I just got a call from one of my sisters, congratulating me on a bit of published writing (in my family, news travels slowly – more precisely, good news travels slowly; unlike bad news which travels with the intensity of a tropical depression). She was so happy for me, so proud of her brother. And I, in my usual fashion, tried to make little of the thing, though of course I was happy she was happy that I was happy. And a little proud. Just a little.
I just cannot take praise well. I tend to reject it, to make light of it, to veer the conversation to other less personally intimate topics. In fact, it took my wife
to teach me how to give a gracious “thank you” instead of steering talk to other matters.
Yes, part of me is outrageously humble. And why shouldn’t I be? There are hundreds of thousands of better writers, both quick and dead, who are better than me, whose words have touched lives in ways I cannot even begin to speculate upon, who create stories with such skill and craft and passion that it makes my own work so patently contrived.
(And it is an excruciatingly honest humility. I live to learn from better authors; I long to sit at the feet of intelligent critics; I yearn to be involved in discussions with passionate arguments on the nature of stories and craft – I want to soak it up, to be better, to ultimately reach myself wherever myself is, that buried storyteller who tells too few tales.)
And yet – part of me is also absurdly arrogant. And why shouldn’t I be? I have learned how to write in my own manner, painfully exercising the parts of my brain whose muscles empower my imagination, eking out words and phrases and sentences and paragraphs and whole things that I’d choose to read myself (which is different from saying that I write things people would like to read – but then again maybe that’s my outrageous humility talking, who knows?).
(And I do believe in positive arrogance. You have believe in yourself if you are to compete, and writing is competition – you are fighting laziness; turning your back on various temptations like books, games, friends or horniness; you are engaged in a contest with the last story or play you wrote, and you always always always need to be better the next time. If you do not believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in your writing?)
So there they are, laid out in front of me by my sister’s phone call: humility and arrogance, inseparable yet oddly understandable.
And I do not think this set of paired opposites, this syzygy, is unique to me. We all have layers, like an onion. In this case, it is humility, then arrogance, then humility, then arrogance, and so on, ad infinitum, as necessitated by circumstance and company.
As required by context - if you, a stranger, come up to me (and this has happened several times) and engage in this piece of banter:
You: Are you Dean Alfar? The playwright?
Me: Um, yes.
You: Wow! You’ve won (insert a small number) Palanca Awards! I’m not worthy!
Me: Thank you. Which ones have you read?
You: None, but I intend to.
If this is the dialogue, then the twin demands of arrogance and humility war with each other, and I will most likely smile and walk away.
If it is something like this:
You: Are you Dean Alfar? The author of (insert title)?
Me: Um, yes.
You: I really liked your story. I liked how (insert stuff) but didn’t feel that you (insert stuff) but on the whole, (insert adjective) work.
Me: Thank you.
Humility wins, hands down and I will consciously strive to shift the conversation to something, anything, else.
If, however, the dialogue begins with something like this:
You: Are you the fucker who wrote this piece of crap?
Then I will most happily give in to arrogance, throw in a good dash of pride, and begin to painstakingly drive you into a small hole from which you will never get out of (oh, you can, eventually, but you need to gnaw off your legs).
Thankfully (thankfully?) the last scenario has yet to happen in all its ill-tempered glory, but of course I have also come across people for whom my writing does absolutely nothing. This doesn’t bother me for the same reason that there are people who don’t like certain music, etc. It becomes a matter of taste.
The most interesting admixture of humility and arrogance comes with a rejection letter. Normally these things are form letters, but the one I got was a personal note. The editor stated the elements of the story that she liked (the manner of writing, the language, the blending of this and that genre, the use of folklore) but concluded that the story was not what her magazine was looking for.
Reading it (my second real rejection letter – but don’t be mistaken, I submit manuscripts for consideration very rarely) I felt the usual humility because of the encouragement, and the usual arrogance because, well, “how could this person not see how wonderful this piece of fiction is?” Sigh.
And then it’s back to more writing, because that’s just how the way things are.