Chip MacGregor

October 9, 2012

Does an author need to have a big ego?


I’ve often talked at writing conferences about the motivation we have as writers — some people have a story they need to tell, others have advice they want to share, and still others simply want to be a star and get noticed. There’s something about that issue of “being a star” that becomes part of the writing business. So I was interested when someone wrote to ask, “As an agent, do you find yourself having to deal with ego issues a lot?” (His question came in within 24 hours of someone else asking, “Do you have to have an ego to survive in publishing?”)

My perspective is that struggling with ego issues is part of any art form. If you’re a musician or actor or dancer, there’s a rush in getting on stage, in front of an audience, and basically shouting, “Look at me!” At the same time, that’s not the only motivation — the opportunity to express yourself, to tell your story, or reveal your vision is just as important. For a writer that same struggle exists. You’ve got to find a balance between expressing yourself in your writing and making this “all about me.”

So, to make this easy, let me talk about myself rather than my authors, since the whole ego issue is something I have to battle. First, I’m not a star. I have no intentions of ever becoming a star. I’ve written books, but I’m in no way a celebrity author. And the funny thing is that I don’t really want to be a celebrity author, even though I enjoy doing a good job , and doing a good job in public. However…

Second, I suppose if there is any place I’ve got a small measure of celebrity, it’s with the extremely small population of people who attend writers’ conferences — a group small enough that most people don’t even know it exists. In other words, my name might mean something to a couple thousand people, so my popularity is never going to rival the great writers of the day… or even the pretty-good writers of the day. The “stars” are the people writing successful books, not those just known for hanging around them. [And a side note: It’s funny, but the star-like impression a small group of people have about me in print is always tempered when they meet me and discover I’m considerably more boring than I sound in my writing. Talk to any successful author who knows me, and they’ll tell you I’m about as exciting as tuna fish on Wonder Bread with a glass of milk and a Twinkie.] For that reason, I don’t really have many people telling me how fabulous I am, with the possible exceptions of clients after I’ve helped them land a good deal, or writers who have had too much to drink.

Third, despite those two points, I definitely have an ego. I like doing well at things. I like being told I’ve done well. I like to know when I’ve made someone happy, and I hate it when I screw up. I know I’m good at my job, and sometimes that comes across as being over-confident. In other words, in my own life I’m seeking balance between “doing a good job” and “wanting to be a star.” So I think I’m similar to many authors — I find most artists enjoy writing well, but also like the attention, no matter how much they cover it up with nice sounding words about “being a servant” or “being true to the artistic vision.” There’s a “HEY LOOK AT ME” element to publishing, and we shouldn’t ignore it or pretend we’re above it. On top of that, many artists get all twitchy whenever anyone questions their work (which they treat as their babies) or their artistic actions (which they think “makes us who we are”). Therefore I find that most writers, like most other artists, can sometimes be a wee bit sensitive to hearing criticism. Or, to put it another way, our egos have a tendency to be wrapped up in our words and our images of ourselves. But that’s okay with me — it’s how we were wired. Understanding that is simply part of my role as an agent. 

Of course, my experience tells me that most people aren’t tested nearly as much by failure as they are by success. The biggest jerks I’ve known in this industry were people who have had big success and were changed by it. And, generally speaking, the bigger the success, the bigger the opportunity for jerkdom. (Um…no, it’s not an automatic thing. But if you’re having some success, there might be a lesson here for you to ponder.) I just think success changes us, and my experience is that it doesn’t often change us for the better. I’ve worked in publishing for years, and it’s a fairly short list of people who have had huge success and remained normal.

Think about that for a minute before wishing on #1 bestsellers. Remember the old saying about pride going before a fall? It’s in the bible, where there are all sorts of warnings about how you’ll change when you make a pile of money or have people fawning over you. But there aren’t many proscriptions about being poor or ignored. There’s this myth in our culture that your mettle will somehow be tested by failure. Baloney. All of us experience some failure, some rejection, some times of being ignored, and we get over it. We have to, since the world keeps going. I don’t think our character is tested all that much by failure… it is tested much more by success. Can you write a millon-selling book and not turn into a pompous ass? Can you have everybody tell you that you’re brilliant and not start acting like a prima donna? That’s the struggle for authors.

