Monday, May 9, 2011

How Sincere Is Your Writer's Face?

Happy Monday, everyone!

Today, I wanted to talk about how we present ourselves as writers. I think we've all programmed ourselves, at least to some extent, to be humble about our writing and our writing experience. I know I always think twice before I announce how proud I am about a current project I'm working on. Not only that, but I often make jokes about my writing, making my work seem silly when really I've worked hard to make it something special.

My cannibal story comes to mind. Thinking back on the last several months when I've talked about the project, I realize that almost always I've made jokes about it. In reality, though, Bread is a very personal and serious story for me, one that I did a lot of research on, one that caused a lot of nightmares for me, and one that depicts a lot of very personal intimate experiences.

Somehow, I convinced myself that no one wanted to hear about the serious side of my work. I felt the need to joke about it because I wanted to talk about it, and making jokes was my idea of harnessing my enthusiasm into something acceptable.

When I was in high school, my English teacher talked a lot about false humility. It was a recurring theme in her class. She didn't exactly say that it was good or bad to be falsely humble, but she asked us simply why we felt the need to do it.

Why do we feel the need to do it?

My answer? For one thing, I think most people feel like it's polite to be humble. We don't want to seem too into ourselves. I think maybe we also don't want people to think we're stupid. We're worried that if we suddenly say we're proud of something we do, then people will assume we think we're better than Mark Twain or someone. (Maybe we are, and maybe we're not. That's beside the point.) There's a protective aspect to being falsely humble as well. We risk less because, if anyone else puts down our work, we can claim that we already knew it was bad.

This makes me sad. I'm sad that more people don't come out to say how good their work is. I'm also sad that many writers are so frightened that they feel the need to be falsely humble. And, I wonder: does putting your work down eventually convince other people that your work should be put down? Lately, I suspect this to be the case.

I do think a lot of us sincerely suffer from lack of confidence. That's a different issue, that I also wish would go away. But, for today, I just hope that we as writers feel like it's okay to take pride in our work and to announce that pride to each other. Honestly, one of the things that makes me happiest is when I see people in the blog-o-sphere, not talking about their awards or publishing news, but talking about how happy and proud they are of their work. Those are the announcements that make me want to learn more about a writer and what they've done. If they are proud of their work, then I feel like I can see a true reflection of what they want to produce, their artist's vision, rather than something "in training".

So, are you proud of your work? Are you proud enough to announce it to the world?

(As a semi-related aside, last week on Twitter, I saw a post by an agent that went something like "Be aware than anything you say and do at a writer's conference has the potential to permanently damage your career." That really made me angry. I hope we as writers aren't so scared that we worry about every single move we make. I am happy to know that there are better agents out there, people who aren't trying to train us to be cowering wimps as this man was trying to do.)


  1. I am confident in my writing and my stories, but until I have published books and string reviews I'll still have my doubts, even if they just lurk in the shadows.

  2. Davin, your post is amazing. It has inspired me to do something on my own blog today. Hopefully I can get it up soon. That post from whoever that agent was makes me upset, too. What a lopsided dynamic.

  3. Domey, I have to tell you...I've thought about this very issue for a very long time...and I still think about it. You know, we can be humble but we don't have to be self-denigrating in the process. I think it's good to have a realistic perspective of one's abilities as a writer, too. And I most definitely don't believe that being published or not has anything to do with our abilities as writers. I'm sure we all know that there are plenty of books out there that are not worth their salt, and yet they are published because that's what the market wants to read. On that point, I rest my case.

    Still, I do have pride in my writing and I know it is good; I am not shy to say it. That doesn't mean I have a big head. It just means that I know I can string together a piece of writing that is both meaningful and well-written. And why should I be embarrassed to flaunt that?

    As for being afraid about what one says amongst other writers or amongst others in the publishing industry, I only have this to say: When a creative artist's honest expression is stifled by hidden threats, it just makes me want to speak out all the more. And no threats will stop me! :-)


  4. Domey, I hear you and find myself doing the same thing. And, yes, I agree: it's not false humility per se, for me it's a case of protecting my vulnerabilities and my fears about my writing (and other things.) There's a lot of mean people out there in the big bad world, and my overly-sensitive soul gets scoured by that meanness. So, I protect myself by playing down or joking about things that matter most to me.
    Judy, South Africa

  5. Rick, I have doubts about my work too, absolutely. But, I think I put down my writing in a way that doesn't accurately reflect those doubts. I put it down more than I should.

