Lessons from the Writing Workshop #14: Ego

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #14: Ego

We want our writing to reflect our brilliance, our depth, our wisdom, our poetic souls, the very best of who we are. Sometimes we achieve that. Usually after a lot of hard work and self-doubt and not knowing and feelings of failure. And that process is tough on the ego.

The ego is the part of the psyche that is most connected to external reality. It allows us to regard ourselves through the eyes of others. But too much external focus can take us far away from the source of our creativity—our intuition, our inner guidance.

This can be tricky in a writing workshop. I was reminded of this truth recently when a student said he was often surprised by the feedback he received, and wished he could learn to better anticipate it. He said, “Sometimes it makes me doubt my own instincts.” This concerned me. Although I believe that respectful, constructive feedback is vital for writers, I never want it to undermine a writer’s inner guidance. At its best, the feedback process can invite new possibilities, open up new ways of exploring the work. I suggested to him that feedback is only information, other perspectives; it can never supplant one’s own instincts and intentions for the work.

But the ego wants to feel gratified, wants to feel we have done well, wants others to acknowledge we have done well. The ego wants to feel it has accomplished something, that the task is complete. Feedback may reflect things in the writing that are already satisfying, but it is also likely to suggest we still have more work to do.

The ego is not in love with process. And so much of writing is process. Another student reported that she was growing discouraged with her work, because she just couldn’t find a way to make it come together. She was thinking of abandoning her project, which concerned me, because I really believe in her book. She did give me this opening, “There are parts of it that I like…” I suggested to her that she spend additional time working on those parts, expanding them, writing more in that arena. She returned the following week to say she’d gone back to that section of her project and had made progress. Her ego had needed a boost; she needed to experience some satisfaction with her effort in order to continue. We all do.

Writing is hard. It is ego-bruising. It is stumbling around, taking lots of wrong turns, not knowing where we are going, finding our skills lacking, confronting our imperfect wisdom, falling short of our desires. All this is not because we are bad writers. It’s because all this is required to make something out of nothing.

The truth is that literary writers are not just wordsmiths or documentarians. We are inventors. Whether our initial inspiration is a real event or a product of pure imagination, it is our job to build a world with words through which our readers can journey and in which they will find meaning. Inventors in science or technology know that failure is part of the learning process; when one solution doesn’t work, you try another and each brings your closer to the result you’re seeking. But words seem so personal; our egos have an especially hard time when words don’t do what we intend them to do.

The ego is an important companion as we go through our lives. It helps us to be aware of ourselves with others, it gives us the drive to achieve and to accomplish. It’s not that we want to vanquish the ego, and it’s useful to understand that the ego needs rewards.

On the other hand, we can’t become exclusively identified with the ego, because its consciousness does not include our spiritual growth, our inner journey. If the ego is in control, we’ll do easy things for short-term gain and never tackle the hard work of a demanding project that challenges our deficiencies and forces us to grow in order to fulfill its promise.

As writers we need to find ways to experience enough reward to keep the ego from balking, and at the same time become more comfortable with the humbling experience of working toward the virtuosity we seek. Keeping this balance is a vital part of our writing practice, and a vital part of a writing workshop.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada
Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

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Lessons from the Writing Workshop #13 —Layers of Meaning

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #13 —Layers of Meaning

Poet Kim Dower (a former participant in Poets At Work and now the Poet Laureate of West Hollywood) came back from a week-long workshop with poet Robert Wrigley and couldn’t wait to tell the group about it. Slightly giddy with inspiration, she quoted him saying, “Every poem is about a thing and another thing. It’s the other thing that takes the poem into all the complexities — emotional, moral, etc.”

Poems work on more than one level. The apparent subject of a poem is only one layer of what the poem is really talking about. Ann Pibel, a member of Poets At Work, wrote a poem that begins to describe a garden setting, a house with its windows open to the outside. When suddenly she describes the blossoming orange trees as “lonely brides” we start to understand that the poem is also talking about the domestic relationships of those who occupy this house. This metaphor signals a deeper layer of meaning that underlies the description. That’s the other thing in her poem.

Some poets juxtapose more than one event to layer meaning. In his poem “At Risk,” from his book, City of God, the late Gil Cuadros describes the waiting room of a doctor’s office; the speaker is there to receive his AIDS diagnosis. Also waiting are a mother and young son, the mother brutal in her efforts to get the boy to behave. This puts the speaker in mind of his own mother’s brutal discipline, adding yet a third layer to the poem. These layers fuse and deliver a power to the conclusion {“I didn’t dare ask how long I’ve got, / palm over my mouth, / I say mother / softer than I ever did before.”) that could not have been achieved by any one of the layers alone.

If you’re reading along thinking, “I don’t write poems, I’ll just skip this post,” hold on. Wrigley’s wisdom applies to all literary writing. In the language of the prose writer, he is talking about the difference between plot and theme.

My first published novel, Bailey’s Beads, is about a woman, Bryn Redding, in a coma after a car accident. The central question is Will she awaken? On the surface, that sounds like the plot of a Lifetime movie, but I wove in a conflict between Bryn’s mother and lover over who gets to define Bryn while she is unable to represent herself. I also added Bryn’s writing, which reveals yet another aspect of her. Through the use of subplots, the reader is asked to contemplate whether any of us knows the people we claim to love, or if we just invent them for our own purposes. The plot is necessary to keep the reader moving through the story, but the theme is what rewards them for making the journey.

Setting is another powerful tool writers use to invoke theme. In her story, “Bobby Kennedy Comes to Town,” longtime workshop participant Pat Alderete explores the sexual mores of a group of young women in the late 1960s; you might have sex with your boyfriend in a moment of passion if you really love him, but if you take birth control you’re seen as a whore. Alderete sets this story at the moment of Bobby Kennedy’s visit to East Los Angeles, a moment of hope and pride for the community that ends the next night in Kennedy’s assassination. At this place and time, so much in the United States was about to change, and the girls’ dilemma takes on an even greater significance.

Essays also offer powerful opportunities to develop theme. The reflective nature of the form provides occasion to contemplate the meaning of events. Nina Rota, a former workshop member who works with me privately, is writing an ambitious book of linked essays. A recent essay, “The Wedding at Cana,” makes frequent use of allusions (referencing work by other artists) to create universality to the narrator’s search for some connection to the father who never acknowledged his paternity. Among other things, she invokes the train ride across the sea from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away to describe the displacement felt by the speaker lacking this root to family, and The Wedding at Cana, a painting by Paolo Veronese stolen from Italy by Napoleon and returned to Venice as a reproduction, to talk about how we may feel connected to someone through their art, even a facsimile of their art.

Since hearing Wrigley’s quote, I often find myself asking students and myself, “Okay, but what’s the other thing?” It’s a great reminder to build those deeper layers of meaning into our work.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada
Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.