Sunday, January 13, 2013

Writer's Ego

One of the cliches about writers is that they are ego-driven. We only have to think of Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer or Tennessee Williams for examples. These men  were driven to succeed no matter the cost, no matter who got hurt. They were known for their competitiveness with other writers and their extreme need to be considered the best. They played out their lives in public, basking in any attention paid by the media. They were larger than life.

Sometimes they were larger than their work.

Like most cliches, there is only a modicum of truth in this one. While the more colorful writers are known for their outsized egos--and heavy drinking, carousing, and fornicating--most writers quietly go about their business. Think of Flannery O'Connor, Willa Cather, Henry James, Joyce Carol Oates, Maya Angelou, Ian McEwan.

Think of William Shakespeare! 

For Shakespeare, it was the the work that was important, not the author. We know very little about Shakespeare's life, opinions, relationships or personal problems. For him, the struggle was with the page, the words, the play.

Is success as a writer being famous? Making a lot of money? Being constantly in the public eye? Being considered one the "Greats"?

When I was young, I used to think so. I liked to imagine myself giving interviews in which I pontificated about literature and other writers. I liked to dream that I was one of the elite artists of the day, that I was an inspiration to aspiring writers. The Meryl Streep of writers, if you will.

As a youngster, I tried to imagine what a young Tolstoy-in-the-making should write about. Obviously, I couldn't write just anything! It had to have within it the seeds of Great Literature! That left out anything remotely to do with my life which was dull as dishwater. Who wants to read about a high school student? Who cares about whether I got asked to the prom or not?

As a result, I wrote a lot of nonsense about GREAT EVENTS about which I knew nothing.

MY WRITING WAS ALL ABOUT ME. I DIDN'T REALLY CARE ABOUT THE WORK.

I've changed since then. I don't take myself so seriously. I know now that good writing, like any other art form, is partly talent, but mostly practice and application.

A successful writer tells a story so skilfully that it engages the reader and perfectly reflects the author's intention.

This definition is far more modest than the one I started with. It doesn't demand that every story be "great literature." It doesn't call on the writer to produce best sellers or to make a fortune from writing books, or to become important in the eyes of others.

It simply asks that, whatever the story is about, it should be executed as well as possible. That even the smallest, most modest tale be told by placing the right words in the right places so that the reader feels the desired impact.

IT DEMANDS THAT THE WRITER PLACE HIMSELF AT THE SERVICE OF THE STORY, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.

Like everything else that invites us to surrender our ego, however, this is much harder than it looks. It demands that we sit humbly before the blank page and struggle for the best way to express our ideas.

It asks us to be less important than the story. It demands that we consider whether the story works rather than whether we will be rewarded for our efforts.

IT ASSUMES OUR STORY REFLECTS OUR BEST IDEAS, NOT WHAT WE BELIEVE/HOPE WILL SELL.

And, like many things, it comes down to motive: Why am I writing this? To receive

  • Praise
  • Money
  • Fame 
Or because the story
  • Creates an itch in my brain that I must scratch
  • Allows me to try out certain techniques I need to improve
  • Has never been told the way I want to tell it.
Many writers, I think, jump on a literary bandwagon thinking it's the way to guaranteed success. Whether it's paranormal, YA, dystopia, or erotica the idea is to capture the zeitgeist of the moment and capitalize on it. These writers may believe that, once they are successful, they will return to their real interests--whatever those may be.

The truth is that success in any of these genres is usually the result of the authors' genuine interest in it. IF I'M WRONG ABOUT THIS, LET ME KNOW. 

I think we succeed with what genuinely speaks to us. I believe that good writing is the result of caring about the story we want to tell. I believe that good writing only becomes great writing when writers are the servants of their craft.

As Shakespeare's Hamlet said, "The play's the thing."



10 comments:

  1. Wandered over from Book Blogs ...

    Nicely said. I've always wanted to be a writer. But, I don't know if I've always wanted to tell stories - if I have that 'itch in my brain'.

    Hence, I read and review, and throw random thoughts on a blog. It's a start, I suppose. Maybe someday I'll need to scratch.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Lee,
    So true! Just look at the number of books coming out each day and you can really get a grand look at the bandwagon. The problem lies in the amount of care that is put into those books. You said it all!

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