Monday, January 16, 2012

My Monster & Me

A couple months ago, I saw this play, "Seminar." To be honest, it took some convincing to get me to actually walk into the theater. I think my husband was afraid I'd develop PTSD or something, and for good reason as you'll find out. In the end, I was glad I went, not because "Seminar" was the most AMAZING play I'd ever seen--although I was in the front row and so caught every flare of Alan Rickman's nostrils--but for some of those bon mots: perfect sentences uttered in just the right way which captured some essential truth.

IMHO, one of the best sequences is pretty early on and begins here around 1:41 and ends right at 3:00. Actually, I'd encourage you to sit through the whole thing, but if you only make it through that short segment, that's fine. Take a sec and settle in for a look/listen. Go ahead; I'll wait.

Hey, there, back so soon? Well . . . didcha catch it? Yeah, that fabulous sentence: "If you're defending yourself, you're not listening." Now, why do I think that's a superb line?

Because: what he's talking about is ego.

Ego's been on my mind recently. See, a fan had gotten in touch and, long story short, wanted my input on a school project. Right off the bat, I wanted to decline. I am very leery of these kinds of requests, not because I am evil person and worry I won't be able to resist an inclination to savage someone. No, just the opposite: I empathize, quite a bit. I understand the guts required to show your work to someone else--and how hurtful criticism, even well-intentioned and on the money as humanly possible, can be.

In the end, though, I agreed. I was as gentle--and as truthful--as I could be. When there was some good stuff, I said so, but I also pointed out when what and how something had been written effectively got in the way of the story. Believe me, I really sweated this thing. Nothing I pointed out was done lightly. I agonized over the tone, the words, the phrasing. I even considered punting, saying something frothy that would be innocuous enough--but that wouldn't have been right either.

So I sent my short critique. To this fan's credit, I got a nice thank-you note. Was he thrilled that I hadn't loved the story? Of course not, but he was civil about it. But you could tell that my take wasn't what he'd been expecting or wanted to hear. Would he recover? Sure. I'm only one opinion, and he'll roll with it.

But all that got me thinking about all those times my ego has taken--and continues to take--a beating. This is inevitabile when you're a writer or any kind of creative sort; when you send your work out to be judged. Heck, that's as true for a secretary as it is for a painter. However dissimilar the settings or scenarios, they all share a common thread: ego and, by extension, self-confidence can save your life, or destroy your career.

So let me introduce you to both a necessary evil and real life-saver:

This is my Ego Box. As you can see, it has gotten quite a workout and it's a little the worse for wear because the monster it's designed to contain has tried chewing its way out on a number of occasions.

Now, my husband made this life-saver for me years back. He took great care in the construction, leaving nothing to chance. There's a nice little blankie to keep my ego snuggly and warm;

a comfy cushion;

and, even, a set of instructions--

because, clearly, my husband understands the monster we're talking about here:

Honestly, it's a tribute to my ability to tame my inner snark that I DIDN'T correct his grammar. :-)

The box is also useful for squirreling away little bon mots for the proper care and feeding of this beast:

And I'm only half-joking.

Believe me, learning when to box your ego is tough because listening to criticism--and shoving back the impulse to defend yourself--is not only a real killer but a balancing act you must master. You must embrace the paradox: perfecting the ability to stand your ground and know when to push back while also truly being receptive to suggestions which might improve your work because, as I've said before, not every word you've written is gold. Not every sentence deserves to live.

Achieving this is hard. It's a skill that requires practice and you will relapse, frequently. True story: maybe a month or so after I'd sold the ASHES trilogy, my editor sent comments and questions about the first book. Now, we'd only spoken on the phone for about five minutes before this, so I didn't know him well and wasn't sure what to expect. His edit letter started out okay--I've got it somewhere but am too lazy to dig it out right now--and he said nice things about what an awesome book I'd written, what an awesome trilogy, that kind of thing. Some nice superlatives. So I was, you know, feeling the love.

