Separating Ego from Our Work
Updated: Aug 12
Writing is a display of ego. We write because we feel like we have something to say, right? Writing is also vulnerability. We are baring our souls on these pages. Our work is our baby, it’s personal and we have a strong attachment to it. It doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are, what genre you splash about in, we all pull from our secret hearts when we write. This is a reality of being a writer. Another reality is rejection. And there is little else on this planet that can spin a sensitive writer off their axis.
I see it happen time and time again and I have done the exact same thing in the past. A writer gets a rejection or a bad response and says, “That’s it. I’m garbage. Why did I ever think I could do this? Clearly I suck and should go catch train to the face.” Except we tend to be a bit more bleak. If you’ve been there you know what I’m talking about.
A particularly painful-at-the-time-but-I-can-laugh-now example from my own life is the time I had finished the first draft of my first novel and asked my husband to read the first chapter. This was a mistake on my part. My husband mainly reads non-fiction but he does read some fiction, mainly sci-fi and post-apocalyptic work. He’s not much on commercial lit and that’s what I write. But he read it anyway for me because he loves me. And because he loves me he wanted to offer some kind of feedback, so he told me I’d used a word twice in the same sentence and didn’t need a comma in one place.
That was it. That was the extent of the feedback. Nothing awful or particularly negative. But nothing good either. My ego could not handle it. She lost her mind and went flailing into a corner to scream incoherently for a few months. I gave up on writing because if my own husband couldn’t even find something good to say about it then I must be even worse than I feared. I decided to train to be a paralegal instead. Because sitting in an office ten hours a day doing dry ass legal research is definitely the job for a fiction writer. Sure. Thankfully my ego got over herself and came out of her screaming corner. She knows I have to write and I need her to do it.
Our egos are narcissistic pissbabies. They don’t like criticism. They don’t like hearing anything but how great they are. In fact they hate it so much that they will convince us we are utter shit and total fools to boot when we perceive a rejection of our writing as a rejection of our very soul. They can also go the other way and convince you that someone offering sound advice and guidance doesn’t know what in the hell they’re talking about. This is a more dangerous path to choose when faced with criticism. You risk missing out on valuable learning opportunities to be a better writer when you write off any criticism as ‘they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about’.
And therein lies the problem. Our egos are taking personally that which is not at all personal.
Think back to a time in your life when you were feeling overwhelmed and someone approached you with a perfectly reasonable request only to have you blow up or snap at them for no apparent reason. You know you’ve been there. Asking you where the extra paper is isn’t an onerous question, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed you might reply, “Go ask someone else, I have no idea,” whereas if you were not feeling under all that pressure you might reply, “I think it got moved to the copy room downstairs, but check with Cathy, she’d know.” The only thing that changes your reply is your own private context.
This is a human condition and an entirely understandable one. Guess what? Editors and readers are human too. They have big personal problems, they can be overwhelmed, they can be in a super shitty mood. They are not impartial jurors. When your work (your work, not you, yourself) is rejected it is by one single publication. One publication has decided your work isn’t for them. One. Single. That unique and interesting story you wrote about your wife learning of your mistress and bringing all three of you together in one big happy sisterwives triad might fall really really flat with the editor who’s just been ousted for having an affair. That’s not a personal rejection. That’s someone whose current context is coloring their perception.
Consider too that rejection is frequently a business decision. Journals can’t publish every great story they receive. They reject far more good stories than bad. Maybe they already have a story about an affair planned for the upcoming issue and don’t have room for your tale. Maybe they just published a whole anthology on extra marital affairs and simply aren’t interested. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with your writing. Maybe it just needs to get in front of the right eyes at the right time. Maybe, the majority of the time, rejection doesn’t have anything to do with our ability at all.
Maybe we shouldn’t take it so personally.