I had a mild run in with a fellow scribe – you know where I think mean thoughts really hard while they trample all over me.. and then I feel really guilty 😦 but it got me thinking in surprising ways about success.
Does unhappiness drive success?
I’m not speaking about the oft speculated relationship between depression and creativity but rather something more ordinary. Is there something missing, some need never met, some slight or hurt never mended that motivates successful people?
Mention Hemingway and before a picture, a word pops into your mind, comes a sense of restlessness. A man filled with bitterness, hatred – more for himself than any others perhaps but it drove him.
The Fitzgeralds famously lived their own stories, wild, debauched, tragic.
But even beyond the more obvious stories of the self destructers which fame inevitably will throw up, the respectable lives of those like JK Rowling have been marred by early traumas. Her mother was diagnosed with MS when she was in her teens, and she has mentioned briefly a difficult relationship with her father. By the time she was writing Harry Potter she had married and separated and was alone with her infant daughter.
Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged
And she is far from alone. Illness and errant parents are riddled through the histories of famous novelists. King reported his father as going out for ‘a pack of smokes’ when he was still a toddler. He has yet to return. Enid Blyton refused to attend either of her parents funerals. It might have had something to do with her father leaving for another woman when she was in her early teens, something she obviously held both parents responsible for.
Of course if you keep going further back, poverty, hardship and illness are so common as to hardly set the successful writer apart from any other man. Then there are those like Austen, who for all we know lived a cosy and sheltered life surrounded by her extensive and highly supportive family. Yet she persevered in a industry considered by all and large to be a pursuit unsuitable for a woman. Her family are considered to have been instrumental in her success. Her father is credited with her first sale, though it did not lead to publication, after already trying and failing at least once prior to this, some reports suggest without her knowledge. After his passing her brother, Henry, took over as her literary agent.
Her father’s passing brought some financial difficulties which might have fuelled her desire to become published. An early work, written while in Bath, a move she was apparently very unhappy with, shows how strongly she felt her dependence as a woman. Go back even further to one of her first teenaged scribbles and the gentle and appropriate Austen of later works is completely absent. Age taught her to layer her feelings deep within her works but in youth her hunger for independence and respect, if not even power, certainly power over her own fate, is revealed.
Scientists (including my friend who may soon be attaching my brain to electrodes O.O) have long tried to study and pin down the creative mind, to understand what drives the greats. We assign so much value to what they have given us, writer, composers, artists, but is it the work that truly sets them apart, are their brains really that different, or is it merely that they were the few who pushed through and survived while others fell away? Were untold symphonies and unheard masterpieces lost to happy childhoods? Buried under the weight of family albums?
Malcolm Gladwell coined the phrase, 10,000 hours, you might have heard it. The number of hours of practice required to elevate the few to greatness, measured by studying the lives and work of those outliers that have achieved success beyond mortal reach. His aim of course was to demystify the process. And I am largely in favour of that. Artistry is a little too self consciously desirable along with associated madness, suffering and tragedy. Everyone and their bi-polar aunty is lining up to talk about how they very nearly, almost, might have cut of their ear- well the hair growing out of it anyway.
but I heard a parent of a gifted child, ask once, yes they work hard, very hard, but where does that energy come from?
Passion seems too simple an answer. Does passion require an audience? Why was Jane not content with reading aloud to her family every night? She seemed content in other ways with a quiet and secluded life.
Perhaps the most well known example of passion was Vincent Van Gogh, the man who really did cut of his ear, though for all we know he was going for the hairs. In posthumous remembrance he shines as bright as any other immortal creative, but in reality his life was torture, his work dismissed by the few who were even aware of him. And it seems he did not persevere to find his audience. In fact its safe to say whatever drove him, drove many places, before it drove him right off the cliff.
Nietzsche said the only thing required for art was ‘frenzy’, of spirit, of mind.
Its not the first word I think of when I consider Harper Lee, who published only one work. Or JD Salinger who published his last work some forty odd years before his death. Then there are those who came to the craft late – some might say they aren’t artists, not by Neietzsche’s standards – the john Grisham’s and James Pattersons, who both had successful careers in other areas before committing themselves to writing. But however you regard them as artists, they are undeniably successful writers.
I have no idea what drives them. Ego, passion, misery. I wonder if they know themselves. Each guess might seem as good as another. But I have passion and I often wonder if, alone, it is enough. I certainly don’t seem to have the ego to tell me I am good enough. Still of all the consolations I have been offered this might be the best
you are not a multi award wining millionaire writer cause you’re just too damn happy 😀