The Uncertainty Principle: or how do writers know if they are any good?

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You see it all the time when people say they are writers, that hesitant, slightly embarrassed hitch in the voice, a certain shiftiness in the eyes, as if they are claiming to have just eaten the Eifel tower while no one was looking. It’s a lie, says the voice, or at very least a kind of half-joke. Of course, I’m not a real writer, say the flitting eyes. That would be absurd.

This isn’t just something you get from newbies or from writers who haven’t yet been published. It’s rampant among perfectly successful authors (including myself and my esteemed MW colleagues), that nagging anxiety that however much we managed to land a book deal and even rack up some sales or awards, we’re frauds.

David talked about this persistent concern the other day but I want to push it into a slightly different area. Where do these insecurities come from and how do we deal with them so they don’t hamstring our productivity, our careers?

One of the problems with the novelist gig is that there’s no clear training program, creative writing courses not withstanding. Plenty of authors make it without MFAs from Iowa. But that merely compounds the problem: the fact that people can make it without specific qualifications means anyone who can finger type a handful of words can claim to be a writer. The result is that the metaphorical line of authors waiting to be the Next Big Thing starts to look like American Idol, the real talents lost in the crowd of wannabes, some of whom have no more than strictly comic appeal.

So how do you know which you are?

The short answer is, youdon’t. Even the great ones don’t. They can rack up awards and sales records, but I think at the heart of really good writers who want to keep being good is a nagging anxiety that they need to stay on their toes. We can all think of authors for whom success has led to relaxation and mediocrity.

But excess humility, though admirable as a personality trait, can be a serious problem for writers.

The other day, David talked about needing to be ambitious. Let me add another necessary but much maligned word: arrogance. Writing requires a little of that too. I realize that plenty of writers are fairly shy, retiring types who relish the quiet and solitude of a glowing computer monitor, but I’m not talking about being an extravert in personality terms. I’m talking about the kind of arrogance that says “I have something to say: a story to tell: a way with a phrase.” I mean the arrogance which is required, which is NECESSARY to say to friends, family and (ultimately) the world in general “I’ve written this and you should really read it.” It takes courage to start writing a book, but it takes a certain monomaniacal arrogance to finish it.

It makes me wince to put it as baldly as that, but it’s important to have enough faith in yourself that you can say such things to yourself, even if you whisper them and still struggle to keep your face straight. Because we’re not just talking marketing and publicity here, people, we’re talking about the conviction to write in the first place.

If it helps, couple the word “arrogance” with “athletic” as you sometimes hear sports commentators do. Athletic arrogance is the confidence that allows that wide receiver to dare to try and make the seemingly impossible catch. He may go down in flames, but he might just pull it off and win the game in one play. Without that total and faintly absurd faith in himself, he won’t try. I’m not saying that kind of confidence won’t make that player hard to stomach personally. The trick is to leave your athletic arrogance on the field. For writers, it means switching it on as best you can when you need it at the keyboard, and off when you get up again, or when you need to be less confident (when you edit, say). Easier said than done, perhaps, but something to shoot for.

Several of us have talked lately about the need to be more creative, more daring in our work. This also requires that literary arrogance, the decision to be different, to strive for boldness and originality. Asper ad astram, as the old Latin tag has it: reach for the stars. Be better than you have to be, better than anyone–including you–believed you could be.

I’m all for self-scrutiny and being your own worst critic, but if that gets to the point where you no longer believe in your project or—worse—your basic ability, then you’re done. Self-criticism is, after all, only useful for urging you to be better. Indulge those nagging doubts in your head too much and you fail before you start, and certainly before you finish. The world is crowded with people who (with good reasons and without) will line up to criticize you and your work. Think of how disappointed they’ll be if you never actually finish it. So put your self doubt on hold and get that first draft done.

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38 comments to The Uncertainty Principle: or how do writers know if they are any good?

  • This is something I worry about a lot. Self-doubt isn’t enough to make me not finish a work. I enjoy the process of writing and finishing a work, and I feel a certain compulsion in that regard. But it can hold me back from doing something with it, once it’s done.

