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?