October 5th, 2020

The Timeless Writing Struggle: Ego vs. Humility

by Karen Debonis

Last fall, after twenty years of effort, I finished my memoir. In recent years, that manuscript went through two rounds of beta reading, the scrutiny of a paid book editor, and another eleventy-nine revisions.

What began as a story about my young son’s life-or-death struggle with a brain tumor became an examination of how my people-pleasing had kept me from being the fierce mama-bear my son needed. The long road to “The End” of this book has been a battle between ego and humility.

Let me explain.

In the beginning…

Like every author, I wrote the manuscript to the best of my ability, which I thought was pretty darn good. The words “runaway best-seller” may even have skipped around in my head. I moved on to querying without so much as a peek at my manuscript, except to cut and paste pages into emails according to agents’ guidelines. I received a trickle of form-letter rejections and a flood of non-replies.

I still believed my writing was as good as I could make it, but those runaway best-sellerthoughts disappeared. Earlier this year I joined a memoir critique group. I decided not to submit chapters of my manuscript since it was “finished.” Instead, I submitted some creative nonfiction essays that had languished in submissions limbo. The groups’ comments gave me insight into why publication had eluded me. I heard the message loud and clear: My writing just wasn’t that good (my words, not theirs).

In other words, I wasn’t ready yet. I’d queried too soon.

In his book Your First Page: first pages and what they tell us about the pages that follow them, Peter Selgin writes: “Telling an author, ‘Check your ego at the door,’ is easy. Doing so— for the author—isn’t.”

Disheartened didn’t begin to describe my feelings. I began to doubt my ability to write at all.If I can’t even produce a decent essay, I thought, how could I possibly have written a decent book? Perhaps essay and book skills are different.

Still, something felt backward. Wasn’t my craft supposed to improve with time and practice?

Note: I had improved. But I couldn’t see it yet.

The Next Phase

My memoir beckoned me, but I resisted, fearful of what I’d find. Flannery O’Connor said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

So I swallowed my ego with a Tums and re-read Chapter One for the first time in months.

The prose was humbling in its mediocrity.

I’m not fishing for compliments or wallowing in self-doubt. I’m stating a fact.

  • I relied on telling instead of showing.
  • I gave unimportant details, and far too many of them.
  • I didn’t vary sentence length and structure.
  • It was boring.

My writer’s soul shook with horror that I had sent these pages to agents. I hoped my query letter had been so bad, they hit “Delete” before reading the manuscript. The next day I moped around the house, vowing to drop the project altogether.

My Epiphany

The fact that I was no longer satisfied with my previous writing was evidence of growth. Stepping away from a piece for a few days/weeks/months might give you a new perspective when you return, but the odds will increase if you’ve sharpened your skills in the meantime.

I did step away in the middle of my twenty-year memoir journey, worn down by the challenges of parenting a brain-injured child. With no time or energy to write about what I was living through, I stashed my box of memorabilia and the ancient computer holding my files in a corner of the attic. Years later, when my son was grown and recovered enough to be independent, I downloaded my old files and got back to work. Unsurprisingly, my writing had not improved. How could it when I hadn’t written?

My recent experience was completely different. Stepping away, then returning to my manuscript after vigorously practicing my craft gave me the clear perspective and tools to fix it. This time, my previous mistakes jumped out at me. I knew what to fix and how to go about it. The clear path forward energized me to tackle another round of revisions.

The Real Road to Publication.

With a deep breath and three Hail Mary’s, I submitted Chapter One for critique. I harbored fantasies of my critique partners saying, “It was perfect—I have no suggestions!” But humility slapped me back to reality with the groups’ tough and fair comments.

Back to the writing board I went.

(Are you seeing the pattern here?)

Ego feels great for the short term, but it can keep us stuck. Humility hurts, but it often leads to growth.

As writers, we strive to capture an element of the human experience and present a particular perspective on it. Humility is essential for that. Opening ourselves to understanding others’ unique take on the world, accepting that we are less than perfect (i.e., fully human), broadens our ability to convey the true depth of humanity.

Applying my critique group’s feedback with my improved skillset turned Chapter One into something I could be proud of today. If I have to repeat the process in six months, I’ll remind myself again that this process is worth it.

