Ear­li­er this week, Michael Lav­i­gne wrote about writ­ing the Rad­i­cal Oth­er .“He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Is it pos­si­ble to take the ego out of writing? 

I ask this ques­tion because I ask myself why I write, and why so many peo­ple write, and why writ­ing has quite lit­er­al­ly tak­en over our soci­ety – you can­not blink with­out some­one Tweet­ing, Tum­bling, Face­book­ing, blog­ging, Yelp­ing, prod­uct rat­ing, movie review­ing, book evis­cer­at­ing. Just think about the last time you want­ed to buy a toast­er. You went on Ama­zon or some oth­er site, and there, for each of the two hun­dred dif­fer­ent toast­ers were two hun­dred indi­vid­ual com­ments, some many para­graphs long, by peo­ple appar­ent­ly pas­sion­ate enough about their toast­ers to write about them, and peo­ple, like me, stu­pid enough to read them and have them sway my judg­ment. (In the end, and based on count­less reviews, I end­ed up with a toast­er I hate – Cal­phalon 4‑slot mod­el 1779207, two stars at most!)

But were these peo­ple pas­sion­ate about their toast­ers or sim­ply pas­sion­ate about the fact that some­one might read their opin­ions? Are we Tweet­ing to say some­thing impor­tant or to sim­ply assert our existence?

We all know the answer. But what about those of us who write fic­tion – what’s in it for us?

If I were to sit down and write with­out ego, that would mean first, that I don’t care about pub­li­ca­tion, and sec­ond, that I care only for the text itself and not how it reflects on me. I might wish some­one to read it, but I would­n’t write it with any read­er in mind. In a sense, I would be dar­ing some­one to read it: this is what it is, take it or leave it – not only do I not care about your opin­ion, but you should in fact have no opinion.


(Of course, I actu­al­ly do hope you have an opin­ion of my new nov­el, The Want­i­ng — 4 stars would be nice). 

And yet there are moments in writ­ing when the ego does flee. I began The Want­i­ng by writ­ing a sto­ry with­in a sto­ry with­in a sto­ry – it was­n’t a con­scious deci­sion, it just hap­pened that one sto­ry would sug­gest anoth­er, time would shift back and forth, and the whole thing felt like an onion unrav­el­ing and re-rav­el­ing – and I loved it. I wrote fairy tales and back-sto­ries and short sto­ries and fan­tas­ti­cal voy­ages of the mind. In one case I had some­one remem­ber­ing a scene from child­hood in which he was remem­ber­ing some­thing from ear­li­er child­hood in which he was remem­ber­ing some­thing from even ear­li­er child­hood. It was wonderful. 

And then I gave it to an editor.

Her response was suc­cinct: Huh?” To which she added, Can’t fol­low it. Too many digres­sions. Where’s the plot? By the time I got back to the action I’d for­got­ten where I was.”

I should have screamed, So what?” That is what the real writer would do. 

But what I actu­al­ly did was edit the book.

Built up the plot, cut back on the com­pli­ca­tions (“self indul­gences” are what writ­ing instruc­tors call them), and in gen­er­al began tak­ing my audi­ence seriously. 

You might say that this is the act of some­one with­out a lot of self-regard – to place the read­er first is an act of sub­mis­sion. But that is not so. Pub­li­ca­tion, suc­cess­ful pub­li­ca­tion in which you reach a large, intel­li­gent read­er­ship and hav­ing a mean­ing­ful affect on that read­er­ship – these are wor­thy out­comes, yes, but they are also cer­tain­ly the goals of ego.

I’m not say­ing anything’s wrong with that. We can only com­mu­ni­cate using lan­guage peo­ple can understand.

But isn’t some­thing lost? Some­thing pure and pow­er­ful and dif­fi­cult and terrifying?

I hon­est­ly do think my book is bet­ter for all the rewrit­ing and rethink­ing and re-imag­in­ing that hap­pened after that first (600 page!) draft. Much better.

And it’s still not a sim­ple read – at least I hope not. 

But oh how I miss shar­ing with you the sto­ry about Ekim Efiv and the Bird Sor­cer­er, the tale of How X Escaped the Gulag and End­ed Up in Our Back­yard, and the mem­o­ry with­in the mem­o­ry with­in the mem­o­ry that stood time on its head for a few dozen pages of my life.

Although who knows, maybe I’ll post them on Face­book.

Michael Lav­i­gne’s first nov­el, Not Me, was the recip­i­ent of the Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award. His newest nov­el, The Want­i­ng, will be pub­lished by Schock­en Books on Feb­ru­ary 26th. Visit Michael on Face­book and vis­it his offi­cial web­site here.

Michael Lav­i­gne stud­ied at Millersville State Col­lege and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, where he did grad­u­ate work on the Com­mit­tee on Social Thought. His first nov­el, Not Me, received the Sami Rohr Choice Award. Lav­i­gne is a founder of the Tauber Jew­ish Stud­ies Pro­gram at Con­gre­ga­tion Emanu-El in San Fran­cis­co, and spent three years work­ing in the Sovi­et Union.