    Michelle, great! I look forward to your post. I wonder what it is!

    Nevine, yes, "we can be humble but we don't have to be self-denigrating in the process." This is exactly what I'm trying to say. Thank you! And, I'm glad you're proud of your own work. You should be!

    Judy, I think that is my experience exactly. I'm going to try to stop doing it myself. I don't think it's helping out. When I'm proud of something I've done, I'm going to say it. And, when I'm not proud, I am going to say that too. Or at least try to on both counts!

  6. This topic definitely hits home...maybe too closely. Too closely for me to form concise statements about it yet. I've been thinking about it for the past twenty some years, when I inserted myself into a whole new different society with different cultural norms, and still haven't come to a good place to express how I feel about my work: in writing, in teaching, in music, without feeling self-conscious about it whatever direction I am heading, and whichever attitude I am adopting.

  7. So closely it hits home that I can't even write properly and have to resort to long, rambling, unending sentences. :P

  8. I like what I write and am confident in my abilities to put thoughts to paper and express the logic from Point A to B.

    That being said, if you ask me about what I write, I pan it off as a joke. (I do write romance after all, and even though it generally surpasses all other genres monetarily - although YA is gaining - it is still not looked on with respect.)

    I'd like to think I'm not a snob with my confidence, but if I don't believe in myself then who will?

  9. I can hear it now... Lady Gaga singing "Writer Face"!

    Sometimes it's hard to be confident with my work, but other times, especially when I've finished something particularly difficult, I feel like I can do anything! *cue Rocky music*

  10. What an inspiring post! I think you're right that false humility can lead to others putting down our work. I will try to write with pride in the future.

  11. It is hard to have confidence. We see see so many great writers and have people picking our best writing apart thread by thread at crit groups. As you said in your post it's easy to downplay being a writer, especially to those who aren't.

    Time will tell if my writing will be good enough to be part of the publishing community but as long as I am doing my absolute best I'll be proud of me.

  12. We're talking about discussing our writer identities with non-writers, though, aren't we? Mostly, I just don't do it. People who have nothing to do with the writing/publishing world have no idea why--if you think you're a good writer--you don't already have a string of best-selling books. And nothing you say to explain the publishing world will mean anything to them. Either they've already heard of you and your books or they haven't. And if they haven't, then you must not really be a writer. So I just don't bother with any of that.

    Last year some guy at work found out that I was a novelist.

    He asked me, when we were sort of drifting out of the room after a staff meeting, "What have you written that's any good?" He had that challenging tone of voice that we writers all know and loathe.

    I asked him, "What have you read that's any good?"

    His answers all sucked. Which is what I told him before I went back to my own office.

    I won't pretend that I'm humble or that my writing isn't important to me, but I also won't talk about my writing unless I can take the other person in the conversation seriously on the subject.

    Jonathan Evison says, "Tell everyone you meet that you're a writer. It won't get you laid, but you'll feel a lot better."

  13. Scott, I really appreciate your comment here. I think that's a good point about who we're discussing our writing with. It depends for me. If I'm talking about my writing with non-writers, but they have traveled with me in this journey, I talk to them much more personally about my writing than others (even though they don't write). If I'm talking to a complete stranger about my writing, I tend to show much more pride than I would otherwise. I'm not sure why. Usually, if the person seems completely ignorant of everything that is important to me, I just end the conversation right there with some excuse. It's nice to have a four-year-old tugging on my leg at that point.

  14. I hate it when I forget to click the "Email follow-up comments" button!

    Yat-Yee, this is an issue that applies to other arenas in my life as well. I do think I'm getting better at it and feeling more comfortable, though. I don't have as hard a time saying that I like something I do. I also don't have as a hard a time saying that I suck at things. It works both ways.

    Anne, I've seen you put down your genre a few times, yes. I hope you stop feeling that need to do it. I think highly of your writing, and I think highly of the romance genre.

    Mariah, Gaga and I are in negotiations. Expect the song soon! I love that feeling of confidence that sometimes comes after we've done something good!

    Anna, a year or so ago, I believed that by putting myself down I was opening the door for other people to compliment me. Really, it was just a set up for really fake interactions. I want to be able to say that I like my work. And, I want to believe what others have to say to me about my work, good or bad.

