Reader Request Week 2016 #7: Writers and Ego
Posted on March 24, 2016 Posted by John Scalzi 7 Comments
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.
I tried drinking when I was in college, but seeing how most of the people I knew got really out of control when drunk, it lost any appeal to me (what little there was to begin with). An occasional margarita is about all I ever drink, and usually only at hotel happy hours during cons.
I think one of the most important things about being an artist is being able to tell other people that your work exists. Unfortunately, for so many artists I know, this is the biggest hurdle they have. They feel like they’re being egotists or there’s something wrong about talking about the work you do, in order to get people to buy it. It’s funny how people don’t mind selling you insurance or talking about a store they opened, but if you talk about a fantastic sculpture or textile work you did is and how much it’s worth, you’re considered (by some) gauche.
I suppose it would help to start by defining what you mean by “ego”. As a writer, you certainly need the kind of ego we call “amour propre” in French; literally translated, that’s “self love”, but it doesn’t mean narcissism. It means that you like yourself and respect your own opinion enough to be willing to share it with others, without buying too hard into your own myth. There’s a more egotistical form of ego in which you’re not only willing to share your work with others, but also convinced they’ll like it and disappointed if they don’t agree. Finally, there’s the metastatic form of ego in which you slip into narcissism and either don’t care what others think or get really mad about them not sharing your self-image. *cough*Trump*cough*
Like John, I’m largely in the amour propre stage when it comes to my nonfiction. I’ve spent ca. 30 years honing my craft as an editor and technical communicator. Along the way, I’ve made a fairly remarkable number of bonehead errors, learned from them, forgiven myself, and tried to teach others how to avoid making the same mistakes. People have generally appreciated what I’m doing because my motives are clear, even when my prose is only aspiring to clear.
In my fiction, I’m somewhere between amour propre and being disappointed when people don’t like my fiction as much as I do. But I have some objectivity about the quality of my own fiction, have four professional sales, and therefore keep slogging away in the fiction mines in the hope I’ll convince someone else to like my stuff as much as I do. The target remains elusive, but there are signs of progress.
So perhaps it’s fair to say that I have a “healthy” ego, both in the sense that I believe I have something to say (amour propre) and have a realistic estimate of how much others should and do like my work.
I write because it is my hobby. Some people are into photography or crafting, I’m into writing. The fact I get paid for it is just a bonus. I write because that who I am. I could sooner stop writing than breathing.
“It’s funny how people don’t mind selling you insurance or talking about a store they opened, but if you talk about a fantastic sculpture or textile work you did is and how much it’s worth, you’re considered (by some) gauche.”–Patrick Cleary
A few years ago, I tried to sell some of my homemade craft items at a church-run (I’m an atheist, I don’t actually belong to that church) craft sale. I (thought I) priced my items fairly, given the cost of materials and how much time I spent creating the items. For four hours, I had lots of ppl come by, oohing and aahing, but nobody wanted to buy my work “because it’s too expensive.” For the last two hours of the show, I took off the price stickers, and put up a sign saying “Make me an offer.” The same ppl who’d complained that my work was “too expensive” suddenly couldn’t even come up with a figure that would satisfy them, “because we have no idea how much your stuff is worth.”
I think “ego” for writers (and other artists) is important for the reason Patrick suggests: because our society does not, in the main, value artistic production – and therefore those of us who are artistic producers need to find that value on our own. Whether we are selling anything or not. :-)
And there is a distinction to be drawn, as Geoff says, between various concepts of “ego.” If a person’s definition of “ego” means “I think I am never wrong and that what I produce is the best thing ever, always,” well … that’s pathological, and has very little to do with artistic productivity. In the sense of self-love, it’s dangerous to have no ego at all. Your production will always be warped if you are not producing something you believe in.
I like what Patrick said. I have a daydream of asking if it’s OK that my brother sells insurance, and following it up with me selling my art.
Part of the problem is that insurance, like traditional publishing, is “vetted,” vouched for, by the big insurance company. My own art is subjective, vouched for by the same fellow who made it. I would feel better flogging something concrete and immediate, like a big ceramic, than my big manuscript.
For another look at ego, I tell my coffee friend, “Don’t worry, I won’t inflict my poetry manuscript on you until it is published” and I also say, “I think a good poet is one who is tempted but holds back from reciting his poems in public, unless asked to do so.”