    I think it’s particularly difficult for us undiscovered or unpublished authors. We have no external cues to suggest to us what our relative skill-level or worth really is. Everything has to come from internal reserves and convictions. At least a professionally-published author can look at their successes – their publications, their sales, their reviews – and find some external indicators that suggest that they are, in fact, good. And you can feed that into your internal reserves. But for someone in a position like me… well… my mom or my wife or somesuch as that saying something I’ve written is really good doesn’t carry the same cachet as, say, an otherwise disinterested Agent or Editor who wouldn’t be talking to me anyway unless they perceived my work as good. My wife has to wake up to me tomorrow morning. An Agent or Editor doesn’t.

    Add to that… when you’re in a position like this, and you do send something in, it’s likely to get rejected or the equivalent. If you’ve got no real successes to your name, those rejections can feel like a stinging rebuke of your relative merits and talents as a writer, because you have no positives to fall back on.

    So yeah… it really takes something – I don’t think arrogance is the right word, but I get the message – for a writer to say to him/herself: “No… what I wrote is good. And maybe it wasn’t right for this market at this time but I’m a good writer and I need to keep writing.”

  • Stephen,
    soudns like you need some good beta readers who can give you constructive feedback. Otherwise it’s just trial and error and you may not be making the right deductions about why your stuff isn’t selling (esp. if the rejections aren’t specific).

    To be clear, I’m not saying you should be arrogant about the quality of your writing as it is. I’m saying you have to have faith in your ability to produce something good. To assess its quality when its finished, you need readers whose judgment and candor you can trust.

  • Upon further reflection… I think the word we’re looking for isn’t “Arrogance”, but instead “Nerve” or “Chutzpah” or perhaps “Self-confidence”.

    Also, yes, I think Beta Readers can be a big help (but they still don’t help answer the question of whether a work has real merit or whether a writer is any good – they can just help you improve what you’ve got). But I have a separate, wholly unrelated rant about Beta Readers. Not really a rant, actually, but anyway. My point was just that external cues – and that publishing credits and success are very high-value external cues – can help a writer develop and feed the necessary nerve or self-confidence to have faith in what they’re doing. Without external cues, you have to rely more on your own internal sense of self-worth.

  • As I mentioned in Faith’s post, I have enough ego/arrogance to feel that I’m good at what I do, but am humble enough to know that I can always learn more and am nowhere near perfect. No one really is. I’ve been working to make rejections or criticisms not bother me as much (due to a life of pessimism), especially when the rejections have no reason attached. Chuck it in a folder and move on. It’s humbling to read a critique of your work and, after digesting the (bitter pill) words for a couple days, realize that many of them are right. There were things in my first finished manuscript that would have embarrassed me to send away, if not for the beta picking up on them. Things I didn’t notice on a tenth pass, and probably never would have, being so close and familiar with the work.

    But yeah, when it comes down to it, I have faith in my ability to produce something good. I write the stories that I would like to read and hopefully there will be others out there who will want to as well.

  • @Stephen – A good beta group who like the genre(s) you’re writing in can tell you whether they ultimately liked the work or not or feel it is something they’d pick up if it was fixed and published. That at least gives you some validation to continue. Even a “I really enjoyed reading this story” is enough for me to feel it has merit. My last rejection was sort of like that, “I like your style and I think your writing’s great,” which at least made me feel that not all the rejections I’ve gotten so far were because it was crap. 😉 It gave me hope again that I just need to find the right person that the work clicks with.

  • MaCrae

    My uncertainty keeps me from actually writing the words. I go and read the words I had written one day when I was “on a roll” and it’s terrible; it’s not at all what I wanted it to be. I know you shouldn’t expect to much from the first draft, but it’s completely different and wrong from what I wanted. Completely wrong, so much I am terrified of putting butt in chair and writing. And this is what makes me think I’m not (shifty eyes) a writer. What writer is terrified of their own writing skills?

  • I nodded my head in agreement all the way through this.

    I recently started admitting I was a writer. Before that, there was this embarrassment because I’m basically an introvert and saying it meant calling attention to myself as some strange new breed of animal in my small town. But, as my confidence in my ability increased and I changed my life around to accommodate my writing, I felt it was something that needed to be said.

    And I absolutely believe in that need of a touch of arrogance! Writing and laying out our dreams and fears is one thing, but how else could we go that step further and expect strangers would want to read it too? There was a time in my life I couldn’t even imagine doing anything like this. Yet here I am.