    S.P., I'm glad to hear that you are proud of yourself. That's awesome. I don't have as many people picking my work apart these days. I sort of miss it. I think lately with my writer's group and other writing friends that I exchange work with, things have become more relaxed. That's mostly because I'm making my writing decisions more intentionally. I know more about what I'm doing, so a lot of critiques get into the subjective category. I still love it when someone says something about my writing that I hadn't seen before, though. Those criticisms are really helpful.

    Scott, I wasn't necessarily talking about non-writers. I was talking a lot about how I present my work on this blog, but also with non-writers too. I rarely bring up writing with people unless they bring it up first. And when that happens--as it did two nights ago--I could tell I was putting myself down. I want to stop that.

  15. I think we all rock the house here at the Lab and you, Michelle and I write at a high level. So we should act like we're writers working at a high level, yes? We write well, we're proud of what we write and there's no need to apologize for that. We don't serve anyone by acting out of false humility.

    I'll try to keep my immense ego in check, but I won't pretend that I'm not serious about the work, or that the work doesn't have a serious side. So, like, unbridle your enthusiasm and, like, let it stampede or however the metaphor should go.

  16. Scott, that's exactly what I'm trying to say. Yes! I'm mad-crazy about writing and I don't know why I tone down my passion as much as I do.

  17. Well said, Scott. I put up my post today on the Innocent Flower because I'm tired of all the false humility crap. I'm proud of the way I write and what I write and I'm not going to apologize for anything - for my writing or what avenues I've taken. If people don't like what I write they can go read one of the other five billion books out there. There is plenty to go around, and I can't waste my time trying to please people or protecting myself from opinions that aren't even any of my business.

    By the way, Davin, you can select in the options on the blog to always have ALL comments emailed to you since you're an author on the blog. :)

  18. While my wife is in America I'm taking the time to edit my fourth novel which I've not looked at since I finished it in 2005 so enough time has passed and it's like reading someone else's novel and do you know what, I can write, I can really write. I think we're often too close to our own work and we really can't step back and look at it objectively.

  19. When I started writing my current novel I was sort of embarrassed to tell people that it's a detective novel. But the farther I get into it the more cool the book becomes and I'm doing the best work of my life right now. Using a mystery story framework has freed me to write deeply about character, which is what I wanted to do. So now I tell people that I'm writing a detective story that's amazingly amazing. Because I am.

  20. Jim: I love moments like that. Once in a while (not often, but it happens) I'll glance at a page of one of the books I've got on submission and I think, "You know, this is good stuff" and I'll keep reading and lose track of time reading my own writing.

  21. Jim and Scott, that really is the best time for me too. It happens very very rarely for me, though. I used to think I was writing so that I could read my own books. That was my goal. But, I don't think it's possible anymore.

  22. Scott, Cinders was like that for me. I was so embarrassed about that book. I think I made a huge leap in my writing when I decided to just stand up and be proud of that book for what it is.

  23. Wonderful post! I know that my writing has been helpful and uplifting to others, and I love writing very much, but it is difficult to brag on myself. I am trying to do more self-bragging though because there is no other way for others to give us worth if we can't even see our worth.
    Thanks for this timely reminder!

  24. Brenda, yes, for me it's a matter of displaying your true feelings about your writing. If you're proud of it, don't be afraid to say so!

  25. I remember a year or so back there was a conversation going on here at the Lab about agents. I said that one reason I had an agent was that I had written a good book. Someone commented that I really shouldn't be saying my book was good; if I don't leave those judgments to other people, then I am being arrogant. I disagreed then and I disagree now.

    Of course, in retrospect I think maybe the commenter supposed I was claiming that people who don't have agents haven't written good books. Which is not at all what I was saying, but it's that sort of emotionally-charged misreading that keeps me from talking about my own work except to discuss it in terms of technique.

  26. The thing is, Scott, the three of us should feel comfortable talking however we want about our writing here at the Lab. This is our safe place, and although we have no control over how people react to that, they'll get the drift really quick that if they are that emotionally charged (negatively) about what we're saying, they aren't welcome here.

  27. Great post. For me, it's definitely a matter of self-confidence. Sure, there are writers out there I know I trump (likewise, there are ones I know clean my clock), but, for the most part, it's a muddle of confusion and doubt...

    I have an agent. I've had multiple agents compliment my pacing, tension, etc... so, deep down, that helps validate. I think I know my writing's strong, but I often find myself very critical of it. It's a constant struggle of self-acceptance. This is what I've got. This is what I can do. Move on.

