The Human Condition:

Separating Ego from Work – September 25, 2011

I’ve recently had a couple of online encounters where artists were personal and passionate about their work. One was an established author disgruntled because readers would come up to him and say they didn’t like this or that about one of his books. The other was a young interior designer upset because clients and contractors were letting considerations of time and money interfere with her artistic vision. In both cases, my reaction was that way too much ego is going into the work here.

Artists are, of course, notoriously self-involved. We are passionate about what we do. We invest time and energy—often more than will be rewarded to any reasonable extent—into making a single chapter or character, a color combination or a design element, work just right. We are constantly dealing, on both the grossest and subtlest levels, with issues of value, judgment, and perception that are always open to question and reconsideration. In the end, our only recourse is to claim, “This is my book, my vision, damn it, and I get to do things my way!

If it was our own garden, planted and watered with our own hands, enclosed within a high wall, and maintained for our own personal enjoyment, plus perhaps that of a few invited guests, then this might be so. But it’s not.

The interior designer is putting together a room she will not live in, because it remains the client’s room in the client’s house. Ten minutes after the painters and upholsterers walk out, the client’s children may spill chocolate pudding all over the color combination and so make it peculiarly their own. And if the client values having $300 in her pocket over the glories of a linen-covered soffit, well, that’s the choice of the woman who has to live there.

An author is in an even more precarious position in declaring the book to be “mine.” Any story made up of words is a collaboration between the author who imagined the scenes and characters and structured those words, and the reader who brings an understanding of the words and his or her own imagination to the reading, so that they come alive in his mind. Readers put more effort into the experience of a book than they ever do into watching a movie.

When readers travel the path laid out in a book, they do not think, “Ah, the author has made the character say that.” They ask, “Why does the character act that way?” Readers of David Copperfield don’t ponder the motives and emotions and literary antecedents of Charles Dickens.1 The readers “suspend their disbelief”2 and participate in the story as a “found object.”3 They like Micawber, despite evidence the man is a fool. They hate Steerforth, despite that young man’s trappings of nobility. Any work of fiction is an emotional investment for readers, and they’re bound to experience things they might wish had happened differently. For a reader later to go up to the author and express these disappointments is really a sign of how deeply invested he or she became in the work.4

Artists may feel passionate about their work for many reasons. First, they selected and dedicate themselves to that art form. I became a writer because I loved words and language and was fascinated by the process of painting pictures and making characters and actions come alive out of nothing more than a flow of words. I may appreciate music or painting as an outsider looking in, but I’m passionate about how words can be used to create alternative realities.

Second, we’ve taken pains to learn the norms and values of our craft. No one can really teach you how to write. No one can give you the vision and taste to imagine how a room might be remade. Teachers can only show you different methods and let you select for yourself what works. They can also critique your methods as a person viewing them from the outside and suggest what may or may not be working in any particular case. But in the end, the artist puts together a unique toolbox of techniques and the experience of using them.

Third, as suggested above, we’ve struggled with this individual creation, this book, this visual treatment of a difficult room. We’re applying what we’ve learned about those values and norms to a particular set of ideas. To some extent, any artist is applying certain known formulas and tricks, like a carpenter tacking up bits of scrollwork or a child doing paint by numbers. The world of choices in any situation is sometimes limited. But to a larger extent—especially if the story or the design is to “come alive”—the artist is watching this particular work evolve. The structure, the choices, often come from the dark gray place behind our eyes, perhaps even behind the back of our heads, which is the subconscious. We don’t always judiciously choose what happens next; it simply occurs to us, it comes to us in a flash, and it feels innately right.

An author is both the calculating architect of a story, placing this piece of action to extend the story line and crafting that speech to cover needed facts, and also the unknowing conduit through which the story coalesces out of the atmosphere of our internal awareness, realizing suddenly that this character must intrude at this point and change the story’s direction. Similarly, a designer may space the sconces along a wall according to a mathematical formula, but know only through some inexplicable insight that the sconces must be a certain shade of blue glass and cylindrically, not teardrop, shaped.

With this level of involvement in the work, it’s difficult to remove our egos and admit that the reader’s experience counts, that the customer will actually live in the room. But if the artist can’t do that, he or she is likely to create a work so intensely private, personal, and … strange … that no one else can penetrate it. And without that penetration, without the participation of the reader or viewer or listener, art has not been achieved.

Think of the poor tattoo artist. Yes, he was born to draw tigers—fierce tigers, with blazing stripes and devouring fangs and eyes that smolder green amidst the orange fur. But this customer wants a rose, a delicate rose, an ephemeral red rose, with a drop of dew. This customer will wear that rose—stare at it, dream of it, treasure it—for the rest of her life. The tattoo artist must not give her one that looks, even a little bit, like a tiger.

Any piece of art—a well-written book, a well-designed living space, a well-painted portrait—is really a gift to the person—the reader, the viewer, the customer—who will live with it. An artist does not want to compromise on craftsmanship, on the elements without which, or when done wrongly, he or she knows the book would be unreadable or the room awkward and unlivable. But the artist must ultimately stand aside from the object and let it simply work for those who receive it.

1. Or, at least, readers for pleasure don’t ponder these abstractions. Literary critics and English majors may so ponder, but they—like other authors reading Dickens—are looking for insights into the experience and craft of writing. Pleasure readers just want to experience the story.

2. To paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

3. To paraphrase the New Criticism—which by now has been so overwhelmed by deconstructionist theory that it feels like medieval scholasticism.

4. Of course, if the reader experiences a piece of faulty craftsmanship—a character whose actions do not ring true, a plot turn that damages the reader’s innate sense of plausibility—then the author needs to listen to the criticism.