Saturday, January 11, 2014

Is the Choice to Write Inherently Narcissistic?

Is the choice to write inherently narcissistic?

This is the question that is rolling around in my brain this morning. To be a successful writer, especially these days, requires an almost pathological commitment to time alone and to the belief that your own thoughts, ideas, stories and visions are not only worth recording for posterity but compelling, entertaining or important enough for other people to more than give a damn about - in fact, so magnificent that other people will spend money and time on them. Beyond this, it requires you to hold this conviction so firmly that you're willing to prioritize the time and effort spent on your writing over hundreds of other things demanding your time and energy.

Mind you, time and effort on writing encompasses more than the actual act of creating - planning, drafting, revising and editing. It also includes the time spent researching possible agents or publishers, submitting your work, or, if you're self-publishing, the time and energy needed to format, edit, track down artists, and launch kickstarter campaigns, not to mention the many and varied activities needed to market your work, self-published or otherwise. It requires time spent at conferences and workshops, whether as participant or presenter, and time spent with critique groups and time spent on twitter and in other online forums cultivating your digital platform. It requires you to believe that all of this deserves a full-tilt level of commitment because your words are just too damn good to languish in a drawer.

Furthermore, writers must read, voraciously, not just at bedtime. Think about the time it takes to read a book. Think about how many books you should read if you want to write. Think about how much has already been written. Let's face it - you could read every minute of every day and still not read even the smallest portion of books and stories already out there in the world. Therefore, to be a writer requires you on some level to believe your words are valuable enough to justify spending time on your work at the expense of reading some of the wonderful work already out there in the world, and that other people should also choose to spend time reading your words instead of someone else's. Doesn't that belief take a certain amount of self-importance?

Full disclosure - I believe there are things more important than my writing life. There are sacrifices I won't make for the sake of my writing. I love being a teacher. I won't short-change my students for the sake of my writing. I love my husband, and my friendships, and my health, none of which I am willing to sacrifice for my writing (or for my teaching, to be fair). Perhaps that relegates me automatically to the role of hobbyist, of "good" rather than "great". Where is the line between balance or moderation and apathy or mediocrity? If "great" requires placing myself and my own stories so far above others, perhaps I must let go of aspirations to greatness. Perhaps I already have. 

One might argue that the choice to write is the ultimate participation in the human community - the choice to dive into the great ongoing conversation of humanity, a conversation that spans time and place, crossing centuries and generations and continents, reaching back into the past and forward into the future. It is a show of faith in the inherent value of that conversation, of human thought and expression, of story. The Taoist part of my brain believes this is the wise view, the balanced view, the healthy view, the view that lets go of sales and publishing and the narcissistic side of writing and embraces an odd kind of humility. There is a humility in the notion that the words, the stories, the ideas are not your own to begin with, but belong instead to the collective human soul, and that the act of writing them and putting them out into the world is the true act of the writer. What happens after that is no longer writing. As Lao Tzu says, "Do your work and then step back."


  1. I like the idea that writers are 'extraverted solitaires,' as I think Antony Stores, calls them. That's better than "narcissistic," which I think misses the mark.

    1. I like that, David. I think it captures the tension between the two ideas I was wrestling with above. I think, also, I have to separate the act of writing from the effort to create a writing career - two very different animals.

  2. Anthony Storr.

    I always screw up his name.

  3. I wouldn't call myself a narcissist, but I do have narcissistic tendencies. That means someone might mistaken me for a narcissist if they didn't know me well. I think as long as I'm writing honestly, and not indulging my ego, then it's a healthy way to communicate with the world.

    Writing is therapeutic for me. I love to write out my thoughts and get them down where I can see them. Once I see my words and read them to myself, I understand a lot more about myself.

    There's nothing more fulfilling to me than to run into an old friend in a pub and have them say to me, "Oh my goodness! It's been such a long time. I love your blog. I can relate to so much of what you have to share."


Popular Posts