  28. Bane, to me, in your case, that's sincere, and it makes sense. I'm also critical of my work, and I can easily put it down when I feel that way. In my mind, that makes sense. Now, I hope that both you and I are being accurately critical!

  29. If you're not going to take pride in your work, who will? Pride can go too far, but if we keep our wits about us and sterp back to objectively evaluate our work, that becomes unlikely.

  30. As I remarked on Michelle's blog, it's actually gotten harder for me since I've published the first two books in my series to take about how I feel about writing. I have more work to do. That's all I feel safe saying. I feel like putting published work out there is like stepping out on to the high wire. If I'm not careful, my next step could be my fall.

    Tara Maya
    The Unfinished Song: Initiate

  31. Tara Maya, I think that's a decent point, but from where I stand publishing also really helps you grow. There's something about putting work out there for me that helps me to see it more clearly. I think it has to do with the commitment of putting it out there. It doesn't just feel like a draft anymore. So, maybe you don't think your writing is there yet, but I think by publishing you are further on your way.

  32. It's a funny thing about the difference between an online presence and an in-person one. Online, I feel relatively free from false humility. In person, not so much. Does that serve me? I don't know.

  33. Most people just roll their eyes when you say you think you've written something great, or when you say you think you're a good writer. Maybe that happens to me more often because I'm 16, but still, I've just learned to be humble because it makes me look conceited.

  34. Sometimes I like to downplay my writing so I don't seem like "THAT" person...the obnoxious artist-type that thinks they are "all that."

    I want to be confident about my writing, but not over-confident. Hence the false humility....

    Great topic. Still thinking about it some...


  35. Judith, That's interesting. I think I'm pretty much the same online versus in person with respect to this issue.

    McKenzie, I get annoyed when people automatically assume that we can't be good at something. What's up with that? I've learned to give people the benefit of the doubt when they say they are good at something. It makes life a lot more fun for me!

    Shelley, I think about that too. But, honestly, a lot of times I'm just so excited to talk about writing that I don't let my fears stop me, LOL. I can't help myself.

  36. Oh, man, Domey that agent's tweet really frosts me. They don't realize that what they blog and tweet (and I suppose do at conferences)says a lot about THEM to US, too...and doesn't win them a huge fan following.

    As far as false humility- I don't have time or energy for it. All of my insecurities about my art are (sadly) completely real (hence why it may end up all staying in my Emily Dickinson-style trunk). That goes for visual art too, not just the writing. Just especially the writing.


  37. Bru, LOL, I comforted myself by assuming that the agent was talking to other agents. I have a feeling he wasn't, but let's pretend he was. :)

    I do hope you gain more confidence in your least enough to make sure you have fun with it!

  38. It's a big jump for me from being passionate about writing and *gasp* enjoying what I write to admitting that it's a passion and that I might possibly have a knack for it.

    Some days it's false humility, and other days I do really start to doubt if I am any good at what I love to do. Which is a wretched path to start down.

    For the longest time, I let those feelings keep me from sharing my writing with anyone. While I don't directly put myself down, I think it's been a sort of "put down by omission" for years.

    But with the help of a friend who shares my passion for writing, along with posts like this one, I've started to put myself out there.

    So, thanks for posts like these.

  39. wosushi, That's awesome to hear! Good for you!

  40. Well said Domey. I've seen some writers gush so outrageously about themselves and their accomplishments that its hard to read their works. I've also seen the opposit, where they're so humble you wonder why their self promoting at all.

    I think a healthy balance of being pleased and humble is called for - but yes, I mostly think an author should be proud of their accomplishments. Even if that accomplishment is just finishing a novel or short story, or getting past an emotional scene in their work and feeling they hit the mark, or navigating a tough plot point or piece of dialogue.

    B/c first and formost, the author has to be proud of his/her creation. Humility, to me as a writer, is the willingness to accept that not everyone will love it like I do, and be able to see through the reader's eyes long enough to gain perspective.

    Doubt will always be a part of my process, but I think there is a certain amount that is healthy


  41. That's beautifully said, Donna. And you make a really good point when you mention celebrating small steps in writing along with bigger ones.

  42. Scott, your story about the co-worker made me chortle. What a great answer to that question, asked in just that tone. And yes, I know it.


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