Do You Suffer From Fragile Writer Ego?

by Flickr's Shaun Dunphy
by Flickr’s Shaun Dunphy

Please welcome Judy Mollen Walters to Writer Unboxed. Seventeen years ago, after her stint as an editor in nonfiction book publishing, Judy became a stay-at-home mother to her two daughters. Her first book, Child of Mine, came out in March 2013; her second book, The Opposite of Normal, came out in February of this year.

Of her post today, Judy says, “I’ve always been convinced that as writers we share a unique kind of fragile ego, regardless of where we are in our writing careers—trying to get an agent or publisher, first book being published, hanging onto the midlist, or even when we are blockbuster best sellers. But I was never able to pinpoint how I knew we were all more alike than different until I experienced first hand the struggling writer’s ego in two very high-profile, successful authors. As writers, we should all be a little kinder to each other, and acknowledge that first we are human. I’m hoping this article will ignite a conversation among authors about this topic and that we can all come together and support each other.”

Connect with Judy on her blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Do You Suffer From Fragile Writer Ego?

A while back, I was in the audience at an author event. The author was a New York Times bestselling commercial writer, a wonderful speaker—witty and full of fun publishing facts. I was having a great time until she made a snarky comment about EL James, the author of the Fifty Shades series.

A few months later, I was back at the same venue listening to another NYT bestselling author, this time of a more literary style of fiction. I was having a great time, hearing her explain the research behind her book, until she snarked on that commercial fiction writer I’d heard a few months before!

I thought about the two experiences for a while, kind of disgusted, and then realized that they were linked by more than just coincidence. Both of these authors, big names, very successful, must have what I’ve coined the fragile writer ego. Now that I’d seen it exhibited by two big name authors, I realize that no matter how successful, every writer must have it.

I know I have the fragile writer ego, but I figured that was pretty normal for a not so seasoned author just bringing her first or second book out. I spent a long time writing novels that were not good enough to publish and almost as much time finding a literary agent. When I finally published my debut, I worried about how it would be received. Was it really good enough to publish? Would people really think it was good enough to see the light of day?

a3bd96_15bc5efa453847b7b535bc7a40a8e734.jpg_srz_363_513_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srzEven after it got good—some great—reviews, and people said positive things, I was still pretty sure it might not be that good. Maybe they were just saying those things to be nice. They couldn’t actually like it, could they?

As writers, we have complicated egos. We can feel confident in other areas of our lives: maybe we know we’re parenting well, or we have other jobs we get kudos for, or we can make a mean mac and cheese or are the Grillmaster of the neighborhood. But when it comes to our writing, we’re just.not.that.sure.

We need continued reminding that we’re doing it right. For some, this is the validation of an agent or an editor, or strong sales. For others, it’s the sweet emails from readers who say they couldn’t put the book down, or the royalty check—no matter how small—that we acknowledge was earned on our words alone. And I suppose that even after you’ve “made it,” even after you’ve reached bestseller status or people clamor to have you speak at their events, you continue to have that pesky fragility. You still wonder: Is this book—my first or third or tenth—is it really, truly good enough? And sometimes you let it slip—like these authors did, the way they did—that you are really insecure, like everyone else.

I think the commercial author might have felt insecure that an unknown writer like EL James, with no writing background, no agent, no anything, really, could come in and do what she did with her series whereas the commercial author worked and clamored and fought her way up. And I think the literary author might have the feeling that the commercial author was more well-known, selling more books than she was, and that might have made her feel insecure.

What these experiences did was make me feel that I’m not so different than any other writer. The big successes and those just starting out. The literary and the commercial. The women and the men. We all just want recognition that we’re on the right path–that our writing is meaningful to someone else, however we define meaningful.

So to all authors I say: Be kind to yourselves. Keep going. Ignore your writer fragile ego as best you can. Find people to validate you. Find happiness in the small moments when the writing seems on target. And believe.

In what ways are you a fragile author? What do you do to help ignore the feelings of fragility when they start clamoring for your attention?

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Comments

  1. says

    My little envies, my moments of schadenfreude, should be private – and make me ashamed of myself.

    I agree with you about the ‘fragile ego’ – any reasonable writer should continue to have it, because, to some extent, we’re only as good as our last effort.

