The Writer’s Ego

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.

Dickens vs. Camelot

It saddened me to see top tennis players hit thirty and then retire at the US Open this year, their bodies giving way, their spirits no longer in the game, worn out and tired – at thirty! Like gladiators of old, albeit richer.

I wondered whether this is a harbinger for the world of work as well where super•productivity is the driver. The rhetoric seems to indicate otherwise: “seniors are returning to work,” “older workers are prized,” “more people are working beyond retirement age,” say the newspapers and magazines. The basis for these stories is that the boomer bulge is drying up and there are not enough Gen X’s & Ys to fill the holes. The reality is that we don’t need as many people to produce our required output anymore; technology has taken care of that. The reality is that employers do not want the bother of older workers who expose them to higher wages, perceived productivity decreases and medical liability. And the reality is that the supply of workers to fill the boomer gap is endless as many graduates from developing countries are lining up to get in as we liberalize immigrant policies to snag the best and the brightest.

The developed west enjoyed its brief moment of Camelot (Version 2) during the 1950’s – ‘70’s when the build•back from WWII kept everyone busy, and its memories were vivid enough for people to practice good neighborliness and sharing, and the walls against the developing world were tall enough to keep an exclusive club service going. All that changed, beginning in the ‘80’s. Wars happen elsewhere now. The walls have come down. The separation of business and government has blurred. Performance expectations have grown exponentially as year•over•year growth is the yardstick; even athletes are tempted by drugs to increase their human potential to the new normal. Those who get caught in the act are severely punished as if to deny this relentless drive, while others—our 30 year•old tennis players—retire.

On the flip side, we have public service entities cutting taxes and services, and refusing to offer more in this age of “more with less.” Why a government or municipality should reduce services, when they have a guaranteed revenue stream (i.e. taxes, which they self•destructively keep cutting) and face no competition for what they produce, makes no sense to me. Have they sold out to big business, the very ones they were elected to put checks and balances around? If the tennis analogy was applied here, these guys should take drugs to increase their performance or retire. Perhaps they are the last citizens of our crumbling Camelot V2.

So what has Dickens got to do with this? Well, the alternative to Camelot is the Workhouse, Debtor’s Prison, and Scrooge – all of which are alive and well under different terminology today; I think we can re•name them the Workplace, Mortgage Debt and the One•Percent respectively. I am waiting for Child Labour to return to make the picture complete; in some cases it already exists, in professional sport and in those parts of the world where much of our manufacturing has been outsourced.

Our sole hope? History. Things turns around eventually, just like the world turns. The Dickensian world did not last, and an enlightened citizenry sought eagerly to make the world a better place for everyone, despite having to fight two world wars to get there. I am not sure that our Boomer generation has the will, the skill or the tolerance to establish a Brave New (and inclusive) World; they have instead created the Dickensian one and spawned many Fagins, Scrooges, even Brownlows, in their camp, while outside lie the polluted and angry streets with the disenfranchised (Occupy Wall St., Arab Spring et al) demanding their ounce of flesh. The new world will have to be left to another generation. And their remit will be to ensure that Camelot V3, when it happens, is more sustainable than its previous iterations, and that Dickens and his world remains in history.