I’m going to tell the story of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, so if you don’t want to know what happens, look away now.
An old Cuban fisherman, down on his luck, sets sail and goes beyond his normal fishing grounds. He hooks a marlin, really big; the biggest of his lifetime. The two of them set-to in a relentless battle: day and night, his boat dragged farther and farther into the Gulf, his hands cut-up by the fishing line and still he persists. In the end, he defeats the fish. On the way back, sharks begin to nip at the carcass until, by the time he reaches the village, the big fish is nothing but a skeleton. The bones are pushed around by the waves, mistaken by locals as just another shark. The man collapses to his bed, exhausted, and sleeps.
You set out to achieve something big, you get it, but in the end, what do you have? On the other hand, there may be some gain. The story ends with the old man’s dream of lions on a beach.
Let me tell you another story. This time a true one, told to me by a friend. Before the last Olympics, a British champion – who has dreamt all her life of winning an international gold medal – waits to take the only automatic place on offer for gymnastics. But the British Olympic Committee organises further events as a decider. She loses to a teammate and is put on the reserve list, then watches as her rival fails in one of the events she could have shone in. No matter, the Commonwealth Games are coming up and she is guaranteed automatic entry. A month before the Games she has a serious injury and cannot go. She will retire before she can compete again.
Science tells us that human beings have an inbuilt optimism: ask a newly-married couple if they are likely to divorce and they will say no – statistics show a 50/50 chance*. Like players of the lottery, we ignore the statistics and buy our tickets every day.
Writers are no different. After eleven years, I am still quietly confident, but I increasingly focus on ‘learning how to write’ as an achievement I can point to. Truth is, my original ambition may never be realised.
There are some who publish and are happy with their success. Others, like the fisherman, find the prize quickly disappears in front of them. Others still, never achieve what they wanted – through unexpected events, bad luck, perhaps even lack of will or talent. They are constantly denied and, in the end, have to accept the loss. What do those people do? How do they make sense of what has happened?
I have no answers for this, just a question that hovers around and occasionally causes me to look into the future: I hope I will get what I want. But, what if?