Watch What You Feed that Ego

For those who don’t follow me on Instagram or Twitter, this is our agave flower spike. It’s fixing to bloom any day now. Really spectacular!

Some of my friends find this monster spike unsettling and alien. More than one has compared it to the flesh-eating, massively growing plant in Little Shop of Horrors.

via GIPHY

I can see their (okay, pretty melodramatic) point. But there was something about that manipulative plant, whose hunger for human flesh could never be sated, that sticks in our heads and still gives us the creeps. 

We could say it’s that atavistic and animal instinct to avoid the predator. I’d go a step further and say that stories of this type warn us of another great peril of being human: the overweening ego. That’s our topic this week, asking each other “How Do You Keep It Humble?” aka “Great Cautionary Tales: the Enormous Ego Edition.” Come on over to the SFF Seven for my tips on how NOT to have this happen to you. 

 

Choosing Your Billing

How people bill themselves and their products fascinates me.

You know what I mean, right? The “best,” “tallest,” “newest,” “most.” Advertisers have been after this method for years, trying to convince consumers that this particular thing is special, unique, superlative and Must Be Purchased. Of course, there are laws that require Truth in Advertising.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the main federal agency that enforces advertising laws and regulations. Under the Federal Trade Commission Act:

  • Advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive

  • Advertisers must have evidence to back up their claims

  • Advertisements cannot be unfair

However, it’s fairly easy to get around this sort of thing. “Truthful” is a relative thing. My “healthy” granola bars might be low-fat and through the roof on sugar and sodium. Depends on the definition.

Writers, of course, are faced with selling themselves to the world. Yes, yes – I know we’re really selling our stories, but the almighty BRAND is the author herself. Do you want to read a book by Crappy Author or Bestselling Author? Knowing nothing else, you’ll probably pick Bestselling, because at least that means a bunch of other readers liked the author’s work enough to buy it.

Theoretically.

See, it’s really great for an author to have a book make it to the New York Times Bestseller list. Or the USA Today Bestseller list. And now the Amazon Bestseller list. The best part is, a writer gets one book on one of those lists – even in the very bottom spot – and ever after you get to pimp yourself as Bestselling Author. Fair enough, really. However, now that there are so many digital presses and online bookstores, there are ever so many more lists to be on. And I see authors glomming onto the “Bestseller” title if they’ve made it on any list anywhere.

For example, when Sapphire came out, it was number one on the Carina bestsellers list for about a week. Now, I’m not saying I didn’t love this. I may have clicked on the link and looked at it approximately every ten minutes. I might have even made little gleeful noises while I looked. Okay, I have screenshots saved. And someone said to me “Now you can call yourself a #1 Bestseller.”

Erm.

Obviously, I haven’t done that. It just feels wrong. I know a bunch of you will snicker at this, but I’m a fairly modest person. Not that I don’t have a very healthy ego and strong self-confidence. But I really don’t like talking myself up. I run into this at the day job, too. Those people in the company who make sure everyone knows how wonderful they are? I’m not one of them. I’m wary. Wary of jealous gods and obese egos. 

So today I noticed a writer described as “World Renowned Author” and I tripped over it. What the hell does that mean? I recognized the author’s name, even read one of his books, but I would never have described him as world-famous. And then I thought, well, hell – Carien who often comments here, lives in The Netherlands and she likes my books. And @arzai lives in Malaysia and she likes my books. I figure, this makes ME world-renowned, right?

I’m low-fat, all-natural and healthy, too.

On Fires and Hubris

Smoke in the valley today. There’s a 60,000 acre fire near Alpine, Arizona. The smoke and ash blew in on us last night. Our patio cushions have ash all over them.

Apparently it’s worse in the valleys. People in Albuquerque were calling 911 to report fires. They were broadcasting bulletins to tell people to knock it off, that the smoke was from Arizona.

Where there’s smoke, there’s not necessarily fire.

Not right *there* anyway.

It’s a funny thing, how what happens to our neighbors affects us. We forget that things are different for people just a state away, the weather, their politics, disasters. Until it spills over into our own lives.

