Writing Blog, Writing vs. The Ego

Writing vs. The Ego

‘The Ego,’ says Teresa Brennan, ‘always needs a plan.’

This makes all too much sense. Back into The Writing Schedule after a few weeks out and, with the major project finished, the whole arena of feeling and world lies open to write about. Which of my ideas would I select now I had the freedom? Could I set myself any Goldberg-esque prompt and let First Thoughts flow? Cue a stickiness like flypaper, and a chesty frustration. I could sense the Ego at work. Where was my Plan? What was the Project?! Didn’t I have a social world to fit into. Didn’t I need to prove myself?

It is the Ego at work when our discernment is rushed to a decision, and we make mistakes before we are ready. Other times we never get to a decision; our discernment is delayed, as, according to Brennan, the Ego, as well as needing a plan, is also always anxious about doing the wrong thing (having the wrong plan). And while the (good) ego may be useful for pastimes such as survival, for things as critical—writing—the (bad) ego can be no good at all.

A friend texts this morning:

‘I have just finished reading the first three chapters of your book. It is very good, really much improved. It flows very well and seems far clearer with the new narrator, I agree. The old version had a wonderful quality of, I don’t know, of mystery maybe. It made me feel slightly cast adrift perhaps, a little confused, but in a way I found enjoyable. It’s difficult to explain what I mean, but it resonated with something inside me somehow. I miss that, but beyond that somewhat emotional point, I like this version and this beginning very much.’

‘Besides that somewhat emotional point?’ But that is the point! The mystery is why I write, although granted, I might not write about the mystery as well as Tom Robbins. Although I agree with my friend. The new, finished version, has sacrificed mystery for craft.

A colleague settles me down. Big projects end, he says, and they leave a void. And I get to talk about my novel, and my colleague gets to remind me, as only outsiders from your wants and wishes can, of what professionalism means. Where the hard work begins, and continues, and never really ends, if you want to be that thing (a writer).

I’m still renewing my memories of the Jim Crace quote from his recent talk for NCLA in Newcastle. Crace is on stage, after giving a beautiful talk on writing a bad novel, and how that led to writing a good one. (He may well have been giving us a metaphor on the senses, on affect, on the Ego.) I tell my colleague about his metaphor of flying the kite. That writing is like that. You tug the strings this way and that, you manoeuvre the kite and yourself, you constantly battle against the forces that pull you up and push you down. That, for me, is craft. But what you’ve forgotten is that what is really flying the kite is the wind. And that, as I listened to Crace talk, is creativity, originality, play. It is much easier to let the Ego step back in and make you believe you are flying the kite than to trust the wind.

Most of the past four years has been about the strings. I’ve almost forgotten to feel the wind. My kite flying is all string, and little wind. I think I’ve stretched this far enough.

My colleague again: but that’s fine, you’ve learnt the craft, now put it aside. Now you can think about the things you want to think about.

Simples? But what are they? ‘Resist the desire to end the discomfort of confusion,’ says Guy Claxton. What he is talking about (and talking about well: 2006 Claxton, Intuitive Expertise (PDF), 2004 Claxton, Nirvana and Neuroscience (PDF)) is discernment. ‘When one judges, one is possessed by the affects,’ says Brennan, ‘but when one discerns, one is able to detach from them, to know where one stands, to be self-possessed.’ This doesn’t mean cool detachment. When one is discerning, one can still enjoy one’s feelings (enjoy them more! without the buffeting and blunting of the affects) without dumping negative affects willy-nilly on others (I think Brennan’s style, loose and flowing and full of panache, in its floriographical sense, is affecting me; her strange death is a significant loss). When one is discerning, one can resist the desire to end the discomfort of confusion, and also feel the discomfort. And, as is implied in Claxton’s thought, use it.

How do you access discernment? How do you use it to settle down the Ego, to step into that Other I, and write? It is through the senses. Brennan again:

However, the point is that discernment—by this argument—works by sensing (touching, hearing, smelling, listening, seeing) and the expression of the senses, particularly in words. It works by feeling (sometimes in the dark), and it works deductively, often with insufficient information; it makes mistakes when it is rushed to conclude before its time (it is rushed by the ego, which always needs a plan) or when it is delayed by the ego (which is always anxious about doing the wrong thing). Discernment, when it doubt’s the ego’s judgement, registers as a feeling. Sometimes such feelings can be articulated with relative exactitude; they can be named, and reasons for their existence can be adduced. But this, precisely, requires a vocabulary; that is why we defined feelings as sensations that have found a match in words. Teresa Brennan, page 120

“The ego always needs a plan” is something I need to get tattooed on my bum. Or at least put up somewhere in my working space. Relax with your plans. Be creative. Playful. Just for a little bit. Not everything needs a plan, only your Ego.

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