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.