But then I took a look at the actual letter-letter, the real nitty-gritty, the guts of thing: page after page after page of questions. Lots and lots of questions. Over eighty some-odd, as I recall. (And, mind you, we're not talking copy-edits either).

Well, the more I read, the more I could feel my mind unraveling, my ego shriveling, my hat size going back to normal and then shrinking to something closer to a thimble.

And then I felt like this:

Yes, like a small, emotionally-disturbed child. I don't think I was lying on the floor but pretty close. Then, as now, it was my very wise husband who stood over me as I puddled on the floor and said, "Dear, get a grip. He bought the book."

Oh. Hey. blink-blink, sniffle That's right--and, yes, I'll have that martini now, thanks.

Or, put another way, a pro writer-friend said, "Are you kidding? This is GREAT edit letter! Don't you realize how much he loves this book? Why would he waste his time otherwise?"

Oh. Hey. Yeah.

In retrospect, I understand that I had made one of the worst mistakes that a writer, or any creative type, can: I'd let my ego get in the way.

Now, I'm not talking about being grandiose. I'm not a pompous person by nature. In part, that's because I've spent a heck of a lot of time around doctors and, in particular, surgeons, who can be a snarky and competitive lot: true experts at the art of making sashimi of you, the sniveling excuse of an intern. Granted, many surgeons cultivate ego as a survival skill. Think about it. If you don't believe you're amazing beyond belief, why ever would you cut someone open and go mucking around in there? It took me years to understand this. (Another true story: we interns called this very ballsy vascular surgeon "God." It fit.)

Am I excusing pomposity out of hand? No. But I do understand that ego has its place. As a writer, you must believe in your work.

But . . .

You are not perfect. You are not a god. Neither, for that matter, are editors or teachers or other writers. (What goes on in writing groups and classrooms and workshops is a post for another day. Talk about watching egos in action . . .) Yes, it takes guts to send your work out there for strangers to shred. There is nothing more soul-sucking than opening the mailbox to find another rejection. I am convinced that successful writers are masters of the arcane art of masochistic objectivism: the ability to read through a sound thumping of your work while doggedly searching for a gem or two--if you can only find it in all that blood.

I've had the very good fortune of having splendid editors and copy-editors who aren't afraid of using that flea comb to get rid of every nit. That doesn't mean that I don't lose patience or roll my eyes or scream at the monitor . . . but I scream at the monitor. Their job is not to make me feel better. Their job is to make the story better. If they can't turn out a quality product, they won't have a job.

So, learn to listen to critcism without bristling. Decide if and when what you're hearing is right or wrong, on the money or not--because just as they are your words, this is about you and your ego, too. That monster will get in the way and you will make mistakes. Trust me on this. But if you remember nothing else, remember this: crafting and presenting your story in the best possible way is your editor's and your publisher's top priority.

And it should be yours, too.


Jennifer Archer said...

Great post! I needed to hear this right now. Thanks!

Wendy Corsi Staub said...

I loved this post AND your husband and the Ego box.

Anita Grace Howard said...

Wonderful post! And your husband sounds like a gem. :)

Michelle said...

Love the idea of an ego box. I have a personal policy with editorial notes- I read them through three times over the course of a few days before responding- tends to keep my ego in check, while allowing time for a little sniveling...

Ilsa said...

Yes,Anita. He IS a gem! Michelle: Yeah, I try to do that, too. In fact, I always tell myself to read these things after my first cuppa of the day when I'm sharp and not snarky. But I frequently break down and start, oh, at 9 p.m. and then I have to dig out the Kleenex. Or pour myself a bourbon.

Jordan Dane said...

I think a shredder should eventually be a part of Ego Box 2.0.

Most collaborations lead to a better book, but I've managed to dodge some strange suggestions. Hence the shredder notion.

Thanks for the chuckle, you Cheesehead crazy woman!

Ilsa said...

Jordan, love the shredder idea. I'll have to give that some SERIOUS thought!