Geetanjali Mukherjee

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Overcoming The Ego: Creating a Body of Work

As a writer we would like to believe that each book we work on is a "heartbreaking work of staggering genius", but even if that is the case, it isn't always easy to convince others of that fact. There are so many choices for readers, plus competing sources such as TV, movies and games for their leisure time, which makes it hard to ensure that your wonderful book will get the attention it deserves.

Perhaps as an artist, one should ignore the facts of readership and focus simply on writing. Perhaps one believes that luck is all that is required to get the sales going. Perhaps like me, you obsess over your sales stats, letting your mood get affected by whether the sales are up or down.

I have been reading about this idea instead of just doing your work, putting it out there, and going on to the next idea in the queue. It's a pragmatic, workerly approach to work. When I think of this concept, the idea of a carpenter comes to mind - one who starts work daily on a piece, finishes it, and starts the next one. Whether the first few pieces sold well doesn't deter him from creating the next one, and being sold out, probably would just spur him on to work harder.

This is a very different idea from the myth of the tortured artist, working when the mood strikes, keeping the world at bay. I have to admit I bought into this myth for a long time, and I still find it hard to fully brush it off. Sometimes I find myself sitting down to work by the clock, and some days, when my mind is foggy, and the work isn't coming together, I want to buy into the notion that the muse isn't visiting today, and maybe I'm just not in the mood.

I have noticed this coincides with times when my ego is more intensely involved in my work than usual. Perhaps I'm getting closer to the completion point - when soon I will be potentially judged on the work, and I am not sure about the reaction. Sometimes it happens when my books are selling well, and I want to bask in the myth of being a genius who works when the mood strikes, and not a worker who watches the clock and puts in the hours. Often it happens when I have started to overthink the work, what it might achieve, how it might be perceived. Days when I put all that behind me, and just focus on editing this chapter, this page, this paragraph, and shut out the rest of the world, the muse is whispering in my ear and the work flies along. Those are the days I have managed to quiet the ego.

Anne Lamott called this looking at a "one-inch picture frame". You just focus on the tiniest bit of the patchwork, forgetting the pattern of the quilt. When I'm thinking about my work as a whole, I find the anxieties and worries about the work overtake my creativity and I become stuck. When I focus on just that one-inch, I can shut all that out. I can shut the ego out.

I am struggling right now to complete a bunch of projects that I have started at various times and not finished. It's hard, because my ego wants every project to be perfect, wants me to think about every project as if its the only one I will ever write. How will it be perceived? What will people say about it? Will it be talked about on social media?

When I manage to quiet down the ego I realise, what I am after is a body of work, not one perfect limb. I want to wait for reactions after I have completed what is in front of me, in fact, worrying about reactions will prevent me from completing it. The work should be the key, not how it is perceived. Not right now, while I still have a lot to learn, and each project is helping me grow hugely as a writer. I can't afford to stop that learning while I posture and preen for the audience, if there is even one at the moment.

This daily struggle between the ego and the heart reminds me that the difficulty of being a writer is not in learning to string words together, it is doing it despite your environment, consistently.
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