“Ego, Writing and Happiness”
Ego, Writing and Happiness
Cynthia’s Column May 2010
Elizabeth Gilbert, the best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love and the new book on marriage, Committed, gives a free 19 minute talk on the writing life on-line on something called Ted. If you google “Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity” it will come up.
She addresses that old idea that has been assumed to be true for a couple of centuries now: writers are cursed with misery, writer’s block, alcoholism, neuroses etc. In other words that writers are not happy people. They don’t enjoy their work and get satisfaction from it. That it’s a long road of endless rejection. We know this is not necessarily the case at all, as Gilbert also affirms. But she brings up a couple of points that are useful for us to consider and leads me to think of a couple more that may be as well.
In ancient times, she reminds us, the Greeks talked about “having a genius” as opposed to “being a genius,” which is how we talk about brilliance in artists today. We have come to think that it is all about us. In other words, we have put ourselves in a terribly vulnerable position to be attacked by our egos, which leads to blockage as well as other vices.
When we believe that all the brilliance comes from us, is born in us, by our own merit or talent or skill, the ego can go a little nuts with this. I define the ego as that part of our psyche that claims to be building us up while covertly tearing us down. The ego, in writers, spends much more time telling us we suck than telling us we’re great. It can even try to confuse us by telling us that for someone so talented, you are totally blowing this paragraph. You know that voice, right?
Those of us who have been writing for a long time, know instinctively, if we’re honest with ourselves, that when we hit those sunny patches of brilliance, those flashes of genius, those afternoons when the pages seem to write themselves that — honestly? — we have no idea where it comes from. It feels like we’re taking dictation. Like it comes through us somehow. We’re the vehicle, or vessel, or Dictaphone of the Gods. We are the Oracle, not the Gods themselves. You see how much saner this might be? How much more balanced?
It is similar to my preference to call my own writing “my craft” as opposed to “my art.” If we let the future decide about artistic merit, it makes our work now a lot less burdened and a lot easier to accomplish. Even on a tired, pissy day, we can all work on our craft for an hour or so. But art? I’d hate to sit around letting my ego/mind beat me up with that one. I can imagine that internal voice harping, “You call this art?” No. But thanks for asking.
It is also a huge relief to let go of the burden of Self as a writer. If you haven’t already, you might want to try this. Don’t do it for yourself. If you are writing for yourself, for your ego, it can have a neediness, a preciousness, an insecurity attached to it. If I’m not writing then I’m not a writer. I’m only a measly little ordinary (fill in the blank: career or lack thereof or mom, housewife, middle aged overweight over the hill etc.) You see how doing it for the self, by the self, leads pretty directly to a big hole we get sucked into?
Try this one on for size. “If I were a successful, brilliant, wealthy writer, would that be better for the world?” Would people in our world, in our culture, in this town, be the better for your personal writing career success? This is not a rhetorical question. There is a correct answer, and if you’re hesitating, I’ll give it to you. The answer is yes. Every time a local writer, of any race, age or gender, breaks out, hits the bigtime, makes a good deal, has good sales or a huge advance or a great review or wins an award, it is good for us all. For us as writers, readers, and in every way. We want, actually fairly desperately, to live in a world with great work and great success for writers and appreciation for writing.
If Chelsea Cain makes the NY Times Best Seller List, that’s good for us all. If Daniel Wilson gets Dreamworks in a frenzy to buy his half finished novel, that’s good for us all. If Laura Whitcomb sells five books starting in her mid-forties, it’s good. For everyone. Ditto Karen Azinger. And Storm Large’s bidding war between NY publishers for her memoir? All good. For all.
Are you getting it? Don’t do it for you. Do it for the world. When John Donne wrote “No man is an island entire to itself” he was talking about this. We are all part of the same family. The same body of humankind. “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” This doesn’t apply only to death knells. It applies to the bells of victory as well. “Every man’s death diminishes me?” Then it follows, “Everyone’s success enriches me.”
Breaking your career free of the ego also eliminates the question of deservability. Do you deserve success? What difference does it make if you’re doing it for the greater good? None. So you don’t have to deserve it. When an opportunity is given to you, you don’t have to deserve it. You just have to do the work. And that, ah, that is the good news. Doing the work is a privilege and sometimes a pleasure.
When I was struggling to establish a career, a few years after I’d broken in, I had jobs writing screenplays but none of them had yet resulted in actual movies. They were development deals and I was starting to understand why they called it “development hell.”
During this time, in 1979, I happened to be on an actual mountain top, and out of touch with any form of God that anyone would recognize as such, and I decided to turn my career over to a higher power, or the greater good, or whatever you might want to call it. But I had an experience of turning it over. Giving it away. Making my career not about me and my personal success or failure. And within a month I had my first green light. They shot my first movie for television that fall, and it turned out well and was filled with terrific actors. And I decided to keep operating this way. I would look for signs. If someone offered me a gig, I’d ask myself, “If I do this will it be good for the world?” and if the answer was yes, I’d take that job. If the answer was no, I’d pass. And almost miraculously, the jobs kept coming one after the other for more than twenty-five years.
This way of thinking also makes it easier when people come up to tell me they loved something of mine. I can smile warmly and sincerely and thank them without self-consciousness or the need to diminish it in any way, because inside I’m thinking, “I loved that one too and am so grateful it decided to come through me.”
If your writing career wasn’t about you, but about the bigger you that includes all of humanity, how would it change things for you? Would it free you up to succeed? Would it simplify things? Consider that possibility. And go for it. Do it for all of us.