A Writer’s Ego: Friend or Foe?

I’m not a big believer in writer’s block or in nurturing my “inner artist child,” partly because I worked as a newspaper reporter. At the newspaper, no one sipped tea or recited affirmations or took a stroll through the garden for inspiration. If you wanted to keep your job, then you met your deadlines. Period.

Creative writing, on the other hand, is, well, creative and therefore more mysterious. To become a writer, I’ve mostly followed the rules: reading as many great books as I could, earning my MFA, devouring (and, for a brief time, teaching) books on writing. Now, years into my apprenticeship, after scribbling on the bus and during my lunch hours, I have completed my first manuscript, which has received accolades from published writers and a professional editor. I feel that I am a writer now because I have written. But when it comes to being an author, I feel overwhelmed and a little lost.

I used to want to get published because I wanted a cushy tenure-track teaching job. It’s interesting how writing and teaching are so intertwined. My writing friends who work in cubicles like I do often feel like failures because they do not have a teaching job, as if teaching would mean they were “real” writers. But I’m not sure who is writing more: the teachers or the cube dwellers.

I also wanted to get published because I wanted validation. I wanted to be ordained by some unnamed group of real writers, who would take me into their fold and embrace me as one of their own. Regardless of our vocation, I think we all need to know that we are good enough, but is our hunt for “proof” counterproductive or is it helpful? Some writers in my tribe whom I admire have said very clearly that ego motivated them and heavily contributed to their eventual publication. Ego plays less of a role in my life than it used to, which worries me.

My memoir is about how I had to let go of some of that ego when I experienced chronic illness in my late 20s. Categories such as health/sickness, success/failure, happy/sad sort of broke apart and disintegrated, and I had to find a new way to order my life and to look at the world. I know this will sound un-American to some of you, but to a great degree, it doesn’t really matter whether I publish my book or not, not in the large scheme of things. Publishing my book, or not publishing my book, doesn’t define me.

I know that ego is still part of the process, though, because I feel afraid when I go to write my draft letters to agents, and when I try to revise my book description and brainstorm titles. Though it’s not true, I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, like I have to read more books and hire a consultant. There is still a fear of failing. But I want to let go of that fear and find something else besides ego to hold onto that will motivate me to get through the next phase of my project. I think part of the fear is knowing that publication (unlike making time to write) is not totally in my control. I’m going to have to give up control over the manuscript, and that’s kind of scary.

If fantasies of fame and acceptance don’t appeal to me the way they once did, then what is going to make facing this fear worth it?

I keep coming back to this one idea: people will see themselves in my book, and they will feel less alone. Maybe there is still ego in this idea, but I do believe that my book could help people, the way many books have helped me.

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2 Responses to A Writer’s Ego: Friend or Foe?

  1. splendidbauble says:

    I think part of growing up is learing how to channel one’s ego away from the simple quest for affirmation/adulation that occupies most of one’s life before age 25. Life becomes less about “What do I want?” and more “What ought I do?” Some people remain trapped among their wants and fail to realize that the world at large only tangentially cares (if at all) what a single individual wants. Others follow the path of “What ought I do?”, where ego becomes subsumed under “duty,” which takes the individual outside of oneself and places the ego in the service of something or someone else.

    Also, writers have a gift. However, not all writers use their gift the same way. Some squander it and never use it. Others write only because their jobs demand it. Still others write because they feel a responsibility to communicate what they have learned for the benefit of others.

    The way I see it, you’re going to write no matter what. That’s just who you are. Whether you get published is somewhat beyond your control, but the impetus remains entirely yours. It’s okay that seeking fame is less of a motivation for you for getting published. Your ending idea above should be the guiding light—perhaps instead of “ego,” think in terms of “duty.” You have a gift, and you believe that people will benefit from hearing your story. Thus, it should be your responsibility to make sure those persons have the opportunity to read your story. Publishing your book is no longer simply what you want to do, but instead what you ought to do. Maybe thinking in these terms will help allay some of the fears and uncertainties of getting published.

    • Jenny Dolan says:

      Thank you, SB also known as AS. That is a really good way to think about it. Maybe if I could stop thinking period, that would solve all my issues. 🙂 I am definitely cutting down on thinking. I swear.

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