to my friends and show them the resulting work.
This is not to say that taking pride in your work is a bad thing. It's that as a motive it all too easily hijacks other things. Pride in your work for the sake of bragging to others is a side effect of being devoted to what you do. As Brad Warner once said about enlightenment in relation to practicing Buddhism, that's the B-side and the remix, not the album cut.
One of the saddest things any writer of means can face is another would-be writer whose greatest avowed ambition is to be Rich and Famous. I know a great deal of working writers who are neither of those things, who are ostensibly more famous in their humdrum workaday jobs than they are as a writer, and more often than not have made orders of magnitude more money in said jobs than they ever did as a writer. It was once possible for someone to make a decent living and feed a family as an author of short stories or novels; such days are long gone. The best advice one can give any writer is to always know how to do something else, but to never stop writing anyway. (Irony: the real writers never need to be told to not stop writing. They do it even if everyone around them tells them to stop, and even if they are genuinely terrible at it.)
What's more, I know of no writer who walks around whispering sweet nothings into the ears of these poor fools, bewitching them with promises of piles of greenbacks and their names in five different kinds of lighting. From all I've seen, such folks don't need to be conned: they con themselves just fine. Why go through the trouble of having someone else trick you when you can usually do the job on your own, and for less cost?
It's sad to see people entertain such ideas — even and especially when backed up by the kind of go-getter, In Search of Excellence mentality that many people assume will automatically translate into success. They will not be swayed by any amount of talk about how much fame sucks, about how most rich people are still miserable (although certainly a hell of a lot more comfortable), and how the ultimate reward for writing a book is to have written a book. They will have to find out all these things for themselves the hard way. I say let them.
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Other Lives Of The Mind