As a Writer: The Ego and the Beast
Before I was published, every writer friend I knew who was told me ad nauseum to cherish that time because it would only get harder, that being unpublished was this golden field of innocence I’d never get back again. I wanted to clock every one of them that told me that, and I couldn’t wait to show them how much they were wrong. And you know what? I was right. They were wrong.
The problem with looking back or looking forward from published to unpublished or vice-versa is that it’s a lot like when you’re in high school and every adult is telling you how hard it is to be an adult and to treasure your freedom. I wanted to clock adults then too, because I knew damn well I didn’t have freedom. Or rather, what freedom I had was nothing compared to the freedom I didn’t have. It’s also a lot like when you have a kid and someone has an older kid and they say, “Just you wait.” What irritates is this knowing tone, this idea that you’re a silly creature who doesn’t know what they have. That you are a kid, that you’re naive and untried. And at the same time it’s saying you are naive and untried, and that this is good, except you just can’t be happy and stay where you are.
Or it’s just that condescending tone. Holy crap, but I hate that.
It is true that writers who have not yet shared their work publicly have some freedoms, but they don’t have a lot of other things too. They don’t have feedback. They don’t have the thrill of seeing their name on a cover. They haven’t played the sometimes maddening game of publishing. The world is still theoretically their oyster. But what published authors are truly longing for, I think, is that moment when the only voices inside their head besides their own were those of their characters. Because once you send your story out into the world and into the wilds of Amazon.com and B&N and Goodreads, into the arms of review sites and bestseller charts and all kinds of other scary discos, no matter how you try, you’re never alone again. And your ego, your poor, precious, deluded ego starts taking on transformations even Mr. Hyde wouldn’t consider, and there’s no real way to stop it.
Ego is so complicated. If you’re female, you were conditioned from birth to not have one, to conform both for niceness and safety. If you’re from the U.S. Midwest or Great Britain or a number of religions, you aren’t allowed to have an ego, either, unless you are pious or great or touched by God or some equal deity, and even then you should at least appear humble. This is all very nice on paper, but it really sucks for writers, because if anyone needs ego, they do. Writers are the entire Hollywood production: author, director, editor, gaffer, craft services, assistant, garbage boy, and bartender. Writers have to have the audacity to create and then to schlock their shit, to try and sell it. Writers have to write glowing stuff on their websites and in their blurbs and all over the place, and usually writers come from the most neurotic, paranoid, painfully introverted corners of the human psyche.
Writers in short are usually terrified house cats pretending they’re lions, and that’s the only role they’re allowed. Which is a hard enough row to hoe. But this is the stuff every writer deals with, published or not.
Published authors’ egos, however, go out into the wilds of the world and find the terrible, inescapable truth. The real lions.
Oh, readers. We all want them. We all love them–and be honest, writers. We all fear them. Readers don’t pretend anything. They just are. They have big, terrible paws, and they have talons that can, even by accident, rip us in half and with hardly any effort at all. Not because readers are mean, no. Readers are just so much bigger than we are, and frankly on the whole so much more sane. Even the ones that like us are terrifying. They see us as lions, see us as greats, and all we can think of is how important it is they never see how badly we come unglued in the middle of writing our story.
Reviewers, professional and casual, bring the same dangers, because they’re all readers too. They look at us and see us and they shine flashlights on everything, and suddenly this idea of putting our stuff out there is starting to look like the dumbest thing we could have done. Just today I was talking to an author who has recently won many awards and is working on the next story. “What if they don’t like this one? It’s going to be different. What if they hate this one? They might. What if this one is good but no one cares because it’s not the first one?”
Every author reading this is nodding and trying to remember if they talked to me today, and they’re reaching for alcohol or chocolate. Because this is all of us. We have all been here, and we will all be there again. And yes, we sometimes think with fondness back to the days when nothing mattered, when we just wrote like the blind fools we were, hoping one day we could be a big kitty too.
Ego is essential to writing, but it’s never enough, and it’s never comfortable. If it is, it’s a fleeting moment, and we spend far too much time once it evaporates wondering why and how to get it back. Like all human beings, writers want safe. We want to find that spot where we can be successful and sane at the same time. Where we can work and collect prizes for our good deeds and then close the office door and do the job that needs to be done. We tell ourselves and each other things like, “None of it matters. Only the work matters.”
Deep down we know that’s bullshit, don’t we. Fuck yes the awards matter! Do I want a cookie? Yes I want a cookie! Do I want the biggest cookie? Oh yes I want the biggest cookie. Do I want all the other people with cookies to look fondly at me and wish they could someday have the cookies I have? Oh yeah.
