A while ago, an author friend of mine, who was feeling a bit of writing ennui, expressed the possibility of giving it all up. He was tired of the late nights writing after his day job, and since his books, while critically acclaimed, weren’t selling as well as Dan Brown’s, he wondered why he was putting in all this effort. “I’m not doing this for my ego,” he said, and those words have stuck with me ever since.
They’ve stuck with me though I admit that my first reaction was skepticism. My first book had just come out, and if I’m being honest, the month of January, 2010 was pretty full of ego. (In fact, I dubbed it “the month of me” and was thoroughly sick of myself by February). But at that moment, I remember thinking that the whole act of publishing a book—from writing, to getting an agent, to getting a book deal—had to be at least partially about ego.
And of course it is. But the more I thought about it, and the further I got past my own publication date, I began to understand what he meant. You see, that first novel, that first real novel that you get the agent and the book deal with, that novel isn’t written because of ego. I suspect it might be a little different in every case, but in my own, that novel was written because I couldn’t help myself. It was (often) all I could think about. What was this character going to do? How was I going to get from this conflict to the resolution? How was I going to get the images in my mind, seemingly so clear, down on the page when the link between my brain and my fingers often felt ephemeral. I was, in my own way, like Dylan, trying to capture “that wild mercury sound” in my head with words. And the effort, while sometimes trying and frustrating, was in the main fun.
Now it might have been hubris to think, once all the writing, editing, and endless drafts were done, that someone might want to publish this book. And I might have been seeking to gratify my ego (and have had that ego gratified) when I got an agent and a book deal. But in between those events (two years from finished manuscript to book deal, another six months to publication), there was lots and lots of rejection; lots of blows to the ego. And this mix of gratification and blows continued once my book came out. Because even if you’re Jonathan Franzen—which I make no pretension to be—there are people who dislike your book, who might even hate it. Sometimes those people are book reviewers with access to a large audience of readers. And because we live in the age of social networks and email addresses on author websites, readers can reach right out and touch you with their thoughts, negative or positive, as soon as they put your book down.
This might sound like I’m complaining. I’m not. I am aware of, and grateful for, the amazing luck I’ve had in getting not one, but two books published. But the further I’ve gotten into this process—the revisions, the worry about how the book will sell, the constant feeling that you should be promoting your book(s) somehow, all the time—it’s become less and less about ego.
And I think this trip away from ego is even more true if you’re lucky enough to have the chance to publish a second book (or anything past that first one really). Because those books often feel like they are more about contractual deadlines, and advances paid out, and expectations (real or imagined) about it being as good, or better, than your first book. It feels like it’s about justifying all of these resources being marshaled for you—the editing and marketing and publicizing. I mean, why did you get this chance, when so many others have tried just as hard, or harder, or longer, and failed?
Thoughts like these don’t feed a writer’s ego, but they certainly can destroy it, along with the will, or sometimes the ability, to write. Because, if I’m being perfectly honest, when you’re in the middle of that vortex, you sometimes forget why you even started writing in the first place. Wasn’t this fun once? Didn’t the words fly off the page, the ideas tumbling out faster than my fingers could keep up with them?
So why? Why do we continue to write? We, we happy few, we published writers?
I don’t have all the answers, but I can say this: we write because we see and hear people that aren’t there unless we write them down. Because the fun is there, you just have to look for it sometimes.
Because we must.
- Catherine McKenzie