I don’t claim to have all the answers on this topic, but I can offer a basic guideline: Develop an honest friendship. I’ll sometimes ask the people around me if I’m being a jerk. Because (believe it or not) I rarely hear that, even though I know I sometimes say or do stupid things. Unfortunately, because my friends love me, they often won’t tell me the truth. The people in your writing group, for example, may be too nice to say to you, “Ya know… you sound like a jerk.” For that reason, I have an agreement with a couple of people I trust. They’ve promised to be honest with me and tell me when I’m blowing it, so long as I’m honest with them and will reciprocate. (Which doesn’t really happen…if somebody is dumb enough to be close friends with me, they’re undoubtedly too dense to recognize when I’m telling them the truth.) The only system I’ve found for helping me achieve some sort of balance is a mature friend — someone who loves me enough to tell me I’m acting like a dope. And there aren’t very many of those people in any of our lives. In fact, to be completely honest with you, a couple of them in my life don’t work in publishing. They don’t know the personalities involved, so they see everything in my life with fresh eyes.

So…”yes” to both of the questions that were posed at the start of this little rant. I find myself dealing with egos a bit, but I don’t mind it nor find that terribly different than any other artist management role. And if you think being a literary agent has some of this, try dealing with professional athletes. Men who have been told they were special since they hit puberty are pretty well off the charts when it comes to ego size. And my friends who manage music artists have a lot more headaches than I do — I never have to wrangle over how big the dressing room is going to be or what color M&M’s will be backstage. So no, this doesn’t bother me. I think having an ego is a necessary part of writing. After all, if you really don’t want others to hear what you’ve got to say, I’m never going to be able to sell you. But learning to keep things in perspective, to have a balance in your life for the attention that comes with writing, is probably one of the best lessons an up-and-coming writer can struggle with.

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  • simmerartist says:

    Chip, you having a blog is a gift to those of us who read it. You’re right that you have valuable things to say, and we’re glad you take the time to say them. I don’t see that as being egotistical at all. You “know” and then “share.”
    Also, I do think there’s a difference between ego and confidence. Everyone has an ego, but our personal self-esteem issues determine how much that ego needs to be fed and by whom. If people truly start believing, simply because they’ve achieved success and are treated on some celebrity level, that they are somehow now elevated above other people, they think way too much of themselves and their value. This is different than recognizing our gifts and talents and using them in the best ways, which hopefully can serve to benefit other people, whether it’s spiritually, emotionally, professionally or whatever.
    As a writer (and creative person, in general), what motivates me to write differs with WHAT I’m writing. My picture books are written to teach and entertain. The ideas come naturally and my desire to create is a large part of who I am as a person. My ability to do so is a gift, and how well I do that is a matter of opinion.
    Though I also illustrate, my greatest passion is for the written word. I adore the English language and playing with words to get whatever I want to express “just right.” Well—as close to “just right” as I can get it. I want to be PUBLISHED for two reasons: my picture books would hopefully work for me financially; my novels may do that (though we know it’s a long shot to be financially successful through writing), but in those I have some very strong messages to convey. This is what drives me to want to be published. My hope is that, IF published, the stories (novels) and all that’s contained within them, will touch people and stick with them in a way that may help them in some way. Now, if that attitude translates into having a “big ego” because I feel I can “enlighten” someone, I don’t agree. I think it simply boils down to the fact that I believe certain things are of great importance, and in my opinion—are true. It is the readers’ eyes that determine whether something can enlighten, or whether it’s something they already know and agree with or disagree with or even passionately hate.
    Words are all about expression, even in mere conversation. The motivations you listed are all valid, and just like we have black, white and gray personalities combined, it is how much of each color that determines who we are, how we behave and on what level we view ourselves in comparison to others. Some people have to keep their egos in check, while others realize ALL people have value. The maid is not beneath the people she waits on—she simply works for them. And the employers are not above the maid—they simply have enough money to pay them to do that job. No different with celebrities or anyone else, but the ones with the egos which constantly need to be fed to keep them feeling “special” and above others—they forget they’re only human and not gods, or perhaps always saw themselves as gods.
    It always feels good to get a compliment or have someone express their appreciation or admiration for something we created or did. It helps us feel more validated and that our time is not wasted. But when I create, that’s not my motivation, but a nice “perk” when it happens. I would create no matter what. And though I want to be successful, I don’t want to lose my privacy and my life if “celebrity” became a part of that. I wouldn’t want to question others’ motivations even more than I do now! lol
    This is a great topic, Chip, and as always, you are as forthcoming with this as you are about everything. You DO have valuable things to say in the unique way (voice) you say them. Thank you!

  • Oh, thanks so much for this one, Chip. I have often said that I don’t fear failure….I’ve got failure down….I’m pretty dang good at it as a matter of fact. What I fear is real success, because I know how much of a jerk I can be! I know that pride comes before the fall and I’ve fallen enough! And the whole “look at me” thing…I know I’ve got it in spades! I have a friend that calls it “lead singer’s disease”….and he’s absolutely right! ….so, all that said, as my friend, please feel free to tell me when I’m being a jerk. Keep me grounded if this thing takes off….I promise you I will need it!

