A Writer’s Ego

[UPDATE: I don’t know what happened with my post today. The text came out white on Google Reader I was told. I tried to fix it and stuff happened. So here it is again]

We all have egos. We all enjoy being praised by others, being recognized, even singled out. We sometimes talk of the “healthy ego.” The drive to be good at something, and to have achievement recognized and rewarded, is a sign of a healthy ego.

But when those desires start to take over, the ego becomes unhealthy. Surveys of today’s young peopleconsistently show that their overarching goal is not to be a good citizen, have a family, or contribute something lasting to society. It’s to become rich and famous.

The unhealthy ego lurks in the shadows. It secretly wishes to see perceived competition fail, and gets envious when someone else achieves what it so desperately wants for itself.
Ann Lamott wrote about the latter in her great book on writing, Bird by Bird:
If you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with [envy] because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you . . .You are going to feel awful beyond words. you are going to have a number of days in a row where you hate everyone and don’t believe in anything. if you do know the author whose turn it is, he or she will inevitably say that it will be your turn next, which is what the bride always says to you at each successive wedding, while you grow older and more decayed.
It can wreak just the tiniest bit of havoc with your self-esteem to find that you are hoping for small bad things to happen to this friend—for, say, her head to blow up.
Not healthy.
Recently, it has been proposed that author ego will actually save traditional publishing. According to marketing consultant Rob Eagar, most writers still desire the stamp of approval and validation that comes from being signed by big publisher:
All authors come standard with a healthy dose of ego. It takes cojones to tell the world, “I’ve written a book and you should read it.” And, the ego will never disappear, no matter what social media or digital technology might bring. The inner influence of ego makes a critical impact upon the way an author chooses to make his or her work public. That’s why the author ego may be the single biggest reason that publishers will continue to survive.
The love/hate relationship between authors and publishers has endured for over a century. Digital self-publishing and e-books represent wonderful new opportunities. But, the power of new technology is no match against the power of human nature. Therefore, publishers need not fear extinction. The literary ecosystem is bound by an unseen force that affects every author. What’s the point of publishers? To exist and thrive by keeping the author ego healthy and alive.
It’s true that many unpublished fiction writers still consider the touch of a traditional publisher’s wand as the summum bonum of the writing life. Certainly that was true up until the recent past. But is it still true today?
Only if you want it to be. If having a publisher’s name on the spine of your book is important to you, go for it. It’s certainly fun to walk into a Barnes & Noble in Schenectady, New York, and see your book face out on a shelf. Heck, I once found one of my books cover out in a little book shop in Stratford-Upon- Avon! Are you kidding me? Me on display in Bill Shakespeare’s hometown?
But there is an increasing number of writers making a living via self-publishing who see this industry as a business for profit, not a venue for validation.
The nice thing is the choice is finally the writer’s to make.
As for a healthy writer’s ego, I’d say it sounds like this: I write because I believe have what it takes to tell stories. I write because an inner fire compels me, and I am committed to working hard to make myself the best writer I can be. I write for readers. They are my ultimate reward.
So what does a healthy writer’s ego look like to you?


20 thoughts on “A Writer’s Ego

  1. I’ve heard many authors mention wanting to feel validated by traditional publishing (or having a print book in their hands), but for me, that doesn’t seem to be a factor. I can understand it if that’s what another person’s measure of success is. But for me, it’s like only feeling validated in my fashion choices if I buy a particular brand of jeans or shoes. No thanks.

    But who knows. Once I’m published maybe I’ll change my tune.

  2. Heh, your final statement of the healthy writer’s ego is almost the same as mine.

    “I have stories! I want people to read them and enjoy them as much as I do! I want them to read my books like eating salted peanuts. Or better yet, read them WHILE eating salted peanuts.”

  3. Good topic, Jim. Ego is a strong, driving force in any occupation, but particularly with writers since we are sharing our inner beings with others. Rejection can be a crushing blow to the fragile ego; fame can be poison if allowed to take over. I think a healthy writer’s ego must be an evenly balanced mix of confidence and humility. Both qualities must be present in equal amounts in order to move forward.

  4. I’m with Joe and it doesn’t bother me if part of that ego seeks validation from a traditional publisher or if it doesn’t. I think it’s a tricky balance between having the desire to get your stories out there and the yearning to feel that they are worthy of that.

