Reader Request Week 2016 #7: Writers and Ego

Patricia Ruggles asks:

You’ve confessed before to being at least somewhat egotistical. Do you think it’s possible to be a successful writer if you don’t have a pretty big ego? Writing is notoriously solitary, and requires long periods of continuous performance without a lot of positive reinforcement. Doesn’t take a pretty good opinion of yourself to stay convinced that somebody will want to read your stuff when you are finally finished with it?

Well, I’ve admitted to having an ego, yes, and can be seen as being egotistical. I think there’s a difference between those two things.

Also, no, I don’t know that you have to have a big ego in order to be a successful writer.

Part of that is that it depends what you mean when you say “successful writer.” What is the definition of success? Material wealth? Excellent writing? Reputation that exceeds one’s own mortality? The thing is, none of these in itself requires a large ego, or outsized egotism. Particularly in regard to the latter two, I have in mind Emily Dickinson, who was certainly an excellent writer and whose reputation in death is far greater than it was in her life, in no small part because her first published collection was in 1890, four years after her death. During life, she lived an eccentric and secluded life — not generally the hallmarks of someone with what’s generally understood to have a pretty big ego.

Is Dickinson a successful writer? I think absolutely: I strongly suspect her work will be remembered long after mine is forgotten. Did she have a big ego? If I had to guess, I would say no, at least in terms of how I think “big ego” is being referred to here.

Ego can be part of the reason people write. It is for me: I rarely write just for myself, since I already know what I’m thinking and I’m too lazy to write down my own thoughts just for me. I write so I can be read by other people; I like that other people like what I write. But there are also people who only write for themselves, who never have the desire to show others their work — at least, not until well after they are dead. Another historical example: Samuel Pepys, widely considered the English language’s greatest diarist, whose diaries, while bound by the author for preservation, were not published until 150 years after his death. Pepys is another successful writer by any account, but save for binding the loose pages of his diary into volumes, where is the evidence of a big ego? I don’t know that Pepys ever dreamed his diary (which among other more significant things includes ample evidence of his various adulteries) would ever see wide circulation.

The thing is, people write for a lot of different reasons, not all of them tied to ego. Some people write for other people to read them. Some people write because they want to express themselves. Some people write for just a few people, and to please them, not to please themselves. Some people write simply because they are good at it and people are willing to pay them for it. Sometimes it’s a combination of factors. I write for others, but I also write because people pay me for it, and occasionally I’ll write something just for one or two people, meant for them alone. And at the end of the day, I write what I would want to read — which is to say that although I write for others I also write for myself. I like reading my own books!

(Also, and independently, as far as writing being solitary: It can be but doesn’t have to be. I know writers who band together and take writing retreats with each other — they spent their work day in front of their words but they take breaks to chat with each other about how things are going. Others write in coffeeshops so they can be around people when they work. Writers frequently show works in progress to friends or confidantes — I myself will give my wife chapters to read when I’m done writing them. And writers also splash themselves all over social media and blogs as a way to visit with fans and other writers.)

I think having an ego can be helpful for a certain type of writer, and I’m willing to say that I’m one of those writers. I like writing to an audience and I like interacting with an audience beyond the confines of my books (hello!). My ego helps when it comes time to market books too; I’m usually happy to be interviewed and go do public events and interact with fans and readers. That willingness to be open and accessible, which is in part fueled by my own ego-driven desire for attention and approval, has been beneficial. And finally my ego means that I feel less of the self-doubt and “impostor syndrome” that other writers have been known to have. My attitude about writing as my gig is, yeah, I got this. Which is why I could sign that stupid long book contract I did and not freak out about owing a dozen books over a decade.

But that’s me, and how I do writing is not the only way, or the best way, or even a good way for any other writer who is not me. In my own personal experience I know many writers who I would not characterize as being particularly egotistical or ego-driven; they just like to write and write well enough to sell. Some of them are plagued with self-doubt and the belief that no one really wants to read what they write, and sometimes their work basically has to be dragged out of their hands by an exasperated editor or agent. At least a couple of these authors sell at least as well as I do, as far as I can tell. They just do their thing differently than I do. Which is great! There is no one true path to being a successful writer, in no small part because, again, there’s no one definition of what “successful” means, when it comes to being a writer.

So, a pretty ego can be useful when it comes to being a writer. But I think you can be a writer — a good writer, a successful writer — without one. All you really have to do to be a writer is write.

Reader Request Week 2016 #6: Why I Don’t Drink or Use Drugs

There are a couple of people in the thread who asked this, so I’ll just use Thomas Hewlett’s question to represent them:

You’ve mentioned several times that you don’t drink alcohol. I do a lot of work with addiction/recovery and I’m wondering about your relationship to alcohol and drugs and what led to your decision to not drink. Or is this simply a case of “that stuff doesn’t taste good”?

It’s true: I don’t drink alcohol except in very rare circumstances (like, half a glass of champagne at my wedding), I’ve never smoked cigarettes, I’ve never taken an illegal drug, and outside of Novocaine at the dentist’s office, I’m generally reluctant to take legal drugs either; my wife always expresses surprise if I go to the medicine cabinet for ibuprofen, for example.  So what’s the story there?