What I’ve Learned

Takeaways from my recent roller-coaster of ego, humility, and self-discovery:

  1. At any point in time, your writing is as good as you can make it at that time. Be proud that you’ve done your best, but be prepared to view it less favorably in the future, because you will have grown. Let your discovery encourage, not discourage you.
  2. Times heals no wounds and improves no skills unless you actively work at it. If you take a writing break for more than the length of a vacation, commit to working on other aspects of your profession or hobby: read, study, take classes, sign up for webinars. Further your craft, even if you aren’t creating new manuscripts.
  3. Even if you believe your earlier writing sucked, study that growth. Ask yourself if it was better than it was the year before. In other words, turn your focus from where you’ve been to celebrate how far you’ve come. Believe that trend will continue.
  4. Humility is the best teacher. Imperfection leaves room for growth. Embrace them both.

Final thought

I’m up to Chapter Four with my critique group. The original weighed in at a whopping 8000 words, but by the time I submitted it I’d trimmed it to under 4000. The critiques were fewer this time, the compliments kinder.

I had improved. So far, I’m counting it as a runaway success.

Have you had a similar experience? Do you ever go back to your previous work and celebrate your writing growth? What aspect of your Craft has improved the most? Please share your stories with us down in the comments!

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Karen

Karen began writing twenty years ago after her eleven-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Those early pages are now a real-life medical mystery about a mother who must overcome her toxic agreeability if she's to save herself and her son. The manuscript is currently in submission for publication.

A happy empty-nester with her husband of thirty-seven years, Karen lives and writes in upstate New York. You can find out more about her journey at www.KarenDeBonis.com.

26 responses to “The Timeless Writing Struggle: Ego vs. Humility”

  1. I really appreciate your candor and vulnerability in sharing this post. It's a great reminder that as we pursue our creative endeavors, it's a marathon and not a sprint, and by focusing on improvements, we can count our successes along the way. We may not be where we want to be at certain junctures but by being open to the process, we keep growing and evolving in our work. Best to you on your memoir -- can't wait to read it!

    • Thank you, Paige. And I needed the marathon reminder. The closer I get to the finish line, the more I start sprinting, but it's too soon. Just like my first queries. Sigh. I'll just keep learning the lessons over and over until I nail them. That's why these forums are so important!

  2. Karen, your blog post really hit home for me, both as a writer and as a teacher of writing. Even after many published novels and a memoir of my own, I come up against roadblocks in my writing and sometimes just have to walk away from it for a while, so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes and a new way to drill down and make the writing better. There is no easy way around the hard work. Congratulations on sticking with it--and on your son's recovery.

    • Holly - It's validating that experienced authors like yourself run into the same roadblocks as me. And you're right- there is no easy way around the hard work. We just have to walk through it, (breaks included), and carry on. Thanks for your encouragement.

  3. Annette G. Anders says:

    I agree 100%, and went through similar experiences. I began to write my debut novel in the summer of 2019, and by the time I wrote "The End" a few months later, I was quite impressed with myself. The first slap came when my editor (I'm self-publishing) took a first fleeting look and told me to cut out 30%. "What?" I thought, "that's like amputating your own limbs!" But I did, and after many more revisions and cuts, I have to admit she was right and the readers will soon be the ultimate judges of my efforts. I think we need our ego to be able to open ourselves to critiques, and the subsequent humility is necessary to see what needs to be changed in our writing.

    • A few months to "The End?" I'm impressed, too, first draft or not! But, oh, your poor darlings. It's so hard to kill them, isn't it? I hope your readers love those that have remained. Thanks for your comment, Annette, and best of luck.

  4. Jenny Hansen says:

    Karen, as a fellow memoir writer, I know the struggle. Telling the story as it needs to be told, re-living the emotions that were overwhelming the first time AND stepping far enough away to be objective? It is an almost impossible task. But the world needs our stories, so the titanium writing panties must be worn, and the work must be done. You so have this!!!

  5. Oh, yes. Before I started REALLY learning the craft, I had a full rough draft of what will be a mainstream trilogy. After I completely re-did the structure based on that draft, and the structure became the skeleton of the skyscraper I planned, then every individual writing flaw became painfully visible.

