by Cheryl Wilder, with Suzanne Farrell Smith
ed. Claire Guyton
I needed to be heard.
I was in the fifth grade in 1984, when missing children—almost always dead children—stared at me from the milk carton as I ate my breakfast. My school district fingerprinted students on thick notecards with an attached mug shot—just in case. And teaching “stranger danger” was abandoned as a useless strategy when it came to preventing child molestation. Now children feared adults they knew and had trusted. At the same time, I was learning to write poetry.
For a school assignment, I wrote a first person poem in quatrains about a father molesting his daughter and the mom keeping quiet about it. It was fictional, but there was no way for the school authorities to know that without questioning my divorced parents. Then I was questioned, by my father, in a conversation that lasted minutes. He asked only if he made me feel uncomfortable. No, I replied, growing uneasy with what it meant to communicate, both in writing and talking.
The negative attention confused me. I had no idea as I wrote the poem that I was doing anything wrong; and technically, I wasn’t. Unfortunately, being questioned about my poem made me feel that writing about my experiences, my feelings, and my interpretation of events was wrong. Being questioned hurt my Pride. And that wound prevented me from writing again until I was a senior in high school.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that my fifth-grade poem was a reaction to a loss of innocence and safety in my environment. Even more so, I was responding to the lack of communication from the adults in my world. There weren’t conversations around the table that addressed the upward trend of crimes against children or the fears that arose in me while looking at pictures of dead children over my bowl of Fruit Loops. Years later, as I began writing again, I was more conscious of my need to communicate, my gut-desire to articulate my thoughts on paper. My eighteen-year-old self knew she had the words people wanted, even needed, to hear. And I found Pride in that.
Listen to me. Read my words. Pretty please.
According to Christian ethics, Pride is the deadliest of the seven sins because it lies at the root of all sin. Feeling Envious of another’s accomplishment? Pride wants it to be me and not him. Gluttonous over revision? Pride wants my work to be the best it can be. Wrathful toward the workshop group that red-lined the hell out of my submission? My Pride is hurt. I see Pride as the deadliest sin for two other reasons as well: (1) Pride is all about me. (2) Stealthy Pride, living quietly at the root of other emotions, too often goes unnoticed and unchallenged as it motivates daily decisions and action.
Pride is also the most confusing sin. We are warned to resist it, yet we can use the word Pride to describe a natural and healthy self-confidence, satisfaction with our choices and actions. I’m Proud to have finished both undergraduate and graduate school while working full-time and raising a child. I’m Proud to be a member of a group of talented writers. I’m Proud when I know I’ve put everything I have into a piece of writing, and I’m Proud when someone praises me for that. Aristotle thought Pride not a sin, but a virtue. “Pride,” he says, “seems even from its name to be concerned with great things.”
George Orwell in, “Why I Write,” designates “Sheer egoism” as the number one motivation for writers. “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.” I think another word for this “sheer egoism” is “Pride.” When asked about this deadliest of the sins, Adam Arvidson doesn’t pretend: “My desire for name recognition is utterly prideful. This is actually what I feel worst about, this self-centeredness. I want people to know me and listen to me.” Jason Mott doesn’t pretend, either: “Every writer wants their work to be loved. I’m no exception. Do opinions of my writing matter? Certainly.”
The difficulty of managing Pride in the writing life comes from the need to nurture the self-confidence that Aristotle seems to be talking about, without allowing it to blossom into the kind of Pride the Christian ethicists condemn—Pride-as-arrogance. Self-confidence is motivating and healthy. I believe in myself enough to sit alone and write with zero exterior instant gratification; no one is giving me a pat on the back for making my writing quota for the day. I have to believe that my voice is worth forging through the hundreds of rejection slips. Jennifer Lunden agrees:
I believe pride is a good and necessary thing. How else could we writers survive the pummeling of rejection after rejection (for me, sixteen rejections so far this year alone, many of those for a piece I happen to think is brilliant) and keep going back for more? I do it because I am proud of my work. I know it is good. If I didn’t have that, I would be a wilting flower.
