Easy on the Ego, Hard on the Soul

The Release of My First Book as a Crisis of Character

In a month or so, Mothering the Fatherland will hit the shelves. I received my own personal copy in the mail late last week. Despite my erstwhile dreams of becoming a novelist, my first book is a work of academic non-fiction (historical theology, to be precise). As a junior scholar still seeking a tenure-track position, a monograph from the top university press (Oxford) is a feather in my cap… and a thorn in my side.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. This is a boon to my fledgling career. But I need to be honest about its impact on my soul. I have had the book in my possession for a few days and already I can see some of the ways that it will challenge my character. I contend that these issues threaten virtually all published authors, as well as many public artists, performers, and other creatives.

The struggle can go in one of two directions, with the option of frequent vacillation between the two: insecurity and vanity.

Whatever confidence we may outwardly wear, we intellectuals and artists all have our insecurities. Once you have published your first book, your fear of not having published enough (a reasonable if vague sort of fear, to be fair) can give way to a variety of specific fears: What if people don’t like the book? What if it doesn’t sell? How will I handle negative reviews? (As the author of a few, I figure I’ve got it coming.) What if publication does not have the desired effect on my career? What if I never write another at all? Or at least one that is as good?

Technology can fan the flames of these insecurities and add new ones: Why don’t more people like my Facebook post about the book? Why doesn’t Google Analytics show more visitors to the book website? Why don’t more people on Goodreads have it on their “to-read” list? Is something wrong with my Amazon Author Central account because it is not showing any sales? Etc.

And then there is the vanity: the overblown pride and false sense of superiority. Intellectually, you are the same person you were before you published your book. Yes, you have concrete proof that you are super smart; but you already a few of those (remember your degrees?). People might be suddenly impressed or take you more seriously than they otherwise might. The grave danger is that this could go to your head.

You may find yourself gazing down at the tome, unwilling to shelve it, exhilarated that it has finally taken physical form. It may be tempting to think, “This is my work, all mine, and proof of my utmost worth.” It is easy to forget the dozens of people who directly and indirectly contributed to the book’s composition, many of whom you have credited in your acknowledgements and in your footnotes, but who suddenly fade from memory in the presence of the Precious.

The most powerful idols are those that make us feel like gods. By worshipping them, we worship ourselves and expect others to do the same.

To paraphrase Qoheleth: “Vanity of vanities. All this is vanity” – in every sense of the word. And it is “meaningless” too, but in this case the KJV is particularly apt in modern English.

Of course, the more self-aware among us will be attentive to our own insecurities and vanity. This awareness may yield yet further insecurity (and pride – at least you are aware), fueling the cycle of vacillating between the two ends of the spectrum.

Both forms of self-focus are, of course, antithetical to the production of further quality work. Your work doesn’t make you a better person; but the quality of your character – not the relative popularity of your previous work – will help define the quality of your future work.

Hemingway realized this well and captured the novelist’s version of the published scholar’s dilemma in perhaps his most famous short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” A writer lies dying of gangrene, realizing that, due to complacency and easy living, his art is already dead. As writers, whether creative or scholarly, we need to be able to see things clearly. Neither fear nor pride must cloud our vision. If it does, then our best work is behind us.

What can we do to see clearly? Look. Look around you. Look inside yourself – not at yourself. (See my forthcoming post, “Autospection is not Introspection” for further thoughts on this topic.) Meditate, reflect, and pray. Listen to others. Truly listen. Love the words of others, in person and in print, as much as you love your own. You should not judge a book based on its cover, nor should you judge yourself based on your book.

To quote the Teacher in Jerusalem directly: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep God’s commandments, for this is the duty of all humanity” (Ecclesiastes 12:12b-13).

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