Narcissism and Depth (03.14.11)

“When I decided to become a writer I thought it was easy. Now it’s hard.”

Those words were from one of my MFA students, in his letter covering the twenty pages of new material he was sending me that month. I’ve always asked my correspondence students for a monthly State of the Writer Address. He wasn’t the first student to mention that the more you learn about writing, the more difficult it becomes.

I was glad to see my student come to that realization. It meant that those gleeful twins, self-consciousness and self-doubt, had parked themselves on either side of his writing table, and with luck and hard work he would come to see them as friends.

Most human beings start out unselfconscious, unaware of the boundaries between themselves and the world. They see themselves not just as the center of the universe but as the universe itself. If they close their eyes, other people disappear. If they are hungry, the world is hungry. If they are angry, the world is just the stage for their tantrum. Take them out of the world, and the world ceases to exist.

Developmental psychologists call this stage Primary Narcissism, and not everyone successfully develops out of it. No wonder. It’s a comfortable place. All things are easy there, including writing. It’s a state that doesn’t require much of you except an ability to convince other people to see things just your way and while they’re at it, to administer your scheduled feedings and to change your diaper now and then.

But for most of us, something—call it the unconscious, the soul, a street-gang of unlived lives, or parents cutting off the cable and broadband to the basement apartment—forces us out of our Eden and into contact with others, and thus toward the knowledge that we’re not really the sum total of creation. It might be our own darkness that holds the flaming sword:  Alcoholics Anonymous or court-mandated anger management. It might be something not quite so dark: a sudden desire to join a bird-watching club or Hell’s Angels chapter. For a lot of us, it’s the totally benign and rational decision to sign up for a writing workshop.

Going in, joining the group might seem a good idea. You’re not anticipating facing the sharp-horned dilemma of lose the narcissism or die.

Writing workshops start out full of narcissists, and that’s only as it should be. The act of writing is an act of self-centered vanity. You’re saying, in effect, that the marks you put on screen or paper are worth the precious time and deep attention of other people who aren’t just feeling sorry for you. Of course, you’re in a workshop with five or ten or fifteen other people who are saying the same thing, so there’s bound to be conflict. You’re probably going to end up feeling sorry for some of those people.

I’ve always found it humbling and a little frightening when lots of folks start competing for the same spot at the center of the universe, especially if—as workshop leader—I’m already ensconced in it.

But here’s what usually happens at the end of a successful workshop: I’ve shown ten or fifteen writers that I’m not really the center of the universe. I’ve convinced them that I have no ability to destroy them or their talent, and that what I say about their story is less important than what their story says to everybody else.

I’ve also introduced the concept of authorial self-indulgence—where the writer dresses up in a clown suit and jumps between readers and a good story—and each writer is applying that concept to everything that comes before the workshop. I’ve convinced people of the importance of second and subsequent drafts. The most important thing I’ve taught is that the story and the person who wrote it are two different things, and that a good story is the fearsome black hole at the center of a distant galaxy, as massive as a million suns, able to split planets apart with its gravity and order time and space for fifty-thousand light years, and that its author, while in the same galaxy, is a little gray moon, pockmarked and dusty, orbiting a minor star’s minor planet at the end of a minor spiral arm.

Some writers don’t care for astronomical metaphors. But it’s hard to get across the huge conceptual gulf between author and story without a metaphor of some kind. So the story is Godzilla, the author is Bambi. The author is a tear, the story is Cry Me a River. The story is Christ, the author is Grand Inquisitor.

Few of these author-story metaphors are kind to the author. What may have started out as a writer’s selfish impulse has achieved an overwhelming life of its own. The better the story, the more it stands apart from and shadows its author.

It’s tempting, of course, to claim credit for a story once fifteen other people have told you how wonderful it is. But it’s always good to tell yourself that at least two of those people are only saying that because they feel sorry for you, and to remember that first astonishing moment when the story itself made you feel insignificant.

So here’s what I said to my student, in response to his statement that writing used to be easy:

If you’re going to improve as a writer, you have to put yourself on the line every time you sit down at your writing table. That means writing is going to be hard, and the closer you get to the truth, the harder it’s going to be because the truth is so big and you’re so small.

Then I put myself on the line, and wrote something that I didn’t know was true and that would have been destructive if it was false:

There is something inside of you that is damaging your life. There is in most people who get involved in this business. One of the great challenges of life is to turn weaknesses into strengths, evils into good things, and we’re never finished with it until we’re dead. Writing is the best way I know to grasp those dark things we don’t know about ourselves and begin to work with them, and to finally see what the mirror is trying so hard to tell us.

I must not have discouraged or frightened him too much. He’s still writing. Good stuff. Big stories. Written from the bottom of his soul.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Fiona Cullen-Skowronski March 15, 2011 at 6:22 am

This is so true, in life as in writing.
So many people are lonely or frustrated or deeply unhappy because they haven’t left the primary narcissm stage you describe. Do you think it accounts for a lot of control freakery as well, or is that connected with wanting to be a little creator?

Felicity Shoulders March 18, 2011 at 11:32 am

Well, now I may not write my blog posts about how the two things you need to write are enough ego to actually do it and enough humility to do it well. I may just link to your one blog post instead.

This part particularly resonated with me: “It’s tempting, of course, to claim credit for a story once fifteen other people have told you how wonderful it is. But it’s always good to tell yourself that at least two of those people are only saying that because they feel sorry for you, and to remember that first astonishing moment when the story itself made you feel insignificant.”

As you know, there’s a story of mine getting a fair amount of attention right now, and the praise often gives me a sort of vertiginous feeling, like I’m trying to look out of two eyes in two different heads and still make sense of the world. The story is separate from me, and I experience it as separate, like some highly abstract being I know and care for.

Then I feel like I’m being praised for my daughter’s PhD thesis or something: sure, I homeschooled this hypothetical daughter for grueling years (given how long and arduous that revision process was) but she’s the one out there busting her butt now and I’m amazed at what she’s doing. When that displacement asserts itself and I sense the story out there as its own being, I feel vaguely guilty taking the credit.

Nana Poyser July 22, 2011 at 5:15 am

Valuable.

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