On Writing & Ego

Yesterday, I felt myself flinching away from life.

I was sitting outside on my back patio. It was a clear, cold afternoon. Just cold enough to be uncomfortable. I was shaking. But it wasn’t dangerous or even unpleasant. The pines and vinca and crocuses were calling to me. Since I began working from home in 2021, it’s hard to overstate how much the patio, street, and path along the canal, calls to me. The stir-craziness I feel. The pulsing impatient need to be walking or milling around the garden.

Yet I went in, retreating to the artificially warmer. The cleaner. The quieter. The more controlled. Because being in the face-numbing cold with my unsettled mind was briefly overwhelming. And the incident — uninteresting as it was — became a metaphor.

A metaphor for those times in life, and in my writing, in which I pull to safety and avoid shaking through some confrontation or joy.

Good writing, I think, is more free from ego than not. And ego is not always structured as imposition. It can manifest itself through over-cautiousness. A desire not to offend. A desire not to seem too wild. Too ordinary.

Part of the practice of writing is dropping your ego. Not just accepting feedback, and acting on reasonable notes from beta readers, but understanding when you’ve pulled away, “gone inside,” and have therefore not stayed with your subject through its coldest (but maybe insightful) moments.

Certainly, bad writing can result from the opposite: an antisocial impulse to shock your audience. Certainly you can cram your stories preemptively with the most stark, salacious, and drastic ups and downs. The latter may seem like proof against boringness, but… There are many ways to pull away.

A favorite moment of mine in The Glass Menagerie is when Laura and the Gentleman Caller are dancing and you know they might bump into the cabinet and break one of her glass figurines. And that’s what happens. It’s a moment, for me, of exquisite dramatic tension. No, the world will not end if Laura’s glass unicorn gets broken. The stakes are not high for that possibility and reality. The figurine is not worth a million dollars. The family’s welfare does not depend on selling it or anything. Yet we know that poor, awkward, lonely Laura loves the figurines like a child would love them. They’re something nice in her not-so-nice existence. It’s an image I return to often because of its ordinariness; not because it’s a masterful use of imagery. It is, perhaps, masterful, but it’s also an obvious and ordinary outcome of the scene that’s heartbreaking despite being obvious and ordinary (because Williams does so much beforehand to make us care about Laura).

Surprise is a first principle of writing, but more fundamental is honest observation. The “Ah, Yes.” The creation of moments that simply, and without pulling away, reveal humanity without any special story craft. Word craft may be involved, but not every turn — or heart-rending moment in a story — requires surprise or momentum or irony, etc. It just requires witness without ego.