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.