Confessions of an Arrogant and Humble Writer

From Publishers Weekly:

In my younger years as an author, I was, admittedly, a bit of a diva. All the workshops and conferences I’d attended failed to deliver this key piece of advice: don’t be a jerk. Now that I’m older and not quite so clueless, my top priority when working with editors, publicists, and booksellers is to be the World’s Nicest Author. Overall, everyone’s much happier.

The humility I now embrace isn’t phony. A writer’s life is brutal: the repeated rejections and disappointments have scraped off all the hubris, along with many layers of skin and pieces of my internal organs. I have definitely gotten over myself.

That said, I’ve noticed that the old arrogance isn’t really gone; it’s still there, squatting like a stubborn toddler in my rib cage. Furthermore, I’ve come to see it as a good thing, this tenacious trait—even an essential thing. I understand now that my ability to sustain a writing career through some really tough stretches is largely due to the fact that I can be both arrogant and humble.

Granted, arrogance and humility sound like opposite ends of a continuum in one of those personality schemes, like extroverted and introverted. How can a person be both? Also, why would anyone want to be either? Arrogance evokes images of an insufferable bore, and humility suggests a lack of confidence—a pigeon-toed wallflower with a squeaky voice. What if we drop the judgment, quit assuming that these two qualities are etched-in-DNA character traits, and instead view them as tools—like an air pump and a pair of needle-nose pliers?

Consider this: if young aspiring writers did not have inflated views of their abilities, they’d never persist. A strong puff of hot air keeps them rising. But if they don’t soon learn humility—that they actually are not able to churn out a perfect story in one draft—they won’t improve. They’ll be wafting in the clouds going nowhere, and they’ll be alone, because they’re windbags.

Remember: humility does not equate to low self-esteem, nor is it a weakness. It’s the ability to keep yourself in perspective, to see yourself accurately—as a person with flaws and talents, like everyone else in the world. As it turns out, that’s what we authors are: people. Unlike arrogance, humility brings us closer to reality. Even if we sometimes crave fantasy.

In my own writing life, I’ve noticed that arrogance and humility alternate. As I work on a first draft, I think my story is the greatest piece of prose humankind has ever seen. People will love it; literature professors will teach it; I’ll win a giant prize.

Then I put the draft aside for a few days and return to it in the guise of an ordinary human. Rereading the draft in a humble frame of mind, I see that, holy cow, it’s awful! How embarrassing! What was I thinking?

I start revising, and again I’m brilliant, soaring toward that pantheon of literary gods. Then I get stuck on some problem in the prose, and, oh no, I’m a regular human after all.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

4 thoughts on “Confessions of an Arrogant and Humble Writer”

  1. Hard to run (all or part of) any business with other people with this advice.

    Yes, you should not be gratuitously a jerk and, yes, you should be fair to employees and partners, and conscious of your own limitations. But it takes a certain measure of arrogance to be a captain of your ship.

    The wrecking rocks are not impressed by modesty and humility, and someone has to choose the direction to sail in. Abdicating that responsibility is not praiseworthy.

    • Good points, K.

      However, I think a person can be firm on non-negotiable items without being a jerk. “I’m sorry, but I won’t/can’t do that” gets the job done adequately in most circumstances.

      If the other person is a jerk about the matter, that triggers another of my personal imperatives, “Don’t do business with jerks.”

      • Part of what makes them jerks is that they can’t learn, and don’t care to try. Both of those are fatal flaws. (Fatal to them, if you can’t flee and are sufficiently infuriated, so you’re wise to run if you can — it’s a lot less trouble.)

  2. All the workshops and conferences I’d attended failed to deliver this key piece of advice: don’t be a jerk.

    Because your parents were supposed to do that. That was their job. I’m not your mama. If she loves you she will not outsource raising you to me, because I do not love you. Adults don’t usually assume they’re supposed to raise other adults, so that’s why those conferences didn’t mention that rule.

    I don’t work with jerks, because I don’t want to do their parents’ job. I will school them, but I’d rather not. And, because jerks invariably cause trouble, and are not worth the trouble.

    Also, I may be defining arrogance differently. To me, arrogance implies an unwarranted high estimation of oneself. If one is tested and proven, then one can justifiably say, “Damn I’m good.” Especially if you’ve tested yourself against quality peers. Iron sharpens iron, and I think it says something about a person’s character if they avoid exerting themselves to improve, and if they are careful to only choose the easy routes.

    I was watching a movie the other day (“Burial”) where Tommy Lee Jones’s character hires Jamie Foxx’s character to be his lawyer, because Foxx’s character hasn’t lost a case in 12 years.

    “Oh he’s not very good, then,” I said.

    Sure enough, Foxx’s character was just highly selective about only choosing cases he knew he could win. So he’s overconfident when he’s up against an actual lawyer in an area of law he’s not well-experienced in (contract law). His arrogance means he gets sliced and diced in court by the contract lawyer who proves to be dangerous in cross examinations. If Foxx’s character says “Damn I’m good,” he’s arrogant. If his opposing counsel says “Damn I’m good,” she’s telling the truth. She’s tested and true because she didn’t cherry pick easy cases, she actually had to be good in order to achieve her past victories. He is arrogant, she is not.

    When a writer of fiction is like this you get Mary Sue / Marty Stu characters, because the writer will not exert herself to use her imagination. Just say your character is awesome, but don’t put her in challenging situations where she has to earn her victories. Just make all of her opponents morons so she looks like the smartest person in the room.

    To go to the sailing example, we spent a long time on “The Tempest,” in a college lit class, because the theme in that semester was “power and authority.” A captain of the ship should have high domain authority when deciding the course in a storm, because the captain of the ship has sailed before, and sailed in storms before, and didn’t drown. The captain learned from past experiences. The arrogant one would be a duke is not a sailor, yet tries to tell the captain what to do in matters of sailing. Which reminds me of a favorite line from a Peter Straub novel: “Are you always this arrogant about your ignorance?”

    Is it arrogance if a person is just acutely aware of their skills relative to the situation they’re in? Going back to fiction, note how Sherlock Holmes or Miles Vorkosigan are frequently supposed to be the smartest guys in the room, yet they will often consult experts to help solve cases. They have the necessary humility to seek those more knowledgeable than they. They’re up against opponents who have that knowledge, so the detectives have to up their game. And Sherlock is often punished in some fashion for being a jerk (like when the captain punches him in the Johnny Lee Miller version). This is what you do if you want to write an actual character, not a Marty Stu.

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