On Writing: Purpose & Ego

Would-be writers tend to be a gullible lot.  I think the problem is in the ego.

There’s no way around it, really.  Writing itself isn’t an egotistical act, but the belief that someone else should read it just because you went to the trouble of writing it?  Straight up ego, no chaser.

So there is this industry all wrapped up in salving the would-be writer’s ego and promising them the holy grail of the aspiring literary genius: publication.  The trouble is that you can get to publication fairly easily (amazon has seen to that), it’s the recognition that’s hard.  Sometimes the recognition is non-existent.  No one reads the book.  That’s where most of us land.  Sometimes the recognition is negative.   If you’re lucky enough to have readers, the bulk of the herd is still going to get stuck here.  Rarely, you get positive recognition.  And even if you get that, you need enough of it to reach critical mass, which is an even steeper hill to climb.   All of these cottage industries – people offering to edit your book, typeset it for acceptance into the amazon kindle program, cover design for cheap, website design – they all count on your writer’s ego to do the selling for them.  You have an amazing story here, the world needs to hear it.  We’ll help you get an agent.  We’ll help you polish your book.  We’ll get you a hundred positive reviews on amazon or goodreads or wherever.

And because we tend to believe that we’re special, and that we’ve got a special gift, we spend the money.

Let me tell you a dreadful secret: the people offering all of these services are probably authors themselves.  They may have even gotten to the elusive state of having positive recognition, but not enough of it to let them sell books and write full time instead of offering to edit your book.  They probably can’t get you to the level of recognition that you think you deserve – they can’t do it for themselves.  How do I know?  Because if they could, they wouldn’t be offering to review your book for $300.  In my real life, I am an editor.  I edit everything.  Newsletters, articles, research papers, policy…  The amount of time it takes to get your average first draft polished to publication quality…  $300 isn’t going to get you a book that’s ready for publication.  I’d get paid something like that for a 10 page research paper.  The real cost for an entire book … trust me when I say you can’t afford it.   I know I can’t.

So let’s talk about writing.  I can’t promise you that what follows is going to get you into the coveted position of receiving positive recognition.  I am pretty sure that ignoring these considerations isn’t going to help your cause.

First, what are you trying to do?  If you’re trying to tell yourself a story because it gives you pleasure, carry on.  Write to your hearts content.  Just recognize that you’re writing for yourself and therefore the only measure of success is whether or not you’re enjoying yourself.  I’m not being pejorative here.  This is a perfectly legitimate reason to write.  It’s immensely valuable.  I do it all the time.  This blog started out as an internal conversation.  It only evolved when other people started paying attention.  Writing for yourself is an amazing tool for managing stress, figuring things out, keeping track of yourself…  I highly recommend it.   If you’re writing for yourself, you can stop here.  Go forth with my sincere blessing and respect.

If you are writing for someone else, you’re going to have to manage a whole new set of standards.  It isn’t anyone’s right to demand the time and attention of a stranger.  Maybe you can make a loved one listen to you, maybe the bonds of friendship or family give you that right.  But a perfect stranger?  If you’re writing for an audience of people that don’t owe you through bonds of affection, then you need to make your peace with the reality of having to earn their investment with every word, every sentence, and every page.  If you’re writing for someone else, keep reading.

The foundation of all good writing isn’t the words themselves, its in what you want to do with those words.  Do you want to give something to your audience or do you want your audience to give something (money, recognition, accolades) to you?  If you are the former, carry on.  If you’re the latter, I can’t help you.

If you are writing because you have something to give, if you have a service-oriented perspective, the entire attitude about the process shifts dramatically.  Critical feedback is something that you seek because it helps you get closer to the audience.  Edits to your work are no longer about you, they’re about pushing the story further to make it more accessible.  Before you put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, figure out what your purpose is in writing.  Write it down.

My purpose is to provide entertainment and distraction for an audience that needs a break.

My purpose is to give my reader a sense of hope that a happy ending is possible.

My purpose is to give my audience a way to escape from whatever difficult thing they’re going through.

My purpose is to shift my audience’s thinking in the direction of compassion by talking about every day things in a fictional framework.

Writing is a sacred act.  I’ve been kept company by strangers and thereby gotten through some difficult days.   Books are magic.  They’re a gift, and a kindness, because there is NOTHING easy about writing a book and there is no kind of compensation in the world, except, perhaps, that enjoyed by Ms. Rowling, to cover what is involved in writing a book.