Well, to begin, and initially the reason I avoided the stuff, my family has really bad addiction issues. I’m a child of alcoholics and drug users, and I’ve seen first hand what the stuff can do to people whose brains are wired to leap out of their seats when drugs are around, not only in family members but in the people who were around my family. Many of the people I knew growing up were either struggling with addiction, or trying to get clean, or dealing with the shitshow of a life that is crawling out of the hole that addiction puts you in. All of which reinforced the idea for me early on that this was not what I wanted for my life, or in my life.

This did mean when I was younger I could be pretty humorless about alcohol and drugs. When I was a little kid I was convinced a single beer or puff from a joint would put you on the fast track to being (in the words of South Park) homeless on the streets giving handjobs for crack, and I would sometimes freak out about it. I got better about this as I got older and learned that not everyone had the same addiction problems as I saw in the people around me (this is where I note that for a large part of my childhood my mother was active in the Alcoholics Anonymous community, so I really was surrounded by addicts, albeit ones trying to get and stay clean). But, yeah, as a kid I was definitely not cool with a beer and a joint. I figured it meant you were doomed. Dooooooooomed.

On a personal level, the residual effect of that childhood paranoia manifests itself with a continued personal lack of interest in alcohol or drugs. I’m no longer paranoid that a single shot of hard liquor or a toke would turn me into an uncontrollable gibbering addict, but on the other hand given my family’s inarguable problems with the stuff I don’t feel the need to play the odds, either. I’m not foolish enough to think I don’t have all the features of an addictive personality, nor am I foolish enough to believe that age and understanding will have much compensatory effect against my body’s physical desire for addictive stuff. All in all, best to leave the stuff alone. There are other things to keep me occupied.

When I was younger, there were some people who were amazed that I didn’t drink or do drugs. “Aren’t you curious?” was a question I got a lot (answer: No, because I’d seen enough of it in my life, thanks), sometimes followed by the person, almost always a dude, who would be all “Dude, I’m totally getting you drunk tonight!” because he thought he was doing me a favor my making me relax through alcohol. It didn’t work since someone trying to get me drunk made rather more tense (this sort of thing was almost always about alcohol, I’d note. People smoking pot would offer you the joint, but if you didn’t want it, they were always “cool, whatever” and off it would go to the next person).

Occasionally when I was younger someone would get offended that I didn’t drink, because they thought I was judging them for drinking. Well, when I was a kid, sure, I’d do that. By the time I was drinking age, I didn’t care what other people were doing with their bodies, unless it was directly affecting me. Which is the way I feel today. I don’t drink; I’m fine if you do.

Nowadays, at age 46, no one is in the least offended that, or usually even curious about why, I don’t drink or do drugs. At this age, everyone knows people who stopped drinking or doing drugs, because they are in recovery. No one blames them for it, because everyone knows someone whose life got righteously screwed up because of substance abuse issues. If not drinking or doing drugs is what it takes for you not to have a messed-up life, good on ya. I do assume at this point that most people who notice that I don’t drink or do drugs assume I have some substance abuse history. Well, it’s true, I do; just not mine. I also don’t mind if people assume I’m in recovery. It’s not correct, but it’s not an insult, and if someone is judgey about people in recovery, then they’re the asshole.

(This is the point where I will note that I know a lot of contemporaries in recovery from drugs and alcohol, and they have nothing but my respect and admiration. Recovery is hard, man. Admitting you have a problem is hard. Quitting a thing your body is crying for is hard. Making amends to the people you hurt is hard. Staying on the recovery path each day, every day, is hard. Part of the reason I never started drugs or alcohol is that I saw close up at an early age how fucking hard recovery is. I’m not entirely sure I could do it. Given what the alternative to recovery is, that’s not good. So, yes: People in recovery? You rock, I salute you. Keep on keeping on.)

At this age there are other reasons I don’t drink or do drugs. In the subject of alcohol, first off, I’m cheap, and alcohol is expensive and I don’t understand how people just throw their money down that particular hole (to be fair, I feel this way about Starbucks, too). Second, alcohol has calories and as a middle-aged dude who already weighs more than he likes, I don’t see why I should add to my woes in this regard. Third, given what I know about myself in terms of where I make conscious efforts to inhibit my behavior, I’m pretty sure I’d be a raging asshole when I’m drunk. You know that thing I wrote once, about how the failure mode of clever is asshole? It’s not just a pithy statement. It’s a reminder to me of my own failings. I expect that were I drunk, I’d try to be clever all the time, and would fail.

With drugs, well. I’ve never been a fan of the recreational use of pot, since that shit stinks like wet dogfarts and causes jam bands, neither of which fill me with joy. Pretty much all the other recreational drugs that exist out there just seem like a fast track to either being an asshole and/or losing a bunch of your teeth in one terrible fashion or another. The exception here seems to be psychedelics, which I worry that if I took would cause me to freak out more than I would like, which means that such a freakout would likely be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Finally with both drugs and alcohol, at the end of the day I like being in control of my own self, as much as I can be, because I’m responsible for my actions and my self. Given what I know of myself and my likely addiction issues, drugs and alcohol would make it harder for me to be in control of myself. This would make me very unhappy, and that in itself would have a number of unpleasant knock-on effects.