But what price does a writer pay when Pride grows into arrogance? Pride-as-arrogance leads me to believe that I am better than you; better at writing, at cooking, at telling jokes. Remember my co-author, Suzanne’s, encounter with her writing idol, Jamie? Most likely Jamie doesn’t remember an interaction that crushed the spirit of an aspiring writer; Jamie was too wrapped up in herself, too bothered to smile and say thank you for the compliments. Suzanne’s Wrath was fueled by Jamie’s Pride-as-arrogance. And for a while, that Wrath extinguished Suzanne’s Pride-as-self-confidence, her self-respect as a writer, silencing her voice.
When asked if he has met Prideful writers, Mott answers,
Tons of them. It’s a little upsetting but, in the end, I try not to let it bother me too much. At the end of the day, we’ve all got to make our way as best we can. Lots of people use pride as a way of buttressing themselves against the harshness of the industry. If that helps them make it, then so be it.
When asked the same question, Nye says, “When I come across someone like that it reminds me not to constantly toot my own horn, to be modest but honest.” She also works toward modesty in workshop.
[I have] to accept the fact that sometimes I miss the mark in my writing and can take positive feedback without getting my knickers in a twist about it. I find it uncomfortable to be around people who believe their writing is vastly superior to everyone else’s. I’ve actually taken on people like that in workshop. It’s just ridiculous how people put down others to try and make themselves look better. It never works.
It’s easier than ever to fall into public sin before you know it, broadcasting a slip into arrogance with a few strokes of the keyboard. Earlier in this essay series, Suzanne talked about how social media can intensify a writer’s green-eyed Envy. And I talked about how the Sloth beast woos writers with the Internet. The World Wide Web poses similar challenges to our management of Pride.
Writers no longer wait for press releases, book signings, or book reviews to further their career. We can simultaneously self-express and self-promote through Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. In her essay on Greed, Suzanne mentioned how crime writer R.J. Ellory posted anonymous rave reviews of his own book online, and then, when he was discovered, was forced publicly to beg forgiveness. Obviously, Ellory is an extreme example of a writer who has fallen to Pride-as-arrogance. Most writers are straightforward self-promoters, who may, or may not, worry about appearing arrogant.
Is self-promotion a manifestation of Pride-as-self-confidence or Pride-as-arrogance? Regardless, self-promotion is necessary, if a writer wants to be heard among the chatter of all the other voices. “Every writer has a heightened degree of self-importance. Let’s establish that early on,” says Mott.
And it can be very helpful … in helping them with self-promotion. However, a person can still be humble and self-promote. Most of the time, people are sympathetic when they see you trying to self-promote—so long as you’re not obnoxious about it. People tend to understand that ‘Hey, if this person doesn’t self-promote to some extent, how can they ever expect to make it?’
Arvidson agrees that straightforward self-promotion shouldn’t be seen as Pride slipping into arrogance. “I don’t mind self-promotion—don’t mind doing it, and don’t mind when others do, too.” Nye reminds us of how a writer can be generous and humble while self-promoting: “If there is an opportunity to thank someone for the opportunity, or for selecting your work for publication, do this before mentioning your article, essay, or story in any public way.” And she stresses, again, that we writers don’t have a choice when it comes to self-promotion, which is a reminder that Pride-as-self-confidence, as Aristotle argues, is a virtue: “In the overwhelming flow of media, you’ll never stand out or get readers if you don’t have a presence, so self-promotion is self-preservation.”
However necessary we consider self-promotion, there are writers who struggle with it. Perhaps they fear slipping into Pride-as-arrogance but their real problem is that they suffer from yet another kind of Pride, the kind that makes us refer to a hungry man who refuses a charity meal as “too Proud.” “[T]he unduly humble man,” says Aristotle, “being worthy of good things, robs himself of what he deserves.” The “unduly humble” self-promoters don’t self-promote at all, or do so on a minute scale. They don’t want to impose on other people, they are fearful of how they will be perceived, or they hate asking for help of any kind. And isn’t that what self-promotion is, asking others to help my writing career? Asking others to validate my work?