But I don’t want any of the weird that comes with that spot, thanks. I’d like to leave out the jealousy, the neurosis, and the panic-attacks, the fear that I won’t be able to keep that spot, the pressure to not just stay there but go higher, even if I have to knit my own ladder in between bouts of writing. And while you’re at it, I’d like some Iowa beachfront property. Okay? Thanks.
There is no magic way to come to terms with the fact that our egos are never going to be able to handle the insanity that being a published writer demands, and we all have to find a way to live with the uncertainty and fear that gap generates. A lot of us use displacement, putting the fear somewhere else. Some of us fear particular review sites or social media. Some of us slam the doors hard and put on a costume to go outside and only when we must. Some of us, unfortunately, try to “win.” We’ve all encountered the authors that try to take on the lions by shaming them for existing, or by puffing themselves up. They lecture to readers or go off on tirades. They do anything possible to both look like a lion and convince lions they are in fact little bitty kitties. It works about as well as it sounds like it would.
Most of us just fumble along, trying to look like we really do know how to dress ourselves, trying to appear normal and humble and put-together and happy and solvent and all the things we aren’t. We have our moments where we try too hard, and sometimes that leaks into our stories. We write a trope because we feel we “should.” We write another novel in that series even though we don’t want to because we’re afraid of what will happen if we don’t. We read Goodreads reviews when we damn well know we are not in the mindset to do so, and we ignore the thirty glowing reviews and descend sobbing into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s over the one two star review that said we phoned it in or some other secret shame we were harboring in our hearts. We cry and rant to each other and then feel hot, blinding jealousy when our writer BFF gets an award that we don’t or a review that we don’t, and then we feel horrible that we got jealous and beat our egos up all over again.
Yeah. It was a lot, lot easier before publishing got involved.
But what ticked me off when I wasn’t published and people told me I “had it so easy,” what I try and hold to today when the lions are looking hungry and are starting to circle, is that fucked up or not, this is the game I wanted to play, and yeah, I do like it. I wanted it, in fact, because it wasn’t safe. Because when I’m a reader, I’m a lion too, and I know what it’s like to be hungry. Because I wanted to try to fill some of the voids I felt when I was reading. Because I felt like I had a voice and I wanted to be heard.
What I try to remember is that I really am a house cat in a den of lions as an author, that choosing to write and share is choosing to serve, not to rule. That trying to turn myself into something bigger isn’t going to help. That writing the stories I used to love to just read doesn’t make me swell, it makes me shrink, because that’s the only place I can be to see to write them down.
The other thing I cling to — and this one gets so hard some days — is that lions aren’t being mean, they’re being lions. Readers do not write reviews to make me feel bad; they write reviews because that’s what they thought of the story. Some of the readers are fans and want to know all about my sandbox and how I play in it, but most of them frankly just want dinner, and they want good dinner, and if it’s not good dinner they’re going to complain, because that’s their right as a reader. And to that end, they are especially uninterested in my tantrums or poutings or self-conscious prattle here, there, or anywhere. They just want me to work. They don’t want to have to mother me or humor me. They just want to read and then go back to being lions.
I fail. I fail a lot in my attempts to keep my ego healthy, and sometimes it gets away from me. But you know what no published author ever told me that I’m going to tell you? Yes, it was easier in some ways to be unpublished, but most of the time being published is a lot of fun. I like the money a lot, but I like knowing I make people happy too. Most days I like the chaos and the mess. Most days I like what I do, even when it’s hard.
And the best part? Every book may get harder to write just like the published authors told me, but every book gets easier too. Because every time I get snarled and stuck and freaked out, I look back and the work I’ve done and remind myself I’ve done this before and survived and sometimes even did very well. With every book I write I have that much more success behind me. And yes, some “failures” too. Books that didn’t do as well as I wanted, books the lions are still sort of picking at and trying to decide if they want to eat them.
Most of all, I’ve learned (and learn more every day) to accept the fact that the “bigger” I get, the smaller I am. The more I learn, the less I know. Instead of climbing higher on a ladder, I am becoming a smaller and smaller point in an increasingly vast universe. The only security is that I invent. The only safety is that I imagine. The more success I have means nothing at all, really, and neither do the failures. In fact, I can alter the text on either and turn them into anything I want at almost any time.
I do my best to feed my ego but with food I control, and I don’t rely on lions to feed me. I set goals for myself with variables I can to some extent manage. I view pleasing the lions as a game, not as a necessity to my health and happiness. And I am a lion too at times, reading and making judgments and being critical, because that’s my right, to be a reader too. To be a lion too.
Except I know now I’m only sort of a lion. I know I never really was a lion, that I was always writing, that I am always writing. That’s okay. Sometimes it’s just nice to pretend.