The myth of writers’ egos

I grew up reading Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, probably three of the biggest egos in science fiction. Asimov was probably the most upfront and flamboyant about his ego, and I loved reading about his “charming Asimovian immodesties.” Clarke, of course, was nicknamed “Ego” as a youngster in school. Heinlein was, well, Heinlein. It made me realize that writers not only present examples of how to write (I wanted to write stories like Asimov, for instance), but also how to be a writer–that is, how one should act the part. And despite the enormous ego of The Big Three, I’ve been surprised by how down-to-earth and even-keeled most of the writer’s I’ve met are.

Don’t get me wrong: to be a writer requires some amount of ego. This is true of just about any artist. After all, you are creating something that you think is worth the time and interest of other people. Some of us even expect to be paid for these creations of ours.

But the people I have met in science fiction have almost without exception been totally and completely down-to-Earth. They will self-promote, they will joke around. We all do. It’s part of being a science fiction writer. But when you talk to them and get to know them, they are among the friendliest, most accepting people I’ve ever encountered. If you are a fan, they will stop what they are doing to sign a book for you. They will stick around after a panel to chat with you. They will take the time to respond personally to fan mail.

And if you are a fellow writer, well, they treat you as such from your very first story sale. They invite you to dinner. If they see you sitting by yourself in an hotel restaurant early in the morning before the convention starts up, they will invite you to join them for breakfast. They will sit in the bar with you and tell you stories. They will offer career advice. What is truly remarkable to me is that despite the ego-factor that all writers must have, I see very little competition, at least within the science fiction world. Every writer I have encountered has gone out of their way to make things easier for me. They’ve introduced me to other writers, to editors. They’ve shared ideas with me. They’ve let me read stuff they are working on and asked me for feedback. They have in every way imaginable been encouraging and inviting.

Sure, there is bickering in science fiction, and maybe there is a subset of people who really are competitive with one another, but I haven’t seen it yet. Any competition that I have witnessed is always friendly, and all writers benefit from that. So do the fans because it forces us to make ourselves better writers so that we can keep pace with our friends and colleagues.

Writers egos are necessary because that is the nature of the game. Science fiction is a tough genre to break into (for me, anyway). And once you do break in, to be noticed you have to self-promote to be noticed. But no one really minds this because just about everyone is doing it. Self-promotion is far less about ego and far more about marketing than I ever imagined.

As much as I love to read Asimov, and his charming Asimovian immodesties, one thing I promised myself was that if I ever became a science fiction writer, I would check my ego at the door. I’ve tried to keep that promise, with relative success, I think. I still see all of the great writers I am surrounded with, new and old, as giants of the field, with myself as a humble fan with a few short stories published. That view is beginning to change and I am gradually feeling more and more like a science fiction writer. Rejections sting, of course, but I never take them personally, and always try to learn from the experience: what could I improve in my story-telling to avoid being rejected the next time around? I am the wide-eyed kid walking into the locker room at Yankee stadium, hoping beyond hope that I’ll get an at-bat, but meanwhile staring in wonder at the superstars I am surrounded by.

I’d guess that’s how a lot of science fiction writers feel, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

4 thoughts on “The myth of writers’ egos

  1. Jamie, I knew Clarke, Heinlein and Asimov, not only because my late husband Poul was a colleague but because they all came to s-f conventions. Asimov had been a fan whose greatest desire was to sell to John Campbell at _Astounding_. Clarke was a rocket nut before the V-2’s, when only s-f writers believed in space travel. Heinlein was not really a fan, but when he lived in L. A. he hung out with Kuttner, Moore, Hamilton, Brackett — see Tony Boucher’s _Rocket to the Morgue_ — and when he was guest of honor at the 1961 Worldcon, his poolside room was wide open.
    We all got our ideas as much from each other as from our own experience. We built on each others’ stories. We gave each other a climate of thought very different from the rest of that era’s.
    Younger people have no idea how different it was before NASA and Star Trek. I was reading _Astounding_ before Hiroshima, and when I found a fan club seven years later, it was like coming home. I’m still more at home with s-f people than anywhere else.

  2. Karen, I’m humbled that you’ve posted here and shared your experience. Of course, I read and admired your husband’s stories (loved Tau Zero and “The Light” and looking forward to reading more of his stuff as I get through my Vacation in the Golden Age). And I’ve read about you and Poul indirectly through my obsessive annual re-readings of Asimov’s autobiographies. My experience, as I have said, has been entirely positive. I’ve been accepted into the group in ways that I could never have imagined, and discovered that many of these writers who, to me, are demi-gods, are so down-to-earth, so friendly and helpful. It is a pay-it-forward atmosphere and one that I feel infinitely grateful to be a part of. I call myself a fan first and a writer second, and I have a difficult time getting over the fact that many of my idols felt the same way when they were starting out. These really are some of the best bunch of people I’ve been lucky enough to encounter.

  3. As a (new? fledgling? pick your term…) writer and publisher, I’ve had a similar supportive experience – but you put it in much better words than I could have.

    I hope to be able to pass this along as well and as kindly as it has been passed to me.

    Thank you so much for writing this.

  4. This is a pay-it-forward field, as I have been learning. And I feel the same way, I want to be able to be as accessible to those who come after me as people have been toward me.

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