Sustaining the Writerly Ego

The business of writing and trying to get published can be punishing to the self-esteem, so how can a sensitive, self-doubting writer keep her ego inflated enough that it will bounce back from failures and rejections?  Listed below are four common bubble-bursters, followed by the “refills” that have worked for me.  Please comment with descriptions of any doubts or misfortunes that have popped your writerly ego, and let us know how you managed to puff yourself up again.


1.     You have the impression that writers who are really good know they’re really good, and you don’t know you’re good…in fact, you often think you’re pretty bad.

Unshakable self-confidence isn’t just for geniuses.  On websites like authonomy, in addition to some very talented writers, you’ll find a lot of hilarious cranks who believe in their god-awful work with a strength of conviction normally associated with schizophrenia.  For every James Joyce with his (as Yeats put it) “colossal self-conceit,” there are legions of talentless self-worshippers you’ve never heard of, and never will.

But is the converse also true?  Is gut-gnawing, worm-in-your-heart self-doubt not just for hacks?  Look at the early work of any Great Writer—Joyce’s school essays, for example (you can find some of them in Ellman’s biography, James Joyce)—and you’ll see that no one pops out of the womb writing masterpieces.  Writers improve by doubting themselves with a precision and a ferocity that no external critic can approach.  The suspicion that you’re failing isn’t a sign that you aren’t gifted.  It’s the essence of your gift: it will drive you to refine your work into something worthwhile.


2.     Sometimes you look at your work and it just seems…bad.

George Orwell wrote that every writer is occasionally repulsed by his own work.  When this happens, there are two possible explanations: either your work really is bad, or you’re just being neurotic.  In my experience, there’s an easy way to distinguish between these two cases: If your work’s bad, then by examining it and thinking about it you can start to figure out why it’s bad and thereby see ways to improve it (detecting poor quality in your own work is the hard part; identifying the problem is just a matter of bringing your impression into focus).  In this case, you’ve been blessed with a rare insight into your work’s deficiencies.  Use it to salvage your project.  But if you can’t pinpoint a flaw, if all of your work just seems sort of “off” to you…Well, isn’t “I’m worried, but I can’t see any reason why I should be” a good definition of neuroticism?


3.     You can’t get published.

Neither could Joyce.  Neither could Proust.  But they were ahead of the curve, right?  We can’t compare ourselves to them.  So join a writing workshop.  Go to writers conferences.  Go out and meet other “mortal” writers until you’ve found some whose talent you really believe in…and then let them cry on your shoulder when they can’t get published.  If they’re good, and it can happen to them, then you might be good, too.

And keep in mind that getting rejected is 99% of getting published.  Stephen King says that when he was starting out he impaled his rejection slips on a nail…until he had to replace the nail with a railroad spike.

Even if your work isn’t publishable (yet), you might just be a late bloomer.  May heaven rain blessings on Malcolm Gladwell for writing this piece about how failing to take the world by storm by the time you’re 23 doesn’t mean you don’t have something great in you.


4.     A critic (amateur or professional) has skewered your work…and you think he has a point. 

Maybe he does, and maybe he doesn’t.  If after honest reflection you’re convinced that your critic is wrong about your work, or that his criticism is reducible to a difference of taste, then you have to accept that there are people who just don’t like or understand what you write.  It seems silly to have to say this, but this acceptance is surprisingly elusive for many writers, particularly for unpublished writers who can’t just haul out their fan mail whenever they need an ego boost.  I could kiss Virginia Woolf for writing the following in A Room of One’s Own, and I’m sure I’m not alone:

I need hardly multiply instances of the undeniable, if very unfortunate, fact that it is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.”

Don’t add yourself to that wreckage.  Even Shakespeare has his critics…and some of them have found real flaws in his work.  This raises the second possibility: your critic has legitimately nailed you.  If this happens, read some criticism of authors you admire.  It’s bracing to watch Nabokov rip into Dostoevsky (here) or Harold Bloom stomp on David Foster Wallace (here) or David Foster Wallace pay it forward to John Updike (here) or Harry Siegel spit bile at Jonathan Safran Foer (here) or Tolstoy rain brimstone on Shakespeare (here) or Virginia Woolf trash James Joyce (here) or B.R. Myers sharp-shoot Auster, DeLillo, McCarthy, and others (here)…especially when you can kind of see where the critic is coming from.  So you’ve been criticized?  You couldn’t be in better company: “even Homer nods.”

3 comments for “Sustaining the Writerly Ego

  1. Ki Brightly
    October 3, 2014 at 8:14 am

    I made the classic mistake of allowing my partner to read what I was writing when it was in the nascent phase, you know what I mean, when it is just oozing out of the primordial muck and you haven’t really gotten to fill in the holes yet or even fix the occasional typo? Yeah, I let him read it then. He lambasted me, pointed out every flaw almost gleeful, then with a voice full of horror asked me, “this is what you’re doing every day? How on Earth has anyone ever picked up your writing?”

