Hunter S. Thompson was a successful man. I say man instead of writer because he lived his life on his own terms, which can best be classified as anti-authoritarian and sometimes downright illegal. He was a thinker and philosopher, he cared about politics and the world around him, and he’s probably most famous for creating gonzo journalism (as well as being played by Johnny Depp in the quite brilliant Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). This was a man who even managed the spectacular in death with his ashes being fired from a cannon. He was original. He made his mark on the world and part of his success was not in what he produced, but in the way he lived.
Over the week I’ve been going back repeatedly to an article on Brain Pickings (a website I recommend but not if you’ve got stuff to do), where some of his ideas are explored. Within the various quotes he talks about how people are formed and changed by experience, and the importance of taking control of your own choices.
What really struck home with me were his thoughts on striving towards a goal, and what a risky endeavour this can be if a person is faced with ‘the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it’. Anyone who faces professional self-doubt, rejection or just sheer exhaustion from the daily grind of trying to move closer to their goal must have this fear.
So how do you keep going? A change in approach, that’s how. Thompson suggests ‘we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires—including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL… rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he [must] bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires.
‘In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life — the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.’ (I’d like to point out that I’m pretty sure this philosophy works for women too).
I spent many years writing towards the goal of publication. That was the only thing that mattered to me and as a consequence I rushed my writing, I stopping enjoying the process and it showed in my work. It has taken me a long time to realise that publication will not make me happy. Of course I want people to read my work. Spending years writing a book with no-one to read it at the end is soul-destroying, but I now know that it’s the writing itself, the way of life, that is most meaningful to me. Those mornings when I’m sitting on the sofa, a cup of freshly brewed coffee to hand, and I’m writing stories. It is the experience and the process that equal fulfilment, publication is just a side-effect.
Writers have to define their own understanding of success, whether that means great sales or just finding a way to keep writing. It’s clear that there is no right or wrong way to live a writer’s life, and in this digital age there are more alternatives than ever to the traditional publishing route. Social media, collaboration and innovation all have their part to play, not just in the development of individual writers, but also how the written word is going to evolve in the future. At the heart of this though has to be the work itself. Strong imaginative storytelling. Compelling and original characters. A writer with something to say to the world, something to share. These are my definitions of success. and while I’m not planning on blowing my ashes out of a cannon anytime soon, I’ll be striving to live my life on my own terms until I do.