No Place for Ego

The ego gets a bad wrap. Most people associate it with arrogance, self-centeredness, and myriad other bad personality traits, but the reality is much different. Everyone has an ego – an innate sense of self-esteem or importance. I could argue that the ego is the foundation upon which self-preservation rests, the backbone of our primordial “fight or flight” instincts. In other words the ego keeps us going in the face of threats to our existence. On a less dramatic scale, the ego gives us the stamina to move forward despite feedback that suggests we’re wasting our time. That could be good or bad depending on the circumstances, but for a writer it is a necessary condition of employment.

Like many matters of art, writing is judged based on personal tastes, which are formed through a complex mix of experience and emotion throughout life. If I put two people in front of a classical painting in the middle of the Louvre and ask their opinion of the piece, I’ll likely get two starkly different opinions. Some paintings, like DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, are universally loved and admired (However, I bet I could find many people who hate it), but many others are subjected to the partial perspectives of the viewer or reader as it may be. While some opinions may carry the weight of an “expert,” no opinion on the matter of taste in art is necessarily more valid than another, but opinions are as varied as the people who provide them.

To take this example a bit further, I present my wife and me, both of whom are avid readers but have very different tastes in what is considered good in terms of books. We have enjoyed some books together, but my wife didn’t enjoy one of my most favorite books, Shantaram. Despite the fact that we share many similar likes and dislikes, we’re often on opposite sides of the reader spectrum. I prefer books in the literary genre with expansive, flowing prose, but many readers would find these stories dull and slow-moving. This doesn’t mean one genre is better than another; it’s a matter of taste, which is as varied as those who read the stories.

Understanding this reality is important for a writer. It’s no accident that many writers (or artists, in general) throughout history have been prone to neurotic or odd behavior (Think: Van Gogh, Dali, etc.). The slings and arrows of opinions can be quite difficult to absorb even if you understand this fact of life. What garners praise from one reader may prompt kvetching from another. It’s hard to know what to make of it all. Does every opinion warrant a change? Does every piece of feedback that is negative mean that the writer has failed?

To some extent, yes. The point of writing is to communicate effectively whether for pleasure or informative purposes. If the reader experiences little or no pleasure or is not informed, then the writer has failed, at least with that particular reader, but any writer who seeks to assuage every reader’s sense of satisfaction will never write because such a a feat is impossible. Even great classics of literature have their detractors. Such is the case for every other writer.

Given the flurry of opinion, it’s hard to stay focused. Writer’s have to pick and choose what feedback requires action, and that’s not always straightforward. I do know that no one becomes a writer to boost their ego. If anything, the ego is the only thing that keeps us going if only because it’s a flickering flame in a rainstorm that just happens to stay lit long enough until the next story is finished.

Where To Next?

This past weekend I ran a half marathon. My goal during the race was to keep as consistent a pace as possible without falling off in the latter stages of the race, which I’m prone to do. One of the course guides rode near me on a bike the entire time and he would periodically call out my pace to me. Almost without fail, he’d report that I was running the same pace whether I was on a straightaway or on an incline. In the few instances where he told me I was falling off, I’d shake myself out of my racing trance and kick it into another gear. Having someone monitor me like that and give me a shot in the arm when I needed it helped me perform better than I probably would have otherwise. It felt like I had an impromptu coach by my side. I thanked him (breathlessly, of course) when he peeled off near the finish line and let me cut through the crowd by myself. I came to a stop on the other side of the tape and bent over to catch my breath. After I grabbed some water, I ambled over to a bench and took a well-deserved break.

It’s no shock to anyone who knows me that I often find parallels between running and writing – after all both of these activities suck up most of the little free time I have. After attending The Fifth Semester a few weeks ago and getting some good advice and guidance from the coaches there, I feel like they’ve helped me stay on pace, at least with my current project, but much like that race this weekend, I’m hunched over sucking wind in need of a break after making my first submission to my coach. As I mentioned in my last post, the rewrite of many parts of my novel took much longer than I had expected. I’m not sure I was “on pace” the whole time, but I did cross the finish line for that particular race.

Having a coach does help. External feedback helps. It’s easy to get wrapped up in my own little world in a race or in writing, so having someone tell me when I’m drifting off pace helps me pull it back together. A few years ago, I worked with a wonderful editor, Kathy Williams, at Strategic Finance magazine when I was doing a series of articles for them. ¬†She was very good at her job, and she made my writing infinitely better, especially since the writing was technical and dry. Despite the topic, she made my articles pop off the page. She seemed to know where to add and subtract, and her suggestions were usually spot on. I loved working with her and often wished she worked with fiction writers. A good editor or coach can make or break a piece because many writers can’t see the forest for the trees, myself included.

This morning, I can still feel the residual soreness from the race this past weekend. I can also feel the doldrums between projects settling in. I’m in the process of re-reading Into the Caldera (the editing never stops!), but I’m also laying the foundation for my next project. I’ve decided to tackle one of my more recent ideas titled Pine Mountain. I posted the opening chapter here a while back. The story about a man who loses everything and returns to his hometown to put his life back together puts me back in the literary genre, and it has many interesting plot points that I cannot wait to explore. As usual, I kind of have a sense of where this story is going, but I won’t know for sure until I start writing. I’m at that stage of writing where I’m standing at the start line and I realize that I have a long distance to run and it feels a little overwhelming. Nevertheless, I’m eager to get started on what’s next after recovering for a bit.

