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!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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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. Thank you for another helpful article. I think when we write anything its an act of faith. My fear of investing energy into something that might not work sometimes paralyses me into not writing anything whereas I should treat it as a creative journey. I recently heard a famous singer/songwriter being interviewed on the radio and he said he’d had to write 100 songs in order to write 10 that were good enough to feature on his album.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “An act of faith”–I like that, both for its painful truth and its undeniable hope.

  2. Like you, I’ve always said that I write [scifi] for myself, first and foremost, but…

    Reading this very honest post made me realise that it was a lot easier for me to write stories when I didn’t dare call myself a writer, when no one knew I was writing, when I didn’t have to fear the judgement of external readers…

    And yes, it is all about ego. My fiction has received enough positive feedback to stop me throwing in the towel, but lately it’s been so much easier to do my tech writing. I thought that was because I’m better at tech writing than fiction writing, but I now know that the tech writing is easier because a) I get loads of positive feedback and b) it’s my comfort zone. I’ve always been good at teaching. Telling stories? Not so much.

    I guess the big question now is whether I can find my courage again. I still have stories to tell. Maybe I’ll write them and publishing be damned. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Maybe I’ll write them and publishing be damned.”

      Honestly, I think this is where the best stories come from anyway. I hope you keep writing!

  3. Thanks for these helpful and healthy reminders. Just like in painting, drawing, and panning for gold – you have to slush through a lot a junk to get something good.

  4. Barbara Martinez says

    Believe That if You Love Your Story, It Doesn’t Matter if Anyone Else Does is probably the best advice I’ve ever gotten about writing. This is the kind of advice I’d normally have to pay a co-pay for. Thanks for writing this and everything else you write.

  5. Martin Ross says

    What a fantastically wise article. Loved this and some super quotes. Thank you, Katie.

  6. Phong Lê says

    These have been my favorite articles of yours for quite some time now. It takes tremendous courage to lay your soul bare and make yourself as vulnerable as you have in recent years, so thank you for sharing your personal struggles with us. I do believe your willingness to talk to us on a more intimate level is the biggest reason you have a tighter bond with your readers than I’ve seen from any other writer. For me personally, your words resonate even louder as I find myself I’m knee-deep in the most unproductive period of my writing career.

    Now please allow me to share a story of own, since you strike me as someone who enjoys them.

    In-between being a writer (first as a daydreaming kid bursting with enthusiasm, then later as a grumpy, middle-aged man), I was a software architect. About a year ago on a hike with my former boss, I thanked him for making my time working under him the most creatively fulfilling period of my software career. He almost cried—which is funny to think about, because we got along so poorly early on that we couldn’t be in the same room without getting into a shouting match. Anyway, what happened in a nutshell is that once he learned to trust me enough to leave me alone and never talk to me (this is hardly an exaggeration, lol), I became free to work on whatever tickled my fancy on a day-to-day basis.

    And while a small fraction of that “recreational programming” *did* benefit my actual projects to some extent, by and large it became dormant code that only served to prove that I wasn’t working on the project I was paid to work on.

    But every once in a while, I’d start a new project, only to realize that something I wrote a year prior, with no obvious usefulness at the time, would now cut down the new project’s timeline by half. All because I allowed my mind to explore something for no other reason than curiosity.

    Perhaps most importantly, those “palate cleansers” really helped clear my head of the repetitive drudgery of my actual projects (which weren’t terribly stimulating, intellectually). I derived great satisfaction simply from solving problems for which I hadn’t found solutions elsewhere, even if (or maybe because) they may not have had any concrete application. If nothing else, solving such novel problems in that side work often led me to approach problems in novel ways in my actual projects.

    So what I’m trying to say here is:
    1. You never know when fragments of Dreambreaker might show up in future works.
    2. Giving our brain the space to wander and explore is critical to our personal and professional developments. While working on Dreambreaker, you’ve further developed your mind in ways that may not be evident right this moment, but that will have a measurable impact in the future.
    3. Doing fulfilling/stimulating/challenging work is just as important as doing lucrative work. But more importantly, they are both important in different, and thus complementary, ways. (Although yes, ideally, what’s lucrative would also be fulfilling, but that’s another topic altogether 🤪)

    In other words, when sailing into uncharted territory you’re bound to return with a chestful of hidden treasures.

    I hope you get to publish Dreambreaker and its followup, but above all I wish you peace and happiness. All of us here are rooting for you, even those like me who rarely comment. You have had such a tremendous impact on my writing that not a day goes by when you aren’t in my thoughts through your teachings. From reading comments on your posts, I know the same holds true for a great deal of your readers.

    Be well, and do take good care of yourself.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks very much for sharing this! I agree so much with what you’re saying, but it’s actually very encouraging just to have someone else state it. So thanks! 🙂 I’m already seeing benefits from the Dreamlander sequels, just in helping me work through some new theories I have about archetypal character arcs. Regardless whether the novels get off the ground, I will be sharing the other work sometime soon.

  7. I once spent two years writing stories I knew would never be published. But I had so much fun writing them, and I still have fun reading them now.

  8. Hannah Parry says

    This is a lovely post for me today. Thank you and good luck with your trilogy.

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