Sunday, February 16, 2014

Overcoming Conceit

Most writers I know have a split personality when it comes to what they write.  On one hand, their egos are so fragile that they can crumple at the first hint that someone doesn't like their work.  On the other, they're so confident that they can write circles around the unwashed masses that the mere introduction of a way to better themselves can be seen as insulting.  I recently went round and round with myself over this last one.

A friend of mine sent me a link to a writing class and said he thought I might be interested.  Before I knew what was happening, I found myself thinking, How dare this person try and say I can learn more about writing?  Hasn't he ever read my stuff?  Even if he didn't like it, he couldn't do any better.

After a second or three, the stunning arrogance of that position hit me square in the face.

Without modesty, I think I write better than most people.  However, that doesn't mean I write better than most authors, or that people will drop what they're doing and come down in droves to read my latest masterpiece.  It means I have a talent that many don't, just as some have a greater talent for mathematics or automotive engineering than I do.

For the record, I think it's perfectly healthy for a writer to have a certain amount of conceit.  You have to believe in yourself or no one else will.  I think this is true of any professional, from doctors to athletes.  Who wants to get their heart worked on by a doctor who has doubt about his or her abilities?

At the same time, that doesn't mean I can't improve.  It was after hitting myself over my initial reaction to my friend that I took a good hard look at that fact.

No writer out there has it mastered, including the greats like Stephen King and JK Rowling.  Both have said that they're constantly looking for ways to get better, so if they can admit it, the rest of us should as well.  The easiest way for me to improve my writing is by the time honored tradition of reading everything I can get my hands on.  I'm currently reading I, Zombie by Hugh Howey.  While short on plot - at least as far as I can tell, it's describing the daily grind and travails, plus emotional pain, of being a zombie - it does a great job describing each individual's struggle and giving us the sense of hopelessness that there would be in being a zombie...a conscious zombie who knows what is going on but is powerless to stop it.  The novel has opened up new doors for me, both in reach of story and in description.  In short, it'll help make me a better writer.

However, it's not this kind of thing that stops us from getting better.  I think most writers, whether they'll admit it or not, read both for enjoyment and professional development.  Where our stubbornness comes in is when people expect us to actively seek out getting better, such as through a class.  Taking a class implies you aren't the master of a subject, and that can be hard on a writer's ego.

Sure, I can make excuses as to why I can't do it right now - my job is exhausting, my new daughter takes loads of time, my house is a wreck, etc - but truth is that my stubbornness is just as likely to get in the way.  I want to be open minded about learning in a classroom setting, but I'm not sure I can be.  Knowing my personality, I think I'd be looking to poke holes in the instructor's stuff.  I'm not saying that's right, but it's the way I would react at this moment.

It's something I should get past.  I can learn and become better if I just open up a little bit.  Taking critiques is hard enough, but a class seems degrading for some reason.  Again, not right, but rather a personal obstacle to overcome.  That's awfully arrogant for someone yet to put out his first novel.

Maybe I should just go ahead and take one, even knowing my shortcomings on this.  I could learn something great, and it might break through my wall of conceit to humble me, making me open to other ways to be a better writer in the future.  Is growing like that something I'm open to?  Only time will tell...


  1. It's important to read as much as you can, and outside of your own genre, too.
    If you can read through something of yours a year old and see that in some ways you've evolved/gotten better as a writer, you are definitely doing that job of working at improvement.

    1. That's something I definitely do. In fact, reading some of what I wrote a few years ago has caused me to abandon the books, or at least re-work them, since they're not up to what I know I can do now.