Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Self Belief Versus Humility

Those of us who write have a special conceit - we think we're the most qualified people around to tell a particular story.  If we weren't, someone else would be telling that story.  In our view, the only person who can do justice to the tale in our heads is us, and we won't cede to anyone that someone out there might be able to do it better.

The line between belief in yourself and being an arrogant prick can be very fine.  Every person should believe in himself if he wants to accomplish the goals set out.  Hesitation and self doubt lead to squeamish insecurity that manifests itself in piss poor work.  However, that belief has always got to be balanced with a dose of humility, lest we turn people off, or worse, that we start making mistakes in our work that show we're not as good as we think.
(Nobody likes a cock)
Let's be perfectly honest - no matter how much we hem and haw, most writers consider themselves to be far better at the craft than some Joe Blow off the street.  When we pick up what others have written, we cringe with that special sensation usually reserved for an upcoming enema.  We know that such work will be riddled with mistakes, and wow, if only we'd written the piece, it would have been so much better.  Looking around, there might even be a little bit of truth to that.

However, as Sheldon Cooper's mom said in The Big Bang Theory, "It's okay to be smarter than everybody else, but you can't go around telling them."

"Why not?" Sheldon asked.

"Because they don't like it!"

A writer should be as humble as possible for several reasons.  First, a conceited writer risks turning people off.  Back in 1997, I met Tom Clancy.  I liked his books, but what struck me most about the man was how arrogant he was.  In fact, I don't think I've ever met a more cocky son of a bitch than Clancy, before or since.  I've turned my nose up at his books ever since, and that's one of the risks we run by not only believing we're the smartest person in the room, but by proclaiming it to everyone as well.  Our readers are our bread and butter, and if we turn them off, we might as well hang it up.

Another reason to reign in our own superiority is that a writer who is always shouting about how great he or she is risks turning out a less than great product.  The 1980 Soviet Hockey Team was one of the best ever, and they had no problem telling everyone they met.  Therefore, when they ran up against a hungry and competent US Team at Lake Placid, they put out a halfhearted effort and got schooled.  Obviously writers don't need to worry about getting beaten in a game, but we do have to worry about thinking we're so awesome that we breeze right through our work and give a less than stellar product.  I've seen that happen to some writers, and the public isn't very forgiving of such an effort.

At the same time, we shouldn't be so modest that we come across as fake.  Imagine that you got the chance to ask Stephen King or JK Rowling what makes them such good writers and they responded, "Eh, I'm just okay.  Most of the world is better at this than I am."  We'd quite rightly think, "Phony."  A writer has to find a way to understand how good they are and allow his or her passion for the craft to come through without peeing on the masses.  I know lots of people who have trouble with this from time to time, including myself on occasion.  I think that it takes a reflective mind and the drive to get better to help balance these conflicting impulses.  That's one of the great struggles of those who choose to participate in this peculiar craft.

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