Pssst, your ego is showing

22 Jan

I often read with a writer’s eye. I am drawn to honest writers, those not afraid to expose their weaknesses in favor of improvement. Precisely because I know how difficult that is to do. Fiction or nonfiction, honest characters are necessary. Anything that feels contrived repels me. I haven’t always been outwardly honest. Not necessarily a liar, just afraid to be myself on paper. Okay, I lied a little. You know, the story of everyone’s youth ever. What startles me is how many adult writers refuse to be honest. They write from a place of ego but don’t think anyone will notice.

Dude, we totally notice.

You think you’re making yourself look good but we can tell you’re faking it. I know this because I’ve faked it so hard! I have stories and poems and files of bullshit I’d love to share with you, but that would make me look bad. Plus it was necessary practice. It’s how everyone has to do it–imitate first, then create your own voice.

How do you write without ego? I’m not sure that’s completely possible, but you’ve got to be motivated by something other than your ego. The best writing advice I’ve ever gotten is to write the book you want to read. I always want to read books that give me a new perspective, pieces that put words to something I’ve always felt but hadn’t formulated into syllables yet. I want to feel connected and inspired.

When you write to prove something, always wearing your self-righteous hat, I’m unconnected and irritated. Why did you invite me here to your ego party? I’d rather be watching TV. I’ve read blogs where the writer is so so impressed with himself  that he forgot to teach the reader anything. The whole post is explaining what he is capable of doing, and never what he’s actually done. Or writers quote something  they think makes them sound smart, but anyone who actually is smart knows it says nothing. It’s the opposite of Orwell’s simplified Newspeak; it’s Obtusespeak. Readers know you’re hiding behind your big words. We can tell you’re afraid.

I should add here that the self-righteous hat was once a staple of my wardrobe. Professional high-horse rider, right here. I thought I was being bold, brave, standing up for injustice! I was actually just annoying. And overly critical of things because it was easier than figuring myself out. Plus I got to feel superior and feed my ego. So the opposite of growth.

It’s also easy to be critical and snarky. I should know, I used to dole out snark like business cards. The challenge is to be raw and honest–the only thing that’s interesting.

Louis CK, a brilliant comedian who writes, directs, and edits his own material, awes me with his honesty. Blows me away with his creativity. But it’s his ability to write material that speaks to the most humiliating aspects of human nature that makes people love his work. He’s not afraid to put a microscope on the darkest parts of himself. Jonah Weiner wrote this great profile of CK, which explores his humility, work ethic, and his boundary-pushing comedy. His honesty often takes a turn towards the inappropriate and grotesque, though, so sensitive souls should probably look away.

Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, is a humor blogger turned book author who is also wildly inappropriate (a theme, perhaps?). While she is one of the funniest writers on the internet, she’s also incredibly honest, which makes her followers connect with her. Because her website gets millions of hits a month, she recently shared her struggles with depression and specifically self-harm, hoping to reach out to others to let them know they’re not alone. This led to a Twitter-fueled Traveling Red Dress campaign where strangers donated red ball gowns to women in need of a fancy night out. There was also a flood of “silver ribbons” hash tags which denoted tweets from fellow sufferers she had reached. She’s also written eloquently about her ongoing battle with rheumatoid arthritis. She’s able to remove her hilarious and irreverent tone in favor honest connections with real people. While it may be “too much information” for some readers, it’s a risk she believed was worth taking. She doesn’t let her ego rule her writing.

Please don’t confuse honesty with spilling all your secrets. I’ll never be raw in the same way as CK and Lawson, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be honest. We all have to do what feels natural for us, but still live just a little outside our comfort zone. Safe is always boring.

I want this post to be more than a YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG lecture. Because we all do it wrong until we learn better. If you don’t want to read boring, then don’t write boring. As a teacher, that’s the easiest thing to notice because we’re always grading the papers. The challenge is to take our own advice. That’s often the gulf–we’ll criticize the heck out of boring and not good enough, but then we sit in front of that computer screen and get just as paralyzed as our students.

I used to write all the time, then I let teaching writing get in my way. I let my job as a publication adviser and English teacher make me so “busy” that I didn’t have time to write. It was more that I didn’t make time to write.

The more I read, the more I write; and the more I write, the more I have to say. And the more I say, the less afraid I am to say it. I’m done making excuses now. If I’m boring you, it’s my fault. And I will keep writing until you’re interested.

My ego can’t take the alternative.

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