Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Egomania and the Everyday Writer
(with apologies to Holly Lisle for the title)

By Bryn Neuenschwander

2001, Bryn Neuenschwander

Ego is a bad thing for a writer.  It can be the single biggest stumbling block between him and publication, because it won't even let him get to the point where his only obstacle is the perversity of the market.  With ego as his shield, a writer defends himself from all manner of criticisms.

He doesn't need to spell correctly or get his grammar straight; he's a Writer, and above such petty concerns.  Anyone who dares criticize some aspect of his Glorious Work is not to be listened to, because such a critic is obviously a philistine who failed to understand the greatness of his Art.  Revision is not even in his vocabulary.  He treats any advice about the business end of writing similarly; he need not worry about the niceties of formatting, or the reasons against simultaneous submissions, because surely the world is just panting to read his tales. Any editor with two brain cells must, of course, recognize that fact and fall down at his feet, contract in hand.

Motto: ego is evil.  Ego will get you in trouble.  If you have ego, you won't try to make your writing better, because you'll believe it's already perfect.

Right?

Sometimes.

Consider for a moment one of the commonly-repeated bits of sage wisdom in the writing world.  It goes like this: "If you want to be a writer, you've got to have a thick skin."  Thick skin is your only defense against the steady stream of form letters you're likely to encounter before an editor or agent shows interest in your work -- or worse, the nasty letters that imply the editor's four-year-old son writes better than you.  Once you're published, thick skin will keep you safe from the critics who just don't like your work, and the readers who have an even lower opinion of it .  It's quite a valuable asset to have.

But where exactly is this thick skin supposed to come from?  Nobody ever seems to mention that when they trot out the old adage.  Are you just not supposed to care?  I find that one doubtful.  If you care about your writing, you'll care what people say about it.  Shrugging negative feedback off without getting jaded is hard.

I propose that your ally in building up that thick skin is the very enemy you're supposed to shun like the plague: ego.

Take, for example, S. L. Viehl's response to every rejection letter she received: "HEY, YOUR LOSS!"  That, right there, is ego talking.  It's the writer saying that the editor is wrong, and will live to regret it.

Such a response need not be reasonable.  In fact, when faced with your third (or forty-ninth, or hundred and twelfth) rejection letter, sometimes it's better not to be reasonable.  However, when you sit down to write again, or to revise -- that's the time to lock the ego away in a box and work on Making It Better.  But when you're reading the bland, impersonal words of somebody who, you're convinced, didn't even take your manuscript out of the envelope before rejecting it, reason takes a back seat.  Indulge in some flights of fantasy.  One day, years from now (or maybe sooner than that), when all of your seventy-two novels have been made into blockbuster movies, and they devote a whole section of the bookstore to your work, and college students get degrees for writing papers about the richness of your writing, that editor is going to cry himself to sleep every night knowing that he could have been the one to discover your genius, had he only bothered to actually read your submission.

Reasonable?  Nope.  But it makes a good Band-Aid. 

"But," you say, "my writing isn't that good.  And I know it."

That's fine.  I already said this kind of response is only loosely grounded in reality.  But odds are, no matter how much you're aware of the flaws in your manuscript, there is something in your writing that you like.  You may not be able to consciously point to the part you think is good, but it's there.  And that is one of the ways in which ego is your friend.

The balancing act of ego and reality is a very complicated one.  You have to be arrogant enough to think that your ideas are so good somebody's going to want to read them; that gets you started.  Then, as you write, your confidence has to fade just a tad, so you don't spew out words without thinking about them; for many writers, the best bits of story seem to flower when you have to struggle for them.  Then, when it's done, your ego has to jump back into the fray to remind you that yes, the idea is worth revising; you shouldn't just chuck it in the trash. 

Then, when the revision actually begins, the ego needs to be reined in once more, so you actually find and fix your flaws.  Only let the ego out when your enthusiasm for the task begins to flag.  He can come out and fight a couple battles with the demons of doubt once the story is sent, but you want him in perfect health when that letter comes back.  If it's a positive response, the two of you can throw a little party, where he'll continually brag that he was right all along.  If it's a rejection, he'll come to your defense, shaking his fist in the direction of New York City and denouncing the stupidity of editors.

Your ego isn't your enemy, but neither is he a close friend.  He's sort of like the internal editor that way.  He can support you when the going gets tough, but he tends to think that the path should always be easy, and that it's everyone else's fault if it isn't.  Learn when to listen to him, though, and when to stick him in a box, and he'll get you through the tough spots intact.