At lunch this week, one of my colleagues was discussing a friend of his, a poet, whom he said was not much of a “self-promoter” but who was, in fact, a talented writer. He wanted to encourage her to get her work out into the world, to readers, but suspected her quieter demeanor was making her reluctant to make that step forward.
“I think being an artist requires an odd combination of hubris and humility,” I told him, and our lunch companion agreed.
It’s a philosophy I hold close to my heart as a writer. On the one hand, I have to believe–really believe–that the work I write is worth reading, that people should publish it and, occasionally, purchase it. That’s the hubris.
And on the other hand, I always have to remember that there are writers out there who do amazing things, things I admire, things I want to work toward achieving. More than that, no matter how excited I feel about something I’ve just written or published, I can never “rest” on that excitement. I have to believe I can do better, work harder, accomplish more. That’s the source of the humility.
It reminds me of what a teacher once told me about the poet Marianne Moore. Raised Presbyterian, Moore was brought up internalizing the Christian ethos of service toward others and humility toward God, while at the same time having a deep assurrance that Moore was among the “elect,” those whose faith guaranteed them a place in Heaven. This tension between entitlement and a kind of poverty are always at work in Moore’s poems.
Despite my desire to lean heavily toward humility and go easy on the hubris, I think most artist find themselves migrating between the two poles. When the words are really flowing, we feel empowered, talented, intelligent, unbeatable! And when we go to the well and find it dry, we’re reminded of how fleeting the art is and how powerless we are in the face of it.