  • It takes courage to start writing a book, but it takes a certain monomaniacal arrogance to finish it. <– I actually really like this quote. I think we should make tee shirts. "Monomaniacal Arrogance".

    I think arrogance is part of the process when you're doing the writing, and audacity is another part of it, particularly when it comes to submitting.

    I think "knowing you're good" is one of those things that I find difficult, because that necessitates a definition of "good". "Good enough" is a little clearer, but good enough for what? Good enough to publish? Good enough to sell decently? Good enough to get on the NYT bestseller's list?

    I will probably never believe I'm good, because I will always see those who are better. I may eventually believe I'm good enough for one step or another, but it's like when people tell you you're pretty: you feel happy about hearing it, but you don't internalize it. You don't believe it.

    Part of that lack of belief creates a drive in me to improve, so that someday I can actually look at my writing and think it's good. I have moments, but never for very long.

  • […] to point you toward this excellent blog post by fellow North Carolina author A.J. Hartley, a Shakespearean scholar and prolific author of […]

  • AJ, This was an amazing post, and something I needed to “hear” right now (being in the querying stage). This was very encouraging to me. As I said to David on Monday, “I feel like I’m treading a line between being too cocky and selling myself short, and not knowing exactly where I stand.” What I’m taking from this is that on one hand, I need to be confident enough to push myself to write, to query, to not feel like I’m faking it, but on the other hand, having that uncertainty keeps me sharp.

    @Macrae – I really, really like the use of [square brackets]. I use them to make notes to myself without resorting to track changes. To me, the square brackets are like writing something without it actually being OMG ACTUAL WRITING that’s committed to the page [because this is just a note to self]. I’ve started things off that way, and then slowly get on a roll, and then it can blossom into actual writing and then there’s something on the page and I can keep going. 🙂

  • Daniel,
    your point on beta readers is well-taken. There’s huge value to people you trust saying they like your work or they don’t, what works for them, what doesn’t. Sometimes you don’t need more than that to get a sense of what has to happen next.

    There’s a debate I’m dodging here deliberately about subjective and objective standards of assessment (a post for another day), but let’s not forget that most objective statements of quality can only depend on very specific criteria, and that most of them aren’t finally objective at all. With that in mind, a reader saying they like or don’t like your work is helpful, particularly if you can break down why they might like or dislike it in terms of their tastes, their bias towards you etc. Getting signed by an agent, getting a publishing deal, hitting the best seller lists: none of these are objective markers of quality. If people like your stuff, run with it.

    MaCrae,
    not much consolation, I know, but practically all writers feel some version of this. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve come back to pages I felt really good about only to find the]at they didn’t achieve what I thought they did at all. That’s part of the process, and all I can say is that it gets easier with practice and with a rigorous editing process that makes you fix what’s wrong rather than trashing it.

    EK,
    that’s very heartening. I hope, in time, you’ll have other people believing in your status of Writer too! Just don’t expect all the doubt to disappear even after your first bestseller wins you the Nobel… 🙂

    Scribe,
    I’ll expect to see you in that T shirt at the next con! The psychological aspects of this reach well beyond what we do at the keyboard, of course. Writing isn’t finally like sports at all. It’s not like mastering how to hang shelves or make beer. It’s life. It’s who we are, and it requires us to pour our minds, hearts and souls into what we do, then offer it up for public scrutiny. No wonder it’s hard! No wonder we worry about it. No wonder the tough parts stay tough no matter how successful you become. But that’s Ok. It’s life.

    Laura,
    Glad this helped. I’m not generally the cheer leading type but from time to time we all need a shot in the arm…:)

  • Lauren, A.J., never mind t-shirts. That’s the name of our new band! Monomaniacal Arrogance, with their new album “We Rock, So Screw You…”

    A.J., this is a wonderful post (but, of course, you knew that . . . arrogant bastard . . .) We are an odd set of beasts, we writers. Each of us carries within us the humble, even self-doubting Dr. Jekyll, as well as the arrogant, ridiculously self-important Mr. Hyde. And yet I sense these two personalities coexisting in my psyche on a daily basis. Today, in fact, I am working on plot development for the next Thieftaker books, and am vacillating between “boy, I don’t know if I can pull this off,” and “of course I can make this work; I ALWAYS find a way to make it work.”