A friend of mine is up in Yellowstone right now and it’s been snowing. She’d asked me for advice on the best route home. Then she found out that one direction isn’t a possibility because the roads are still closed due to snow. I lived in Wyoming for over 20 years and already I’ve forgotten that early June can still mean snow there.

How quickly we adapt, focusing on our immediate world.

I think it’s easy to fall into this pattern, thinking that how things are for us is how they are for everyone.

Maggie Stiefvater, who is a very successful author of young adult novels, and at quite a young age herself, wrote a blog post the other day that kind of took me aback. I agree that jealousy is a worthless emotion and something to be overcome. However, the relentlessly self-congratulatory tone is a bit off-putting to me. It can be a trap, I think, to believe that your own success is a direct result of your awesomeness.

Clearly, if the juice is lacking, you have little to go on. Still, success in any endeavor is made up of many factors. Timing, serendipity, personalities. It’s like wondering why one woman is able to have babies easily while another is infertile. Is it because fertile woman is a better person? Because she deserves it? Why does one guy develop pancreatic cancer and another live to be 106? We like to try to trace cause and effect, but there isn’t always one.

With producing art, we’re talking about something that necessarily grows out of the deepest parts of ourselves. Sure, a writer can try to target what sells, but if the story isn’t genuine to her in some way, it’s not going to work. Not everyone has the story that becomes a phenomenon. That’s just how it is.

We all follow different paths in life. Our joys and sorrows, failures and successes are part of that. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what hand we’re dealt, but rather how we play it.

Not everyone gets to be a bestselling author. Not everyone gets to live to be 106. Some people die young. Some can’t have babies. Some artists are discovered after they die.

I sometimes wonder if I’d take Jane Austen’s lot – to be so revered long after my death and never get to enjoy it myself.

Maybe so. Hubris is a poisonous thing. Not getting too excited about one’s own awesomeness can be dodging a bullet. Hard to control a raging ego, once its been overfed.

More and more I’ve come to believe the real test in life is not how well we do, but how we handle what happens.

Remembering that not everyone sees the same thing when they look out the window is part of that.

Art and Twitter


How do you like where I hung our cow skull? I’m feeling very Georgia O’Keeffe.

It’s hard to say if I’m imitating her, or Santa Fe design in general. Sometimes you do something just because it looks good. We happened to have this cow skull – which is kind of a long story. Suffice to say that David and I are both biologists and we have a lot of different bones and skulls. In this landscape they become less eccentric and more fashion statement.

RoseMarie sent me this article about a “new writer” giving up Facebook and Twitter. I kind of hate to give it the dignity of a link, because it’s really very silly. “Article” is really a strong word. It’s only 434 words long (yeah, I checked), which is comparable to my shorter blog posts. Really it reads like “Hey, this one friend of mine, who got an MFA? Well she gave up Twitter and Facebook, even though she was really good at it, you know? And she thought it totally worked for her.”

I don’t think I exaggerate there.

The “premise” was the “new writer” who’s been published in Narrative Magazine, which is respectable but hardly earth-shattering, and is, um, exactly one publication credit, cut herself off from the social media to concentrate on her writing. (By the way, the phrase that she’s “hoping to publish her first book soon” can be translated as anything from “it’s not done yet” to “she’s pitching to agents” to “she’s working her way through the university presses. In short, we have no idea where she stands on it.)

But I digress.

The result of the grand experiment? Even in the full essay, she never mentions if she gets any more writing done. Of course, she comes from an MFA frame and one of the amusing things about that mindset is three months of “focusing on your writing” isn’t really expected to produce anything in the way of wordcount. Deep thoughts can be enough. Her conclusion was she felt she “detoxed” from Twitter and maybe she needed to. Most of her musing is about whether she’s abandoning her social media platform when she needs it most.

There’s this guy on Twitter I followed recently. He followed me first, for a reference I made, so I followed back – he looked reasonably amusing and I usually give anyone who’s not only posting links a shot. He’s looking for a job. So he takes other people’s posts and mentions that he wants a job. For example, someone will say “I’m a writer – I have the papercuts to prove it” and he’ll reply “I need a job – I have a ‘hire me!’ sign to prove it.”

