While attending a recent writers conference I overheard a woman say “That author's ego is really out of control.” The catty remark was aimed at an author who did seem pretty full of himself. But it got me to wondering: Is there room for humbleness when it comes to writing?


The dictionary definition of “humble” is “Not proud or haughty, not arrogant or assertive; offered in the spirit of deference or submission; ranking low in a hierarchy or scale; insignificant; lacking all the signs of pride.” Does this sound like the traits a successful writer?


The simple act of putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard announces to the world, “I have something to say. My thoughts are unique. My words are important!” That mindset is what drives writers, convinces them every day to sit in a chair and hope for the flow of ideas that will translate to the right words on the page. This is what deprives them of family time, TV time, sleep, and their favorite past time, reading. This is what makes them snap at people, growl at interruptions, overeat and add fat to their butt.


So, from where does this arrogance spring? I can only speak for myself: I'm inspired by the scribes before me. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Homer (not Simpson—Doh!). Their words lasted centuries—will mine do the same? In the lightening pace of today's plugged-in world, is it possible for my words to last longer than the next tweet?


Writers have to be overly proud of what we're doing—and yes, I'm in the non-humble crowd. We are out there trying for truth and recognizing it our fellow authors. Ego and believe in ourselves is what shores up our confidence when family members look skeptical at our efforts. Friends encourage us with pats on the back as if we've just escaped from a mental institution. Authors are other people, not people they know.


We struggle alone and wait for the spark, that “Aha!” moment when our consciousness takes a giant leap onto the page. That's the moment when the pleasure of writing is transformed to the power of writing. There's no turning back.


The next hurdle is ignoring the censor in your head that says “Can I write what I really feel and get away with it?” Don't look for the green light from family and friends. They're already worried you're going to spill the dirty laundry. You can't wait for Granny and her church friends to die.


On my list of the most daring, soul-barring authors I've come across are Philip Roth, who never let me look at liver the same way again. James Joyce, whose run-on sentences go on for pages. Joan Didion slouching toward Bethlehem. Erica Jong diminished my Fear of Flying. I never understood a word of Henry Miller's Cancers but am incensed that he was censored. Anais Nin who opened up her sexuality for public viewing. And my favorite author, Chuck Palahniuk, always makes me want to write brave, to bare my soul, not bar it.


I tell beginning writers that they must always stand by their words because critics are out there ready to tear them apart. Break new ground, break down barriers. Take old ideas and turn them around like a prism until they see light from another angle. Find their voice and use words that excite. What I don't tell them is in the process they're going to cut their emotional wrists and bleed all over the page. It's messy and some aren't going to survive.


I used the word audacity in the title of this piece. Definition: Bold. Disregard for normal restraints. Intrepidly daring. Marked by originality and verve. Exaggerating one's own worth or importance. And yes, arrogant. Writers should be all that. We cannot afford to be humble.

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Comment by Pepper Smith on April 2, 2011 at 2:34pm
I think you don't get to be a good author without a combination of arrogance and humility.  The arrogance is what keeps you moving forward, in spite of efforts to convince you to give it up.  The humility comes with the realization that there's more than native talent involved, and that you need others to help you see your errors and correct them.  Without the humility, you can't learn the skills you need to become a really great author, because you're convinced you're already great and don't need to improve.  Humility isn't a weakness. Arrogance unchecked by humility will hold you back.
Comment by Benjamin Sobieck on April 2, 2011 at 11:48am

Really interesting read, Sunny, thanks for posting it.

 

I agree with Dana that there is a certain "arrogance" that's needed. I see it as a touch more assertive than "confident."

 

I don't actually keep a tally, but I do try to balance myself out. For every one time I promote myself, I promote two other people. There's plenty of reasons to be a fan of other people as much as yourself.

 

Of course, humility is in my genes, being Minnesotan and all. Did you hear the one about the arrogant Minnesotan? He stared at someone else's shoes.

Comment by Dana King on April 2, 2011 at 11:12am

A musician friend of mine came up with the phrase "musical arrogance" when describing the attitude one needed to become a great musician. Good players play a passage and convey the attitude, "This is how I think it goes." With great players it's, "This is how it goes." The truly great can take direction, molding the phrase to the conductor's liking, and you'll still hear their sound ("voice" for a writer) come through.

Any writer worth reading needs some of that, of course. If you don't think your story is uniquely worth telling, why should anyone else read it. There's a limit, though. Even the great writers you noted did not write for the ages; they wrote for a living. (As did Mozart and Bach.) The concept of writing for posterity seems to be a 20th Century conceit, and, unfortunately, this level of arrogance can show in a book as pretentious.

That's speaking professionally. Any author (musician, businessman, politician) who can't leave his professional arrogance at the door when dealing interpersonally may well earn the title of asshole, and wear it proudly.

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