Low-Fat Love 101: Art and Ego
Recently I was doing an interview about my new book, Fiction as Research Practice, and I was asked a question that made me pause. We were talking about the arts, writing and challenges publishing when the interviewer asked: what role do you think ego plays in the life of a writer? The question came on the heels of a discussion about the inevitable rejections writers face and how important it is to have faith in your own work even when it seems that others do not. So in some ways it would have been easy to give a brief answer to this question and move on. However, this is such a significant topic I felt it was important to give it true reflection. With the benefit of hindsight and rewriting here is my response to the question, and how this may matter in everyday life whether one is an artist or not.
Ego can mean many things. It can have different dimensions or we can embody it in multiple ways. Confidence and arrogance are not the same thing, but are both ways in which we experience and exhibit ego.
I think that confidence is critical for anyone in the arts. Inevitably there will be rejections along the way. Some of the most successful writers, musicians and visual artists received piles of rejections before they broke out. For many, it’s a much more gradual progression with stumbling blocks all along the way. Confidence is critical. You need to believe in your own talent and work, or merely your right to do it. You also need to be a strong advocate for your work if you’re ever going to get it out there. In order to do so, again, you must be confident.
Beyond the rejections— the inability to get your workout there— one must also contend with critics’ reviews. Many writers claim that they don’t read their own book reviews, and while it may be hard to believe, it’s often true. The danger in reading reviews is that another person’s assessment seeps into your mind and is impossible to get rid of. Good reviews are just as dangerous as the bad ones, as the value you place on your work should come from your own judgment in the intrinsic value you see in your work and the pleasure you derive from it, not from others perceptions of it. This can be quite difficult to achieve but with confidence in yourself and your work, it is possible. In my latest book as well as in talks I have given around the world a piece of advice I always return to is: once the work is done, make peace with it and let it go. Develop an independent relationship with your work that is not dependent on the judgment of others, and allow others to develop relationships with your work that really have nothing to do with you.
So when people ask if you need to have ego in order to succeed in arts, I think a part of the answer is that you need to have confidence in your work so that you can advocate for yourself, move past the rejections and tune out the critics. Despite the importance of confidence, arrogance is another embodiment of ego, and one that is far more dangerous.
While it’s important not to allow the judgments of others to determine how you feel about your work, it’s also important to gather feedback, to contemplate that feedback in a serious way and learn from it. Pride can be our greatest enemy, and this too is a side of arrogance. All artists need to learn from others in their field, on both the artistic and industry sides.
It’s also important to pay homage to those who have led the way. I have noticed this play out in academic writing in a few distinct ways. Here’s an example. In 2008 I released a book called Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice. The book is about how researchers across the disciplines are using the arts in their social research in order to make their work more engaging and accessible to diverse audiences. Many scholars have been writing about and conducting arts-based research for far longer than I have. While some people claim that Method Meets Art is the first introductory authored book on the subject, it is by no means the first book on the subject. Since its publication many new books on arts-based research have been released or are forthcoming. The authors and editors of those texts deal with Method Meets Art in one of three ways: 1. Acknowledge the book’s contribution to the field 2. Critique the book and minimize its contribution to the field 3. Ignore the book and don’t mention it. I find these different and patterned responses very revealing about the authors of these texts and their “egos.”
When I wrote Method Meets Art I referred to as many key books and articles in the field as I was aware of at that time. I have no doubt that I left many authors and their works out; however, I made an earnest effort to include the work I was aware of. Moreover, I chose to present other authors’ work not to critique it. I didn’t want to create my work by demeaning the work of others and I continue to choose that path in my creative and scholarly writing. I was grateful for the work that others had done which paved the way for the work I was doing, and I had confidence in my own work. When I look over my entire body of work, and how I have built it in concert with others, I feel proud, and this too gives me the confidence to continue creating.
Now, if you go back and reread this essay, and forget about the arts and just think about life, I hope the low-fat love lessons are clear.