    I love my job.

  • David
    thanks. After I posted this I saw you had floated the word “arrogance” in a post earlier last year, so apologies for the (unconscious) plagiarism.

    Yes, the two personalities thing is key. I’m not sure how you can be a writer without being both thick-skinned, confident, and creatively arrogant, while also being sensitive to the point of fragility. Like you, I love it, but sometimes it’s almost too hard to bear. This, I guess, is just who we are.

    More T shirt logos…

  • Don’t think it’d be a debate at all, because I agree. “This is great!” only gets you so far. However, a subjective opinion is pretty much what you’ll be getting when a person says they love or hate your book once you’re published as well. I’m merely saying that that opinion may be enough, coupled with the reasons why of course, to let you know if your work has merit or needs some more thinking, based on your target audience, and keep you writing. Of course, as you say, your relationship with that person may play against you in that. 😉 A good beta will be able to tell you what they liked and didn’t like, regardless of relationship. I had to assure my English teacher brother that I wanted it straight, everything he could find, as he would critique a student. It was the most comprehensive, and eye opening, critique I received, for which I was grateful.

    Then again, everyone needs an equal measure of ego boosters and people to give ’em the straight scoop. 😉

  • I do think “arrogance” is the right word. I think it’s also a part of the “fake it til you make it.” Pretend you’re a great writer (heck, we all write stories, so pretending is easier) and then one day you will be. Or maybe you’ll feel like one. I also think beta-ing stuff is hard because it requires arrogance. Most beta readers that I know are also writers. As a writer, I’m hyper aware of what I say and how it can be taken (though the more editing I do, the more comfy I am with the role), because I know how’d I’d feel. So you’ve got to really believe you know what you’re saying to say “this isn’t working.” To presume to tell someone else how to do something.

    I guess it might be good to adopt some writing mantras: “I’m fabulous. People who pay $19.99 for a hardback of my book are practically stealing because of how awesome it is. My words make the [religious figure of your choice] cry (in a good way).” Etc. They may be silly, but sometimes that kind of silliness can build confidence, arrogance even, too. 🙂

    Of course, if one believes merit is established by history, then one ought not worry about it all. After all, an author will be dead before merit is established. Who knows if books we right now will matter in 100 years?

  • Pea_faerie said My words make the [religious figure of your choice] cry (in a good way).

    “When you read one of my stories, a LOLcat gets his cheezburger.”

    😀

  • Pea
    I agree that providing constructive criticism of other peope’s work also requires a certain arrogance, though I suppose the proviso is that you are trying to say how the piece would work better for you, not how to make it OBJECTIVELY better. I guess teh former always slides towards the latter (and usefully so) but the distinction is helpful.

    Misty
    personally I’d be happier if the cheezburger was laced with something lethal, but yeah 🙂

  • Razziecat

    Although I get what you’re saying, I just can’t use the word “arrogance” for this. “Confidence” feels right to me. But I guess it amounts to the same thing, maybe with a dash of “daring” thrown in. On another site I came across a poem by WS Merwin which states, in part, that you can never be sure if your writing is any good and “if you have to be sure, don’t write.” I think what was meant is that all external cues aside, what we most crave is an internal surety, and that may not be possible.

    And MaCrae, I’ll share something I’ve learned about my own writing. When the words flow like Niagara Falls, that’s a red flag to me that it’s coming too easily. I’m not actually working at it, I’m just doing a kind of stream-of-consciousness thing. On the other hand, the times when I struggle with the words, have to keep deleting and rewriting and fighting with the story, are the times when I go back and realize I wrote something good. I’m sure this is not true for everyone, but it is for me, and it might be for others, too.

  • “Several of us have talked lately about the need to be more creative, more daring in our work. This also requires that literary arrogance, the decision to be different, to strive for boldness and originality.” -AJ

    Literary arrogance. I quite like that. I could use a little more daring, even a splash of boldness in my work. It’s not for lack of creativity as much as a lack of trust in that creativity.

