People’s perception of the writer’s ego has been coming up a lot lately. It has me worried.
A whole group of articles and conversations are begrudging the author’s attitude, complaining about people who say, “I write for myself” as an excuse not to listen to feedback, those who “love” their work so much, they can’t take criticism, and who are so convinced they are The Chosen One that they don’t need to edit. These complaints suggest the opposite is best, and that pure selflessness is the means to greatness.
Everything requires a balance. We all know this, and everyone fights for it. So it would make sense as to why—when our default position is to think we’re special and important—most people would try to reject theirs (and others’) narcissistic side.
But being there are rarely any black and white answers, completely refusing to have any ego at all is detrimental. Most people will even agree a healthy ego is important. Even those who shout claims of, “I never write for fame or money, but to help people!” can see why insecurity is a bad thing. But I’m going to take it a step further and say that great writing comes from self-orientation, and that the negative affects of “ego” doesn’t come from having it, but lacking it.
1. The trick to accepting criticism is not humility, but confidence.
I know this seems like a pipedream, but you have to take me at my word when I say getting feedback can be fun. It can be fun even when you’re getting negative responses, when they’re telling you what you should change and how to improve the story. I know it. I’ve done it before. I’ve gone through several constructive criticism sessions where we were laughing at our own mistakes, eager to hear more, and even left the room just excited and inspired to write.
This mood, however, requires three things:
The critic must be someone you respect and trust.
The critic must respect you. (Or at least you think they do.)
You must like your work.
If you don’t like the person or you’re afraid they don’t like you, whenever they say anything remotely negative, you’re going to feel bad. If you are sitting there, hoping they’ll love your work, that they’ll like it better than you do, even the tiniest bit of indication that they aren’t obsessed with it with it will shatter your hopes like dropped china.
When you believe you are a good author and that you don’t have to prove yourself to this person, then a mistake changes from “proof I suck” to, honestly, just a mistake.
2. People want to hear about you.
No one wants to read 200+ pages with no personal opinion, perspective, or tastes. Low and behold, I DO like to hear myself talk, and yet, if that's what I was looking for, I'd be talking, not reading. If I wanted to hear my own opinions, I’d write my own story. I’d sit here and fantasize. I wouldn’t go and pick up someone else’s book to listen to myself think.
Because our society spends so much time telling us that no one wants to hear what you have to say, some people take that to heart. Because so many authors use the excuse, “I don’t care what other people think,” other writers tend to flop in the exact opposite direction. “It’s about whatever you want it to be about!”
We read to change our thought flow. I want to be thinking about something different when I end a book then when I picked it up. I wanted to be given some ideas about what I can fantasize about now that I’m getting really tired of Sparkly Edward. Let me think about… whoever that guy in True Blood is. I want the answers to some questions that I can’t figure out. I want someone to tell me what they think of something. I want to know something I didn’t know before.
A bad book doesn’t come from passion, honesty, and a warped perception; it comes from people saying what they don’t believe because they think that’s what others want to hear, from people saying things that should be true but aren’t, and from repeating perceptions that other people have had.
I believe strongly in saying what you want to say in a way that will make people listen. Saying what will make people listen and ignoring what you want to say just because “it’s about me,” doesn’t make pure art; it makes boring art.
3. There is a difference between not listening to other people and disagreeing with them.
Blatant acceptance of a criticism is just as bad as blatant disregard. People will mess up your work if you let them. I’ve watched a good number of friends had their beautiful visions destroyed because they trusted their “superiors” over themselves.
On that same note, an author can ruin his own work by not taking advice. It’s a terrible balance that writers are forced to figure out for themselves. But one of the ways is to do this is to realize what disagreeing actually is and why it’s okay.
I don’t like toilet humor. I never have. Not even when I was a child. I see a fart joke and my opinion of the work is diminished. Some pieces have gained enough of my love that I can get past it. But if I am ever editing a work, I will always think it is better without the potty humor.
There are people who disagree with me. These are the readers who find this funny, who are delighted by the (childish) humor and will laugh for twenty minutes after seeing it, then proceed to rewind and replay the moment just to annoy me. Of course, maybe their amusement comes from my reaction, but my point is that it is a matter of personal taste.
It is okay to prioritize your tastes over other people’s. I strongly recommend it, in fact, unless you have a specific reason not to. There is too much subjectivity in the world to try and find concrete universal rules. We have to stick with some arbitrary guidelines. The most sensible one being the author is writing a book he’d like, not what someone else might like.
While it is not helpful to identify all abrasion to criticism as disagreement, it is acceptable to honestly think, “Well, because that’s your opinion, I’m not going to change it.”
Sometimes it’s hard to the tell the difference, but if the author tries to be open to himself and say, “Well, I probably wouldn’t read a book this long either, no matter how tied in the information is,” or remember, “He already told me he doesn’t like romance novels, so of course he’s bored!” he’ll be better able to digest the information.
4. The reason why successful people act like egomaniacs is because we think people acting like egomaniacs are successful.
You act like you don’t know what you’re doing people are going to think you don’t know what you’re doing. You behave like you’re the God’s gift to writing, people are going to believe the confidence came from somewhere.
Ego isn’t the problem. Thinking highly of yourself is great. Acting like you are experienced will make people trust you more. Having worked in the theatre for several years now I can attest that the people who get the jobs aren’t the ones who are best at them; they’re the ones you never see sweat. The problem with egos is not the attitude towards ourselves, but our attitude towards others.
It’s the old cliché of people having to put others down to build themselves up. If we don’t feel we are “really writers” we might be inclined to understand why everyone around us isn’t “really a writer.”
So, the benefit to thinking you’re all that and a bag of pot is huge. Comparatively, there’s not much benefit to humility. If a person can maintain a good opinion of himself as well as a good opinion of those around him, he will not only be seen in a better light, but will be well liked too. If he acts like he has a low opinion of himself and a low opinion of others, he’ll only be able to get work if he’s financing the project.
5. If you don’t think you can write better than the average person, why would I listen to you?
Being an author is an honored and elitist position reserved only for those who we perceive as “deserving it.” If I, the reader, think I can make it, I’m not going to buy it.
You, the writer, think you have something that will help you be successful. If you stop believing that, if you say, I’m just an insignificant speck in the universe with nothing to say that will be of interest to anyone, you won’t be able to write anything. What’s the point?
As I said, your story is about you. It’s about you doing what you can do that no one else does. Now, in this large world of nearly seven billion people (plus everyone who’s now dead), it makes sense why someone might realize that there is no perspective or opinion or plot I can give that someone hasn’t come up with before. This thought process doesn’t help you.
While those who believe strongly that God will come down and grant them a contract without having to even send out a query don’t do much, neither do those who realize the likelihood of getting on a bestseller is microscopic. It’s the people who think and behave like they have something important to say, who struggle to make the book great in their own eyes, who use other people’s thoughts and opinions to help them craft the book and clarify the statement they want to make that will say something other people want to listen to.
If you can’t like yourself, your readers won’t do it for you.