You don’t have to be a writer to recognize the destructive power of ego, but it helps. Ego has torn my family apart. I have one brother and two sisters. We were born into the restaurant business my father started forty years ago, but when we got together to form a franchise, which could have netted us millions, all we did was fight. I nearly threw a punch at my brother over a Xerox machine. My father’s pizza-chain dreams were dashed, and aside from major holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, my siblings and I never talk. We run our own restaurants separately, the way we feel they should be run, and if I come up with some great new recipe, my brother will be sure to ignore it, no matter how big a seller.
I admit it. I am as guilty of egocentrism as the rest of my family. There was a time, before 2004 to be precise, when I thought myself a literary genius. Becoming a successful author, I believed, was inevitable. Then I self-published my first book and my ego took a nose dive. After a number of ho-hum book reviews, my huge head popped like a balloon, and I was forced to reevaluate myself for the first time. Hey, maybe I’m not as smart as I thought. Maybe I’ll have to work a lot harder to achieve my dreams. To this day, I struggle with ego like a Buddhist monk. The trick isn’t to think of yourself as worthless, but to transcend the very idea of self itself. But every now and then, after I impress myself with an especially good chapter, my ego begins to swell, and it brings nothing but heartache.
Sadly, I have known too many people with similar epiphanies who simply quit. The truth is often too great to bear, it would seem, like crossing the Second Oracle in The Never Ending Story. During my fan-fiction days, the problem of ego was recurring. Writers would submit to my site, fiction that was both grammatically and narratively atrocious, but I could not offer a shred of advice without them getting devastated to the point of giving up. I consider myself lucky not to have been born with the internet, because if I were, I am certain I would have been one of these people. My lonely, modem-less Commodore Amiga provided me with a comforting delusion, a delusion that kept me writing well into my college days.
But the catalyst for this post has nothing to do with restaurants or fiction, and everything to do with artists. I have a long and arduous relationship with art. In my elementary years, writing and drawing went hand-in-hand. I always thought of my stories in terms of pictures, and continued to do so until high school, when I learned I pretty much sucked at drawing. Here, again, ego got in the way of doing what I loved. Still, the visual medium remains important to me. If I could not write, I would like to have been an artist. A collection of books by the likes of Frazetta, Vallejo and Royo sits on my shelf, including Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, all of which serves as inspiration. Sometimes, a single image can spawn an entire story. This is why I spend thousands commissioning pieces for Aenya. I say it’s for ‘promotional reasons,’ but this is largely untrue. It’s mostly for the love of art. But here is where I run into the ugly problem of ego, because the only people I know with egos as big as writers are artists.
For the past 17 years, since 1999, I have worked with dozens of talented people. My best friend, who lives in Athens, Greece, and who came to the U.S. to study graphic design, refuses to work with me. This is someone who bemoans the fact that he can’t afford a cup of coffee. I’ve offered him hundreds of dollars to help me promote Aenya, enough to visit Starbucks for a year, but he won’t do it. Why? I can’t say for sure, though we did work on a project once, and disagreed—ONCE—over the perspective of a sketch. After that, we never talked again. Now, it’s quite possible I am an unbearable jerk. No, scratch that, I am most definitely an unbearable jerk, but when you’re broke and someone is offering you good money to do what you love, what the hell does it matter? If someone were asking to print my story somewhere, I’d be jumping for joy, not for the money, but for getting my name out there.
Here’s an even more absurd anecdote. For the cover of my first book, The Dark Age of Enya, I paid an artist $500. From what I could tell from his portfolio, he was quite talented, and his style seemed to match my own. He promised me the illustration in a month. The timing was important too, because I needed to send a cover to an editor, who was going to feature the book in a magazine. When do you think it was done? Two months? Three, maybe? Nope . . . it was finished after a year. A YEAR! But you know what, I procrastinate a lot myself, so this did not upset me too much. What was infuriating, is that after all that time, I didn’t even get what I wanted. I had asked him for a girl (Thelana) on a unicorn, with a large moon in the background. I never got the background, because, as he later told me, he just couldn’t figure it out. What’s worse, the moon he painted on the back flap was entirely the wrong color, even after I repeatedly told him the color it should be. But here’s the kicker, he was working with oils for the first time, and couldn’t get the girl’s leg right. It was just a smear on the canvas. After waiting six months and paying him $250, he flat out refused to fix it, and became angry when I suggested he try something easier than oil paint. It was a long, agonizing ordeal, but I did end up giving him the $500, even though I missed the deadline for the magazine and had to fix the coloring of the moons myself in Photoshop.
You might think this kind of story is an anomaly, but it isn’t. It happens, in fact, most of the time. I worked with someone who decided, halfway into the project, that he didn’t want to do a background. I offered him extra, just so that my character didn’t look like she was floating in space, but he just didn’t feel like it. When I mentioned that he needed to have a better work ethic, he became furious and never spoke to me again. Again, I ended up doing my own background in Photoshop. Another artist made Thelana’s boobs too big. When I asked for a reduction, explaining that she had a gymnast’s build, he said, “I don’t do changes,” and collected $200. I ended up with a picture that, to this day, I absolutely loathe. I call her “Balloon Breasts Katniss.” Most recently, someone sent me a final, fully-colored image before I could approve of even a single sketch. “If you can’t use it,” he said, “you can just pay me half.” Getting him to make even the most minor revision became a huge hassle. This was especially frustrating, for I had made it clear how I wanted to brainstorm ideas. All he cared for, it seemed, was getting paid immediately, as the majority of our discussions involved money. He got his $250, as promised, but he lost the chance to foster a future working relationship with me.
I understand that people work to get paid. I understand that nobody can live off “recognition” alone. But by the same token, recognition is necessary if one hopes to someday quit their day job. Writing is really no different than painting in this regard. It’s a lot of hard work, something you pour your heart and soul into, not to mention a lifetime of practice. But unlike those in the visual medium, writers tend to get paid even less, and are almost universally neglected. And still we work tirelessly, sometimes for decades, without earning a dime, in the insane hope that someday our efforts will pay off. Yes, we have tender egos too, but we get critiqued in the most harsh ways imaginable, by every Tom, Dick and Harry who thinks he can crap out a novel. So, when a writer seeks to collaborate with an artist, he knows what artists go through, because he’s been there, and most likely he’s had it worse. For someone like me, who is continuously learning, who is endlessly revising and improving, it is patently absurd to hear someone say, “I don’t do changes. Fix it yourself.” I fight to suppress my ego, so that I am not afraid to make changes, and I listen to my readers’ advice, even when I know they know nothing about writing.
My intent here is not to badmouth anyone, which is why I have not been naming names. But many of these artists have quit, and they all had the same things in common: huge egos and a poor work ethic. My Greek friend told me one day, quite pointedly, “I am not an artist anymore.” And, as far as I can tell, the guy who did my original cover dropped off the map. On the other side of the coin, I have been fortunate to have known some wonderfully productive individuals, who gave me more than I asked for, because they cared enough to excel. Their heads were never so big to assume they always get it right the first time. Alexey Lipatov is one such person. I am often so impressed with Mr. Lipatov’s work, I will pay him more $ than we agree upon. Julia Bax is another. I loved working with her, because she always gave me 110%. Today, not surprisingly, Julia has made a name for herself as a comic book illustrator. These are enormously talented people, but their success has less to do with talent, and more to do with attitude. Whatever the profession, whether in a restaurant, at the keyboard, or in front of a canvas, successful people set their egos aside to do their best work.
Be sure to check out Alexey Lipatov’s gallery here.