    I’ve definitely been thinking about this since http://www.magicalwords.net/misty-massey/getting-the-details/ when Misty said, “I didn’t include it (Kestrel’s love for rum) in Kestrel’s psyche because I liked it, but it was easy to write about because I do.” Then David followed up with http://www.magicalwords.net/david-b-coe/on-writing-the-value-of-ambition/ saying, “Creative ambition is what drives us to do things with our story that we’re not sure we’re capable of doing: deeply complex characters, complicated plot twists, non-linear narratives, exotic settings that require that extra round of research or brainstorming.”

    I don’t think I’ve pushed the boundaries of where who my characters could be, where they could live, or what could happen to them because I’ve been lacking that Literary Arrogance. I’ve been holding back the creativity and settling for less daring, less bold.

    Perhaps it’s time to trust what the creativity can deliver if I take the stopper out of the genie bottle. Set free some Literary Arrogance and see what transpires.
    Thanks, AJ. Cheers,
    NGD

  • Razzie (et al),
    I stand by my use of arrogance. It’s more than confidence and it suggests something a little transgressive which is what I want, though maybe the distinction is minor. Arrogance, after all, is what others call confident people, and let’s not forget that though its often attacked as being empty, arrogance is often earned through success.

    NGD,
    go for it, my friend!

  • “Winners want the ball when the game is on the line.” I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately. AJ’s term “athletic arrogance” is right. It takes a certain kind of arrogance to step up and say “yeah, I’ll do that. I’m the person for that job.” instead of waiting to be elected for the leadership, the winner role, the right to be an author. I almost said “no one is going to elect you an author.” In a way that’s not true – I had multiple teachers tell me I should pursue writing. WHY the HELL did it take me until my late 20s to take them seriously? Because I didn’t take myself seriously. Because I was afraid to have the sheer gall to say “I’ve got a damn good story here and you need to read it.” And I thought that was virtuous humility. Instead it was just a miserable waste of time.

    I was raised to be self-effacing. Not just kind and helpful, but truly self-effacing as in “don’t look at me, I don’t exist. Walk right over or through me. Use me. That’s what I’m here for.” Well, I’m sorry but that just doesn’t work if you want to be a writer. (Or a healthy person, really, but that’s a different issue.) A writer has to have the gall to say “My time is precious and you are wasting it. I’m going to write now.” and “Hey stranger/agent/publisher – this book I wrote is what you are looking for. I am better than the rest of your slush pile. Pick me.”

    One thing that helped me get to this point was my reading on medieval spirituality. I came across a definition of humility that stressed that a humility that denies the existence of God given gifts is not a virtue, but a vice because it destroys the good that God has given you. True humility is not “woe is me, I am a worm and utterly worthless” but having a balanced sense of one’s talents and defects and their role in the world. So for example, it is false humility to say “I am a crap writer. Nothing I scribble is worth reading.” Yeah – I don’t believe that. I can objectively demonstrate that my writing is not crap and that it’s gotten better over the years. It is proper humility to say “I am not the writer I wish to be yet. I need to work on plot structure and maintaining tension.” Notice that the first type gives me no motivation to keep writing and every reason to quit now and wallow in my self-pity. The second type of humility gives me both hope and motivation to keep working to be better!

  • Very Augustinian, Sarah 🙂 Absolutely. I’m the same, always waiting to be recognized for something instead of stepping up and claiming it. And again, such things dn’t just hinder your productivity or your self-promotion to agents/editors/readers etc. they limit your imaginative reach, they make you timid as an artist. We should not settle for that.

  • I’ll just say I have to agree with Razzie… because to me (and definitionally), “arrogance” is more than just, as AJ put it, “a little transgressive”. Arrogance isn’t just thinking highly of yourself. Arrogance is directly comparative – it’s thinking yourself as being greater than others. And it’s “presumptuous” – it’s not earned or based on any measure of fact, neither objective nor subjective, but is generally acquired due to privelege or social constructs. I point this out because words matter (we’re writers here, after all)… and I’m pretty sure arrogance carries connotations too strong and too negative for what you mean here.

    So I agree with the whole gist of the article… if you replace the word “arrogance” with the right word. Perhaps “confidence” isn’t the right word, isn’t strong enough. That’s why I also put forward “nerve” and “chutzpah”. Another contender: “audacity”. None of these has the negative implications of “arrogance”, nor the attendant social baggage, but all suggest the idea of pushing beyond limits, overstepping boundaries, of being “a little transgressive”.

