Just enough ego

I’ve written before about having the wearwithal for taking up writing as a career, or if not a career, an ambition. There’s writing for one’s vertical filing cabinet, and then there’s writing with the intention of getting the thing published. When one isn’t a writer, it looks like a cakewalk. There’s the throngs of fans, the languid lounging at the hotel pool while on a book tour, the eating of many bon bons, and the excitement of the book signing or reading session.

I don’t think that world ever really existed, much as Truman Capote’s legend would have us believe. Writing is a thing people do because they feel a compulsion to do it. At the writer’s conference I attended this summer, I heard the same narrative repeated by many of the participants there—they have always felt an urge to tell stories, to write things down, to play with language. I have my story about my beloved Royal typewriter. It made me a pugilist just to use it, whaling on the keys and throwing the carriage back to pound another line of ink onto the page. And damned if I didn’t introduce a typo on the second to last line of a sheet. Nothing taught me typing accuracy like not having any correction fluid.

And yet, as soon as I came to the act of writing things down, I learned about rejection. Well, almost as soon. Rejection was nailed to the heels of excitement. This is great! We can’t use it. Welcome to our summer program! Sorry, you didn’t make it to our elite finalists group! You’re a finalist! Sorry, you didn’t win this year. We loved your piece but it doesn’t fit with our line right now.

Often, encouragement mixed with regret. Push, pull. Wait for another day. As Johanna Harness said in her blog last week, those rejections are still progress. It can be challenging to see that when one is bogged down in nos from agents and journal editors, and therein lies the way out of hopelessness.

  1. Not everyone makes their career their identity. We writers often do. Just the word writer implies a connection between the act of writing and the human being performing that action. But it helps me, at least, to remember that this is a thing I love to do. There is more to me than writing stories and memoir and commentary about crazy politicians.
  2. Rejections are never about the writer, they’re about the writing. I saw firsthand when speed pitching to four agents in 8 minutes that even face-to-face, they have no idea who I am or what I’m about. They can’t deduce anything in 2 minutes beyond the language I give them. The looks of disappointment and sincere apology that they’re not into my project are great reminders that I’m seeking a business relationship, and so are they. I’m sure I could have had a great conversation with any of them over coffee or a beer, but that’s a whole nother level of connection we weren’t seeking.
  3. Because rejections aren’t personal, my ego need not get involved. This is tough on a daily basis, or more accurately, just after a nice rejection arrives at my in box. My tendency is to cringe that my writing, what I produced, truly sucks at awful nadirs of suckage, which makes me a bad writer and thus a bad person—see where this train is headed?—but then I recover. It’s my ego that does the heavy lifting here, telling me that actually, it’s just a bad fit for that agent.

To take the Freudian sense of the word, “ego,” in which I understand who I am in the world, and thus my relationship to others, I need to be ego-minded enough to take criticism and rejection and move on. My ego tells me that I still like writing and I still think I’m good at it and publishing is a goal I still seek.

This is different from being an egotistical ass, the vernacular of which means I’m immune to criticism because I think I haven’t earned any of it. This is not a writer with whom anyone cares to work. This is the guy who emails a certain science fiction-inclined agent every day for the last two years with the same bloody query, even though she’s rejected him a couple of times and gone silent to his repetition. This is the writer, peddling her unpublished first book of 160,000 words who just can’t understand why she would ever even consider cutting 60,000 of them, or turn it into two books. Never mind that agents and publishing houses love the multi-book deal.

I try to keep myself honest. I don’t declare that I’m the next David Sedaris, even when others have said that to me. I think I’m a good writer, and sometimes I’m funny as hell, which I hear has quite the comedy club going, somewhere on the third circle. But I do need a tough enough skin, enough confidence, enough ego to keep pushing even after getting rejected. Because it is, in fact, forward momentum.

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Categories: ponderings


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4 Comments on “Just enough ego”

  1. Nicoline Smits
    August 17, 2010 at 9:26 am #

    Hear, hear! But even if you understand on an intellectual level that rejections are not about about the person but about the writing, it still hurts on an emotional level. It’s like having someone tell you that your children are ill-mannered, lazy and not too bright.

    • evmaroon
      August 17, 2010 at 9:32 am #

      Yes, there is that, “but what about it didn’t you like” mystery that can unravel any given day. I can struggle with staying on goal when it looks like every single letter I put into my query is wrong, as if the alphabet just threw up all over the synopsis. But I see now that agents make these decisions in something like 4 seconds, about the amount of time users spend on a Web page after googling, to see if it’s where they want to be or not. I now don’t fret over my synopsis, because enough agents have come back to ask for partials or full manuscripts, so I’m really down to convincing them my book will be a big hit. That’s a whole nother challenge…

      And I hear your kids are really well mannered, industrious, and brilliant.

  2. August 17, 2010 at 1:33 pm #

    A piece of advice that’s been helpful (well, on some days) when I’m in the grind of writing and submitting, is that every rejection letter is a good thing, because that means you’re actively engaged in the publishing industry. I guess because until you’re submitting and getting rejected, you’re only giving lip service to the goal of being a published author. It might seem like just platitudes, but it also does make me feel closer to my dream, especially on the days I receive the curt email or the woefully thin letter from an agent. Good luck with everything!

  3. evmaroon
    August 17, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    Good luck to you as well! I did happen to go to a lecture given by an agent who’d requested a full manuscript from me, and during her talk, she said that less than one percent of queries make it to the full ms request stage with her. So I felt great about that, even if she did later decline to represent me on that project. I just keep typing away, hoping to make some more magic. It really isn’t a platitude.

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