The Need to Believe in Yourself: in Defense of the Writer’s Ego

I’ve encountered the arrogant writer a few times. A few times, it’s been me who was arrogant. Many of us can be obnoxious about our work and our belief in it, which often blinds us to its faults and gaps in quality. What’s going on with that?

Simply put, I think it’s the fact that making it as a writer is no easy feat, and it’s often a great defense mechanism from the rejection we feel. But like all defense mechanisms, it has to come down sometime, particularly when its usefulness has passed. We like to shield ourselves from uncomfortable truths. In my case, a good one is that I really need to cut back on the world-building exposition. I find myself slipping into Professor Slayton mode, where I start lecturing the reader about a neat little bit of history or mythology I’ve worked into the world. I love this mode, because I love showing off and hearing the sound of my own voice (like many English majors), and I truly want to share my knowledge with the reader (like many History majors).

Keeping your ego at the fore of your work is problematic because it blinds you to feedback. When criticism comes, and criticism is a necessary part of the process, you need to be open to it. I often find the most scarring criticism is the kind that is spot on: someone points out something I already knew deep down, but did not want to accept. In this position you have two options. You can either choose to ignore the criticism and hold up your ego like a shield, demonstrating a variation on the “I’m an artist and you just don’t understand me” slash “I’m just too smart for you to understand my work” defense; or you can accept the uncomfortable truth that yes, maybe that character in chapter three is a little too Yoda-like to pass muster, doesn’t serve a point, and should probably go.

When we write we put forth our inner selves. We’re out to entertain sure, but we’re also trying to tell a story that means something to us. You have to believe in your work to finish a novel. You have to really believe in it when you query it to agents. But you can’t skip the middle part, which means getting feedback, getting it critiqued, and improving the quality of the work. Your ego is a valuable tool in this process. It’s a partner in getting you back to the keyboard every day; but don’t let it be bruised too easily by critique, and don’t let it blind you to things you don’t want to accept about your work. Your ego is a part of you, but keep it in its place.

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