Most people who attempt a career in the arts suffer from a mixture of extreme ego and extreme insecurity. We need the extreme ego to attempt success on an international level. After all, what makes our voices different from everyone else’s? There are billions of people on the Earth. Why do we believe that we will stand out?
Ego gives us that belief. But common sense tells us that we will fail at our goal. Worse, we take every mistake to heart. Most artists are sensitive souls, easily wounded by criticism. We believe in ourselves, but not all the time. That insecurity keeps us grounded. It also gives us an Achilles heel.
When the ego and the insecurity are out of balance, the artist tips in the wrong direction. Too much ego and the artist becomes insufferable. This weekend, a mild mannered bookstore owner told me the story of the one and only time he kicked an author out of his store. The author was doing a book signing. A line of customers waited there to get their books autographed. The author was so abusive to his fans, he reduced even the most jaded of them to tears. The bookstore owner stepped in, stopped the signing, and when the author got more belligerent, asked the author to leave. The author refused, the owner threatened to call the police, and the author left in a storm of invective.
That author’s ego was so out of control that he alienated everyone around him. In fact, when the bookstore owner told me who the author was, I was not surprised. I had heard through other sources what a mean egotistical jerk this man was.
At the time of the signing debacle, the author had several books on the New York Times bestseller list. Now, no major press will touch him. Why? His ego. His writing is just as good as it always was, maybe better. But no one in a major publishing house—from the publisher to the editor to the sales force—wants to deal with the man. He has alienated everyone in the business.
An out-of-control ego is one side of the imbalance. The other side is rampant insecurity. I can tell you of writer after writer—many of them former students of mine—who write tremendous fiction and can’t sell a word. Why? Because they refuse to mail the work, believing it not good enough. A single rejection will get them to shelve not just the work that got rejected, but any other work that might be in the same genre or have the same tone.