All told: Drugs and alcohol are not for me, thanks.

But if they’re for you — and you’re not swimming in addiction issues (in which case please seek help), and you’re not bothering anyone else with your fun (and if you are, stop being an asshole) — then that’s great, and enjoy yourself. Anyone who’s seen me at a convention knows my natural habitat there is in the bar, hanging out and laughing with people. I wouldn’t be there if I was spending my time pursing my lips in disapproval at people loosening up through judicious use of booze. I am a lifetime designated driver, and I’m cool with that, too; I like making sure people get home safe.

I’m not a pot enthusiast, but generally speaking I’m for its legalization, and while I’m less sure about blanket legalization for other currently not legal drugs, the more I look at the mess that is the US response to drugs, the more I lean toward the general libertarian idea of “legalize it all, tax the shit out of it,” with a substantial chunk of that tax earmarked for treatment of addiction (rather than, say, incarceration, which is what we have now and which isn’t working particularly well as far as I can see). My personal prohibition against any of this stuff should not imply one for everyone else.

But yeah, for me, prohibition it is. The good news is, so far, my life has done okay without drugs and alcohol. They’re not things I feel a lack of.

The Big Idea: Jim Ottaviani

His was one of the first intelligences behind the concept of artificial intelligence, and yet Alan Turing is defined not only by what he said on the topic, but also by what he never got the chance to say. Jim Ottaviani, author of the graphic novel The Imitation Game (Leland Purvis, illustrator), graces this site today to share more.

JIM OTTAVIANI:

Elon Musk calls it “our greatest existential threat.” Bill Gates says “I agree with Elon…and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.” And Stephen Hawking, who cosigned a letter about it with Musk, Gates, and others said this in a Reddit AMA: “We should shift the goal of AI from creating pure undirected artificial intelligence to creating beneficial intelligence. It might take decades to figure out how to do this, so let’s start researching this today rather than the night before the first strong AI is switched on.”

What about the guy who came up with the gold standard test for determining whether a machine could think? What would Alan Turing say about AI? Quite a lot, it turns out, almost all of it quotable and said many years before Gates—much less Musk—was born. (For his part, when Turing was writing about this Hawking was an 8 year old climbing out the windows of the new family home in St. Albans to get away from his sisters.)

He said most of it in a 1950 paper called “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” published in the philosophy journal MIND, back when a philosophical paper might change the way computer scientists think, and might even read stuff that wasn’t in computer science journals. Admittedly, that’s mostly because there were no computer scientists besides Turing, Johnny von Neumann, and a few of their respective protégés, nor were there journals for them.

He said his piece in what storytellers might call his third act. Turing’s first act came in his early twenties, when he successfully tackling the famous “decision problem,” or Entscheidungsproblem posed by David Hilbert. Another mathematician, Alonzo Church, also solved it independently and somewhat traditionally; straight up math, with techniques you’ll remember (probably with no joy) from your high school geometry class.

Turing? He solved it by inventing the modern computer in the abstract, then programming it and running it in his head. Nice work. Enough to make you famous for creating the Universal Turing Machine, a fame that will last until our computer overlords rewrite history to get rid of the human role in their invention.

So what do you do in your thirties, for your second act? How about playing a key role—arguably the key role—in breaking the German Enigma code during World War II, work that saved countless lives and accelerated the Allied defeat of the Nazis. And maybe designing an honest-to-goodness mechanical computer to do it?

Done and done.

The Turing Test for artificial intelligence was the culmination of his third act. If you don’t know what it is—not likely here on John’s blog—it’s…well, sorry. I’ll say no more about that because it’s the lynchpin of our narrative.

We don’t get to know about his fourth act, and that’s the big idea at the heart of our book. Turing was thoroughly modern in so many ways: a mathematical genius, the inventor of modern computers, an expert in encryption, and, as it happens, open about his sexuality in a time when that just wasn’t done. But he died over sixty years ago, his life cut short because a foolish and ignorant society (it’s not completely fair to call it ungrateful, since Turing’s code-breaking work was kept secret until the 1970s, and at that time computers weren’t part of daily life for people like you and me) allowed him to be arrested and convicted for the crime of being gay. Yes, it was a crime in 1950s England, and might as well have been in most other places in the world. The consequences of this were miserable for Turing, and by the time you finish our Imitation Game, I hope you’ll agree that they weren’t good for the rest of us as either.

As I said before, the game itself plays an important role in our graphic novel, so I’m glad Abrams liked our title as much as Leland and I did. And I think Turing would have appreciated it too, to the extent he’d notice. I suspect he would have been proud but perplexed by a biography, and only mildly interested in it. He’d have much rather told you about this new theory he was working on, or a science fiction story he was finishing up, or…

I can’t even imagine what else that might be, but I do know for certain that the world would have benefited—and been much more interesting—if we’d had decades more of him thinking, discovering, and stretching the boundaries of intelligence.

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The Imitation Game: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.