Beat the Bastard Back: On Ego

Book releases, I’ve found, are a little like birthdays. For a few days people are going to notice something you’ve accomplished (in the case of the book release, a book; in the case of a birthday, not dying for a calendar year) and then it’ll be over until the next time. This said, writers tend to fall into the same two categories that annual survivors do, those who enjoy the attention, and those who would rather swan dive into a woodchipper than face it.

Luckily, I’m used to it. I have, and always have had a massive ego, one that’s challenged me, hurt me, and made me look like an ass time and again. Like most professionals, I haven’t actually read Freud and have only read a little bit of Yung, but I’ve puked enough fictional characters onto the page to know that if one is really inclined, dissociation with the ego is possible. You can actually begin to regard it as its own, a separate entity from the mind or the body that you experience every day as the living, breathing “self.” Here’s where it gets tricky, for most, myself included, the distinction is hard to make not only because the thing looks and sounds just like you, but because it is, in most cases, the most interesting thing about you.

I’ll explain. Picture yourself as a drop-dead, stunning, absolutely beautiful young girl. Excited, are you? Picture yourself there, early-twenties, collegiate, built like a foreign automobile and smart, interesting even. Picture yourself walking on campus. If you’re anything like anybody else you are capital-O obsessed with the following thought: Who is looking at me right now? You’re walking along and thinking this and all the while you’re missing out on a whole lot of things. You’re worried that there might be something in your teeth, or that you may have accidentally sat on something before you left that now sits smeared on your shorts, you’re worried about how to walk, how to smile, where you should be looking and where everyone else is looking. Now ask yourself, what is the most interesting thing about you right then and there? It isn’t your family, now is it? It isn’t your sense of empathy. It’s the thing that gets you the most attention, your Birthday Trait, the ego, and whatever represents it externally. And you’re fully aware of that, aren’t you? You know exactly what you represent in the world and who is actively seeking that representation.

Now, abandon this example and return to your clumsy current self. There is, I bet, something that you battle and don’t even know you battle. Maybe you’re good at sports, maybe you’re a genius, maybe you’re the very best there is at making a motor go. There is something that, when you meet someone new, you are dying to tell them the first thing after hello. If you pay attention to the people you meet, and I mean really pay attention to what they’re saying instead of dialing up your response, I bet you will have very little trouble pinpointing the thing.

Here’s a quick example. Imagine now you’re on a first date. Imagine you both walk in and he or she or they are indeed attractive, not an apparent serial killer, and dressed well enough for your standard. Imagine you both sit down, order drinks, and begin talking. It will more than likely go something like this. You’ll lead with something about the place you’re at, I promise you you will because it's safe to do so; it’s ground that you both have footing on. You’ll tell them about how good item-X is on the menu if you were the one who chose the place because it’s a first date and the safe move on a first date is to go to a place you’ve already been before. This is “solid ground,” somewhere you’ve already checked out, you know there will be no surprises. If you’ve ever taken a cat to a new place you know exactly how this goes. Anyway, after your throw-away about the place, your date will more than likely try and ask you a question from the brand of questions that I call “castnet” questions. These are questions that will, without a doubt, be easily identifiable and respondable. They’re going to ask you about a tattoo, or about what you do for a living, or about what your favorite drink (in general) is. You’ll respond and the person will, if their cast was broad enough, reply (in these exact words) “oh, now way!” and proceed to relate themselves somehow to your response. By the way, this is good practice. Despite what all the interesting, “I’m not good at small talk” people say, it’s best to ease into things. And then, following a few more rhetorical niceties, they’ll drop it on you. The easiest way to find it is to listen for “Actually I…” and then do your best to pick up on what follows that. On my own first date with my girlfriend I legitimately told her that I was reading Infinite Jest within the first fifteen minutes, which she, had she been equipped with this article, would have known exactly who she was dealing with — a real life, living, breathing jackass who was at a point in his life where he was obviously trying to seem way smarter than he was. Luckily, she stuck around. Anyway, the person will then tell you how they work with animals, or with infectious diseases, or how their uncle knows some senator that’s going to get them a job in D.C. The first date is always a step onto the front porch of whoever that person is. That “thing” I’ve been droning on about is what’s written on the mat at the front door.

As you’ve probably assumed at this point, what’s written on my doormat is “I’m a writer” which in plainspeak translates directly to “I have ideas and I write them down and beg people to read them.” I’ve had different doormats over the years, and so have you, and they’ve all seemed far more important than they really were at the time. The key, I think, is having enough awareness to realize that you have to budget out the energy needed each day to keep the thing in check because at the end of the day, it is the thing that legitimately shows as the most interesting thing about you and that, almost always, carries at least some value. Some folks are afraid to talk about their thing, some folks talk about it way too much; there isn’t a person I’ve met that has the balancing act completely down.

Two books and twenty-six birthdays have taught me enough about ego to equip me enough to have a chance in the battle, but like any worthy opponent, the enemy is ever-adaptive and cunning. The worst belief a person can have, I’ve learned, is that they have it all under control, that they know who they are and what they will do in a given situation. The idea is neither to make it itself your thing nor to kill it forever as some psychedelic saints may suggest, but to do your best to learn to walk it, like a dog, one that pulls violently this way and that but ultimately is attached at the neck to a leash and isn’t going anywhere unless you let it. It will be easy for me next month to get caught up in all of it when my seventy-thousand-word slice of mind hits the shelves. There’s going to be praise and there’s going to be criticism. There’s going to be a ton of dense internal garbage to deal with, and if my past performances are any indicator I probably won’t handle it very well. I’ll probably worry about what people think, what jokes they’re making, what they’ve said when I’m not around. What I hope though, is that I won’t worry about worrying about it, and hopefully, after reading this, you won’t either.

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