Creativity vs. the Ego (Or, the Value of Unpublishable Stories)

Why are you writing?

It’s a question almost as vast and confusing as the dreaded, “What are you writing?”

Why we write… We write for ourselves. We write for others. We write to have fun. We write to pay the bills. We write for fame and glory. We write in search of hope and justice and meaning.

So many reasons, each as valid as the next. It can get confusing to try to sort through the variety to find a central motivation. For many of us, the reasons we started writing or making up stories—perhaps as far back as our childhoods—have become enmeshed within our life practices. We write now because that is how we have learned to express ourselves, to share the insights and symbols we believe have value, to scratch a creative itch we don’t always contemplate so long as it stays scratched.

That creative itch goes very deep indeed. It represents life’s ineffable questions and our driving compulsion to find answers however abstract. As my new favorite quote from Cynthia Ozick says:

[Writing is] a kind of hallucinatory madness. You will do it no matter what. You can’t not do it.

That truth is almost inescapable for most of us. Even when we’d very much rather not write—or even not be a writer—something keeps bringing us back to the page and the words. Still, the purity of that compulsion can get muddied by the many other motives and goals to which it gives birth.

Often, these other goals—publication, for example—can seem so worthy in their own right they take over. We forget the reason we’re writing really isn’t “to be published.” We forget that’s another thing entirely. When we forget that, we’re also inclined to forget that the worth of what we write and the time we spend writing it cannot be judged by anything so neat as “publication.”

Creativity vs. the Ego

The ego has staked out a big plantation in the land of our creativity. From childhood onward, so much of our creativity is related to our identity and therefore our self-worth. Whether Mom and Dad liked our finger paintings may give us a huge boost of confidence—or not—in the art we make later in life.

The ego, however vital and useful, has a way of taking over the show. It’s so easy for our art to become a servant of our ego, rather than the other way around. We want the world to tell us our writing is clever, brilliant, life-changing, un-put-down-able. When we receive the praise, we purr. When we don’t, we sometimes go so far as to give up altogether.

Either way, when creativity serves the ego, we often get confused about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what we are really getting out of it.

I’ve been blessed to spend the last three months reading Julia Cameron’s incredibly elegant and poignant classic The Artist’s Way. The entire book is about creating for ourselves. She writes:

…if I have a poem to write, I need to write that poem—whether it will sell or not.

That’s a hard pill to swallow—especially if you’re a professional writer with obligations to fulfill. But even if your initial response is resistance, I’ll bet you can also find at least a spark of begrudging relief too.

As I’ve occasionally written about throughout the past year, writing has been really hard for me lately. Partly, that’s been due to some personal crises and growth. But largely, it’s  been due to the fact that I had this genius idea to turn my standalone portal fantasy Dreamlander into a trilogy. Never mind that writing sequels and series is uncharted territory for me, there’s also the little fact that this story was never intended to be more what it was. [Insert appropriate *what was I thinking?!* meme.]

I’m not yet giving up on the project, but I am having to contemplate the fact that I may not, at this time, be able to finish the series in a way that’s worthy of publication. If that turns out to be true, there’s a part of me that is tremendously disappointed at having “wasted” four years.

I think, however, that Cameron would want me to ask if those years were really wasted after all. In a morning journaling session after reading her book, I found myself having to recognize how much of a driving force my ego is in my creativity:

As I struggle to turn my Dreamlander sequels into stories of true form and depth—stories that are good enough to publish and share—and as a great part of me doubts that this may be possible—I find myself realizing the surprising weight of my ego pressuring me to calculate the worth of the work based solely on the accuracy of its storyform and the potential for its impact to not just touch a reader’s life but to receive his or her acclaim.

I say routinely that I write for myself and that the process of these stories, even if that’s all there is, is worth it. But at some level I don’t really believe that. The time and the lessons may not have been strictly wasted; but how much better to have gained the lessons through time spent on a fruitful project that could have been brought full-term with grace and control?

But that—I see suddenly with shocking clarity—is ego talk.

The story is for me. The creation is for me. If it is a misshapen child, I need love it no less. If I have poured my passion and my fury and my desperate hope into it—and they have burned so hot that they have melted straight through all my current grasp of the craft that tries to contain them—surely, that is a sign of something greater rather than something weaker.

Do I judge the worth of my work on whether it is shapely, whether it is pleasing to others, whether it earns the lofty distinction of “making a difference”?