    What you’re seeing is a result of a ‘scarcity model’: if there’s only so much to go around, someone else’s success takes away from the possibility of yours. And, unfortunately, measured in money and shelf space in bookstores, it is true.

    It is silly, though, to envy someone success when their readers are different from the people who would like your books. If you’re hoping that readers who like 50 Shades would switch to liking your literary novel, it isn’t going to happen. Those people are more likely to read less if they don’t find the kind of books they like.

    Kindness to other writers should be the goal, instead, and it’s the impulse that leads to the wonderful blogs with advice that can be had just for reading. By anyone.

    If you are objectively better, and people prefer your books, great – be gracious. Putting other writers down is not the way to get more readers. Not the kind of readers you want. Improving your own writing is. If you don’t like how someone else writes, don’t do it that way. Putting other writers down just shows your own insecurities.

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  2. says

    Thanks for this, Judy. In the space of a week (maybe even a couple days) I’ve jumped around on the confidence scale. At this moment I find myself on the lower half. Some people can’t put it down, others apparently can. :) Trying not to question everything and simply move on and put all my itching editing fingers into a new project rather than trying to please everyone with the old. I’m sorry to hear this will not improve with time and successes. ;)

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  3. says

    I simply recall in my heart what inspired me to begin the journey in the first place. I do not have a definition of success that reaches beyond that vision of offering a legacy of love for my family and my Heavenly Father. If that inspires others to carry my legacy into broader circles to encourage and inspire others, then my dream will blessed beyond the vision that launched the first stroke on the keyboard. It may seem over simplified or idealistic, but it keeps my feet on the ground when I feel out of my league. Then I remember back to sermons I have delivered in the past, my best in my mind often got little attention; the worst in mind often got the most responses. When we expose our fragility to others we often connect in ways beyond our understanding.

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  4. says

    I like this post a lot, Judy. And you are right that we have to maintain ourselves as writers recognizing our skills and talents as they grow. Being a writer is a life, not just a book or a ranking on the best seller list. I feel insecurity too sometimes. I’d like to meet a real writer who doesn’t have those pangs at times. Your advice to ignore the fragility of the ego is a good one. Doubt is just a detour over rocky terrain. Get back on track and keep running on your own path.

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  5. says

    Believe me, it’s been quite a struggle to get to where I am now, but I have no writer ego. My sense of self-worth doesn’t depend on my success as a writer (which is good because I’m just starting out), nor on any of my personal achievements.

    Is the novel I’m trying to get published good enough? Sometimes I think it is, sometimes I don’t. What never changes is that I believe in it because it is part of me, it contains something that I believe to be ultimately true, and no matter how well or how badly it does in the publishing world, it’s valuable to me, and to a few other people who were kind enough to be my betareaders.
    Every novel I write will help me to improve and develop. I’m my only competition and other people’s successes or failures don’t make me a better or worse writer.

    The problem with living in a competitive world is that we’ve been raised to constantly compare ourselves with others and to judge ourselves by our achievements, because that’s how we are judged by society.

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  6. Denise Willson says

    Great post, Judy.
    In an industry were measuring success is precarious (is it writing ‘the end,’ requests for fulls, an agent, publishing contracts, best seller lists?), I choose to revel in the journey instead of the illusion of destination.
    The best way for me to do this is to cuddle up with other writers, ones who provide love and support, and to be open-minded, willing to absorb what each and every one has to teach me. This includes writer’s I’ve never met. I learn from everything I read.
    Human first. Writer second.

    Congrats on your recent publications, and kudos to you for enjoying the ride. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  7. says

    No one is a fan of rejection, insults, nor ridicule. Fortunately for me, my ego is permanently fractured.

    I FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANYWAY.

    Nope, I don’t ignore it. I cope with it. Hell, I’m scared right now. Confident in other areas, yeah, I don’t think so, plenty of doubt there too. Moments of fearlessness creep in and out of my life at best. In general, my confidence is 50-80%.

    It would be totally kickass if people would be a little kinder to one another, but for that to happen, people have to like themselves a little more, be willing to accept rejection, and respond appropriately to their feelings of envy. For example, I’m envious of so many people here on Writer Unboxed, but instead of rejecting them I FOLLOW them. I attempt to learn from those I’m jealous of; because they have something I want. Plus, it’s my only real justification for my Fanboy Stalker Habits.