  • Don’t agree with me, Stephen, if you don’t want. But don’t tell me what I mean.

  • [ETA: “Chutzpah” actually does carry negative connotative baggage, as it turns out, but that negative baggage seems to be restricted to its traditional use in Yiddish-speaking communities. In the wider English parlance into which it has been adopted, the word has shed most of the negative meaning, and retained the meaning of pushing boundaries.]

  • My apologies. I’m not trying to tell you what you mean… I think I understood you, but I fear the message is muddled by the use of that word. I can’t square the use of the word “arrogance” with “it’s important to have enough faith in yourself”. The former does not equate with the latter.

    Anyway, I can see that I must have overstepped a bound, here. Perhaps arrogantly so. My apologies again. I’ll just see myself out, now.

  • Sorry, Stephen, I didn’t mean to bite your head off. I think we’re largely in agreement, so let’s leave it at that.

  • As one who used arrogance in a similar sense last year when writing about the creative process, I have to agree with A.J. here. Arrogance as defined in a dictionary may carry purely negative connotations, but in this case dictionary definitions don’t fully reflect current cultural usage. Arrogance, in this context, implies a certain brash assurance that carries us through self-doubt and the risk of public humiliation. One has to be arrogant to want to be in the limelight (as when speaking of athletics) or when saying about one’s art “Hey, check this out. You NEED to read this. This is a story that is so good, I can’t just keep it to myself.” Arrogance. I have it; without it, I’d be lost as a writer.

    As a sidebar let me add that I found it thoroughly amusing during the 2008 Presidential campaign when people claimed that Barack Obama was arrogant. As my wife said at the time, “Of course he’s arrogant! He believes he can be President of the United States. Every person who has ever run for the office has had to be ungodly arrogant!”

  • AJ – yes, arrogant. God-awful, head-bashingly arrogant. Arrogance smeared across my fear and lack of self worth like jelly on PB and bread. I *deserve* your attention today, Mr. Agent or Ms. Editor. Read my work!

    Sarah said
    >>I was raised to be self-effacing. Not just kind and helpful, but truly self-effacing as in “don’t look at me, I don’t exist. Walk right over or through me. Use me. That’s what I’m here for.” Well, I’m sorry but that just doesn’t work if you want to be a writer. (Or a healthy person, really, but that’s a different issue.)

    Sarah – yeah. Me too. I came out afterwards fighting mad.

  • I like to focus not on how good I am, but how can I improve. Arrogance doesn’t really fit…it’s comparison to others. Once you assume you’re better than others, the pressure is off as far as growing.

    All I want to know…am I on the right path for growth as a writer. How can I be better.

    In that case, I think persistance is a better word…if I keep it up, I’ll get better.

    Now here’s the uncertainty for me…Is my current work ‘good enough’. Is it good enough to send out to agents. The focus is on my WIP, not on myself. After that, well, it’s all about whether my next WIP is better than my current one. Eventually, I’ll start producing things that sell. (No, my current WIP isn’t good enough. Still in revisions.)

  • This was a timely post. I am in the midst of revisions (AGAIN) and I have been saying over and over to myself and others that I’m not any good. A friend asked me the other day “If you’re don’t think that you’re any good, why do it?” She was right. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think that I was good. I have a little bit of that writerly arrogance. A little bit of the belief that my stories are worth telling to others.

    AJ asked: Where do these insecurities come from and how do we deal with them so they don’t hamstring our productivity, our careers?

    I compare myself to others I read a friend’s work and I think “Wow, my 14th draft isn’t as good as her first draft.” Or I read a book and think “That got published. At least, my story has a plot.” Neither is a good thing to do. It feeds that I’m not good enough cycle. I am trying to remember that my work is my work and it has nothing to do with what others do. I still read good books (and bad books), but I am trying to avoid comparing what I do to what others do.

  • @David, AJ, Faith, etc…. Meh. Maybe it’s just me. But I don’t think I’ve ever really seen the word “arrogant” used in a positive way. Not just based on dictionary definition, but on common usage. It just carries no positive connotations for me. If you called me arrogant, I would be offended. And then I would try to understand why you thought I was arrogant, and then I would work to be less arrogant. (I’ve been through this cycle before, several times. I’m always working to be less arrogant.) I just don’t see it as aspirational. I see it as a handicap.

