Humility in Writing

Photo source: kaboompics

Photo source: kaboompics

This is the second post in a series inspired by the Big Book Festival, which took place this past June in Warsaw. These aren’t a transcript or even summary of the meetings that took place, but more themes that stood out to me that I wanted to explore. I’d like this series to be more a discussion than me telling you how it is, so I encourage your comments and counterarguments. There is an interesting discussion taking place over at the first post on literature and politics.

During the writer talk with Zadie Smith, I only wrote down 2 or 3 key phrases. Luckily, I recorded the whole talk on my phone, so I was able to figure out what they meant. One of the phrases I wrote was humility in writing. Zadie Smith was talking about George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, about how Orwell was hugely anti-Semitic in that text. She called that his blind spot. “However politically conscious you think you may be, there is very likely to be a blind spot in your work… You are subject to your generation, your time.” While this quote may seem to be more fitting in my post on literature and politics, it perfectly illustrates the need for humility.

Humility is a tough subject for writers since so many of us suffer from insecurities and doubt (this writer being no exception), but writers also have a tendency to go from one extreme (doubt, insecurity) to the other (moments of delusion of being the greatest writer that ever lived – this writer being no exception), so humility is actually quite necessary. To be a good writer, one must find a balance between humility and confidence.

Doubt and insecurity have nothing to do with humility. The Oxford Dictionary defines humility as: “the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance; humbleness.” I would add that it also means realizing your fallibility and inability to know everything. Just as Orwell, we have our blind spots, and we may not even be aware of them. We spend our lives learning, only to learn we know very little.

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”   – Ernest Hemingway.

Humility arrives when we think of the mysterious source of creativity – the Muse. Some writers romance the Muse and for others she seems to elude almost entirely. Most writers have figured out the way to get creativity to flow, for the Muse to arrive – habit. In the end, almost all writers feel they are serving something greater than themselves, and that requires humility.

Almost every step of the writing and publishing path requires humility. With one exception. You need to be bold and fearless when writing the first draft. You just need to get it down. Forget that you don’t know everything and just write.

But then humility is needed once again when editing. We writers must be able to distance ourselves from the words, so they are not precious. We have to be able to take our vulnerable writer ego out of the picture in the editing process. The editor eye must be ruthless. It is the only way to serve the text, the only way to make it better.

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

– Ernest Hemingway

Criticism and rejection are inevitable in the writing process. From alpha and beta readers through the entire publication process, your writing will be rejected numerous times, your writing will be criticized. Alpha and beta readers criticize in order to help. Writing partners criticize to help. Once the book is published, we must remember that the book is no longer ours. It has (hopefully) become part of public discourse and criticism is inevitable.

Rejection and criticism have their upside. First of all, both mean your work is being read (hopefully). I like to think of rejection in terms of a numbers game. Another rejection, with improvement, means I am closer to a yes. Criticism is a sign of success in my eyes. It means you got something written and out there in the world to be criticized.

Once you’ve gone through the process, no matter how successful your work, you go back to square one, and the circle begins again. Beyond hard work, humility helps us realize that ‘success’ is to some extent a draw of the card.

What do you think? Do you think humility is necessary to be a good writer?

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18 thoughts on “Humility in Writing

  1. Such a good point about the ease with which we can swing from insecurity to grandiosity and can be so hard to push our work forward while keeping a sense of perspective. Having just recently published my first novel, I am extremely conscious that I still have to work hard to attract readers, and am extremely grateful when I do, even more so for a review. But I also know I’m one of millions, no-one is obliged to read my words. On good days, I manage a sense of both pride and humility, but it’s not a given!

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  2. Great post. I find the line between humility and confidence to be very fine and hard to draw at times. I will admit that most times, I’m leaning towards doubt and insecurity but without a few moments of boldness and pride, I probably would not have finished my first draft. Those are the ones to boost our writing while, in my opinion, humility is absolutely vital for our sanity and the success of our writing projects.
    As it is with everything, I’d say that the right middle would be the best place to stand… If we can find it, of course!

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  3. I really enjoyed reading this post, Ula. I tend towards insecurity with my work, but I would never confuse that with humility. I think writing is like much of life, especially my career of teaching, it is a journey of always learning more, and of always having more to learn. I especially like the quote from Hemingway. Self-improvement, through learning, is always the goal.

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  4. Sometimes we (writers) take humility too far and become insecure of our writing or progress. I’ve recently (new post at Carrot Ranch) decided to go the opposite direction and be bold in declaring I’m an author, although I remain as of yet, an unpublished author. But it’s also because I agree yet disagree with Hemingway:

    “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” – Ernest Hemingway.

    So at what point do we feel comfortable acknowledging our craft as our profession? I suppose not every writer pursues the craft as a profession, but what about those of us who do? Am I not professional because I am not yet a master? I decided that if I declare my profession, I’ll be more likely to take my apprenticeship seriously and embrace humility as growth rather than accept humiliation for something I have not mastered, but work at every day.

    Good discussion!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for you thought, Charli. I interpret that quote differently. Claiming a profession and being a master are two different things to me. I think your declaration is important. We make greater strides and move closer to attaining our goals when we declare this is what I do, this is who I am. We give ourselves permission to be and to do it professionally, even if there is a not yet aspect. Writing is something so complex (at least to do it well) that we are never masters, we are constantly learning and experimenting, which makes us better writers. To me, declaring yourself a master in writing would be resting on what you’ve done and writing the same way from that point on. Some authors do that and do fairly well, but I think most want to experience more, experiment and play. That doesn’t make them not professional. (I just gave myself a headache with that last sentence.)

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  5. I see myself as able, willing even to want criticism of my work to improve it but within that pretence at humility is both an egotistical pride in my ability to absorb criticism (contrast others who fear it, are badly affected by it) and a grandiose belief that I’m the best judge of which criticism is worthy of my application. Humility, as Charli says, can go too far. I appreciate I will still keep learning but to be so humble as to have no belief in the quality of what I write would be to deny a self confidence that protects me against any siren doubts that would grind me to a complete halt. Lively debate from a lovely post.

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  6. Great post and quotes. But I will quote Charli here: “Sometimes we (writers) take humility too far and become insecure of our writing or progress.” <— That is me. But, short answer, yes, I think humility is necessary to be a good writer.

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    • Sarah, I have made it my mission to help you be a more confident writer. Or at least not be so self-deprecating. I love your writing and your sense of humor. I envy your ability to write with humor. For me that is the pinnacle of writing talent. Something that eludes me entirely, sad to say.

      I too suffer from insecurities. Something that keeps me from jumping back into my novel.

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  8. I think humility is absolutely necessary as a writer, especially in the CP/beta stages. Too many times I’ve encountered writers who refuse to listen to reader feedback or change anything, saying that beta/CP didn’t “get them.” It doesn’t take long to realize these folks just want their egos stroked. They will have a rough time of it, I imagine.

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    • Well, they might find people who will declare them geniuses if they’re lucky. They won’t have much luck with the rest of the world though. Thanks for your input, Allison.

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