He’s clever and makes me smile, which is what it’s all about. So, I bit.

I asked him where he is and what kind of work he’s looking for. This is the opening he’s looking for, right? If I could, I’d be willing to point him in some directions.

So what does he do? He replies, twice, about how he needs a job and how sad it is that millions of people don’t have jobs. He tells me a state and a vague kind of work and gives me absolutely nothing to go on. Oh, and he tells me he got on Twitter because he’d heard it was a great place to connect with people.

And yet – he completely failed in his opportunity to connect with me.

I think that’s the part people miss: if you’re going to do the social media thing, you have to do it because you enjoy it, to really connect with people, not to manipulate the medium to get what you want. It’s fascinating, really, how invulnerable the system is to insincerity.

I suppose that’s the difference, too, between imitation for the sake of status and repeating an idea because of the image it creates.

Can I help it Georgia had a brilliant eye? Maybe the cow skull is just my little way of connecting with her, in a cosmic non-Twittery way.

Riding the Ego Wave


This is a stained-glass window in the Albert & Victoria Inn, where I’m staying one more night.

Isn’t it pretty? Apropos of nothing at all.

I thought about trying to wind it into a theme, but mostly I’m thinking about ego today and I’m not seeing how an antique rose window fits into that.

The problem is, I have a lot of complicated thoughts about ego right now. Probably a long essay’s worth, maybe even a whole book’s worth. So I clearly can’t write a succinct blog post about it.

But this is the core of what I’m thinking: A bloated ego leads to insanity.

By this I mean that, when the ego grows, it limits a person’s ability to see the world in a rational way. The larger the ego, the more distorted the person’s world view becomes until they reach a point where they cannot interact with other people in a sane way.

When people wonder how Tiger Woods thought no one would notice he was sending out for women to tend to his needs? Ego. He thought the rules didn’t apply to him.

How on earth did John Edwards think he could disappear, blithely mention backpacking in South America and that no one, not the national media would check? Ego. He said it, therefore it was true.

How can writers rant at criticism of their books, accusing the reviewer of everything from sour grapes to being fat and unattractive? How can they rant on their blogs about how people read their books wrong, because the books themselves are perfect? How can a writer blast contest judges for giving them a low score, saying that it’s just plain mean and they’ll get revenge?

Ego. Ego. Ego.

I’m not linking to all examples of this stuff, because, really, it’s enough for a PhD thesis.

The thing about ego is, it starts small. I’m thinking of a writer who just published her first book. It was snagged from the slushpile by an agent, sold to a publisher, movie rights sold. The book is doing well. I read it. It’s decent. A good read that I enjoyed. I think there are some serious flaws, but there it is.

The thing is, this writer is dispensing advice on how to get published. Offering up the rules. “If your book is good enough, it will get sold.” She’s proud of her achievement, as she should be, but I’m alarmed by her total lack of disregard for serendipity. Her book was EXACTLY the right theme at the right moment. I bet that two years ago, even one year ago, no one would have looked twice at it. A year from now it will be over. Great timing, super good luck for her — how can she not see it?

Ego.

The ego leads us to believe we do all this ourselves. “*I* am great and wonderful!” screams the ego. “Look at all I’ve done!”

I’m thinking that’s the moment you start to lose touch with reality, when the I is greater than the world around you. When a person doesn’t see how the world is working.

For example, it’s well understood in the publishing world that a writer simply cannot write to market. Even if you’re fast, by the time you draft the novel, revise, sell it, edit, and put it through the publishing calendar, the idea that was so hot and fresh when you started is now last year’s news, at best. What will be hot when the book hits the shelves? An entire industry wishes they could predict it and they can’t. It’s luck. That’s the deal.

So there are my rambling thoughts on ego for the day. I probably haven’t done it justice and will undoubtedly return now and again. Likely I’ll repeat myself. Possibly mumble in a vague way, from time to time.

Just remind me to give myself credit for the hard work I do, give thanks for the random blessings the universe bestows — and the sanity to know the difference.