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  8. says

    Judy–
    Maybe it’s just “you say tomato, I say tomahto,” but the examples you present (two writers’ snarky potshots at other writers) don’t strike me as resulting from fragile egos. I see them as expressions of resentment over success perceived as undeserved. You can argue with someone’s opinion on the issue, but that’s another matter. As for Fifty Shades of Gray, my own “snarky” reaction has less to do with the writer or the book than with readers. Contemplating how many thousands of hours of human consciousness have been frittered away in reading the book is depressing to me–and it has nothing to do with my writer’s ego.
    But: reading anything at all–including FSOG–is definitely one of the better forms of frittering.

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    • Tina Goodman says

      Yes, I think the snarki-ness has to do with certain types of writers thinking that other kinds of writers are beneath them, and that the readers of the books written by those writers are simple minded.
      Commercial writers think the indie writers are amateurish. Literary writers think that the commercial writers produce mind numbing pulp. I don’t know what the indie writers think of it all.

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  9. says

    Thank you all for your comments! I’m enjoying reading them, and all of your own unique points of view. I, too, wonder what “success” in this business is. If two NYT best selling authors can feel threatened by two other writers, (in my opinion as a result of fragile egos) when can we feel good about our successes and even okay about our failures?

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  10. says

    Terrific post, Judy. As as writer, I find I tread a fine line between confidence and a belief that my work is never good enough.The trick is to acknowledge your shortcomings without letting it erode your self-confidence. One of my writer colleagues has self-published two fantastic novels and I feel for him because I believe his writing is better than a lot of traditionally published stuff. However, I would never say that publicly in a way that demeans traditionally published authors. Writers have a responsibility to not only promote their own work but to honor other writers and to use discretion in levying criticism of others’ work. As JFK said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

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  11. says

    Thank you, Judy, for writing about one of the industry’s nasty little not so secrets. I, too, have seen successful authors make snide remarks about fellow writers and it always makes my skin crawl. This writing life is hard enough on the emotions and self esteem without writers tearing down one another. I have encountered far too many persons involved with various parts of publishing who feel it is their right to be rude, condescending, and self important. My grandmother would have said that form of behavior is a sign of low breeding, but that is another topic and a different century. For our present day, being mean has become a way of life, or at least the way to get a laugh, for some people. Sad, but inescapable. Since going it alone makes one terribly vulnerable in a very tough world, it only makes sense that authors should at least be respectful of one another. If one cannot say something nice, one should not comment covers it well, in my opinion.

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  12. says

    I’m just so grateful I’ve actually written books. The rest is gravy. When I start to go into that place of ego, I automatically push away gratitude. It’s a challenge, but it’s a simple concept: being grateful for our gifts and celebrating others for theirs.

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  13. says

    Judy,
    As usual, you are the voice of inspiration! Thank you for pointing out that we all feel out of the game some of the time. I’m so glad to know you :)
    -Windy

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  14. says

    I had to turn down a thriller writer who wanted me to blurb her book. I told her it wasn’t ready for primetime and needed a lot of work. She took it badly and I felt awful because I know how much rejection hurts. But on the other hand, honesty is critical between writers. You can’t improve someone’s work without pointing out the rough spots. Not in a snarky way, but with generosity. As as for fragility during the writing process, I have a little steel box where I lock self-doubt up and I’ve developed a strong sense of patience to keep me calm when I confront a seemingly impossible writing challenge. I always find a way through, just may take a while.

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  15. says

    If you’ve ever had a taste of Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s very difficult not to be snarky. Not every criticism is motivated by the Green Eyed Monster. That speaker could also have been snarking out of pure despair at the crushing reality that quality has nothing to do with popularity.

    Most people have fragile egos, regardless of their profession. Writers aren’t necessarily more fragile than average, but they have to be less fragile than average to survive. Publishing your writing is like standing on a stage in the middle of downtown, naked, next to a giant crate of complimentary rotten eggs with a neon sign blinking “Have at me!”

    In writing the stakes are high and the standards are skewed. If your book isn’t the best book in the world, a hundred people will call it the worst book they’ve ever read. If your book is the best book in the world, a million people will call it the worst book they’ve ever read. If you’ve published anything in your lifetime, someone somewhere has snarked about how stupid and talentless you are.