    Audacious? Yes. That I can handle. Self-confident. Fearless. Ambitious. Pushing the limits. Even a little pride and faith, etc. All potentially positive traits, and I know I often need to be more of those things. But arrogant? The word instantly means to me that someone is pushy, self-absorbed, dismissive of others. If I’m arrogant, I can’t be a good writer, because otherwise how could I get in the heads of the characters? How can I really understand them and walk in their shoes? If I was arrogant, I wouldn’t care, because it’s all about me. And in the writing of a book or a story, I would never use “arrogant” to describe a positive aspect of a character. It would always represent something negative about them (and if they were a protag, it would either be a tragic flaw that brings about their undoing in the classical tragedy sense, or a tragic flaw that they have to overcome as part of their character growth).

    But I seem to be in the minority, here, in how I understand and read and use this word. So, sorry for driving this off-topic. (I mused on a somewhat related topic on my blog several months ago, and never came to any firm conclusions: http://undiscoveredauthor.wordpress.com/2011/05/04/humility-vs-naricissism-fight/

  • I’m not arrogant; I’m Ghod. I create worlds and populate them with critters and characters. And then I throw the proverbial monkey wrench into the gears of their lives and make them face impossible obstacles.:-)

    That gets me through the writing part.

    Over the years I’ve learned to supress the cowardly author and send the babies out into the cold, cruel editorial world. I’ve learned to say I’m a writer without ducking my head or slanting my eyes. I write. That’s what I do.

    Besides, it doesn’t sound as crazy as saying, “I’m Ghod!”

  • I played twelve years of football and I understand the good side of arrogance. AJ’s example was spot on. You need arrogance to overcome self-doubt, to push yourself beyond where you would otherwise limit yourself. It’s not a dictionary meaning, it’s a practical device. My only problem is that I’ve used it in sports, in almost exactly the way outlined (except I was a defensive back, so it was to to make the ridiculous interceptions not a catches). I’ve never considered falling back on it in writing, taking the humble self-doubting approach.

    In some ways, I’ve seen guys on the field talk tough and act arrogant, but deep down they were not that way. It was a facade they displayed to push further. A false arrogance if you will. Off the field, they were just ordinary average Joes. That’s sort of where I fit in. Arrogance on the field was a mask, an alternate personality that couldn’t be beaten. I hate to say it, but even talked a little smack to some of the more arrogant receivers as if the battle of confidence would result in success in the game.

    If you self-doubt in private but can crank it up for everybody else, that “exaggerated opinion of one’s self importance” might just level out somewhere in the middle.
    Cheers,
    Dave

  • The best way to fuel your “literary arrogance” is to look back on the work you produced previously. You easily see that you now produce vastly superior work and thus you must be good.

    Just make sure you don’t follow the thought to its inevitable conclusion. That being in time you will look back on the work you are doing now and realise how bad it is and that only then are you great. So stop as soon as you get to the “I’m so much better than I was before.” and leave it at that. 🙂

  • MaCrae

    @Laura, I’ll definately have to use that. It’s a great idea, so there’s no OMG!ing going on.:)

    @AJ, Practice makes perfect and all that cliche jazz, right? Or rather experience makes perfect, and time…lots and lots of time.

    @Razziecat, You know, that actually makes a lot of sense to me! It sounds like Niagra Falls is my problem, so I’ll keep my eye out for red flags.

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one with this problem! Thanks for your responses!

  • I never get used to the constant self doubt and self questioning. It always startles the hell out of me that other writers feel the same way. I’m lost in a vast sea of it right now and trying to write my way out and ignore the demons. Wish they went away. Maybe this is the entire reason why the myth of the drinking writer exists. Maybe we drink to drown the demons. Sigh.

  • I’m sorry to hear that, Diana. For what it’s worth I’m constantly in and out of this mood in which I have no faith in my ability as a writer (which is pretty trying on my friends and family), and I don’t know a good solution except, as you say, to write your way out of it. And believe some of the people who say nice things about your work 🙂