The Fragile Human Ego

I moderate a listserv for professional freelance writers. As the group’s gatekeeper, I try to discourage people who have needs outside of what the group offers, e.g. people who want help writing fiction or memoirs. (I don’t keep out newbie freelancers because I find that groups like this are the best resource a newbie can have.)

And I got an email the other day from a person who wanted to join because, she said, all her friends tell her she should write a book.


I emailed back, explaining that the group was for nonfiction writers, asking if she was sure she wanted to join.

This was a very stupid move. I was tired (it’s been a rough week) and in a rush and should have said the group was for people looking to do non-creative writing for hire, something like that that better explained the freelance world.

But I wasn’t thinking. Freelance writing is oddly hard to explain, and even bright, educated people hear “freelance writer” and think “novelist.” My own mother still does not understand that I cannot and do not write fiction. (This week, actually, I am writing about community college and golf carts.)

And she emailed back saying yes she wanted to write nonfiction, and yes she still wanted to join.

I got my act together and emailed one more time to make sure she understood what our group offered, as I explained above.

And I got a nasty email back from her.

To her, clearly I was just trying to keep her out. And, well, she didn’t even want to join, didn’t want to be part of our little “cliche” (clique)? We’d only posted 15 messages this year, anyway. So there.

The fragile human ego.

While I admit to suspecting from the start this woman wasn’t right for the group, all I’d done was ask two harmless, if slightly repetitive, questions. Newbie freelance writers are welcome to the listserv, but they have to want to be freelancers, not novelists or short-story writers.

In many ways, there’s nothing like an insult to our writing ability to make us feel bad. One’s writing is a piece of oneself like little else.

But professional writers learn to take criticism, because we get it a lot. I’ve learned to let go of my creations, and no longer feel violated and furious at little changes (even bad ones) made in my precious, precious copy, stained with my heart’s blood.

My writing is still me, but it’s just got fewer nerve endings now, I suppose. Because when I had time to examine my foolish hypersensitivity, it went away. There was, I quickly realized as a beginning professional writer, no good reason to cling to the foolish idea that many beginners seem to hold: That their words are somehow above improvement.

I also quickly realized how much and how quickly brutally honest editorial comments improved my fledgling efforts.

I enjoy good editors and good editing. But when bad editing happens, I sigh and move on. And when good criticism happens I listen. There are few better ways to improve your writing than to have someone who knows what she is talking about spell out everything you are doing wrong.

And liking someone’s writing is always a matter of taste. If I am attracted to someone and he is less than attracted to me, I might be sad. But I also know that chemistry and connection are about many odd little buttons being pushed, and if one person doesn’t like me it doesn’t mean that I am deficient somehow, or completely unwanted by any and all. It just means one man doesn’t like me that way.

And if someone doesn’t like my writing, the same principle applies. My soul won’t wither if you don’t like what I write. I like it, and someone else will, too.

Writing is such an odd profession.

If you want to be a writer, you don’t have to take a test like lawyers do. You don’t have to study for long years like doctors do. You don’t have to get certified, like massage therapists do. You just call yourself a writer.

But being a real, successful writer means being part of an exclusive club not joined just by calling oneself a writer. And we in it are mostly not snobs. And we in it mostly love to lend a hand to newbies. And we who discourage you from sitting at a certain table with us ask only that you earn your place here, just as we did.

We are special, but so are all specialists. To be a writer I think you just have to write, and pay the bills with what you get from writing.

As far as I’m concerned, you do that and you’re in.

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