  5. Kessie, your statement reminded me of something Mickey Spillane once said. While he was selling millions of books he was, concurrently, being sniffed at by elite writers who thought they and their high “art” should be selling more. Spillane famously said, “Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar… If the public likes you, you’re good.”

  6. This is something I struggle with. For so long the writing dream was to get an agent, and then get published by a traditional publishing house. To be able to walk into a bookstore and find my books sitting on the shelves.

    Now the dream isn’t gone, but it’s changed. Self publishing has opened doors I never dreamed possible. I have a superhero series of novellas in mind that probably would have never seen the light of day. Now I have options.

    But on the other hand, I still want to be able to walk into a bookstore and find my books, and traditional publishing is still a good way to get your work in front of readers.

    I also think I could benefit from an agent at this stage in my career.

    Jim, you’re represented by Donald Maass who is by all accounts a great person and stellar agent. Do you feel like having a good business partner has made a difference? If you were starting new at this current state of publishing, would you seek representation or go completely indie?

  7. Elizabeth:

    But on the other hand, I still want to be able to walk into a bookstore and find my books

    This of course presupposes that bookstores and physical shelf space will survive. The jury is still out. Borders is gone, and B&N brick and mortar stores are closing. I’m not happy about that. I love bookstores. But it’s one of the harsh realities to take into account.

    As for my agent, yes, he’s the best. And if I were just starting out, I would be putting all my energy in becoming a great writer. If I felt I was ready to be represented by an agent, I’d start to query. I might also, however, begin putting out a footprint in self-publishing. There is no reason not to, if done wisely and strategically. In fact, doing so is building that ever elusive “platform” for the fiction writer (new readers). I would put energy into self-publishing, because it pays, rather than, say, too much energy into social media.

  8. Jim–

    Oh man, I know brick and mortar stores are going the way of the dinosaur. I actually mentioned it in my first comment, but deleted that part because it was starting to get really tangential.

    This just relates back to your post even more. In this ever-changing era, we have to constantly reevaluate our egos. Not just the bad part of ego, but the ambition as well.

    What does publishing mean to us? What does our personal success look like, and why? A good question for those that only want rich and fame is why? Why is that their success conditions?

    For the longest time having a book in a physical store was part of my success conditions, but now I am forced to reevaluate myself and why exactly that was meaningful to me. I think it’s wise to break down the unhealthy and healthy parts of our ego, as you’ve done in your post.

    And thank you for commenting on your agent/what would you do now. Your thoughts on focusing on self publishing over say, trying to acquire a fajillion twitter followers, are wonderful.

  9. superb post, egos do abound, dealing or not dealing with acceptance and rejection is standard fare for all artists…those that do the hard work with their vision firmly set on creating quality product will be the winners, egos be damned (well, mostly) (smile)

  10. The Killzone looks lovely, today. Smells good, too. Like my favorite food. Man, my mouth is watering.

    What is this here? It IS my favorite food. And it’s just dangling there, waiting for me. If I just took a bite . . .

    Wait, John! It’s bait! Don’t take that bite!

    Whew . . .

  11. If I’ve received a bunch of rejections, then having my work accepted by a publisher is important to me. It restores my confidence, and yes, occasionally gives me the boost of faith I still need.

    I haven’t published an original title through self-pubbing yet, but if I did and it made a lot of money, I’d feel validated that way. Either way, you want to get your book to readers.

  12. What a good discussion. Every week, I learn so much from all of you here, so thank you!

    Personally, I agree with Joe, that a healthy ego is a balance of confidence and humility.

    I believe a healthy writer’s ego looks much like a healthy musician’s ego, and since I’ve spent more time with accomplished musicians than accomplished authors, I’ll use them as my point of reference.

    A man named John Adams comes to mind. He’s a stellar bass player and jazz professor at the University of North Texas, a well-respected music school. John plays with a touring jazz trio and has a number of “published works”. I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with him on a few occasions, and to me, he represents that perfect balance of confidence and humility. He clearly recognizes what he’s good at (and even better at than others), yet he doesn’t flaunt it or seek to draw attention from other fellow musicians. He gets joy not only from playing music, but from sharing his gift with people who love to listen to jazz. He’s deeply appreciative of people who come to his concerts and buy his CDs. He’s generous in helping other musicians grow and get better, he’s complimentary of others’ musical gifts, and he’s a cheerleader to musicians who aspire to play as well as him. To me, THAT is the perfect model of a healthy artist’s ego.

