Deb: Humility – The Writer's Fine Line

“You must once and for
all give up being worried about successes and failures. Don’t let that concern
you. It’s your duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite quietly, to be
prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable, and for failures.”
~Anton Chekhov
Writers walk a fine line between humility and confidence.
We’re fundamentally insecure creatures, not so much because we write, but
because we’re human. At its best, insecurity makes us authentic. At its worst,
it breeds pompous asses masquerading as writers.
Much as we must believe in ourselves and our work, a
writer’s humility serves her far better than trumped-up self-assurance. “The
most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector,”
said Ernest Hemingway. “This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have
had it.” It’s a radar that must be pointed not only at our work but also at ourselves.
In This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, Steve Almond says writing is a process of decision-making,
nothing more and nothing less. “If you refuse to pass judgment on these
decisions,” he says, “if you walk around thinking you’re the Messiah, you’ll
wind up settling for inferior decisions, by which I mean imprecise, contrived,
masturbatory ones.” We must learn, he says, to second-guess our decisions
without second-guessing our talent.
In a follow-up essay, Almond notes that art is first and
foremost about the transmission of love, of the kind ascribed in the
gospels to Jesus Christ. (By the way, Almond is Jewish.) “You love people not
for their strength and nobility,” he says, “but, on the contrary, for their
weakness and iniquity.” Only as we humbly acknowledge our own weakness can we
love it in others, including our characters.
When you’re full of yourself – and we all are at times –
your work is full of you, too, and not in a way that speaks meaningfully to
readers. In Walking on Water, author
Madeleine L’Engle reminds us of how readily ego gets in our way.
“The important thing,” she says, “is to recognize that our gift, no matter what
the size, is indeed something given us, for which we can take no credit, but
which we may humbly serve, and, in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered
wondrous newness.”
Check This Out: As does
Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners, Madeleine L’Engle explores the
spiritual side of writing in Walking on Water. In the foreward, Nicole Nordeman
tells how L’Engle’s book lifted her out of a severe state of writer’s block by
chipping away at the self-absorption that stymied her creative spirit.
Try This: There’s a
big difference between humility and beating yourself up. Face this head-on by
writing a list-story titled “Bullies I Have Known.” Bullies prey on our
insecurities to cover for their own. Maybe you’ve even bullied yourself. Bullying
leads to bravado, and the point of this exercise, inspired by C. Michael Curtis
in Naming the World, is to expose it.
Deb cross-posts at
This fall she’s teaching an online Children’s Literature Apprenticeship and a Anchorage-based
workshop called Description and Detail: The Glint and the Squint through the 49
Alaska Writing Center.
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