I have a book out this month, In Falling Snow, and I’ve been indulging both sides of the writer's ego. The book was the number one bestselling book last week... for fifteen minutes... in my hometown... in independent bookstores. But I puffed out like a puffer fish and plastered my Number One Bestseller status all over Facebook anyway. And I rang my mother. She rang almost everyone on the planet. You probably got a call.
Inevitably, I ended the week on the other side of ego, channeling failure like a shark channels fear, feeling more like a deflated puffer fish, which even a shark wouldn't like the taste of. Few people have actually heard of my lovely story about the Scottish women doctors and the hospital they took to France in World War I. Perhaps they won’t find it as fascinating as I did. Perhaps they won’t find it fascinating at all. In Falling Snow may fade quickly, as most books nowadays do. It may have already faded. Where’s the wine?
I am not a psychologist, but I do know that my writer’s ego, muscled though it is, does not get books written. It does not get anything written. Ego is the opposite of where writing happens for me. Writing comes from a place I find when I walk in nature or swim or sit with a pen in my hand. It’s a quiet, still place. I found it easiest many thousands of miles from home in Banff in Canada where many waters meet. That’s where I wrote most of In Falling Snow, in real falling snow and at minus 36 centigrade some days. Neither end of ego – the inflated or deflated puffer fish – would have helped. Both hinder in their way.
Writers often feel their lives will be better when they are finally published, when they have that breakthrough book, or make that big deal, or have a second or third or fourth novel out. But when they get to that point, whatever it is, they find it’s not really better. They grasp for the next thing needed to fill them up. Maybe there’s a point at which you fill up. But I haven’t reached it and I’m starting to wonder if I want to.
US writing teacher Gail Sher gives us Four Noble Truths About Writing, and while I can never remember the other three, the first noble truth is that writers write. Writers write. All you have to do to be a writer is push that pen across that page. Writers write. The only thing that separates writers from non-writers is that writers write. It’s not to do with being a bit player or a real bestseller, it’s not even to do with writing a great book or writing a terrible book. Writers write. It’s so soothing, that notion, if you let it in, really let it in, because being a success or a failure just fades away, the getting published, the breakthrough book on the one hand, and the poor sales, few readers and bad reviews on the other. Writers write.
Annie Dillard says something similar, but not as kindly, in The Writing Life. ‘Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air…’ You go and get your coffee and come back, Dillard says, and the view is lovely out there in the air, the birds fly under the desk. ‘Get to work!’ she says then, ‘…keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.’ Get to work!