It’s a lifelong dream of mine to be able to write for my career someday, so I’ve been reading up on writing. I started with Jeff Goins’s Real Artists Don’t Starve. Then I moved on to Ryan Holiday’s Perennial Seller. Next on the list is Michael Hyatt’s Platform. As much as I’ve been enjoying it all (and learning a lot!), one very unsettling thing has surfaced for me: my greatest fear.
My greatest fear as a writer is what George Orwell listed as one of his reasons for writing: sheer egoism (from his essay entitled “Why I Write”). Amidst all of the self-promotion, self-affirmation, and self-study that comes with being an independent writer these days, what if it all becomes about self? I write because it’s my passion and calling, but my ego is always looking over my shoulder with a coy smile, always whispering, “You know, this is really all about you.”
To be clear, none of the books I’ve read about writing advocate for egoism in any sense. And I should say I’ve been profoundly helped and encouraged by what I’ve read. But the threat of egoism remains. I’m always questioning my motives. “Did I write this for my readers, or did I write it so that my readers would praise me? Is it more important that this essay or article or book gets out there and helps someone, or that I build my self-image as a result?” My head offers answers that are at odds with my heart.
Pride and egoism, you see, cannot be written off so easily for writers. I’ve read that self-promotion as a writer is really only selfish and egotistical if the product you’re trying to promote is not something that you truly believe in. In other words, if you honestly believe that your writing is going to help people, then it would be selfish not to promote it and not to market your work. While I think there is truth here, I’m also tormented by the deceit that’s intertwined with our pride. It’s quite easy for us to deceive ourselves into thinking that what we have written is so important that people all over the globe simply must read it. (Are we really that brilliant?)
John Owen once wrote that deceit is where sin begins. “Sin proceeds only when deception goes before it” (Owen, 1983, p. 36). And what is egoism if not sin?
My greatest fear as a writer is that egoism will creep into my heart under the guise of service to readers. Sure, I can say that I’m trying to serve readers, but is that really my motive? Is that why I’m writing?
Why Do You Write . . . Really?
The issue comes back, again and again, to motive. Why do you write? Why are you writing? Why will you write? Authors can have very different answers to these questions. Below, for the sake of comparison, is a table contrasting the answers to that question for an atheist (George Orwell) and for a contemporary Christian (John Piper). I’ve taken these from Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write,” and from John Piper’s essay, “Is There Christian Eloquence?” There is certainly overlap between these two authors, but note how stark the contrast is!
|GEORGE ORWELL||JOHN PIPER|
|Sheer egoism – the desire to seem clever, to be remembered, etc.||Keeping interest – a desire to help weak sinners maintain focus and enthusiasm|
|Aesthetic enthusiasm – the love of beauty instilled in the craft||Gaining sympathy – a desire to erase barriers that inhibit a reader from accessing the truth|
|Historical impulse – a drive to outline “the things that are” for the use of posterity||Awakening sensitivity – a longing to awaken minds to serious and beautiful subject matter|
|Political purpose – the desire to push the world in a certain direction||Speaking memorably – imbibing words with mnemonic power so they will be remembered|
|Mystery – something that compels one to write despite the difficulties||Increasing power – combining eloquence with truth as a witness to the glory of Christ|
Clearly, we can have many different reasons for writing, but beneath all of them, for me, is one of three things:
- genuine concern for readers;
- genuine concern for self (egoism);
- some mixture of the two.
When I inspect my heart, I find that the third option is usually the most accurate (if not the second).
Now, that’s not to say that we should never write unless we have pure motives. If that were the case, I don’t think people could write anything! Our motives are seldom, if ever, pure. God uses writers, I believe, in the same way that he uses preachers: the person carrying the message is flawed, stubborn, and perverted. But God uses us where we are, developing our hearts and minds in the process.
As writers, we must constantly ask ourselves why we are writing, even when we know that the answer might be the same as Orwell’s at times: sheer egoism. But that doesn’t mean we just accept it as an inevitable part of being a writer (as I’ve seen many authors do). I believe it means we express egoism so that we can kill it. The next question, then, is how do you kill your ego? I’ll be writing about that in another article.
Let me return to the beginning. Can I avoid my greatest fear as a writer? I don’t think so. I think egoism is always lurking in the shadows of our conscience. I hate it, and I can wish it away, but it keeps coming back. That’s why, as much as I’m excited to dream about writing full-time someday, I’m also terrified.
A life lived for self is a pitiful thing. Egoism, for me, is one of the most embarrassing human behaviors—not simply because it’s ugly, but because it’s ugly and false. None of us gets where we want to go by our own efforts, no matter what the rest of the world says. And if I look back on my life and see that I’ve suggested we can pull ourselves up by our proverbial bootstraps, I will be so . . . embarrassed.
That, my friends, is my greatest fear as a writer.
Owen, John. Sin & Temptation. Classics of Faith and Devotion. Edited by James M. Houston. Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1983.
Orwell, George. Essays. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1996.
Piper, John. “Is There Christian Eloquence?” In The Power of Words and the Wonder of God, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor, 67–80. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009.