In my younger years as an author, I was, admittedly, a bit of a diva. All the workshops and conferences I’d attended failed to deliver this key piece of advice: don’t be a jerk. Now that I’m older and not quite so clueless, my top priority when working with editors, publicists, and booksellers is to be the World’s Nicest Author. Overall, everyone’s much happier.
The humility I now embrace isn’t phony. A writer’s life is brutal: the repeated rejections and disappointments have scraped off all the hubris, along with many layers of skin and pieces of my internal organs. I have definitely gotten over myself.
That said, I’ve noticed that the old arrogance isn’t really gone; it’s still there, squatting like a stubborn toddler in my rib cage. Furthermore, I’ve come to see it as a good thing, this tenacious trait—even an essential thing. I understand now that my ability to sustain a writing career through some really tough stretches is largely due to the fact that I can be both arrogant and humble.
Granted, arrogance and humility sound like opposite ends of a continuum in one of those personality schemes, like extroverted and introverted. How can a person be both? Also, why would anyone want to be either? Arrogance evokes images of an insufferable bore, and humility suggests a lack of confidence—a pigeon-toed wallflower with a squeaky voice. What if we drop the judgment, quit assuming that these two qualities are etched-in-DNA character traits, and instead view them as tools—like an air pump and a pair of needle-nose pliers?
Consider this: if young aspiring writers did not have inflated views of their abilities, they’d never persist. A strong puff of hot air keeps them rising. But if they don’t soon learn humility—that they actually are not able to churn out a perfect story in one draft—they won’t improve. They’ll be wafting in the clouds going nowhere, and they’ll be alone, because they’re windbags.
Remember: humility does not equate to low self-esteem, nor is it a weakness. It’s the ability to keep yourself in perspective, to see yourself accurately—as a person with flaws and talents, like everyone else in the world. As it turns out, that’s what we authors are: people. Unlike arrogance, humility brings us closer to reality. Even if we sometimes crave fantasy.
In my own writing life, I’ve noticed that arrogance and humility alternate. As I work on a first draft, I think my story is the greatest piece of prose humankind has ever seen. People will love it; literature professors will teach it; I’ll win a giant prize.
Then I put the draft aside for a few days and return to it in the guise of an ordinary human. Rereading the draft in a humble frame of mind, I see that, holy cow, it’s awful! How embarrassing! What was I thinking?
I start revising, and again I’m brilliant, soaring toward that pantheon of literary gods. Then I get stuck on some problem in the prose, and, oh no, I’m a regular human after all.
I get up and walk around to think through the problem. What if I’m unable to resolve it? But of course I’ll resolve it—I’m Super Author, the most amazing writer humankind has ever known. Clinging to that belief, I do eventually hit on the solution.
When my manuscript is finished, I humbly ask for feedback from my author friends. They’re nearly always right when they point out problems. So I revise again. Then I submit the story to a few journals, and it gets rejected, and I think, what is wrong with these editors? Can’t they see the brilliance of this piece? Obviously, I am far superior to them in literary judgment, knowledge, taste, and all other qualities.
So I arrogantly send again, and again, and I humbly keep revising the piece, and ultimately, usually, the story is published.
Is it really possible to simply pick up these mindsets in turn like a couple of hand tools? Apparently it is, because I’ve been doing it. And I suspect most publishing authors do the same—those who are able to persist and improve as writers. It requires monitoring our thoughts and halting destructive self-talk, challenging those inner voices that either beat us down or puff us up.
When we’re feeling fragile about our ability, a blast of arrogance helps us persist. When we’re revising, humility helps us grow our skills, and when we’re with other people, being a reasonable, decent human helps us forge the connections needed to succeed in the industry.
Arrogance and humility each have a function. For writers and our publishing partners, it really helps to know when to use each one.
A.D. Nauman is an author and educator in Chicago. Her second novel, Down the Steep, is out now from Regal House Publishing.