What does it mean when someone says they are humbled by an experience?  Taken literally, it would mean they are made to feel more humble, which is to say less proud.  And yet, I would venture to say that most of us have never heard anyone use the expression in a context in which that makes sense, inasmuch it is almost universally used  on the occasion of receiving  an award. Usually, the humbling is accompanied by an expression of pride and gratitude.  The higher the honor, apparently, the more humbling the experience and the greater the pride.

There is only one sense in which winning an award can be a truly humbling experience, and that is if it is undeserved.  Do you feel that your accomplishments are trivial compared to the work of other recipients?  Was the award completely unexpected because you think of yourself as just getting the job done in a workmanlike way, nothing special?  Do you feel that if the award committee looked back over your record they’d have to reconsider choosing to honor you?  Is the contribution of others unfairly minimized by their exclusion?

These are all perfectly normal reactions, whether valid or not.  They are also utterly inconsistent with pride, and the kind of gratitude that would be appropriate in this context smacks of favoritism and ulterior motivation.

If you truly feel humbled, the most honorable thing to do is to turn down the award and explain your reasons.  If, after mulling things over, you decide you deserve the award after all, accept it with grace and pride, never mind the false humility.  If you still feel the award is undeserved, but it would create awkwardness for the committee to turn it down, well, you’re in a fine pickle, aren’t you?

It’s ironic, to say the least, that when someone actually does turn down an award, they are almost always criticized for being too full of themselves.

In truth, I suspect that most of the time it is simply formulaic, the right thing to say in the same way that people say “pleased to meet you,” or “sorry for your loss.”

But I can’t help it.  It’s my duty as a curmudgeon to harp on these things.



The making of a curmudgeon

I have often thought that I’m regarded by my friends with a mixture of disbelief, alarm, and chagrin. I seem inexorably drawn to insert my opinion into any and all discussions I stumble upon. I mean well, but I’m afraid I offend too often and too blithely. I don’t regret my propensity to skepticism, but I often regret having offended someone I respect.

I don’t think this is a learned response. As early as the first grade, I got into trouble with the nuns at my school for spreading the word around the playground that there was no Santa Claus. I was dumbfounded. Hadn’t they been teaching us just that day what a terrible thing it is to lie? Apparently, some of my classmates had gone to them in tears, asking if it was true. I imagine the nuns consoled them, “There, there, of course there is a Santa, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!”

I knew better; I had the news on the highest authority: my older brothers. Is it any wonder I started questioning everything else the nuns told me?

I’m a born outsider, literally. I was born in a refugee camp, and have never felt completely in my element, and I suppose this is a major factor in the way I relate to other people. It gives me a kind of distance that encourages my behavior.

To make matters worse, my father was an engineer by training, and a scientist by temperament. Instead of golf or bowling, he relaxed by reading science fiction and doing math problems. The first requisite of science is skepticism, and I learned it well. Too well.

He was also a deeply religious man, a Catholic who gathered the family around the radio to listen to and pray the rosary at the regularly appointed hours on Catholic radio. Naturally, when I got old enough to enter my normal rebellious years, I jumped on this contradiction in his example.

I did 12 years in parochial schools.  Once, in my sophomore year, I flunked religion class, for the sin of asking too strenuously how the Holy Trinity wasn’t just semantic trickery.  A certain native pig-headedness embroiders my skepticism, it seems.  My father was mortified.  He told me that he would rather I flunked everything else, but aced religion.  I briefly considered testing this theory, before coming to my senses; I had no desire to be sent off to a monastery.

Apparently, there were two rules:

  • Question everything
  • Accept Catholic dogma blindly

I could have chosen either of them to avoid the contradiction. For a number of reasons, I went with the first. Dogma is surrounded by walls; walls invariably yield to skepticism. And so, to this day, I am cursed with this compulsion to question everything. That’s not to say I don’t have my own blind spots, my contradictions; I would tell you what they are, but, of course, I don’t know, and wouldn’t recognize them if they jumped up and bit me on the nether regions.

Fortunately for me, my friends generally do not hesitate to help me out.

How to stop stressing and believe in yourself

“Listen to me,” said the counselor, “your ideas are as good as anyone else’s.”

The young man shifted his weight and looked down at the floor.

“I guess so.”

“What do you mean, you guess so? It’s true. You need to stop comparing yourself to others. That way only results in feelings of inferiority.”

“But, maybe I am inferior. My ideas sound so vague, so simple. If you read what everyone else writes, it’s all so subtle, so well thought out.”