    Fact: your books will never, ever be “good enough.” People will always hate you for some reason or another. So why worry about them?

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  16. says

    Bravo, Judy. I KNOW I suffer from Fragile Writer’s Ego and do best when I try to remember what I mom taught me: if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. :)

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  17. says

    Am I fragile?
    Oh, yeah.
    What do I do about these feelings?
    I own my writing career. My goal is to be picked by a publisher. And so I could jump up and down in that school yard–yelling and waving my arms wildly in the air. But instead I practice whacking the ball (I write) and running the bases (submit my writing). I control what I can control and trust that my hard work will eventually pay off. Instead of comparing myself to others, I celebrate (and promote–through my blog) their successes–because they are leading the way.

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  18. says

    I can relate to this post. It gets addictive, the need for validation.

    And for me, the answer’s simple: I need to concentrate on being a writer, and on writing things I would want to read, and on helping other people get their writing out, and on promoting my writing a little once it’s done. That’s all that’s in my control. If I start thinking about whether or not I’ve gotten enough praise, or sales, or respect, I’ll get worked up, because there will never be enough to fill the God-sized hole in me.

    Sure, it’d be nice to win a Nobel or a Pulitzer, or even just to pay all my bills with my writing. But all of that is COMPLETELY beyond my control. And getting worked up over things that are outside my control is a surefire recipe for frustration. Even putting the cart before the horse–checking sales before I write, or promoting before I write–leaves me unhappy. (And plenty of authors who had all the things I think I’d have wanted either killed themselves or drank themselves to death.)

    But I have found some happiness as a writer, and a bit of reprieve from the ego: I write as early as possible in the day, and if I have extra time, I promote my writing and help other people with theirs. And at the end of the day, even if I haven’t done quite as much as my unrealistic hopes would suggest, I cut myself some slack, wind down, and read, and get ready for the next day. And I try to praise other people’s work publicly when it’s warranted, and give negative feedback in private when it’s necessary. And I try to be grateful for every bit of feedback I get in turn, because frankly, what we do–putting little marks on a piece of paper or a screen, and having other people read those marks and make movies in their head–is magical.

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  19. Poeticus says

    Artistic jealousy is an ugly, unproductive, often counterproductive monster. So what if that latest zombi melodrama appeals to the unenlightened, sleepwalking masses. Preaching to the choir. So what if only a narrow niche audience acclaims a sophisticated many-layered irony commentary about popularity pageantry’s amoral complications, Those outcomes are a direct result of their respective writer’s choices. So yee sow, so shall yee reap.

    Uncalled-for negative evaluation most disturbs my mellow. My narrative on the hot seat doesn’t meet workshop audience expectations. Okay. How many times I have heard a workshop comment that this is not my usual reading genre so I’m not its audience and it doesn’t work, for me or anyone, in my opinion, on even the most basic story crafting level.

    Phhbt! Not even an iota of effort made to evaluate the narrative’s craft strengths or shortcomings, nor offer guidance in the first and only role of workshopping writing: enhancing expression strength, clarity, and target audience appeal.

    Flat rejection with only negative evaluation and personal sensibility and sentiment negativity at that. All the commenter really said is why do you write this trash. You should write what I like, the way I write. So we are all in lockstep assemblyline conformity to my capricious and fickle tastes and sensibilities.

    Come on. Comment, then, on story craft, not on genre, dammit, I want to scream.

    Ante or post publication critics — some lay on the astroturf a little too generously; some lay on the artistic jealousy too heavily, though artfully veiled by emotional-political argumentation appeal (ad hominem fallacy); some rare few find a sincere, warranted, critical proportion of constructive criticism. I pay attention to them all, most weight to the latter. Otherwise, I silently criticize their critical analysis skills. That for me makes all the difference for fracturing or mending my disintegratable identity.

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  20. says

    I like this:

    “Be kind to yourselves. Keep going. Ignore your writer fragile ego as best you can. Find people to validate you. Find happiness in the small moments when the writing seems on target. And believe.”

    thanks!

