A Tale of Three Writers: The Student, The Ego, and The Pro
Let’s say your writing just got rejected. How do you feel?
Student: Damn. Oh well! Actually, I sort of expect rejection, partly because I’m just a newbie and partly because my writing is a bit tentative and derivative of writers I idolize. But I know rejection is a part of the game, so I’ll press on!
Ego: Shit! This is bad. This is horrible. My every publication attempt is a referendum on whether I’m any good as a writer. So, of course, any rejection makes me feel awful. Apparently, I’m a worse writer than I thought. I’m definitely worse than this other writer so-and-so who’s having a lot more success than me. In fact, now that I’m thinking about so-and-so’s writing, I feel even worse.
Pro: What was that? I didn’t really notice any rejection because I was too busy having fun actually writing and working on seven other new things.
You got rejected ten times in a row. How do you feel?
Student: Yikes! This is pretty bad. I feel deflated and demoralized. Should I keep writing? Ugh. What should I do? I might need a break.
Ego: This is unbearable. It just proves what I was afraid of all along: I’m a fraud, and I’m no good at this. My cognitive dissonance is kicking in hard, because I had this self-image of “writer,” but no one likes my writing, least of all me.
Pro: Hmm. Interesting. One rejection isn’t that meaningful, and could always be statistical noise. On the other hand, ten rejections in a row—especially from the same, or similar places—could mean that my writing is uncalibrated to my goal.
This could be a blessing since it will let me look closely at why I’m getting rejected, and what I can do about it. I’ll get some outside perspective on my drafts from friends, writing groups, coaches or mentors, etc. This will help me stay objective. I won’t abandon my goals, but I will come up with new angles to get there. I think this will make me stronger in the long run.
Success! You got published! Some gatekeeper liked something you did. How do you feel?
Student: Wow! Awesome. I didn’t expect that. But this is great. I must be improving.
Ego: Yes! Finally, some validation. I guess I’m a good writer after all. I’m definitely better than that other writer, so-and-so. Let me dwell on that for a minute and feel superior. My happiness about this accomplishment will be fleeting, however, because I’m already worried that I’m a fraud who won’t be able to repeat this one success. Dammit, now I’m sad again.
Pro: Okay, great. Of course I’m happy about this. I’ll pause and feel some gratitude. If it’s a big success, I’ll celebrate it with friends. Then I’ll get back to work.
What do you think about “making it” as a writer and becoming a big success?
Student: Wow, making it would be crazy! If and when I make it as a writer, I’ll cross the bridge from amateur to big shot. Then I’ll be a professional who won’t make mistakes or get rejected or write anything bad ever again. People who “make it” are mysterious and intimidating to me.
Ego: Oh my god. I’m obsessed with “making it.” It’s all I think about. I hope that one day I make it. But secretly I worry that I’m not good enough, or that I’ll never get lucky enough. To me, the world is divided into two camps: bad writers who won’t make it (most writers), and good writers who will make it (very few). My artistic life is a constant, mind-numbing reassessment of which camp I’m in.
Pro: “Making it?” Not really sure what that is. Does that mean there’s some possible moment when I transition from an imperfect writer to a perfect writer? Yeah, I don’t think that’s real. Improvement, discovery, learning—these things never end.
Yes, there may come a time when the amount of money I make from writing, or the number of people reading my stuff, passes some mental tipping point. That would be nice. But when that happens it’s just a lagging indicator of the work I put in for years. Of course, that “work” will be a lot of fun and most of it won’t feel like work at all.
Do you care what other people think about your writing?
Student: That’s a tough question. I’ve been told that I should write for myself and not cater to what other people think of my art. But I’ve also heard I need to “know my audience” and write for them. So that’s kind of confusing. I guess I’m still figuring this out.
Ego: No! Screw other people! I don’t care what anyone thinks of me, because I’m an artist, and I’m an amazing, unique talent. Of course, as you can probably tell, my “fuck everyone” attitude is a posture, and I’m lying right now. In fact, I care deeply about what everyone thinks of my writing. One negative comment is enough to send me into a spiral of self-doubt.
Pro: I write for myself, ultimately. And I’m self-motivated. Setbacks or negative comments won’t extinguish my fire to write.
But, of course, I want people to read what I write. I want my writing to have an impact, to affect people, to make the world better off in some way. So I do write for a specific audience. That audience isn’t everyone; that’s not realistic. My audience is a specific group of people. My fellow-travelers. I want them to read and enjoy what I write.
If I write something and no one reads it, fine. Call it practice. But if no one ever reads anything I write ever, that’s just masturbation. Enjoyable, perhaps, but not actualizing my potential. It comes down to this: Writing for an audience doesn’t mean I don’t write for me, it just means that I hold my writing accountable to reality.
How do you feel about getting feedback on your writing?
Student: I know it’s important! I approach it kind of randomly though. I just get feedback from whoever is close or convenient. I don’t have much of a strategy.
Ego: Ugh. Feedback is painful. When other writers don’t “get” my stuff, I feel the need to argue or defend my work against other people’s stupidities and misunderstandings. It’s draining to do this, so mostly I just don’t.
Pro: I love it. And it’s necessary. I want to connect with my audience. I want my writing to move people. For that to happen, I need to get outside of my head. That’s why I get feedback from smart people (writers and non-writers) who understand my goals.
I have writing group friends and editors and mentors who read my stuff. When I show my writing to a few people in my group, and all of them tell me the same thing, I trust that they’re right. When I get mixed feedback, I don’t sweat that too much. I keep feedback that’s helpful and discard the rest. I’ve learned to trust my instincts and accept that not every piece moves everyone in quite the same way.
Imagine that you have a “crazy writing idea,” e.g. a dialogue where three hypothetical writers (Student, Ego, and Pro) answer some questions about writing. Should you write it?
Student: Hmm, that sounds interesting! I might write that, but I’d prefer if someone else wrote it. I’m still not that good! 🙂
Ego: No! I couldn’t write that. I’m not good enough to write that kind of thing. Only a writer who has “made it” should be allowed to talk philosophically about writing itself. Besides, someone might call me out for being not good enough, and then everyone will know that I’m a fraud.
Pro: Do I want to write this dialogue? Yes. So I’ll write it. There are no rules on stone tablets about who can write what. When I have an idea that moves me but I hesitate, it’s that asshole Ego (sorry, bud, no offense!) using fear to manipulate me into taking the easy way out. Maybe it’ll be fun to write this dialogue. Or maybe I’ll learn something. Let’s find out.