Kath here. We’re so pleased that Lorin Oberweger is guesting at WU today. Lorin is a highly sought-after independent book editor and ghostwriter with almost twenty-five years experience in publishing. Her company, Free Expressions, offers writing seminars nationwide with literary agent Donald Maass and others, as well as the acclaimed Novel Crafting Retreats–intensive story development weekends for writers in all genres of fiction (FYI, scholarships for the Your Best Book workshop ends Feb, 15, 2013).

Lorin’s students and clients have millions of books in print and have been published by imprints of HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, Scholastic, and other mainstream and independent presses. They have also gained representation with some of the industry’s leading literary agents.

An award-winning author, Lorin’s poetry, short fiction, and articles have appeared in well over one-hundred periodicals, including THE MONTSERRAT REVIEW, STORYQUARTERLY, and the bestselling regional anthology FRENCH QUARTER FICTION. Recently, an excerpt of her novel-in-progress, ITCH, was awarded “Best of Workshop” at Writers in Paradise, co-founded by author Dennis Lehane. She is represented by Tracey Adams at Adams Literary.

Every aspect of my professional life is devoted to helping writers succeed, creatively and commercially. I am so intensely grateful to do what I do and so intensively passionate about writers that it drives me a little bonkers when I see them stand in their own way. This topic–ego–has made itself known in my own life and in my clients’ lives in some potent and occasionally harmful ways. I’d love to help anyone who needs it find the courage to move past self-protection to making real progress toward their dreams.

Follow Lorin on Twitter @WriterLor or on Facebook. Or she can be contacted lorin.

Is Hubris Holding You Back?

I’m not a fan of cold, hard truths. I think wisdom can be gained without suffering blunt force trauma to the psyche.  So, let’s call this a warm, soft truth instead, one meant to support and nourish while asking you to peel back some psychological layers—and then poke at the delicate tissue underneath.

That warm, soft truth is that many writers let hubris stand in the way of their true artistic development and of their ultimate success.  Instead of looking within, they blame their lack of momentum on a contracting market or the whims of industry gatekeepers. They dismiss rejection letters as being uninformed. They fault their agents for not pushing hard enough or the reading public for having bad—or at least unsophisticated–taste.

Sometimes, that damaging pride steps in to tell writers it’s “cheating” to get help with story development or editing. And sometimes it compels them to scoff at writing workshops or popular books on craft as being somehow beneath them. Often, this derision comes without any kind of real investigation into whether or not such things would truly benefit their work.

Not all writers, of course. Some are fearless in this regard, willing to open up to the process, to come at the work with both enthusiasm and humility. These writers tear happily into their fifth or twelfth draft; they give themselves finger cramps taking notes during writing workshops—even though they’re already agented, already published, even already WELL-published.

They understand that a desire to grow does not constitute a failure of their present selves. But that’s a tough belief to sustain.

Why? Because the writing life demands a lot of ego fortification. It means toughening our psyches to rejection, to the peaks and valleys (and deeper valleys) of drafting a novel. It means holding our meager little flames aloft when the world seems filled with hurricane force winds.

And it means doing so within a system that confers value on writers for achieving certain milestones—gaining representation, for example—rather than for pursuing an ongoing, avid exploration of craft.

One has only to watch the dynamic at any large writing conference to see this in action, to watch the pained transactions between students and faculty. Sometimes, it feels like being the wallflower in a room where everyone’s eyes are tracking the popular kids on the dance floor.

So, of course, we lead with our credentials, whatever those might be. We hasten to show the agent, editor, or published author, “Hey, we’re not like all of these other people. We’re different. We’re special.”

But again, that’s ego; it’s pride. It’s about gaining a position rather than gaining artistic mastery. It’s understandable, but in the end, it may not really serve us. The truth is that you’re not special in that you want something that hundreds of thousands of other people also want. And you are special in that the path you take, the way you put words to paper, the stories you tell can only be committed by you.

If we can proceed on that as truth, I’d ask you to take a moment to dive down to that quiet, authentic part of yourself, the part that knows the answers, and consider the following: 

1.   Are you often guided by some form of the question, “How will it look if…?” Example, “How will it look if I don’t get a contract this year, when all of my friends are getting contracts?” Or, “How will it look if a published author/professional editor/writing instructor like me attends to a writing conference as a STUDENT?”

First, how would it look to whom? Are you imagining an audience of people whose sole preoccupation is to sit in judgment of your choices? Or are you conjuring the voice of some critical figure in your life–a parent, teacher, or partner—and giving that voice power over your progress?

Because you can’t really know what other people think, why not imagine a throng of supportive, caring artists around you, all whom understand that success comes in its own time and who admire your dedication to the study of craft? Why not make that internal choir an encouraging one?

On a side note: if you have people around you who truly DO voice those negative views, ask yourself where their egos enter the equation. What do they fear? How does your desire to grow threaten them? Extend them understanding and love, but don’t give them power over you—or your work.

2.   Do most conversations about writing revolve around other people (not your characters)? Do you point fingers—blaming your agent for her lack of effort or editors for their lack of daring? Do you deem other writers unworthy of their successes? Do you gossip about contracts and conference hook-ups more than you read books on craft, experiment with new forms, or just plain write?

If so, what do you gain from this approach? Is all of this conversation a way of masking a deeper concern that your writing—or your story—isn’t quite where you wish it to be? Would you benefit from taking some time away from industry concerns to read a book on craft or revisit a long-cherished novel? What can you do to turn the frustrations and competitive nature of the industry into a benefit for your actual writing?

3.   Have you stopped growing? Have you allowed yourself to progress so far as an artist and now find yourself spinning your creative wheels? If you go to writing conferences—as a faculty or a student–do you spend more time in your room or in the bar than you do in class? Do you feel as though you’ve gained sufficient mastery of your craft and that there’s little more for you to learn? And is that really possible?

As a challenge, what can you explore that you’ve yet to explore? If you’ve been with the same critique partners forever, can you add some fresh voices to the mix? Can you read poetry or books on screenwriting? Can you find a local writing workshop and attend each class as though you’ve never learned a thing about writing? Can you sit placidly, listen deeply, take notes with an open and earnest spirit? Can you apply “beginner’s mind” (to use a Zen term) even if you’ve been at it for decades?

Before us stretches a brand new year. What would it mean to muffle the voice of ego within you, to accept that it’s not about being better or worse than others? That it’s not about their success OR your success? What would it mean to your writing if you allowed yourself to shed the skin of hubris and emerge perfectly beautiful and whole and willing to startle yourself again?

Where my own work is concerned, I can’t wait to find out. And where your work is concerned, I can’t wait to READ.  Here’s to a truly NEW new year!