The work is the worth—because I am the work. My whole life is the work. To judge the worth of that on the satisfaction of others, who are not me, or the craving for the power and control that would allow me some hand in shaping the world—that is the cry of the ego. That is not the heart of the work. The ego is not my judge.

6 Beliefs to Foster Creativity and Growth

I write this post with something of a bitter taste in my mouth. As I acknowledged in the journal entry, I don’t really like the idea that I should see an unpublishable story as worthwhile in its own right. (My ego is currently sitting in the corner of my brain, arms crossed, looking very huffy.) Honestly, I don’t think many of us really do.

For almost all writers, the goal is to publish. It is a worthwhile goal. We see it as a way to fulfill our dreams, to earn a living doing something we love, to live an impactful life (and also, let’s be honest, to be rich and famous, beloved and acclaimed). It’s hard to refute this in a global writing community that is predominantly focused on commercial appeal. It would seem everyone judges creativity by its net worth.

But as individuals, we don’t have to. Nothing is ever wasted. I believe that even if I decide not to publish these sequels to Dreamlander, the lessons I have learned as a writer and a person (and they have been manifold) have been life-changing.

My encouragement to you (and me) is to remember that the true worth of creativity—as a mirror of life itself—is in the journey much more than the destination. Joseph Chilton Pearce writes:

To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.

Sometimes that wrongness can be as simple as writing something magnificent… that we can’t publish.

Some of you reading this are writing projects right now that you fear (perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly) will never go farther than your desk. Some of you are writing projects you already know, deep down, aren’t going to fly free in the world. Some of you are writing projects that were always and ever intended only for yourself. And some of you are writing projects that are going to make it off the launch pad, maybe even all the way up to rattle the stars.

Whichever story is yours, the distinction doesn’t matter right now. Right now, as you’re writing, this story is yours. Here are six affirmations to keep in mind whenever you find yourself judging your writing and yourself too harshly.

1. Believe the Act of Writing Has Worth in Itself

The struggle is the glory. Or as Brenda Ueland says:

Why should we use our creative power…? Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.

2. Believe Every Story You Write (Even the Unpublishable Ones) Teaches You About Yourself and Your Life

Picasso said (I’m shamelessly stealing quotes from those Cameron curated):

Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.

3. Believe Every Story You Write Teaches You How to Write Something Better Next Time

I’ve written before about the value of “lost” novels. Failures are only failures when we give them that distinction.

4. Believe Your “Failures” Are Less About Your Lack of Skill and More About Your Great and Ambitious Potential

We always intend to write something better than what actually shows up on the page. Always. With some stories, the gap between our vision and our current level of skill is more noticeable than with other stories. But the fact that we can dream up something so tremendous—even if we don’t yet know how to get it out of our minds and into reality—doesn’t signify failure.

5. Believe That if You Love Your Story, It Doesn’t Matter if Anyone Else Does

This one is so hard—but so important, I believe. If I write something that helps me—in any measure—that thing has worth. I’ve been compelled to set stories aside before, but they are still my children just as much as the published novels—perhaps even more so, since they are mine alone, to be cherished with a fondness unadulterated by anyone else’s opinion or experience.

6. Believe You Are Writing What You’re Supposed to Be Writing—Where It Goes From Here Is Not the Most Important Thing

Not every story deserves publication. Being able to acknowledge when a story doesn’t measure up to a reading audience’s standards is an important instinct for writers to develop. But just because a story doesn’t deserve to be published does not mean it doesn’t deserve to be written. Write what you love. Write what you’re passionate about. Write what makes you curious, what gives you hope, what helps you seek justice. Write to the ragged limit of your skills. Or as Andre Gide says, in one final quote:

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.

***

So here’s to stories that are amazing and perfect, well-formed and publishable. We all like those. But here, too, is to stories that are the precious, malformed byproducts of our growing pains. May we know the difference, and may we see the worth in each, so that we may count our hours at the desk in the light of our triumphs rather than our failures.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you feel about the stories you’ve decided aren’t “good enough” to publish? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. John White says

    I read the Artist’s Way several years ago and can’t say it made much impact on me at the time. However, reading this blog post and the thoughts you present suggest I should dig it out of the box and go through it once more. As I struggle with my WIP, I keep telling myself “this will never sell, do better”. What a jackass I’ve been. I’m going to step back 10000 feet tomorrow with a fresh mind and a new lens, and just plot out and write the story that’s inside. As you say, that should be enough…
    Thanks for this.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Artist’s Way is definitely one of those books that can (and probably should) be re-read regularly.

