The Perils of Writing with Hubris

Or, “Why It’s Occasionally Good To Get Called Out On Your Nonsense.” First, a little backstory, because I do love a good bit of world-building. Honestly, I’m surprised characters these days don’t just fall through the gaping holes in the ground beneath them! Ahem, that is a tangent. I apologize. This is supposed to be a heavily topical, self-deprecating tale of woe and sleep deprivation.

So, let’s take a trip through my memories. It’s not a long trip by memory standards, just a measly nine months. To be clear, this didn’t involve me and a young lady of my age group. Maybe that’s me being a dirty-minded college student and clarifying the obvious again, apologies for that in the likely event it is. But I did conceive something back in July- a revelation.

At the time, I was getting sucked deep into a redraft of the novel I’m working on (I told you, it does exist! Sort of.) I wrote an average of four thousand words a day. That’s obscene. For reference, that’s often more than the entire mandatory curriculum of mid-level writing classes at the college I’m attending. One day I wrote 12 pages, or over seven thousand words of 12-point font. I was getting up at 4am to write, stopping only to eat and go to bed at midnight or later, before repeating that the next day.

As you can imagine, it wasn’t healthy. After a week of this, I developed constant eye-strain. A few days later, I was so sleep-deprived as to be barely coherent in conversation. Good ideas and some snappy prose got buried in a landslide of borderline insanity. I became delirious enough to start attacking Ernest Hemingway simply because he wrote differently than I wanted to. You know, a guy who’s been dead for over half a century. Obviously my biggest competitor.

I said some very stupid stuff. I won’t go into detail, but I will say that in my blurry mess of a mind, I started confusing actual arrogance for self-confidence. Now, the latter is nothing bad; we all need a bit of in order to actually do anything. Being able to fake yourself out a bit is just fine, and it helps you to achieve things in every walk of life you’d never be able to do otherwise. But you walk a razor’s edge with it. After teaching yourself to think that you’re good, that you can do This(TM), it gets hazardously easy to start thinking you can do anything without much effort, and from there, that you are better than everyone else.

And oh boy, is that a terrible frame of mind for an author to be in. The Rowlings and Tolkiens of this world aside, most authors will only earn a decent living if they embrace some healthy doubt. We have to be our own harshest critics in order to have a snowball’s chance on Io of actually making it in the ever-more competitive publishing industry. We need to question ourselves, and be both brave and humble enough to set up a network of people who will also question us.

Again, it’s a fine line. An author who just keels over and gives up without any attempt to defend his or her work isn’t going to get anywhere fast. But the mere act of defending an idea, to ourselves or especially to others, will hopefully force it to grow. My personal favorite analogy for this is to think of the author and the prose as a tad like a newly-forged blade from a good smith. The potential is there; the steel is good, the shape is perfect, but now the sword needs polishing. And polishing is actually not a gentle process. Regardless whether using a strop, high-grain sandpaper, or the water-stones favored in Japan, it involves cutting the surface layers of the blade in order to refine them.

But without that process, the sword never gets any prettier, and polishing is also how a sword is sharpened. To bring this analogy back around, an author may have some great ideas and a unique way of writing, and all the energy in the world, but if he or she can’t bear to take any criticism in order to get better, then that potential is meaningless. Potential unused is potential wasted. And yes, it’s painful to get rejection letters or heavier constructive (but cutting) feedback, but good writing isn’t supposed to be easy or painless. Nothing else in this world is. Artists all claim to be passionate about what they do, and to be passionate for something means being willing to suffer for it- maybe not in terms of starvation, but something.

Or we can all just set in our Brooding Towers of Nonconformist Solitude, and gamble on being the literally one in a billion author who hits it big without putting in all that much work.

Say something, darn it!

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