Silence. The ticking of the big mantle clock seemed to fill every moment with anxiety. The counselor let out a long sigh, tapped his pencil on his pad, and looked directly at his young client.

“First of all, you’re comparing yourself with published authors, people who have had time to elaborate on their ideas, and anticipate objections.”

The young man looked dubious.  “But you don’t know my work.  You don’t know if my ideas are good or not.”

“That’s not the important point here.  What’s important is that you are a unique person, and no one else has your viewpoint. If that’s not worth sharing with the world, I don’t know what is. Look inside your own heart for answers, not in some books written by people who will never know you, the real you.”

The young man looked up.

“Really? You really think my ideas are as good as anyone else’s?”

“Absolutely. You’re unique, you’re you. Don’t let others control your self respect. If your so-called friends constantly criticize your work, you need to find better friends. Surround yourself with people who lift you up, not drag you down.”

The young man stood up, took a deep breath, and extended his hand.

“All right, then! I’ll do as you say.”

“I’m so glad we could have this talk,” said the counselor, giving him a sidelong glance. “Keep your chin up. I look forward to hearing good things of you in the future.”

They shook hands, and, with a bounce in his step that was utterly lacking before the meeting, young Adolph strode out into the sunlight.

The bloggings will continue until morale improves

Is it possible that blogging hurts your chances of getting published elsewhere?  That depends.

The ordinary opinion piece, like this one you’re reading now, can only help, always assuming you write well.  Even if you only have 30 followers, that’s 30 more than would ordinarily see your ideas expressed so fully otherwise, and potential publishers can get a very good overview of your writing skill with a click of a mouse.  Since opinion pieces tend to be transient, there’s little danger of “using up” good ideas, so you’re not competing with yourself.

For more imaginative writing, however, it’s a different story.  That’s because most publishers consider your work, whether it’s fiction or poetry, to have already been published if you’ve posted it on your blog, and almost none are open to work that’s already published elsewhere.  Most writers would like to be published by someone else, if only to validate their work.  Although it’s true that self-publication has lost some of its stigma these days, there still remains the issue of whether anyone else whose opinion you might value thinks your work is worthwhile.

So, if a blog is considered a publication by the majority of editors, who want only unpublished material, where does that leave the poet or short story writer? You could simply consider your blog just another publication to which you submit your work. That’s fine, but you know it will get accepted there, because the editor is…um…you. As a result, you will tend to send what you consider your best work elsewhere, either by design or unconsciously. Your blog becomes a repository for second-rate work, stuff you have low confidence in, or that has been rejected elsewhere. In the best case, it will have experimental material that you feel will have little chance of exposure elsewhere. In this blog, I often post pieces which blur the boundary between fiction and essay, or which I think are simply too short to be considered by magazines and journals, although I have to admit, that seems to be all I write in the way of fiction anyway. Still, I don’t feel I’m competing with myself.

For me, the problem is with poetry, which I post on my other blog, Exile’s Child.  Lately, I find myself neglecting Exile’s Child, because if I write a poem I think very highly of, I tend to send it off to a journal.  Rather than posting just leavings on the blog, I have to sit down and write specifically for it, which leaves me questioning the wisdom of not sending the result elsewhere, or, if I don’t think it’s good enough, of posting it on the blog.  I like to think I have enough sense not to post second-rate material, but we are all very good at self-deception when it’s required, aren’t we?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject, especially if you happen to be an editor.

The curmudgeon’s retort

I quit Facebook a couple of years ago; I decided I just wasn’t cut out for it.  I suffer from the inability to let egregious errors slide, especially when the topic is an important one.  It’s not that I think I’m always right; I’m open to correction with a good argument.  Unfortunately, that’s not a response I got very often.  Most of the time, the responses were couched in personal terms: I was a troll, I was being too picky, or, in one case, I was making a ridiculous fool of myself for disagreeing.

Maybe they’re right.  I’ve had similar reactions on Twitter, although I’ve learned to just withdraw at the first sign of it.  What I find oddly disturbing, though, is how often a simple disagreement is characterized as a lack of respect.  Have we really come to the point where we think it’s disrespectful to openly disagree?

Social media seem to be seen as places where anyone gets to express their opinion, no matter how misinformed, or, indeed, insulting, without the fear of being exposed to contradiction.  If I don’t think something you’ve posted is correct, fine; I get to post my own opinion, but not in response to yours.  As a result, we, as a people, can happily continue shouting at each other without engaging in any meaningful discussion.

