The Goddamned Writing Life: Quelling Your Massive Ego

So, Midterms last night. Republican wave. Whole new ball game. What will the future hold? Blah blah blah. Can I just say I really, really don’t care this year? Because it’s true. I don’t. For purely selfish reasons:

1) Our state’s crummy governor got voted out. That’s worth about 1 million points of selfish relief right there.

2) I’ve seen all this before. In 2002, the Democrats in Congress were voted out in droves. They’ll be powerless for seven generations! the pundits yelped. (Or something alarmist like that.) Apparently, the pundits were speaking of purebred dogs, or possibly pond algae, because in 2006, a wave of Democrats came rolling in. Then came Obama and the Supermajority, which lasted, what, a year? And then it was Scott Brown, then the next set of midterms. And on, and on, and on. The pundits who shout about What a Roller Coaster Ride All This Has Been belie the fact that the U.S. political system is relatively predictable. So predictable, in fact, that we know exactly who’s going to be on our TV sets all night yammering about how tremendously Unpredictable Politics Can Be.

You know what’s not predictable? When any given piece of writing you produce will see the light of day. Because unless you’re blogging, paying to publish, or your name is Neil I-Signed-Twenty-Book-Contracts-Before-Tea-Today! Gaiman (dear God, the spell-checker on WordPress recognizes the word “Gaiman”! It doesn’t even know “WordPress”!), you have no control whatsoever over whether your work gets seen, who sees it, or how enthusiastically it gets seen. And that’s far, FAR more interesting–and stressful–to the average writer. Especially when the Average Writer is Me.

I used to do the Submission Tango all the time. Way back in the days before Submittable, we had to photocopy manuscripts in bundles and print labels for all our SASEs, most of which would be filled with Rejection Coupons (that’s a rejection slip printed on 1/6th of a page or less–literary journals had no money in the old days, too). I scheduled chunks of time to walk to Staples, copy, collate, stack, clip, stuff, address, and mail my submissions. It was a job, as depersonalizing as any that paid you actual money. I was a machine, churning out my work until I got lucky. My friends were machines, too. Some held regular submission parties. That was the only way for a writer to get published. We all knew it. We were like ants, with exoskeletons of steel.

Steely-eyed submitting is still the way to get published today, but I’ve gone soft. I got older. Published a chapbook.  Had a baby. That’s a big deal not only because it sucks up a lot of your time–it also teaches you that not every endeavor in life is marked primarily by rejection. (In fact, if that’s the way parenting is for you, you’re doing it wrong.) I wanted things to be easier, even though for writers far more experienced than me they still weren’t.

So I hesitated. Held back. Got out of the habit of rapid-fire submitting. And then, of course, online submitting is so blissfully immediate, compared with the Copying/Collating/Stacking/Clipping/Stuffing/Addressing/Mailing Dance of Yore. It’s so easy to wait by your email server, play Candy Crush and refresh every few seconds for that response from your favorite journal that you KNOW will come soon because these people are SO FAST they’ll pick out your high-quality work from 5000 submissions in SECONDS!

And then, instead of writing something, you decide to check Facebook, where you discover that everyone you know and their Aunt Mabel has a Brand-Spanking New Book-Length Publication and YAAAAARGH!!! Are you serious?? That 22-year-old who was in your workshop three years ago has a contract with Harper Collins now????


And Twitter’s even worse. You get to see all those Famous Writers and all the RTs from happy superfans. Not that you necessarily want superfans at this stage, no, you’ll settle for ONE measily publication in a high-quality online journal. Plus another one. Maybe one a month, or a week. Okay, crap, it WOULD be nice to have superfans. Or maybe just a group of followers that would fill out a small theater rather than a subway car. Is that so much to ask?

Apparently, it is. That’s because, as anyone who’s worked at this weird thing called Writing knows, counting up followers and other people’s publications isn’t your Writing Self in operation. It’s your Ego. All writers need some amount of ego to make it in the publishing industry, but letting your ego run wild isn’t good for your morale, your creativity, or your personal relationships. You have to feed it somehow. You have to give it its triumphs–that one little green “ACCEPTED” tag in a long column of “DECLINED.” Sometimes, you even have to turn off all electronic devices, step out into the world, go for a walk, count the Japanese maples that have turned deep red, and focus on your interests, your work, your life. The writing’s not worth it otherwise. If you let the rest of the world, even the larger-than-life literary world, suck you in too far, you’ll end up spending your life like a little dog snapping at every ankle she sees.


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