I know a lot of people--some artists, some avowed non-artists--who think that writing (or any other artistic endeavor) is narcissitic. After all, we writers have to hole ourselves up in rooms or at cafe tables or prison cells to write, cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world and spending time honing our craft. I myself have struggled with this question: Does being an artist automatically means that one is self-centered, overly egotistical and, yes, narcisstic? Having had the unpleasant experience of working with many, many egotistical--and often abusive--artists, I know that this suffering-artist 'stereotype' is not entirely untrue.
But as I continue to explore and expand my resume of creative experience, I am glad to report that my answer to that question is a resounding NO. Artists do not have to be completely narcisstic and ego-driven to produce good art. Of course, there are plenty of examples of great artists who are not very kind or compassionate people. Chitra talked about this in our novel workshop at VONA, and about her own belief that one can be a good writer and a good person; she seems to be a fine example of this herself: best-selling novelist, creative writing professor, married and the mother of two sons (we got to meet her family at VONA, they all seem very happy). It's good to have a role model like her to emulate.
For myself, as I move into my own light as a writer, I find myself more generous with my encouragement and support of other artists' creative efforts. I seek out opportunities to tell my fellow artists that they're not crazy, that they're not alone, that they need to trust their visions of their art. For example, L., a co-worker, who is entering an undergrad creative writing program in a few weeks after several years of tireless movement/activist work, talked to me recently about feeling like writing is such a 'luxury'. The 'L' word reminds me, of course, of Audre Lorde's essay, 'Poetry is Not a Luxury', which can also apply to fiction-writing or any other creative endeavor. For me, writing is not a luxury, it is a necessity. I need to write in order to feel fulfilled, and even further, the stories I dream up as a Filipina-American writer living and struggling in the early 21st century need to be told.
To quote from Lorde's essay: "For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought."
That is what writing feels like to me. So I don't feel guilty anymore for taking time off from checking off my workaday 'to-do list' so that I can write for an hour a day. I don't feel selfish. At the same time, I know I need to help make space for others to create and manifest their dreams so that I am not just promoting myself, for my creative fulfillment and success are tied to the fulfillment and success of my fellow artists. Not all writers or artists feel this way, I'm sure, and perhaps the competitiveness that comes with material success will someday hit me as well.
But for now, I'm writing, and developing, and feeling an expansive hope through this process that makes me believe that a better world is not only possible, but is being crafted word by word, line by line, in my work and the works of my writerly comrades.