  2. Carl Kjellberg says

    I think that the dilemma that you describe of whether you are writing for yourself or for others is spot on. Anyone with a creative urge I believe feels a sense on constantly swinging from one pole to the other. I guess that the key issue in all of this is where do you find your sense of self worth? If it comes from what others think about what you do then rejection can be crushing. On the other hand there is a need for honest feedback from others for growth. The point I have come to on this is to realize that I am not what I do and that I am unconditionally loved by God who is the reference point on my worth. Yes, I know that for some this is politically incorrect, but I have found that it has helped me personally to move forward in my creative journey.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So much of the writing life–on both a personal and professional level–is about balance. Holding that tension point is the hardest thing, but when we manage it, it’s definitely that sweet spot that makes you remember why you were doing it all along.

  3. In the end who are we writing for…?

    Thank you for these empowering words, K.M. Exactly what I needed to read.

  4. Ooof this was a stunning, little article. I read the entire thing out loud. It was beautifully written. Well done! Glad I subscribe 🙂

  5. Thank you so much for these deep and true thoughts. I have been in something of a funk about both my current debut and the possibilities of my WIP. I have been finding my way out, but your column names it all so clearly. EGO. Its need for validation and even celebration, when the true experience of celebration is in the soul, in the creative process itself, in receiving the gift of what comes when I simply get out of the way and let it flow.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Flow” is a word I think about a lot. Life–and writing–is sweetest when we’re both balanced within and surrendered to that flow.

  6. I have been writing stories since I was 12 and with only a 38 year hiatus while teaching, the stories continued to flow. Now, literally 35+ novel length stories litter the dark corners of my closet and crowd my hard drive. I never thought to publish because, in the past, the publishing houses were the gatekeepers and I never thought I would get past the gates. Now, with self-publishing (and yes, my typo of self-punishing fits, too) over a million stories are being published a year.

    I always wrote for myself before, it was a form of therapy, I suppose. Four novels are now listed on Amazon with two more almost ready.

    I found your six beliefs highly reassuring and motivating. Hopefully, my ego, never very strong when it comes to my writing, will only help me continue to improve my skills and not muddle things. Thank you for sharing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “self-publishing (and yes, my typo of self-punishing fits, too)”

      That made me laugh so hard. :p

  7. Loved your wordplay about “rattling the stars” – wonderful. I’ve had two short stories win contests and an honorable mention, and I totally agree that as writers, we must and should write for ourselves, first and foremost. That being said, being published gives our minds and souls that tiny bit of affirmation we always need, most writers being insecure one moment and stroking our little egos the next. LOL. I also believe publishing to be a worthwhile incentive in itself if it gets us off our mental backsides and puts words onto the page. The danger is when dollar signs replace those stars in our eyes.

    Caden St. Claire

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think that phrase originates with Treasure Planet: “You’re going to rattle the stars, you are.” My sister and I quote that to each other often.

  8. I have trunk stories that I wouldn’t publish in their current form because I’ve upped my game. But maybe the core of the story is a gem, and worth putting in a better setting where it sparkles and shines.

    Then I have a trunk story that I trunked because it didn’t fit neatly into a genre. I trunked it in 2002, and then in 2009, a new genre came around called “New Adult fiction” that my story would neatly slot into. A story that’s “unmarketable” now may become so five minutes from now, so don’t waste a minute in despair. Those minutes would be better spent on writing new stories.

    Yet — is there a reason that an author can’t write the equivalent of “B-sides” or the “B-movie”? The songs or movies that aren’t expected to be hits, but may be diverting for a rainy afternoon? Florence & The Machine unapologetically called one song collection “Lungs: The B-sides.” Why shouldn’t writers do the same?

    I want to encourage everyone to write B-stories, published or not. But bring your heart to it, don’t treat them as undeserving of attention to craft. The six points in this post are crucial, because treating the B-story in a slapdash fashion is a great way to corrupt your integrity as a creator. Write them lovingly, and unapologetically, even if you think you can’t publish them right now.