There is a reason why there is only one Michael Jordan, only one J.K. Rowling…  achieving that level of recognition and success is incredibly rare.  In all likelihood, it isn’t going to be you.  I’m not trying to be mean, there’s no reason to believe it is going to be me either.  The greats are singular because of an extraordinary combination of drive, work, luck, and timing.  It’s so rare to have all of the elements fall into place at the same time.  You’d be better off looking for the grand unified theory of everything, if that’s what you’re after.  Personally, if I were writing with surpassing J.K. Rowling as my motivator (not my goal, but my motivation) I’d be immeasurably depressed by the progress I’ve made in that general direction.

Instead, I have a purpose.  My purpose is to use the written word to make someone’s terrible day a little better and, if I’m lucky, to present ideas about fear and compassion in a way that increases the compassion and decreases the fear, if only by a little bit.  That isn’t enough to make me a good writer, but my purpose matters more than my ego.  (I’m not trying to disown the fact that I have one, and I can’t deny that it hurts to have something criticized when you’ve worked so very hard on it.)  The purpose drives me to question whether I want what I want (to make someone’s terrible day a little better) or do I want how I feel about the constructive criticism I’ve just received.  My purpose (hopefully) stops me from saying something entitled like “just get through the boring parts in chapters one and two, it really picks up in chapter three.”

A purpose won’t make you a better writer.  It will just get your ego out of the way so you have a chance in hell at getting better.

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On Writing: Purpose & Ego

9 thoughts on “On Writing: Purpose & Ego

  1. I think it’s so easy to receive the wrong signal from the publishing community — the writers who get highlighted are the ones who’ve defied the statistics (lately, I’m thinking of Donna Tartt, Eleanor Catton, Diane Setterfield) and that misleads many struggling writers to hope only for success like theirs. I saw it happen so many times in my past career, AR, and even so, I found myself getting caught up in it a little myself. Even when other people seemed foolishly unrealistic, and I shook my head at them, I’d buy into that same expectation. It’s a hard temptation to resist.

    You’re right on the mark about the reasons why any of us should be writing our books. If you don’t know exactly why you give up so much time — and so much of yourself — to create a story, there’s a problem.

    I have a novel in play right now, and while there’s no word yet on it — no publisher interest, only silence — I keep reminding myself of the pleasure I took in writing it. That keeps me very happy, injects a little more spring in my step. “Damn good,” I’ll think, and that suffices. it’s that bliss that you describe in your post. What a really insightful, wise post. I hope other folks in the WP realm take notice.

    Nice interview, by the way, at the Call. I look forward to running Part 2 very soon!

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  2. night owl says:

    When I decided to go back to school and get initials after my name, the intended purpose was to have some gravitas to add to my author’s byline. I was going to be the next Naomi Wolf or Charlotte Davis Kasl.

    I soon discovered that I had no particular stamina for non-fiction (one thesis cured me of that) nor did I have enough imagination for fiction. I did discover, however, that the path I have chosen to get those post appellation initials turns out to be the perfect fit. So, although I did read your whole post, and wholeheartedly hope you find that combination of exertion and serendipity that brings you acclaim, I am utterly content to be non-published.

    (On the topic of editing, one of my classmates volunteered to edit my 14-page paper on binge eating disorder and did a stupendous job. He is neither friend nor family. I would like to nominate him for sainthood.)

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  3. It is hard to resist the idea of being wildly successful and being able to live out the fantasy life of an author. Sometimes knowing better doesn’t mean you can avoid the pitfall yourself – maybe the only saving grace is that you can pull yourself out of it faster once you’re there… On TV and in the movies, writing looks so idyllic, so heroic, so lucrative. In real life, most of us keep our day jobs because we have to. And we keep writing. Because we have to.

    Perhaps the DSM should consider adding writing to the list of certifiable mental illnesses. : )

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  4. Time is an underestimated investment – the time and effort that goes into editing is too often unheralded and under-appreciated. We all need someone with the attention span and kindness to tell us when we’ve not gotten it quite right. I can’t overstate my gratitude to those who have essentially donated their time to me in this way.

    We end up where we belong, one way or another… it’s a good thing. If we had to be relied upon to know exactly where that was, I’m sure most of us would miss the mark entirely. I know I regularly think I’m headed one place only to find myself somewhere else entirely.

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  5. night owl says:

    Avoiding the pitfall of wanting the life of the successful author is not unlike trying to avoid the pitfall of wanting someone we can’t have or oughtn’t have. There’s no logic to it.

    I think we could tuck it in the DSM as a sidebar to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. We both obsess over our writing and are compelled to continue. 😉

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  6. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to claim disability for that… “I’m sorry, I’m not fit for employment in an every day boring company full of jumped-up twats. I’ve been diagnosed with OCD, the crippling variety. Oh yes, I exhibit debilitating literary fantasies. Now. Can I stay home and work on something that matters?”

    Somehow, I don’t see that working.

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