Why Being a Writer is an Exercise in Cognitive Dissonance

Being a writer is a weird thing. I guess any time you live publicly, it’s like living in an abusive relationship. You’ve got a bunch of people publicly and simultaneously declaring that you are the most talented and humane person in the world… and also the biggest jerk hack that ever lived.

This is one of the reasons why I encourage people to have a very firm internal compass. It helps to have good friends and colleagues to reach out to when you’re feeling low, sure, but if you don’t have a firm grasp on who you are and what you want to express, it can be really easy to lose yourself. This is one reason why I’m glad I’m seeing the success I am seeing now at 36 instead of 26, because I have a much better handle on who I am. I can stand taller and firmer in the onslaught.

There have been many times when my editors or agent made a suggestion that I decided not to go with and was happy about. Other times, I wished I would have taken their advice instead. But at every turn, I trusted myself to make the right decision… even when it was wrong. More often than not, having a firm internal compass ensured that I made the book I wanted to make. Better, it continues to ensure that I’m making the books I want to make even after the reviews come up and people even higher up on the food chain start asking for changes. I know when to bend, and when to pass.

Living publicly can be very strange, as you have people reacting to your work like they know you, and can Intuit All. For the most part, I just roll my eyes at this, but I can see how reading some of the things people say about you and your work in public can get to you if you don’t stay the course. When a bunch of people say you are a hack, it can be super easy to stop and wonder, “Gee, am I a hack?” and veer off course. I’ve been reading about some very interesting studies where people who check a box on a questionnaire that says, “I am altruistic” are more likely to do something altruistic in the days and weeks that follow. This is because our minds don’t like to live in a state of cognitive dissonance. Unless you are a sociopath, your brain really wants to align your actions so that they gel with who and what you say you are.

This is one reason why imbibing toxic images and statements is so very bad for us. The more we internalize negative statements about ourselves, the more likely we are to become those things. “I am a shit writer,” or “I am a bad human being,” are not good things to make a part of your internal litany. Instead, for instance, when I get rejections my internal monologue is, “FUCK YOU I AM A GENIUS YOU WILL RUE THE DAY YOU SLIGHTED ME.” And yanno, that’s worked pretty great for me so far.

If you’re a newer writer coming up through the field, or a pro struggling to keep up the slog, I urge you to formulate your career and ego compass as early as possible, and to stay your course. I’ve had a couple of opportunities recently that I had to weigh carefully against what I wanted my career to be, and whether or not it kept me on target. If I am here to do good, to change the world, to make it easier for those to come after me, to advance my original work to get the message to a broader audience, then knowing all those things makes it easier to decide which projects to pursue and which not to. It also keeps me grounded when angry people yell that I’m a hack, because I often see myself in them. I am The Machine, and they are the Rage, now. I have been the Rage. I have needed a Machine to rail against, to push at, to use as my guidepost and inspire my own work. I’m OK with folks who hate on me because it inspires them to do better. I’ve been there. Some of those writers I railed against are my favorite-ist colleagues now. Other haters, you know, the trolls: they don’t bug me at all. Again, not sure why, I just… I guess I know too many real life trolls. I know that it’s not me they hate, but their own place in the world. Some use hate to drive them to do better; those ones I get. But the ones who hate just to wallow in it, those I just throw out, because living successfully in public means not only drawing legitimate criticism, but drawing the ire of those afraid to get off the couch. Being able to tell the difference, and adjust or throw out accordingly, is a public person’s greatest skill. It’s one I encourage you to cultivate early.

Most importantly, though, is that no matter how many voices plague you – well-meaning or no – you have got to stick to your path. In this world, not everyone is going to love you. Nor should they. You aren’t here to be liked. You’re here to change the world. Adjust your internal monologue accordingly. At the end of the day, yours is the only one you have to live with.

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