    Use the B-sides to experiment: Maybe you’re not done with the characters from a published story, but you just want to write a “slice of life,” or the story of their courtship, or an “alternate universe” where you explore what would have happened if the heroes zigged instead of zagged. Or explore the parts of the official story left on the cutting room floor. It’s a fun way to exercise the muscles of your craft and imagination.

    Don’t artists spend time drawing hands or noses over and over? Don’t pro basketball players dribble the ball over and over? Well, B-stories are “dribbles” that prepare writers for their “A-game” or “championship novel,” whatever those may be. Post them on your blogs for your true fans. Or publish under a pseudonym: Stephen King / Richard Bachman, Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine, Agatha Christie / Mary Westmacott, all show that this is a time-honored tradition.

    The stories you write “just for you” may be loved by others, too. One writer wrote a pastoral novella, where the heroine of her trilogy is settling into the amazing new life she and her fiance forged for themselves after all the spaceship battles and sword fights they fought to get to that point. The novella is set in the time gap between two scenes in the epilogue of the third book. As I understand it, it started as a work-of-the-heart the writer initially posted to her blog, then published officially on Amazon after her fans encouraged her. That “B-story” has been a balm to me, and I’m glad she didn’t let thoughts of commercial viability stop her from writing it.

  9. I love this! Looking to buy a copy of ‘The Artists Way’: I think I need it.

  10. Faith Reece says

    Ironically, I’ve been thinking about the value of writing just for myself, without needing the investment of other people, and feeling pretty freed by it, but it’s still affirming and encouraging to read the same from another, especially someone who has changed how I view story.

    I do have to admit, not too long ago, it would have been hard to accept this (and perhaps it will be in the future)- I’ve had all the dreams…and none of the knowledge as to how go about them. Over time, I would learn to let go of projects, or at least put them on the shelf. I learned to break down big projects into smaller parts, and the importance of tackling that next step, even if just beyond it is the “fun stuff”. Then my dad challenged me to write a story of a different tone (and a much shorter length!) than what I usually write. In a month, a rough draft of a 22 page manuscript was done. Another month, and the second draft (which scrapped 20 pages of the original) was done. “We always intend to write something better than what actually shows up on the page” only rung too true in my mind as I finished it. I was afraid to share it with even my dad (who’s the most positive influence in my life), but I was happy I got it done. He’s still trying to find time to read it, but I got a writer’s bite…I had to write something. Not just exercises. Something to get the outline books out again, even though I just put them back on the shelf. It was time for my logic and creativity to work together long-term. And now this project I’m working on…it really reflects why I write.

    That question was answered when I picked up the Writer’s QnA a Day book (thanks for the recommendation in a Writer’s Gift list). It was daunting at first, but I was very satisfied with the answer: I write to organize the messy room that is my mind- to make sense of what I can. And as painful as it can be, the project does just that, and so even if it doesn’t get published, even if not one other soul likes it, (though I hope it is!), it will be remembered fondly by me, as something that came from my soul for my soul. And though I love sharing stories, with the same fondness as a mother, I know that I will probably have to wait until “next time”, but to take peace in that, not frustration.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think there’s so much value in examining our motivations, as in your Writers’ Q&A. Makes me think of Socrates’ “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

  11. It’s perhaps a bit off topic but I believe writing anything will improve your creativity. Creativity is putting together concepts which have never been joined in just that way before. The more concepts you have in your head the more opportunity you possess to be creative. That silly sow of a book you wrote because you needed a new fridge may be the thing you transform into a silk purse later.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. It doesn’t even have to be writing, come to that. Singing nonsense songs or making up jokes or doing another artform entirely–they’re all beneficial to creativity of any sort.

  12. I loved the 6 beliefs. Overall, I am writing stories that I believe need to be told (to myself first, to my audience second). While I desire my children’s books be published, it is more for them…and not my ego because of the nature of these books (for children on the autism spectrum). And, while I wish the story I mapped out using your books to be published some day, I can definitely see the different roles ego plays in publishing goals.

  13. Tim Carroll says

    Thanks for this post. I had worked on a sci-fi novel for five years and realized last year that it probably wasn’t one that had enough appeal to get published. At first I anguished over thinking it was a waste of time but then realized the many times I had it critiqued, helpful comments friends had shared with me about it, and the many ways I’d rewritten it to make it better had been a tremendous writing lesson for me. This was around the time I bought your books on outlining and structure. These books were timely for me as I’d always been a panster. Their knowledge along with what I’d learned from my five year book writing lesson helped my writing process go much faster and made the structure better. I just finished another book in a little over a year which I’m not sure if it’ll get published but I do feel is a much better book than my last one. Thanks for reaffirming the belief that we always learn new things that make us better as we write and create and they are always worthwhile.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great! This reminds me, too, that I still cherish the positive remarks received from critique partners and beta readers for stories that never ended up going any farther.