    — A

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  21. says

    Thanks for this post reminding us to be kind, not only to others but to ourselves. I need the second reminder plastered someplace prominent so that my subconscious can help soothe my fragile writer’s ego :)

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  22. says

    As the day is ending, I thank all of you for reading, for commenting, for passing along via social media, for connecting with me…I hope the conversation continues! I love to hear the different viewpoints on this, and any other writerly topics.

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  23. says

    Funny–people were snarky on EL James just this weekend at a conference I went to. Haven’t read her stuff, but I hope her ego can say “oh yeah? Millions of fans disagree.” I know when I publish, through whatever means, I will feel fragile. Art is hard. And today we seem to think the art IS the artist: If we don’t like the art, we don’t like the artist.

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  24. says

    This is me. I write fanfic. I have posted 1.5m words in fanfic. Well plotted, epics that people tell me they adore and reread constantly. What you described is exactly what I do with my original stuff. With fanfic, it matters less to my mind (which makes no sense, I know) but I think, if I post it and it’s got a mistake, someone will tell me and I can fix it. And I don’t think like that about my OF. And seeing as how I do Ebooks, it CAN be fixed, or edited or updated… it’s my *head* that is the issue.
    (Or, do I discount it as ‘only fanfic’? I’m not sure.)
    So I write more OF’s and then I panic – it’s not perfect! I see all kinds of tropes – vampires and werewolves are SO last year – and I meddle with it and I add another character, or I add sex, or I add a bad guy and I often end up wrecking it, or hating what the story has become (because I have lost the initial spark) and I put it aside.
    And then I have a new, shiny idea that excites me and I start writing that.
    And then I do it all over again.
    And I end up with a dozen unfinished things that I beat myself up over because I haven’t finished them.
    And then I write more fanfic because it’s easier to play in someone else’s sandbox than build your own, and it’s safe and people like me there.
    I say I want to earn money from writing and I gave myself a couple of years of not working to do it. But my time is running out and if I don’t get some paying stuff out there, I can’t support myself or my kids.
    I was amazed to see some of my free e-books listed on Goodreads. But they were credited to the wrong author, so I had to step up and claim my stuff. I am now a listed Goodreads author and that is… no, I can’t describe it. It blows my mind.
    I read a lot and I see printed stories that are bad, or have spelling mistakes or the MC is such a mary sue and they are printed and out there and people paid money for them. WHY do I do think mine isn’t good enough? why do I do this to myself?

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  25. says

    I have my moments of FWE. Most of the time it’s focused inward, as in, “Why can’t I get more readers?”, rather than, “why does Other Author get so many more readers than I do?”

    It might be because I can see all my shortcomings, but can’t always see the shortcomings of others. (While the lesson (intellectually) learned is, “don’t broadcast all your shortcomings and you’ll appear more confident”, the heart doesn’t listen at all and whines away in a dark corner.)

    It’s hard to keep the ol’ stiff upper lip in the face of an unpredictable and seemingly random industry.

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  26. says

    Amen to this. I don’t know if it’s ego or what but snarkiness just isn’t classy. Even if I don’t ready EL James’ books it doesn’t matter. It is how it is.

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  27. says

    I’ve always thought, the more great books the better, for readers and for writers. I think what you’re writing about touches on a certain snobbishness in the literary world. People think that quality writing means something and is perhaps at a disconnect with so-called genre writing. It’s easy to put down the EL James’ or [insert other name]–not only because they’re successful, but because they don’t write seriously–whatever that means. Only when we admit that story has value unto itself, and can take all different forms, can a writer’s ego really feel secure.

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  28. says

    Your title drew me in right away. It is good to know it is a widespread disease but it would be even better to know how to lose this fragility. I am very confident in my day job. With my writing, I’d prefer no one even knew it was me. Art is mysterious.

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  29. says

    Ah, refreshing to know that even successful authors can still have fragile writer’s ego! But this is also a bit depressing, too. As a new indie author, I have faced a great deal of ups and downs over the past year with the release of my debut title.

    I look back now and marvel at how easily I fell from the complete high of a reader’s gushing, loving praise of my work to, within hours, the dark depths of despair over an unkind review. Such a seesaw of confidence and emotions.

    What helps me now is keeping in mind that all reading material is subjective to the intellect and interest of the reader. I put out what is meaningful to me, in the best form I can. What the reader brings into the book with them is out of my control.

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