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Thanks for a great post. I’ve been thinking about this topic lately. In a couple days I’ll be giving a presentation to new writers and will challenge them to consider their real motivation for writing. I suspect ego is a part of most honest answers.

    (BTW, I love Twinkies.)

  • Mel Lawrenz says:

    Writers have to have a strong sense of “I.” Otherwise there would be no insight, introspection, or desire to express. The question is whether the “I” is attached to something–a great idea, a cause, a truth–rather than existing by and feeding itself. What is the is “I” about? If it is only about “I,” so long. It’s kind of like the creed. When you say the first three words of the creed, is your emphasis on first, second, or third word: “I believe [in] God.”

  • Gretchen O'Donnell says:

    Thanks for these words! I have thought about this a lot, ever since reading, It’s Not About the Bike by Lance Armstrong a few years ago when I came away thinking, “Wow, this guy has a huge ego” and then I thought, “But maybe anyone who is in the public eye NEEDS to have an ego”…I mean, just to think that someone might want to read my book…does that mean that I have a huge ego?! I wrote about it in my “about” on my blog. It’s a fascinating topic, I think…

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes, and I think the struggle is to find a healthy balance, Gretchen. Why do I have a blog? Because I think I have something to say that people will want to read. Does that make me an egotistical jerk? Maybe, or maybe it’s calling, or maybe it’s simply artistic expression.

  • Ardis Van Boxtel Nelson says:

    Your post was very timely and helpful for me. My first manuscript for a novella was just published and I’ve been struggling with some of these issues. This is the first place I’ve seen it mentioned in print–like it’s a dark secret that shouldn’t be bared in public. As a Christian writer, I am trying to find the balance between self-promotion and humility. My trusted friends are a valuable asset when it comes to walking that line. Thanks Chip!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You’re welcome, Ardis. I enjoy discussing the areas where we struggle to find balance. This is one of those areas for me, as well as for a number of writers.

  • sally apokedak says:

    Great post!

    Success sometimes takes previously kind and grateful people and turns them into people who believe they’re entitled to better treatment, simply because people are fawning over them and they begin to believe they really are special.

    I think the answer to a big head is to remember that God is sovereign. You didn’t give yourself your talents. God knit you together in the womb. God raises up kings and knocks them down. If we can remember that then we can thank God without feeling proud of ourselves when we have much success.

    I agree with this: “if you really don’t want others to hear what you’ve got to say, I’m never going to be able to sell you.” And I think it’s possible to want others to hear us and still be humble. Jesus wanted to get his message out and he was humble. Humility is not saying, “Oh well shucks, I’m really not smart and I don’t know nothin’.” Humility is seeing your strengths and weaknesses clearly and using your strengths to help others and allowing others to help you with your weaknesses.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Excellent. And yes, that’s the struggle, Sally. If I don’t feel as though I’ve got something to say, most likely it’s not ever going to get published. But if I feel like my words are the greatest things since the invention of movable type, I”m probably a horse’s ass.

  • Ginger Harrington says:

    A very thought provoking post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with honesty and transparency.

  • Ane Mulligan says:

    I dealt with this years ago as creative arts director for my church.

    God made many artists (especially performing artists) with the ability– okay ego– to be able to stand on a stage in front of people. For years I struggled with the issue. Then I realized what to do.

    False modesty, saying, Oh it isn’t me, it’s all God,” is opposite of what scripture that tells me in Eph 2:10 that I’m his masterpiece, created to do good work. The good work he gave me to do is acting and writing.

    So I learned to say, Thank you.” And in my heart give all the glory to God for gifting me with the talents he has.

  • Wow. Thanks for the transparency in talking about this
    issue. Yes, success tests us in scarier ways than defeat. I have friends who
    often tell me about others with very successful ministries and I always have a
    very powerful urge to pray for them through it, because the very thing that
    helps them to success could eventually lead to the ministry’s demise. Balance
    is key. But difficult.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Right. Balance is key — but it’s hard to find. And, in my experience, the more success we have, the tougher to find that balance.

  • SharonALavy says:

    Good subject. I call it the King Saul complex. When they wanted to crown him as king, he ran and hid. But success ruined him. That is what we need to avoid. Thank you for bringing this up, Chip.

  • Keli Gwyn says:

    What, Chip? You don’t provide M&Ms for your authors? Wow! What a shocker. And here I thought you went out of your way to make sure your clients were happy.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Let it be known, Keli Gwyn is one of those who demands all the blue M&M’s be taken out of the bowl before they are placed in her dressing room…

  • Mari S Krueger says:

    Interesting points about failure—almost enough to make you thankful for anonymity!

  • Karen Morris says:

    Move over Jack Handy…
    Great points all around, Chip. So, on top of grammar, voice, plot, and etc, we may also need to add “keep ego in check” to the list. 😉

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