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.