I became a writer mainly because of pride.
Growing up, I always had an excess of confidence. Maybe it was being a big fish in the small pond of the desert town of Hesperia, California, but I was supremely confident that I could do anything.
So when figuring out what to do in life, I decided to become a writer because I thought other people should listen to what I had to say.
I had ideas! I had a grand vision of the world! I was smart, dammit!
Fast forward to my writing career after two graduate degrees — an MA in fiction and an MFA in creative writing — and I was still confident. I was sure that I would be able to publish a book before I was 30. I was sure I would be able to land a tenure track position at a university teaching English and creative writing. I was sure that I would achieve at least a moderate level of fame, and that fame would arrive with an enviable paycheck.
None of those things worked out.
Instead, what happened was a long, slow lesson in humility. For the past decade, all my lofty preconceptions of my success have been shattered.
I adjuncted for years at 5 universities and landed a one-year full time position, but never got a tenure track position — certainly not one teaching creative writing, which is even harder to get than English composition faculty positions.
I racked up 1500 rejections from literary magazines. Yeah, it’s actually takes a lot of work to get rejected that many times. I bought a shit ton of stamps and stole reams of paper from anywhere I could get it. I confessed the 1500 number in an online forum and most of the commenters agreed that I should quit writing. Yes, I earned some nice acceptances as well, but I still got rejections/acceptances at a 70/1 ratio.
And it took me almost a decade to complete my short story collection and find a publisher for it. The process I thought should have taken a few years ended up being far more painful, difficult, and time-consuming than I ever would have imagined.
And you might be thinking — but John, I think you are successful! You have won several short story contests and have a book published and you earn a full time living as an editor and write a blog beloved (or at least read) by millions!
Well bless your heart, thank you for thinking that. And yeah, that’s all true. I am definitely thankful for those things. But when I was just starting out as a writer, I wouldn’t have defined success in that way.
I didn’t want to just roll out a book, I wanted to make a splash.
I wanted my name known.
I wanted that big advance.
I wanted awards.
So in order for me to be happy as a writer, I’ve had to learn a lot of humility. I’ve had to reform my expectations for my writing life and get a better sense of my skills.
Now for some of you, you might feel squirmy about my use of the word humility. You think that humility is someone who is a doormat, who constantly underestimates their own talents, who doesn’t assert themselves.
I don’t think that’s humility at all.
There are two mistakes you can make in regards to humility and pride.
- To think of yourself in very lofty ways. This is the person who never takes other people’s workshop advice on their story. This is the person who doesn’t read very much because they don’t want to pollute their genius brain with other people’s ideas. This is the person whose Twitter feed is filled with snarky take-downs of the greatest writers of our age. This is the person who gets personally offended when they get a rejection.
- To think of yourself in lowly ways. Woe is me, I suck. This is the person who never sends out to literary magazines or agents or publishers because they’re scared of rejection. This is the person who critiques themselves in person and online, and who sometimes won’t even admit they’re a writer to their friends or family members.
But humility is neither thinking about yourself too lofty or too lowly.
Humility is about thinking about yourself … rightly. A correct assessment. An accurate assessment.
Are you a good judge of how talented you are? You often aren’t. I think writers are often misjudging how talented or untalented they are. They think they’re brilliant or that they suck. And that disconnect is often a form of pride. And here is the real kicker: that misjudging of your talents is probably the main thing holding you back in your writing career.
Because listen to me: if you think too highly of yourself, you will submit to literary magazines and agents and publishers that you’ll never land. You will be angry that you’re not getting the credit you think you deserve and you’ll burn out and fail because you’re overestimating yourself.
And if you think too lowly of yourself, you won’t put yourself out there enough. You won’t roll the dice often enough to allow for luck to take place. You won’t write enough, or submit enough, and this will sabotage your career.
More importantly, humility is not thinking about yourself too much at all.
See, back at the beginning this post, when I talked about how I decided to become a writer, it was all about me. I was thinking that I had something to say, that I was smart, that I was going to be great at this.
That focus on myself is the essence of pride.
You know what the humble writer is focused on?
- They are focused on praising other writers.
- They are not competing with fellow writers, they are working hard to encourage them.
- They are building communities of writers.
- They are buying friends’ books (New books, not used books!).
- They aren’t jealous of other writers.
- They are focused on providing pleasure for their readers.
If you focus on other writers and on your readers rather than constantly thinking about your own career, and can be happy for others and try to help others, that’s the essence of humility.
So how am I doing on humility?
I will say that at this stage of my career, I feel like I have a much more honest concept of myself as a writer. There are many types of books that I know that I cannot write, because those simply aren’t my skill sets. I don’t feel like I need to have a NYT bestseller in order to succeed as a writer. I know that I’m talented in many ways, and yet I have a lot of skills to still work on.
Do I still dream sometimes? Absolutely. You shouldn’t give up dreaming. And you shouldn’t give up always pressing to get better. But before I was fantasizing, and now I’m focusing more on steadily doing the work.
And I think I’ve gotten much better at not focusing on myself all the time, too. I mean, this blog really has been a way that I’ve given back to the literary community. I’ve tried to provide resources, from collections of long sentences to story generators to posts on slow writing, that will be helpful for my fellow writers. I’ve written 900 posts now over the last 12 years, and while at the beginning I was blogging for myself, writing what I wanted to write about, now I’m much more focused on what my audience wants, and what could benefit them.
Now this post is not meant to depress you. Far from it.
I think learning humility is actually the best way to be successful as a writer.
By becoming humble, you’re going to accelerate your career. Because you have an accurate conception of yourself, you’re going to submit to places and agents that will be right for your writing, rather than being too timid to submit at all or shooting too high above your pay grade.
And by concentrating on others, rather than yourself, you’re going to build a community of people that love you. You’re going to gain friends who want to buy your book because you bought their book. You’re going to have writers that blurb your book because you’ve promoted their book on Goodreads and Facebook. You’re going to have someone refer you to their agent because you’re simply a wonderful human being who wrote a great Twitter essay that helped a lot of writers.
The humble writer is the successful writer.
Get humble, my friends.
John Matthew Fox
PS. I would love to hear about your journey of humility!
Share so other writers don’t feel so alone.
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