Ambition Versus Contentment

Used bookstores seem to have the magical ability to provide you just the book you needed, no matter what you thought you were looking for. We recently visited Parnassus Books in Yarmouthport, MA, where amidst the creaking floors and old paper aroma, I found a 1954 edition of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. 

In 1903, the 27-year-old Rilke replied to a letter from a teenaged poet looking for reassurance. He had little to give:

You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before ... Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart ...

The teenaged poet, like so many writers, wanted to create something "good." But no, that's not quite right. He wanted to write a poem that would earn someone else's approval. Rilke, however, counsels him against this. Don't look outward, he says. Find why you need to write, and follow that vein of gold down into the heart of your own mountain.  Don't want something that you can't give yourself.

Buddhism argues that desire causes suffering, and it's hard to disagree. Just ask my four-year-old: when we don't receive what we want, it sure hurts. Like the time I cried myself to sleep over that rejection ... or that one ... or ... You get the idea. 

Yet most (all?) people are designed to want. And in many ways, this yearning drives us to accomplish. Ambition, the desire to have more than our current lot, fuels human striving to build, earn, and help. Ambition prompts writers to want to find an agent, publish a manuscript, sell books, earn awards, and always search for the next step.  It's awesome, and it gives us drive.

But that ambition comes at the cost of contentment. When we desire something that is not within our grasp, we suffer when we fall short.  I really want to have a story published in that prestigious magazine that would be such a good fit ... but they rejected it.  Ouch.  Like a door closed right in my face.  

I could decide not to care, right?  Not to want a story published in The Paris Review or my other favorites.  Yet to live without ambition may seem unthinkable. How can a writer avoid the tears spilled over another rejection, yet still care about her work?

Rilke suggests the answer, I think. Though he himself suffered, he also seemed to know that ultimately we write for ourselves. We may write to be read, but if we don't first write to please ourselves, to satisfy our desire to create art, we will founder on the shores of desire, longing for extrinsic gratification that can't ever satisfy us.

I've been thinking a lot about this balance, as I watch my inbox hoping for good news from a literary magazine, or as I enjoy the intrinsic pleasure of researching and writing my fiction. I see my friends struggle with it too: agonizing over silence from publishers, delighting in the temporary high of an acceptance. That's the delightful rollercoaster of life, and I wouldn't want to get off. I love the excitement that comes with desiring something out of reach, even if it comes at the cost of agonizing over what I've lost. But I want to keep an eye on that balance. And I hope those whom I love can too.

With Pitch Wars approaching, I know lots of writers will be hoping for something that statistically, many won't attain. That's ok. Enjoy the thrill of desire. But look inward, to the reason that bids you write. And love that.