    You can't fix what you can't name. But you can learn to let your own writing make you uncomfortable, which leads to identification, which should lead to study and learning and working it out.

    In my defense, I DID know the original was bad - it did not match the story in my head.

    Now it does, the first book, published. I'm holding myself to an even higher standards for the second - because the story is galloping to a conclusion.

    My main tool, since I have a damaged brain and zero energy, is that I can reread it over and over with pleasure, and without wanting to change a word. THEN I move on to the next scene.

    • Alicia, when I started my memoir, the most creative thing I'd written since high school English was a resume! I didn't have a clue (although I did take memoir writing classes), not even how bad it was. But, as you said (which I love), if you "learn to let your own writing make you uncomfortable," it's the springboard to growth. Congrats on your book, and I hope the second is even better.

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        That IS a really stellar piece of writing advice. I might have to lift it for a blog post at some point - I felt that tell-tale zing when I read it!

      • We'd never start if we knew how much work it is to make what's on the page agree with what's in your head! Congrats on writing the memoir, and on your learning attitude.

        This is going to sound weird: I don't want the second one to be better; I want it to be of a piece.

        A lot has happened since 2015, including a major cross-country downsizing everything move, and the one thing I begged my beta reader to tell me was whether she could see a before and after, seams, a change - she said no, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

        Other people write - and revise - whole manuscripts. I write one planned scene after another, completely finishing and polishing as I go, and rarely go back.

        This trilogy is as planned as I can make the structure, as free as I can make the writing - and I don't want to change ANYTHING until the third book is published.

        Then maybe some readers won't know it took 25 years total.
        🙂

        • Alicia, apologies for the delay in replying. (I had a family emergency.) I'm glad you shared your methodology of writing final drafts of scenes and not going back. Just goes to show that everyone has to do what works for them. Congrats to you as well. What a model of persistence you are!

          • To each her own.

            Don't let anyone tell you there is only one way to write.

            Over the years, I have kept a lot of the good stuff I've read that works for me - and slowly backed away from a hundred times more advice that didn't. I'm stubborn as a rock. I think that's good.

  6. ecellenb says:

    I remember my first time reading a chapter in a critique group. The majority of my sentences were long, too many adverbs, mixed tenses. You name it, I probably did it They were very kind. LOL. The writing was terrible but my ideas were good. I felt encouraged to edit away and keep writing. As Paige mentioned, it is a marathon not a sprint.

    Your memoir sounds fantastic! I am happy to know that your son is faring better.

    • I credit the graciousness of my first memoir instructor with the fact that I didn't quit. So much ego is riding on our first experience. I'm glad you had a kind group as well, and that you kept going. And thanks for the encouragement!

  7. Karen, thank you. This helps me re-think how I look back at previous writing. Instead of seeing it for all it's flaws, I need to look from a more positive angle and embrace my growth as a writer.

  8. dholcomb1 says:

    I'm trying to rewrite a novel because the first go-round had some issues. All my fault for trying to rush it while I was sick.

    denise

  9. wendyleslie says:

    Karen, thank you for your encouraging post and the good news on your son's wellbeing.
    I think you have touched on something I have just realized with my writing. Time, and growth as a writer. I have a series: book one began life years ago and in the meantime I have been doing courses, attending conferences, reading WITS articles and following up, and finally getting a professional edit on this first book. I was surprised by the number of comments for change. But they were so obvious. I'm still enthused by my storylines but am editing with the aim of bringing them up to 2020.

  10. judy lawless says:

    Hi Karen. This is another inspiring post, which I needed. Since COVID I have struggled to write anything but my blog posts about local travel, and struggles with keeping sane. I often think about my memoirs, but know that I have too many ideas and can't possibly put all the different stages of my life into one book. So I started to break them down. But then I think I'm too old. I don't have time to finish anyway, and who would want to read it anyway?

    I belonged to an online site many years ago where the option was to submit and critique for other writers, or just critique. I submitted the first chapter of what I'd written and got some positive feedback. But then I let it go. When I found those notes and positive comments I was encouraged again. But I seem to need constant prodding.

    You've got me thinking about it again. Thanks!

    • I'm glad I prodded you, Judy! I think you have to cut yourself a break during COVID, but then why not seek out another critique group? It's been one of the best things I've done for my writing.

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