Thursday, March 20, 2014

Perils of the Writer: Ego in Check

Many years ago, I worked for the English department at the University of Texas at the main office front desk.  This meant I also answered the main phone line for the department, which as you might imagine, got several odd calls.  One call stands out, even a decade after the fact.

The call came from a poet who was at another University, calling about a journal that, if memory serves, we did not publish, and wanting to speak to the Chair of the Department to inform him that she was contributing to this non-existent publication.  Now, one thing that you should know is that a standing rule I had was that I never just sent phone calls to the Chair without a certain degree of screening, either on my own or through the department's executive assistant.  So I asked for some clarification about who she was and what she was talking about.  And that's where it got weird.

It got weird for several reasons. First, this poet in question was acting like she was a huge deal.  And, without going into details of who she was, researching it after the fact, she was, in fact, a rather notable modern living poet.  However, one would have to be somewhat familiar with a specific subgenre of poetry to be aware of that, and I was not.  So that's a little bit on me.  However, this was compounded by the fact that she had a professional name that was more than a little pretentious (which began with "The Poet") AND she referred to herself by that name in the third person.  Add in some understandable homonym confusion with her professional name, and the net effect meant that to a person who was unfamiliar with her and her work, she sounded like a crazy person. 

However, she knew who she was and that she was a big deal, and as such, seemed to be completely unaware that how she was presenting herself would come off as lunacy to someone who didn't know that.  So she kept repeating the same thing, since to her frame of mind, she was talking to a fool who didn't understand he was talking to someone quite important in the poetry world. 

And, I swear to you all, I honestly thought it was some crackpot who had written a bunch of poems and was insisting that the English Department publish them for her.

The only thing it would have taken is a small amount of clarity, coupled with her not presuming that I ought to know who she was.  I'm not talking a ludicrous amount here.  I mean saying, "My name is The Poet ____, and I'm the Poetry Emeritus at ______, and I would like to talk to the chair of the department about XYZ." 

Now, with that verbose wind-up, my point: it can be easy, as a writer's career grows, to lose oneself a bit in one's ego.  Of course, a bit of ego is a good, healthy thing.  You need that to be able to do that bit of shameless promotion to get your work out there.  Hell, you need it just to be able to query.   But when you cross from, "This is who I am" to "Don't you know who I am?", you're in dangerous territory. 

So that's something to keep in mind: even if Thorn and Murder of Mages are huge successes, it's important to remember being here now, remember being where I was one, three, or seven years ago.  Maintain humility, especially when dealing with the people who are coming up behind me.

Of course, that's easy to say now.  Hopefully I won't lose sight of that down the road.  But I would think the last thing I'd do is berate some poor kid on the phone for not giving me my due. 

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