All contemporary writers are inherently egomaniacs. It takes an ego of unimaginable strength for a person to look at the summation of the written word and think, “Yeah. That’s not good enough. I have something unique, vital and oh so very important to add. Shakespeare? Fuck Shakespeare.” Ego is undeniably a necessary component to the act of, if not writing, then at the very least publishing. If there’s not enough confidence, or even arrogance in the strength and validity of your own work, it’ll probably go unread on your hard drive for all eternity. However, too much ego can quickly become a danger for writers. Three days ago, I posted about novelist Tom Bailey and how he would routinely deliver incredibly harsh critiques to undergrad students, often asking them to pick one great sentence from their drafts and start completely over (meaning new characters, new settings, new plots, new conceits). This pissed off a lot of students and some even changed majors or left the program once they realized the type of rewriting Bailey wanted. And this is where the danger lies. Because although you need to have enough faith in your work to believe it is worthy of existing, worthy of publishing, writers also have to be able to deal with criticism. Otherwise you get explosions like that one time Richard Ford kind of spat on Colson Whitehead over a negative review.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why ego is so necessary to writers, where it comes from, and what other professions it applies to. This is something my novel deals with a lot, so I’ve been wrestling with these issues for awhile now. In the book, one of the central figures is Kanye West. The Kanye of my novel is an odd amalgam of true reports and utterly fictionalized bullshit (for example, there’s a scene where Kanye rides a steel horse into space to eradicate an old folks’ home on Mars). One of the things that first really excited me about Kanye is his blog. I’m not naive enough to believe that Kanye’s the one actually posting music videos, linking to art exhibits, or gushing about the latest sneakers, but every once in awhile, a post shows up that is clearly written by Yeezy himself. For an example, check out this video of South Park mocking Kanye and then Kanye’s real-life response on his blog:
SOUTH PARK MURDERED ME LAST NIGHT AND IT’S PRETTY FUNNY. IT HURTS MY FEELINGS BUT WHAT CAN YOU EXPECT FROM SOUTH PARK! I ACTUALLY HAVE BEEN WORKING ON MY EGO THOUGH. HAVING THE CRAZY EGO IS PLAYED OUT AT THIS POINT IN MY LIFE AND CAREER. I USE TO USE IT TO BUILD UP MY ESTEEM WHEN NOBODY BELIEVED IN ME. NOW THAT PEOPLE DO BELIEVE AND SUPPORT MY MUSIC AND PRODUCTS THE BEST RESPONSE IS THANK YOU INSTEAD OF “I TOLD YOU SO!!!” IT’S COOL TO TALK SHIT WHEN YOU’RE RAPPING BUT NOT IN REAL LIFE… I JUST WANNA BE A DOPER PERSON WHICH STARTS WITH ME NOT ALWAYS TELLING PEOPLE HOW DOPE I THINK I AM. I NEED TO JUST GET PAST MYSELF. DROP THE BRAVADO… AS LONG AS PEOPLE THINK I ACT LIKE A BITCH THIS TYPE OF SHIT WILL HAPPEN TO ME. I GOT A LONG ROAD AHEAD OF ME TO MAKE PEOPLE BELIEVE I’M NOT ACTUALLY A HUGE DOUCHE BUT I’M UP FOR THE CHALLENGE… I’M SURE THERE’S GRAMMATICAL ERRORS IN THIS… THAT’S HOW YOU KNOW IT’S ME! (West)
Kanye’s quote might seem ridiculous to some, but I think there’s something very true and undeniably human about it that makes it worth examining. If anything, West is completely self-aware. He realizes quite accurately that his hyperbole and hyper-ego (the one that first allowed him to attempt to create something and show it in a public venue) originated in his vague, adolescent insecurities. His ego began as a way to boost his self-esteem, but in the wake of rampant success, grew completely out of control. There’s something about this admission that’s always struck me. Ego and insecurities. Are these two warring sensibilities necessary for all writers? Maybe even all “performers”? And if that’s the case, then aren’t we all performers? And are the dangers in overplaying one’s ego that are specific to writers?
These are all issues I’m still grappling with and definitely ones I plan on tackling in future work. My thoughts on the subject (much like this blog post) are kind of scrambled and inconclusive. All I can really add to the subject is this: a week ago, my mother asked me how I was doing. I’d been having a rough go of it (she knew this) and instead of answering her outright and explaining why I now felt so much better about the world, I told her a story. Because I really do believe that stories are how people make sense of reality. I reminded her that after Superman died in his climatic early-nineties throwdown with emotionless super alien Doomsday, the body of Clark Kent/Kal-El was placed inside of a magical regeneration chamber hidden away in the Fortress of Solitude that massaged him back to life with wondrous rays of sunshine imported from the planet Krypton. I told my mother that my ego had the same effect; it comforts, empowers and renews. Kryptonite is on one hand Superman’s greatest weakness, but on the other, it is the wellspring which makes all things possible. For without his Kryptonian lineage, what is Superman other than a disturbed individual who wears his underwear outside of his pants? My mother said, “That’s nice, dear.” That’s probably the best I can expect.