I am too Proud to self-promote. I debated not even telling my family about this eight-week essay series. I ended up sending one email in the beginning, but thought it was asking too much to send one every week that a new installment was published. In fact, I tell very few people when I publish at all. The reason I make myself admit this is because Aristotle—my guide throughout my meditation on Pride—believes the Pride that results in undue humility is worse than Pride-as-arrogance. Worse because it causes more destruction. Arrogant people are just fools, he says. Realizing that I am too Proud reminds me of my revelation that the Sloth beast actively silences the artist. “For each class of people aims at what corresponds to its worth,” says Aristotle. “And these people [those too Proud to ask for help] stand back even from noble actions and undertaking, deeming themselves unworthy.” This kind of Pride is not simply stealth, it is ninja-stealth.
Aristotle says that Pride is only virtuous when it shows itself in a good man, one who also shows courage, prudence, temperance, and, when called for, humility. Again, I am reminded of the importance of developing and nurturing my own Pride-as-self-confidence while being sure to avoid that slip into the deadliest of sins. Now, Pride is less ninja-stealth and more like a Samurai Warrior, standing at attention and protecting one’s self-worth without giving in to the temptation of arrogance. And without giving in to the temptation to hide in a hole, if that’s your tendency.
The bitch of it is, healthy humility, as opposed to undue humility, takes constant work: “Because I recognize this [desire for name recognition] about myself,” Arvidson says. “I actively suppress this urge to be at the center of attention all the time, and that active suppression has gradually led to (I think) a more genuine selflessness.” Mott also recognizes humility has an important part of the writing life:
Do I let them [opinions of others] control me? No. At a certain point in a person’s writing journey they pledge themselves to an idea, to an aesthetic, to a philosophy, with the full knowledge that there will be others who disagree with it and, consequently, not enjoy their writing. That’s just all part of the journey.
Rich Farrell remains committed to teaching himself how to privilege his inner tinkering monk we met in “Envy”: “My pride often gets in the way of doing the quiet, monastic work.”
For me, I need to rid “undue” from my humility. My desire as an artist is to communicate through the written word, and it’s stunted by my own lack of self-worth. That’s a hard pill to swallow and I have no one to blame but myself. On the bright side, I am once again shown that the writing life is not only about putting words on the page. Once a writer is dedicated to this task, the way she lives in the world begins to change—she is immersed in a world of ideas. Every sunset, every milk carton with a picture of a missing child, and every lone shopping cart in a parking lot, adds dimension to her characters, her poems, her stories. The writer’s eye never closes. And since it doesn’t, the writer becomes the writing which becomes the writer. The Prideful beast actually eats its own tail. And that’s a good thing. That’s something to be Proud of.
Ethicists originally defined and warned about the so-called seven deadly sins to motivate people to work toward virtue, to give them a framework in which to self-evaluate, persevere, and triumph. It is no different in the writing life. Jennifer Lunden speaks to the motivation the deadly sins give her: “[W]ithout this greed, this gluttony, this pride, what would drive us to go on? The love of words? Of beauty? The love of the pen to the page? Okay, yes, many of us would still write, but what would drive us to aspire to the very best we can be, the very greatest we can accomplish?”
As Suzanne and I studied each sin, we discovered behaviors and beliefs that define us as writers. In my case, this self-reflection tamed my Sloth beast, reinvigorated my Glutton for word choice, and took the “unduly” out of my humble Pride. This is not to say that I am free from committing sin in my writing life. It is to say that when I do regress, I must remind myself that I am not failing at being virtuous, but that the journey is and must be a long trial with cyclic falls from grace. Here I turn to the wisdom of Nelson Mandela, one of the great moral leaders of our time: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
I suppose it is time for me to fully succumb to the writing life, to re-establish my footing on the dedicated path whenever I am diverted by sin, and simply thank the journey for taking me with it.
The writer friends quoted here…
The questions we asked…
As a writer, how much do other people’s opinions of your work matter? Does that hinder your creativity?
Have you encountered a Prideful writer and/or workshop participant? How does this make you feel as a fellow writer?
At what level is self-importance productive? How does it tie into self-promotion? Can one be humble and still self-promote?
Is there room for Grace in writing: humility, open mind, simplicity, and acceptance?
Image of hands–palms up–stained with paint over yellow background by Lisa Fotios via Pexels.
Previously published at Hunger Mountain.