The Writer’s Ego or When to Self-Publish

The decision to self-publish, though it may seem like the harmless choice of an author continually, woefully rejected by agents, is not, in fact, an easy one to make. There is something – and I know you know this – called ‘the writer’s ego’ that stands monolithically between the struggling artist (for that’s what most of us believe, hope, we are, ‘artists,’ though we know for sure we struggle) and a vision of fame and financial stability we can barely make out beyond the peaks of our dogged perseverance. Before my mixed metaphor begins to run away with itself, let me admit, here and now, that I possess a writer’s ego and that its cri de coeur can be boiled down to this one simple statement, but a bravura one, like a triumphant press release flapping inside one’s head:

My work is much better than what’s typically self-published on the Internet. It deserves proper (read: traditional) publishing.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this attitude, I think, provided it doesn’t run away with you as a writer, turning you into an insufferable prima donna, stranded on your island of unread manuscripts and hardening heart. One thing we do not, as literary creators, want to turn into is yet one more bitchy artiste, and the best of us working in all genres are cognizant of this potential persona and do our best to avoid it. But the ego, at least when taken in child-size doses, can be a healthy spur to achievement (notice I didn’t write ‘success,’ which comes at its own singularly frustrating pace for most, if it ever comes at all, outside the forces of one’s will). It’s the ego, or whatever part of you it is that wants desperately to create, to be read, to last, that drives you to face the damning blank page, about which even the general public has probably heard too much. Kept in check, properly focused, the ego can move mountains. It can put your novel on that mythical library shelf in Kansas and speak to that reader as marvelous as any unicorn.

And yet, there is also vanity. Ecclesiastes had possibly the first and arguably the last word on the matter: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Impossible that this ancient Hebraic wisdom writer could have had Truman Capote in mind, but there it is. Vanity comes with the artistic territory, and the reason is this: if no one else thinks you’re brilliant when you don’t, you perish creatively. You must believe in your own gifts, passionately, simple as that, when, sadly and too often, no one else does, discounting a few devoted though biased friends/family members whom we love but can’t really trust in terms of criticism. Yet, in time, the weight of that popular neglect can turn the writer’s ego into something far more devastating than a candy-coated suit of armor: it can emerge, from seemingly nowhere, into that Kubrickian black hunk of stone or metal, or whatever the hell that monolith is made of, looming over our cave-dwelling ancestors in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The sun is blocked out, the stars can’t shine.

All of which to say, I too can be vain. You won’t see me strutting down Michigan Avenue, cut within an inch of my life in a bespoke suit, a modern day flaneur sans bamboo cane, trailing whiffs of cologne and expensive wine. You’re more likely to see me in Starbucks in a ragged pair of flip-flops. No coif, no jewelry, and, more profoundly and more akin to the message of Ecclesiastes, no lack of realization about the transitory nature of life. Years of studying and practicing Zen Buddhism have, if anything, taught me what I refer to as ‘me’ is merely part of a great whole, and no great shakes a part, at that. But, the ego has a mighty will of its own. And mine certainly comes into play when it comes to my intellect and my, ahem, writing prowess. It doesn’t, to take a contrary example, when it comes to my abilities in algebra or gardening.

I tell you this fact brutally honestly, surely to my shame, because for me and thousands of other writers like me the path to self-publishing has been paved with stones of anger, perhaps tears, and more than a little bitter self-recrimination. There is a reason it used to be called ‘vanity publishing.’

Yet, here I am, due to release my novel, The Englishman and the Butterfly, on October 1, 2012, not through a Big Six publishing house, not through a college/university press, not even through a small press, but through one of the many publishing channels available to everyone, regardless of influence or talent. A true democracy of literature. Or an unruly mob of the demos, take your pick.

Do I really believe my work is better than what’s published by Xlibris and Kindle KDP? I won’t say, out of more vanity (insert laugh here), and also from a legitimate understanding that I clearly haven’t read the majority of those books, print and e-, currently spinning around in that self-conscious cyberspace, nor can I say if there really exists a way to objectively contest value among works of literature (we’re heading into epistemological waters, here, it would be best to tack away from). I will suggest, however, you can probably guess the answer to that question, and that it’s precisely that supremely confident, probably misguided, voice in my head that prevented me for the longest time from uploading and getting on with my writing existence, after close to 30 literary agents turned my novel down.

And, what’s worse, much worse: that supremely confident voice eventually devolved into a monstrous, scarcely utterable question.

Is my work better?

Those agents, unknowingly, had sown some seeds.

In my more revealing moments of doubt as a writer, this question in time appeared on my lips with those dear, consoling people in my life, typically accented by that upward inflection – “I don’t know. Is my work better? – that italicized Is representing a suppressed lifetime of fear. This question frequently stopped me, forcefully, in the middle of typing, tearing through my concentration and that tissue-thin self-forgetting so vital to the first-draft process. It’s a question my roughly insistent subconscious whispered to me in the middle of the night.

Finally, one day, cloudy or sunny, you find you’ve had enough. You recognize the ego monolith must be torn down like Pink Floyd’s Wall, brick by brick, that it’s doing absolutely no one any good, that it’s time for an unsuspecting public to be burdened by one more possibly average, conceivably flat-out inept, novel. And you just don’t care you’re the author of that novel.

And that’s okay. And being okay with that is okay. It’s called letting go.

It’s time to place a bet at the table. I have the chips – not many, but a few. Perhaps a gambler like me, someone who’s spun fortune’s wheel a few times in the past, will get lucky. Perhaps, like every superb gambler, I’ve reached the point where my total winnings aren’t as important as playing the game to the best of my ability – to, in a wise man’s words, ‘be the game,’ which, paradoxically (but only outwardly), is the one sure and steady path to big winnings (just ask any Taoist master you see at the craps table).

Poor metaphors again. This is not a game, it’s a life. A dedication to a vision of literature, of truth. I’m being flippant because I don’t know how to be serious without being too serious.

It’s a life problem.

Read my book. Please. Let’s find out.

Thank you.


Hanson House
Cambridge, WI
Saturday, August 11, 2012

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