Humility: The Writer’s Indispensable Virtue

by Mike Duran · 6 comments

Many aspiring authors get trapped into incessantly complaining about the publishing industry. It’s easy to do.  In fact, I’ve done it! Between fickle market trends and play-it-safe editors, the struggling writer can quickly lose heart and surrender to cynicism. Don’t get me wrong, the publishing industry deserves some criticism. But the writer who makes it her “mission” to highlight problems with the system, in the end, only hurts herself.

Writer’s Digest’s Jane Friedman recently posted about how important curiosity and selflessness are for aspiring authors. Storytellers who get caught up in their own opinions, their own ideas, their own accomplishments, their own hardships, unintentionally undermine their own success. In this way, cultivating humility is indispensable to our growth as writers.

Andrea Dupree of Lighthouse Writers Workshop gives this advice to authors:

Great writers need humility, fearlessness in the face of their own ineptitudes, a curiosity about the world and the people in it.

Humility, fearlessness, and curiosity. Martin Brady of Los Angeles Writers Groups cites a similar triumvirate. In Humility, Patience, and Courage: The Writer’s Holy Trinity, he reminds us:

…the craft of writing is often painstaking, elusive, frustrating, contentious, and spurious. It also requires constant re-tooling of one’s perspective, as well as a willingness to pull back and reconsider alternatives.

The writer who lacks humility will undoubtedly hedge at the suggestion they need “constant re-tooling” or possibly should “reconsider alternatives.” It’s been said,  people who never change their minds are either perfect to begin with or stubborn forever after. So unless your writing is “perfect to begin with,” changing your mind is par for the course. Yes, at times we must be tenacious, inflexible, and single-minded. But without humility, that resolve can become a hill to die on rather than a means to an end.

  • Humility helps as weather rejection without croaking
  • Humility helps us welcome praise without crowing
  • Humility helps us receive critique without being defensive
  • Humility helps us render critique without malice
  • Humility helps us admit our deficiencies without feeling crushed
  • Humility helps us acknowledge our strengths without getting big-headed
  • Humility helps us appreciate how far we’ve come
  • Humility helps us admit how far we have to go
  • Humility helps us celebrate the successes of other writers
  • Humility helps us not take all the credit for our own success

Of course, this isn’t to suggest that humility is all one needs to succeed. After all, it’s writing that gets you published, not modesty or grace. Nevertheless, the longer one writes without publication success, the easier it is to become a cynic, to calcify in our opinions, to stop looking in the mirror, to resist “re-tooling,” and refuse to “reconsider alternatives.” Which is why humility is the writer’s indispensable virtue.

Sure, the industry is out of whack. But does raging against the machine really help?

Gabriel November 8, 2010 at 5:27 AM

I like what you say about not allowing ourself to become cynical and always complain about the book industry. But if there is problems, like you admit, how will they ever change without peopel voicing their dissent? Seems to me there must be a balance between a writer being humble and still speaking truth to power.

Mike Duran November 8, 2010 at 6:31 AM

Great question, Gabriel! I’m not sure there’s a “balance” between being humble and bringing criticism because we can bring criticism and still remain humble, which is my point here. I just know it’s easy for unpublished authors to play the blame game and assume it’s the market that’s keeping them from being successful. Along the way, we kind of lose ourselves (see my post: Get That Chip Off Your Shoulder!. I’m definitely not saying we should altogether stop holding the industry accountable, but that we should remain humble along the way, commit ourselves to learning and growing, and focus on the one thing in our power: becoming a better writer.

Sally Apokedak November 8, 2010 at 5:42 AM

Great post. I love your list of all the things that humility helps us do.

David@RedLetterBelieversss November 13, 2010 at 12:35 PM

I like what you said about curiosity. It means we dont have all the answers…that we are searching, hunting for truth.

And that is humility.

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