  14. I read The Artist’s Way several years ago and resumed my morning pages over a year ago after receiving intensive and abundant editing/revision from my editor which threw me into a deep funk. I just got my rights reversed on my first two novels, and I may just let them be. I learned so much in writing them, but is revising them where I want to spend my time? May I suggest you watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s TEDD talk on Creativity if you haven’t watched it before. Thanks for this wonderful reminder of the power of The Artist’s Way.

  15. Excellent article, K.M. So many good quotes, including some of your own. Thank you!

  16. Thank you, I can relate and I really needed to hear this today!
    The Artist’s Way has been an amazing companion for more than twenty years and it is still one of the three books I would take with me to the proverbial island 🙂

  17. “Behind all great nations and noble works done in the world there have been noble ideas. An idea is that something which is the very basis of creativity”

  18. Thank you for the timely inspiration. I recently tried to write a blog post, but it came out very confusing. It was frustrating, but I’ll take another whack at it.

  19. The idea that writing just to write is okay- that’s a hard learning curve. I think there’s a lot of trust involved; trust that you don’t HAVE to know the end, only what needs done today. And trust is difficult. I guess that’s where the whole `Lord willing’ ideology comes in. Not just a flippant thing to add on so you’ll look more spiritual, but a bone-deep belief that God knows the future, and it’s okay if I don’t. It’s even okay if my plans fail. I can’t say I’m always there. The worst thing is when I’ve been so excited about my plans that I’ve told everyone and their dog about them and then… they don’t happen and I feel like I’ve let everyone down, and all I want to do is crawl into bed and hide forever- not the most useful response. And there again, a very egocentric one. I think it takes a lot of humility to do something with all your passionate strength and know you might be the only one who EVER knows it was done.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think perhaps the essence of living in the present is trusting that as long as I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing *in each moment*, the future will take care of itself.

  20. M. L. Bull says

    Very good post! It was very relatable I think to most writers. I actually like my “The Six Chosen” fantasy story idea, even though I’d probably never publish it, but I’ve considered writing it anyway just for the fun of it, though I may change some of the villians and other characters a little to those more closely mentioned in the Bible.

    I’m getting to a point of just focusing on purpose with my writing and not worrying too much about how much support I get. I know I’m unique, have some talent, and stories to offer regardless of who might not care or like them. I didn’t start writing because of anybody, and I’m not gonna let anyone in the public cause me to quit either. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      From everything you’ve ever shared in comments here, I think you’re gifted in “writing for the fun of it.” It’s a gift I struggle with sometimes, as per this post. :p

  21. Oh God! This hit home in such a meaningful way. I wrote my first novel in 1967, and I wasn’t a writer. It was a children’s fantasy satire based on what was going on around me. I would get home at night from work, and before going to bed with my wife, hammer out a few pages on a Selectronic typewriter. A local publisher accepted it but we backed out hen the illustrator quadrupled her price. I stil have the galleys. It was written terribly, but the message was important to me.

    Thirty years later, I retired and decided to write. I didn’t need money and started my own business, but in 2009, I published my first novel, which received good reviews. It wasn’t particularly well written, but the publisher cleaned up some of that. It was paranormal based on my curiosity about what was meant by a disembodied spirit. I have written three self-published novels and a memoir since then. The memoir has the best readership and made a little money.

    I’m working on my fifth novel now and determined to make it better than my others. Your books on writing have been useful, plus some excellent alpha and beta readers. Of course, I would like for it to be successful in the market, but more importantly, I have formed a relationship with the characters and theme. At eighty-one, it’s important to continue learning and to maintain an interest in life. Writing gives me that.

    I thank you for your valuable mentorship.

  22. Thank you, thank you, thank you 🙂

  23. I see you’re a fellow fan of Brenda Ueland. If You Want to Write is a masterpiece of inspiration for creatives. Not just writers.

  24. Josh Patrick-Riley says

    Thank you so much for this post. I took notes on so much of it since I want to remember the words written here as much as possible.

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