I once met a writer of some eminence who proclaimed quite openly that he didn’t have an ego. In a fit of shock I challenged him and almost laughed in his face. On reflection, perhaps my ego had gotten the better of me. But, a writer without an ego? Why, it sounded like a car without an engine!
This engine, ego, call it what you may, is what drives us to sit in quiet places, away from the rest of the world, trying to make sense of humanity, trying to form messages for humanity that will live on long after we are gone. This ego gives us the belief (misguided or otherwise) that we have the answers to life, or at least that we can frame the questions that need to be answered, that we can paint the picture of the flawed human condition, forcing our fellow humans to take action, because we cannot, for we are only showers not doers.
This ego is what keeps going when feebler souls give up and take easier pursuits like watching TV or reading the books that they found too difficult to write, or just going with the flow and not ruffling any feathers. This ego endures rejection because it knows no other way but to go forward, even when thrown a knockout punch. It reminds me of an ant colony patiently building their hill; when disturbed they scatter for awhile, but then regroup and continue their work. They know of no other way, nor does the writer.
This ego can go into furies when thwarted or crossed. Many are the writers’ feuds we have witnessed in public over the ages: Le Carré vs. Rushdie, Dickens vs. Andersen, Byron vs. Keats, the list goes on. We could call these writers pompous bores but they are merely heeding the dictates of their egos, driving them to call the shots, to shape public opinion and mold the world according to their vision at the expense of everyone else. How dare they be contradicted without there being consequences?
The Buddist mantra says that we should abandon the ego. I think that writers would have a hard time working, especially writing fiction, in this ego-less universe. Jack Kerouac and J.D Salinger are classified as Buddhist writers and yet their writing is embroiled in conflicts surrounding the human condition. It would appear that the journey from ego to selflessness and the conflicts inherent therein make for better fiction than fiction solely grounded in the present and encased in selflessness. I’m also sure that many writers will not agree with me on these points, but that is all the better, for my ego does not necessarily have to agree with theirs.
I have therefore concluded that I am glad for having an ego, and for its power to propel me forward, often into unknown zones where I start to see connections and form beliefs that convert into ideas and stories that could be communicated to the rest of the world. To lose ego would be to lost this gift. After all, if God gave us an ego, it would be for the purpose that we use it, not amputate it like an appendix or a tonsil, unless it has turned toxic.
So the next time I meet my eminent writer friend, I am going to ask him whether the fact that he proclaims he has no ego is a sign that he indeed has one, and a very powerful one at that.