(Re)Write

At first glance a writer’s life seems idyllic. Work often involves a comfortable chair and a steady stream of coffee nearby. The commute is to-die-for since it usually involves a small number of steps from bed to said chair (no more sitting in pointless traffic!). The dress code can range from comfortable to embarrassing and no one will report you to HR (although your spouse and/or kids may complain). Also, I’m certain that if I were a full-time writer that the after-lunch nap would be an acceptable practice. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

However, like everything else in life, it’s not that simple, and I’m convinced that the word idyllic is an adjective much like unicorn is a noun in that it describes something that does not exist (sorry, if I’ve burst your bubble about unicorns). While I can sit and write for hours with nary a pause, writing something that is cogent and delightful is a different story (no pun intended). Writing is hard. Of course, if it were easy everyone would have a best seller in bookstores on Amazon.

I just finished my umpteenth draft of Into the Caldera. If you’ve been following this blog (you can be forgiven if you’ve fallen asleep and missed a few, okay, a lot of posts), you may remember that I started this novel with gusto back in July of last year. I pounded out the first draft in under three months and then started the editing process, which took me through more loops than a game of Candyland. I eventually ended up at my recent writing boot camp with a novel that still needed more work despite months of effort on my part. Quite frankly, I was tired of it and longed to work on another idea that had me excited (I’m always excited about the next idea; the current one – not so much).

By the end of the long weekend at the boot camp, The Fifth Semester, one of the instructors, Ann Garvin, had breathed new life into my novel. She proposed a couple of ideas that really invigorated the story and got me excited about the project again. I began writing, or I should say, rewriting in earnest that weekend. I thought her suggestions were just what the novel needed to finally come to a finish. On the surface, these ideas seemed easy to implement, but the reality was quite different.

A novel, like any complicated object, is built in layers. The layers themselves may be simple, but when the whole is put together with all of the connections, the finished piece is complex and intertwined. Removing one simple part or idea is like trying to remove one thread from an intricately woven sweater. There were only two ideas in the story that I wanted to change based on Ann’s suggestions, but those changes impacted other parts of the story that then had to be changed to make the book coherent. Like any book, I had a good amount of foreshadowing of future events and references to past events in the narrative, so when I completely changed some things that happened, I had to go back and adjust the references or, in some cases, completely remove them.

Once I changed the story elements, the dominoes fell and I found myself stuck in an endless loop of rewrites. I’d read and re-read the story only to find yet another reference that was incorrect or made no sense. At one point, I wondered if it made more sense just to start over, but once you invest your life in a 70-thousand word story, it’s hard to trash the whole thing. I kept writing and rewriting until I thought I had a coherent draft ready to send to Ann. After much work, I finally sent her the draft on August 16th, which was more than a few weeks past when I had hoped to send it to her.

I’m sure she’ll find things that my tired mind overlooked. I’m sure I will, too. I’m re-reading the story again purely from a reader’s perspective to see how it flows. The changes I made were major in that they change the tone of the story dramatically. I basically took a sharp turn on the novel with my rewrites, but I think it makes it a better story. Nevertheless, I’m sure there are many more rewrites in my future with this story. The writer’s life isn’t so idyllic after all.

Sleep

My wristband buzzes me awake, not in a shocking, sudden way, but in a persistent low-frequency hum. I tap it without looking to turn it off and stare into the space of my bedroom as my eyes and my mind adjust to being awake. A quiet solitude fills my house at this hour, an ungodly one to most.

My wife sleeps next to me, still in her slumber. She lays on her left side cuddled up on her side of the bed. The warmth of our bed beckons me to stay, but I know I have to start my day. Now. Before I leave the comfort of this space, I roll over next to her and wrap my arms around her, this beautiful woman. In the ambient light, I can make out the curves of her body, the hallmark of her attractiveness. I gently move my hand along her side and kiss her on her back. She doesn’t stir. I don’t want to wake her; I just want to leave this one token of my love for her.

The day ahead calls like a screaming baby in the middle of the night. I pull away from my wife and leave her to sleep for another hour or two. I move in the dark to avoid waking her, slipping out of the bedroom and down the stairs to start my day. The day awaits impatiently, and I jump on the fast-moving treadmill that thrusts me through the long, stress-laden hours that I barely remember when all is said and done.

The day starts with perfect clarity in those predawn hours. My mind is sharp and alive with intriguing thoughts. My creativity bursts at the seams, like a genie rattling around in a bottle that could explode. In these precious few hours when I can think of things that really interest me, I let these thoughts roam free until I have to herd them all into a corner of my mind and begin the march toward the tiresome routine I have followed for more than two decades.

Tiresome. That’s a word that captures the essence of what becomes of me as the day zips by like a meteor ripping through the night sky. The sharp-edged rock of my day gets worn down by the incessant waves of never-ending demands and imagined pressures until it is worn smooth and benign.

I limp home joining a depressing chorus of zoned-out office workers on the train. I escape into my book for the train ride, my final escape from the harrowing day. Sleep calls for me in the slow-motion dance before bedtime. The weight of the day is no longer bearable by the time I return to my bed next to my wife.

Once again in the darkness of our bedroom, my body collapses into the mattress. My mind suddenly finds a spark before I push all thoughts aside to get some much-needed sleep. My wife, in her favorite position on her left side, slowly drifts off to sleep. I push myself next to her and wrap my arms around her listening to the soothing rhythm of her breathing as she finds sleep, a rhythm I know so well. It is here in the darkness next to the woman I love more than anything that I finally see the day for what it is, another opportunity to be alive and to love this woman. I kiss her on the back again before I too succumb to sleep.