Two truths that anyone who has spent time trying to write will affirm: writing is narcissistic, and writers have big egos. If you don’t agree then you haven’t tried to write seriously. By this I don’t mean writing on serious subjects such as truth, suffering and hope, but seriously trying to master the art of writing, which I am doing now. Even if you fail, which I am also doing now, you will instantly acknowledge these truths.
In addition to this, a lot of writing is about the act of writing itself. This kind of writing is termed ‘self-reflexive’ in literary critical discourse. In other words, it is writing looking at itself. Just like Narcissus.
What a business to be in!
Anyway, let’s have a look at how writing is narcissistic, not in the self-reflexive sense, but in the sense of the art of writing itself.
Poets are the biggest narcissists, especially modern poets, as their art depends on re-reading and re-writing more than any other literary art. Poets are, in a sense, mad. They obsess over their words, going back over them again and again and again. Improving them, refining them, subtilizing them, rarefying them. Perfecting them. But, as any poet will tell you, there is no perfection. No end to it. It is interminable. Eventually the poet must stop but where he stops is never home.
The poet, when creating, reads his words as much as he writes them. Indeed, he is the ideal reader of his work. The first and best. Only he will understand, appreciate, enjoy and live the poem like it should be understood, appreciated, enjoyed and lived. If successful, the pleasure the poet gets from reading his own work is immeasurable. That is why, if you want to write poetry, you must read as much poetry as you can. You must become the ideal reader of your work. Yes, off all the literary arts, poetry is the most narcissistic. The poet is obsessed with the form of his work. Indeed, we could go so far as to say that he is Satanic in the pride and pleasure he takes in contemplating and relishing the beauty of his own words, if his words were not so angelic.
The second truth I asserted is that writers have big egos. This is especially true of the novelist. And just like the poet needs to be narcissistic in order to write poetry effectively, the novelist needs to be egotistical in order to write novels effectively. How so? Well, in a nutshell, most novels are about worlds.
The task of the novelist is to create a world for the reader to inhabit and explore. The medium of prose is ideal for world making, for texture, for detail, for evocation. It is not as rarefied as verse. Not as pure and distilled. And because of this it has greater scope and energy with which to make a world.
In order to write down a world, it is necessary for the novelist to have that world in his head and live in it for the duration of the task of writing it down. According to Psycho-analysis, the ego mediates between the id, or biological drives, and the super-ego, or the norms and rules of society. In other words, the ego is our individual minds. Novelists spend a lot of time on their own – it is necessary for what they do. As a result, their egos become larger, with no social expectations or pressure to curtail them. But the act of making worlds itself also demands a big ego. The novelist gets to play God, instead of being subject to God and God, as the sociologist Emile Durkheim discovered, is society. The novelist, if he is powerful enough, even gets to change society. He gets to change the way people view the world.
That concludes our brief look at how writing is both narcissistic and egotistical. Of course, it is also, at times, painful and dispiriting. It can break your heart. This love affair with words. So, if you are new to this game, be prepared.