    I believe those of us with artistic personalities regularly battle some predictable demons — the need for approval, validation, insanely high standards for ourselves, the temptation to compare ourselves to others, and yes — that pesky demon of envy.

    Perhaps Joe’s good definition — evenly balanced mix of confidence and humility — is a good standard to shoot for. And, the guys like John Adams and James Scott Bell are good models for those of us still climbing the ladder.

  13. I write computer code for a living, so let me just say egos abound in my occupation, healthy and unhealthy. About eight years ago, I had finished a project and was asked to hold the first ever “technical design review” with my peers. That meant, share my coding and logic to an entire room full of geeks like myself. Why now? Why did I have to be the guinea pig on this? I guess I had a healthy dose of ego, but not so much so that I wasn’t the least bit nervous.

    I received a few suggestions on how things could have been done differently and one or two requests for added features. That put my ego in full gear. This was my product, I built it, it was ready for production and I was making not a single suggested change. If they wanted to change something, they could create their own product.

    This goes for my fiction writing, too. It took me ten years to share my writing and eleven years before I joined a writers association, or two. That’s when I discovered egos aren’t tied to one certain occupation. But I’m able to let go now, because I’ve been through it all before. Suggestions are wonderful and many times suggested changes improve my writing and for that I appreciate other writers. It’s the ones who have not been through the process at least once who have the biggest egos. I know who they are, I’ve been there. And now, I’m one of the most humble writers of code and fiction.

  14. Another interesting post JSB! JG please join in.

    I find it tough to ask anyone to read my WIP. I believe it relates to Joe’s observation on the vulnerability of sharing some aspect of my “inner being”.

    It is interesting that most discussions of ego reference it as if it is a fixed commodity. In my case, particularly with regards to writing, that is not the case. Some days I feel that I have some ability – other days I am certain of my ineptitude.
    I do want to provide stories that readers enjoy. Thankfully I like the writing process (OK – at least some portion of it, sometimes). JSB – has your ego changed with your success and recognition?

    Writing success (however defined) must increase one’s ego/confidence – correct?

    John Gilstrap – please hit the lure JSB has cast in front of you. I find your viewpoint enlightening.

  15. What does a healthy writer’s ego look like to me? A fearless, passionate writer.

    If ego means “the self especially as contrasted with another self or the world” how can it be healthy or unhealthy? Is it healthy when the comparison to another self or the world is favorable? Is this comparison necessary to feel good about yourself? On the other hand, does the absence of need for constant comparison to an incompetent or successful person imply a healthy ego—a fearless mind?

    When “I’m in my ego,” I am thinking about “what I want now.” The thought may involve a short cut to obtaining an accolade that should bring me happiness, or at least satisfaction. I’m usually wrong. Ego wants me to think about yesterday, or tomorrow, off center, off focus.

    I read your blog and comments right before watching the final U.S. tennis match between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, probably the most exciting tennis match I have ever seen, because they played equally well. During the match, whenever one lost focus, she risked losing a point. Staying in the moment seemed the key to success. How did these champions get to where they are? After years of grueling practice, countless wins and losses, injuries and other setbacks, they kept going. Was it their ego that got them there? Or was it their passion for playing, that inspired them to persevere. After Serena won the match she was elated, not only because of the prize, but because she pulled through. Victoria hid her face with a towel for a few minutes in disappointment, but afterwards, the two champions chatted amicably and smiled a lot. In the end, both appeared happy, because they had played exceptional tennis. While they played, millions of viewers watched their every move, rooting for one or the other. The champions stirred our emotions, pulled us into the moment, and they entertained us. What a feat!

    Serena and Victoria are my role models today. They inspire me to be the best writer I can be, so I can play in the big leagues, and entertain others. Their tools should work for me—studying the craft, practicing writing, focusing on the page in front of me, and above all, persevere.

    Sella Pals

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