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The Artist and the Ego

When it comes to creativity there are two virtues you hear praised over and over again: vision and action.

Michelangelo is famously quoted as saying, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” That’s the blessing and curse of every artist: the ability to perceive what could be. An understanding of a specific potential that exists inside that block of marble, that waits on that empty canvas or page or screen or stage. Seeing what others don’t.

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Illustration from NOT A BOX by Antoinette Portis — a perfect example of seeing beyond what’s there

And again, no matter the art form — music, painting, writing, acting, filmmaking, etc. — vision is useless without action. As painter Chuck Close insists, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Stephen King echoes this sentiment in his memoir On Writing: “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

But I’m here to argue for the third essential quality of any creative endeavor:

Ego.

Oxford Dictionaries defines “ego” as “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.” It has come to be known as a dirty word of sorts, equated with arrogance and vanity. But for artists, I would argue that it’s something of a necessity.

Norman Mailer once said that “writer’s block is only a failure of the ego.” Of course, not all his ideas were good ones: in a 1969 campaign for mayor of New York, the writer proposed reinstating jousting in Central Park as a means for dealing with juvenile delinquency. (Medieval Hunger Games much?) But I do think this idea of the writer’s ego is sound.

George Orwell certainly agreed. He cited “sheer egoism” as the first of his “four great motives for writing” (followed by “aesthetic enthusiasm,” “historical impulse,” and “political purpose”). E.B. White noted of the essay writer in particular that he is “a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest.… Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.” He went on to add: “I think some people…feel that it is presumptuous of a writer to assume that his little excursions or his small observations will interest the reader.”

I’m focusing on writing because that is my particular creative area, but these ideas could certainly apply across the board. It’s even become something of a trope in entertainment to the point that I’m sure you’ve probably seen a sitcom or movie where some poor soul is guilted by an acquaintance into sitting through their endless, dreadfully self-important black box theatre show, has to pretend to ooh and ahh at a singer-songwriter’s clueless coffee house performance, or must try to decipher an inscrutable array of modern art pieces at an avant-garde gallery display.

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Barney puts on a one-man show in “Stuff” (How I Met Your Mother season 2, episode 16)

I never wanted to be that person. In a diary entry six years ago I called it “becoming a Mary.” The Mary in question was from Pride and Prejudice — you know, the least interesting of the Bennet sisters, ever so eager to show off at the pianoforte and oblivious to the fact that no one else wants to hear. She’s an example of Jane Austen’s uncanny ability to write characters like people you actually know. They’re everywhere, these Marys: boring souls with their mopey poetry, absolutely certain that they’re God’s gift when really they’re just like any other hack with middling talent and massive ego.

Mary Bennet, as depicted by Lucy Briers in the 1995 BBC miniseries PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

And there’s that word again — ego. It’s embarrassing to see people who think so highly of themselves, never realizing they don’t live up to their own hype. I’ve met these people; you’ve met these people. It’s awkward being around them. You don’t want to be rude, but you also don’t want to feed the delusion.

Lately those fears have been crippling me. Am I one of those people? Why should I keep at this if nobody else cares? What if anytime someone says something nice it’s because they don’t want to hurt my feelings? Who do I think I am, that anyone should bother with what I have to say?

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Artist unknown, but whoever they are they’ve obviously been there too

The remedy to all this paralyzing doubt? A healthy dose of ego.

If vision and action are two major attributes necessary to make art, ego is the glue that holds them together. It’s an important part of making that initial leap — the belief that I’m good enough to do this. Going back to the Michelangelo quote — “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free” — ego sustains the artist during the hard work (the carving) and sees them through to realizing their original vision (setting the angel free).

Artists need egos. We need to think we’re special. We need to believe in ourselves when no one else does because how else are we ever going to be crazy enough to do and make and be everything we need to? Unlike other fields, in the arts you often don’t get support — of the financial or moral variety — until after you’ve already proven yourself a success.

Now it’s a fact that not every writer in this life is going to end up like J.K. Rowling, but even J.K. Rowling wouldn’t have ended up like J.K. Rowling if she hadn’t clung to her ego and fed into the “delusion” that she, a single mother who had never written a book before, could finish a novel about a boy at wizarding school and actually get it published. (Side note: I wrote this post well before J.K. Rowling’s horrible recent statements, or I would have picked a different example. But the point still stands.)

That’s the thing, isn’t it? Up until the point you find success, everyone else will see you like the person at the open mic night reading rubbish poetry and acting like you’re the second coming of Shakespeare himself. They’ll think you’re pretty full of yourself to believe you’re actually any good at this. They’ll see you as a joke or think you’re just indulging in a “little hobby” until you manage to convince them otherwise.

“Don’t quit your day job.”

That’s become cliché by now as well. A five word mantra that perfectly encapsulates the dilemma all creative people face: you don’t want to be delusional, but if you start to see yourself the way other people do, if you no longer believe you can do this, it might be enough to make you stop.

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If you’re not an artist, I’m sure you know one. Show them a little love and encouragement. Don’t lie and tell them you like something if you don’t — that will only come back to bite you — but if you see someone who’s brave enough to put it all out there, don’t be a part of what’s tearing them down.

And if you are a creative person, I urge you: cling to your ego. Kept in proper balance, it’s not a bad thing at all. Nurture your vision, persevere in your hard work, and don’t be ashamed to take pride in what you do. Learn to value your own art, even if others don’t always back you up.

It's okay to fool yourself, and even to make a fool of yourself if you’re trying to make the world a better and more interesting place. I agree with Lady Gaga on this one: “I want people to walk around delusional about how great they can be — and then to fight so hard for it every day that the lie becomes the truth.”

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Storyteller, adventurer, optimist.

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