Nothing wrong with this, where mere opinion is concerned, I suppose, but the line between opinion and verifiable fact has all but disappeared in our discourse.  And that’s very dangerous in a democracy, because it leaves us open to all kinds of manipulation.  Not the least of which is the illusion that the majority of the nation feels exactly as we do on all the issues of importance, because we never allow ourselves to hear anything different.  As a result, when an election goes astray from what we perceive as the inevitable result, we’re convinced it’s because of corruption, or worse, a conspiracy.  And who’s to tell us otherwise?

If there’s a single word to describe this trend it’s this: childish. It goes along with our fascination  with the simple black/white dichotomies of the comic-book movies we’re inundated with, and “extreme” sports, also straight out of the comics.  Are we doomed to continue this prolonged adolescence forever?

Do you suffer from IQS?

Do you find yourself repeating meaningless platitudes about love, courage, or creativity throughout the day?  Do you attribute nearly every possible sentence in the English language to the same half dozen famous people?  Do you feel strangely moved by reading the same quote for the hundredth time on Twitter or Facebook?  Do you feel an utterance is made more profound by dividing it into lines, pasting it onto a picture of a sunset, and attributing it to a famous dead person?

If so, you may be among the millions who suffer from Internet Quote Syndrome, or IQS.  Here’s what famous people are saying about IQS:

IQS is the single biggest obstacle to peace in the world today. -Mohandas Gandhi

Without a doubt, IQS is Internet Quote Syndrome – Abraham Lincoln

It’s amazing, all the stuff Lincoln said – Mark Twain

But now there’s something you can do about it.  Just send any normal sentence, in any language to me, along with the low, low price of $69.95, and I will read it.

Yes, It’s that simple.  Here’s what Neill Gaiman says about this extraordinary opportunity:

Hold on, you can’t use me; I ain’t dead yet!

So don’t delay, send today!

The writer as commodity

When I was a young pup, many, many years ago, I wanted to be a writer.  I didn’t particularly want to write in any disciplined way, mind you.  What I was after was the identity of the fierce intellectual, scowling over my Smith-Corona, dimly visible through the clouds of pipe smoke curling around my august head.  I couldn’t pinpoint it, but somewhere along the line I came to the realization that I had not only to pound away at my typewriter to become the man of my dreams, but write well and often enough so that people would want to read my stuff enough to pay money for it.  Crass, but there it was:  I had to work, and I had to sell.

In spite of being a card-carrying old fart, I am reasonably cyber-literate, having worked with and on computers since about 1964 (not a typo).  I have noticed an interesting phenomenon in the blogo-twittersphere: the writer as commodity; it comes with a cute bit of jargon as well: crowdfunding.  Its done sometimes through websites like SellaBand or Kickstarter, but as often as an independent project.  This typically involves a blog page with a link where you can send contributions; almost never is any actual piece of writing offered in exchange.  Throw in a twitter account where you can point to the page, and keep everybody abreast of how the donations are going, and Bob’s your uncle.

I am very skeptical of this development, which strikes me as just this side of holding out a cup on the street corner with a sign saying “Will write, but not for you.”

I am well aware of the long tradition of patronage in the arts.  It usually involved, however, wealthy members of the aristocracy, and was the norm mainly before copywrite laws and royalties.  Indeed, the word “royalties” derives from the practice of royal courts to patronize writers and other artists. But such arrangements almost always involved the commissioning of specific works, which had to meet the criteria of the patron.  If you held such a position, you had better write something pleasing to your angel, or you would soon find yourself on the street:

…writing for a patron typically meant avoiding the expression of ideas that would upset the established political order, on which the patron built his wealth and power.  —Gennady Stolyarov II

Today’s writers would be affronted by the very notion of such limits on their production, but they forget, or never knew, that this commitment to artistic integrity is a very modern thing, dating to the fairly recent phenomenon that writers could actually make money directly from the sale of their work.  You can have patronage, or you can have integrity; you can’t expect to have both.

Of course, it’s possible to get people to donate to your enterprise with no qualifications, on the basis of some romantic notion.  Gullible people are everywhere.  But do you want a living on those terms?  I’m asking; if you’re comfortable with it, none of my business, I suppose.

The long and short of it:  If you want integrity, sell what you write.  Go ahead and advertise online, include a donation link if you like, but give something in return, beyond your mere existence as a writer.