    I was crushed for days. Couldn’t even look at my keyboard without getting nauseous.

    Then I realized: ONE, he hates what I write. I already knew that. He loves to read High Fantasy, something I can only stand about every other Wednesday when the moon is full. TWO, I took everything to heart because he was my significant other and usually he’s blowing sunshine and smoke my direction because he loves me. THREE, because I trust him with my heart I let him read my work at a point where I would have run away screaming with my laptop clutched to my chest to allow anyone else near it.

    So, my advice? Don’t jump the gun. Make sure you’re actually passing along at least a semi-gloss version of whatever you’re writing to your loved ones because they fall into two types-extremely harsh because they think they’re being helpful (which admittedly my partner had a point with every single thing he said, the bastard) or they’re just going to tell you everything you write is good because they love you.

    Don’t set yourself up for the days of gut churning irritation with your lover.


    • Ian
      October 4, 2014 at 8:30 am

      Great comment–thanks for posting. I agree with you. I’ve been very fortunate in that my wife likes the kind of writing I do, but I still don’t show her first drafts. Criticism from a loved one can feel sort of like betrayal (“She’s refusing to support my work!”) even when it’s justified, so I try not to lead with my chin, so to speak.

  2. H. R. Ryder
    H. R. Ryder
    March 10, 2014 at 11:54 pm

    I submitted to a literary journal where I was also on the selection committee, so I got an opportunity to sneak peeks at the ratings sheets when people reviewed my work. Among the most hurtful were the reviews from one particular reviewer with distinct handwriting. His entire commentary on the quality of my work consisted of onomotopoeic vomit sounds. I submitted a poem from the point of view of a gila monster in the desert and got a review of “Oh my god, I am so sick of this vampire crap.” I also got another review where an editor went off on a long rant about the symbolism of the apple in the poem. I had written the poem about an actual event, and the apple was in the poem because it was present at said event, not because I was trying to invoke Jungian symbolism and Biblical references.

    My poetry and fiction got rejected year after year from this literary journal. They did, however, publish a piece of my artwork (I do not view this as a compliment to the quality of the artwork as much as an indication of how truly desperate they were for art submissions that year), and a nonfiction piece that I wrote. After years of receiving rejection, I was surprised at how many people gave me compliments on that nonfiction piece. There was someone that I had barely known but knew me from school that stopped me on the street and talked to me for ten minutes about how much she loved what I had written in that nonfiction piece and how many memories it stirred for her. I had thought of myself as a fiction writer, but it was my nonfiction that earned me by far the most praise.

    There are a few major things that I learned from this process.
    1. Considering just how many other submissions received vomit sounds from the same reviewer, it wasn’t nearly as personal as it felt.

    2. Sometimes it isn’t a matter of the quality of the writing as much as it is the topics that the editors are sick of hearing about, or haven’t gotten enough of. Sometimes it says much more about the reviewer’s personal hangups or need to flaunt their English degree than it did about anything that I had actually written.

    3. I still do not understand how that reviewer got the impression that my poem was about a vampire when the only bodily fluid mentioned in the poem was someone crying. Some readers will always misunderstand no matter what the quality of the writing is. The key thing to understand is how many of your readers are getting lost, and where. If most of the readers are getting lost at the same point, revision may help. Getting a variety of opinions from writers groups and advance readers really help in determining if the problem is with the writing.

    4. I needed to stop submitting poetry to that literary journal. My poems are about personal experiences that I found inspiring, rendered in an attempt to recreate those moments like the realism in Degas’s ballet paintings. The editors much preferred poems written in the Cubist painting style, and I often despised the poems that the reviewer with the stomach flu gave the most praise to. There are people out there that appreciate both kinds of artwork, and each have artists considered masters of that particular style. Sometimes finding a publisher that will appreciate your particular style of artwork is a matter of choosing the right audience for the particular type of work that you do.

    5. My fiction writing sucked. At the time, I had ridden off the glory of my high school days where my writing was highly praised and had not improved my skills enough to write fiction at a more professional level. I took a playwriting class to improve my dialogue which encouraged me to start by writing down real conversations that I observed. I realized that I needed to write my fiction more like I wrote my nonfiction. I still write down quotes from people constantly, and some of these get blended into my dialogue. I incorporate people that I have met, dreams I have had, and events that I have experienced, even though it is never as straightforward as saying “This character in the novel is actually my real-life friend Jerry.” My writing is laced with tributes to people I’ve met, living or dead, some of whom may have only been in my life as long as a bus ride. When I started writing my fiction as a remix of my real life, my fiction writing improved exponentially.

    I probably should not have mentioned the last point on here with the members of my writers group. I have a feeling some of them my wonder what kind of real life experience could have possibly led to the events in Chapter Twelve.

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