Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want

Today I read a beautiful essay from Salman Rushdie, reflecting on the fortieth anniversary of his novel, Midnight’s Children.

40 years is a long time for a book still to be finding new readers and becoming a favourite (as it did instantly for me), and I found it utterly endearing to hear how much joy this fact brings him.

Rushdie explains that as he was trying to understand what this story would become, he was drawn over and over to “books that try to gather up large armfuls of the world” (excellent fodder, obvi), but the thing that stood out to me most was his honest admission of huge ambition:

“I wanted to write a novel of vaulting ambition, a high-wire act with no safety net, an all-or-nothing effort: Bollywood or bust, as one might say… I was an inexperienced, unsuccessful, unknown writer. To write such a book I had to learn how to do so; to learn by writing it. Five years passed before I was ready to show it to anybody.”

It’s no small thing to make this kind of confession in a place as grouchy and cynical as the internet.

Of course, he’s buffered somewhat by having since become a literary treasure, but I was struck by how frank he was about what he wanted back then, before he had done anything to, well, deserve such an ambition.

It would have been so easy for him to gloss over this part of his motivation, to focus more on his noble pursuit of creating art for the ages.

But in the end, the thing that makes Salman Rushdie a wonderful novelist is his veracity and his instinct for writing what is real, and it’s a lesson I want to highlight here, for my own benefit as much as yours:

To be a great writer you have to know what you want.

You have to acknowledge your huge ambitions. You have to embrace the ruthless part of yourself that wants things. And you have to get comfortable with the fact that you just might get them, even if it takes a while.

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing. It could be a generation-defining novel; it could be a private musing on how you want to show up in your life.

Whatever it is, the key that unlocks writing this powerful is facing the truth that drives it. So ask yourself, before starting: what is it that I really want? And then allow yourself to hear and see and understand the truth of your answer.