Sunday, August 11, 2013

Psyche and Nike

The common meaning of “psyche” is soul—spirit. But its source is a complex myth about the relationship between soul and body, the antidote to another goddess’s envy, and the union of two beings. What’s relevant to the contemporary novelist, though, is the equally complex relationship between “self” and story.

Enter psyche. What makes a story matter is the revelation of an individual spirit. Maybe you love being Irish or Hmong or Norwegian and this story brings your culture to life. Maybe your relationship is so happy that you want to write a romance where every dream comes true. Maybe, like Chad Harbach, you love both "Moby Dick" and baseball and want everyone to see how much they have in common. Psyche provides a way to express “self” through story.

Some consider psyche the “true” self and ego the false one—overly focused on goals, materialism, arrogance. Whether or not you agree, you might think of psyche as the source of your story and ego as the engine driving you to complete that story.
Few novelists can survive without a healthy dose of ego. After all, if you lack confidence in yourself and what you have to say, even the quickest, worst first draft ever is a ridiculous amount of work. If neither you nor your story is worth anything, why bother? Ego—i.e. confidence, gets you started and keeps you motivated through all the revising and strategizing needed to find an agent, a publisher, or a do-it-yourself plan.

~ Only your psyche can originate a novel people want to read because you alone could write it.
~ Only your ego can generate the fortitude to strive until your novel is good enough for people to read.

Ego and psyche are twin sources of strength. At its worst, psyche breeds amorphous images meaningful only to their creator. At its best? Psyche weds individuality to commonality, lets you transform subjective imagination into community property.

At its worst, ego generates the kind of defensiveness that rationalizes away useful critique: You’re always right, of course, and the reader (Why listen to this dolt?) is simply too foolish to see why you had to “tell,” introduce twenty-six characters in your first four pages, or bury any shred of plot or tension beneath exquisite description. But ego also inspires the confidence to strive for excellence, often best achieved by welcoming and implementing intelligent feedback, even when it’s painful or arduous. Ego can actually let you put your story before your “self.”

And Nike? Athena’s sidekick symbolizes flight, glory, victory, triumph. She represents ego, not egotism. You needn’t be a winged deity or fast-mover who relishes competition and hungers for fame. But you do need the energy that unites spirit with ego.

Tip: Those folks are exactly right: “Just do it.”

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