This is the voice of experience speaking: Lessons in humility pop up when you least expect them, a.k.a., the precise moment you’re fullest of yourself. Take the summer of 1976, for example.
The ink on my B.A. in German was barely dry when I enrolled in a total-immersion, graduate-level summer program. For weeks and weeks, 30 or so of us spoke nothing but German. Read in German, ate in German, watched movies in German. By the end of the course, we dreamed in German. Along the way we developed the insouciant, continental swagger and condescending smile of polyglots among mere monolingual mortals.
The final night of the program our professor, Herr Doktor S., invited us to his home for a celebratory supper. The thought of speaking English scarcely occurred to us … we would have sneered had anyone so much as suggested it. So there we were, having a high old time high on ourselves, when Herr Doktor S. signaled for silence. Expecting the kudos we so richly deserved, we gave him our complete attention.
He brought his two preschool children into our august midst.
“You have all done very well,” he said in his clipped Marburger accent. “You have accomplished a great deal and come a long way in the past weeks. But before you get too proud of yourselves, I must remind you of one thing.” He placed a hand on each child’s shoulder. “My children aren’t even in school yet, and they speak both German and English fluently. Any child over the age of two can learn a language.”
You could almost hear the egos deflating.
See, it was all a matter of perspective.
When it comes to writing, ten minutes in any large bookstore usually helps with perspective. As a matter of fact, a recent ramble through the Borders in Houston’s Galleria inspired this thought: “There must be 10,000 books here. Why on earth should I … or anybody else, for that matter … bother to write one more? What makes me think I have anything new or even slightly different to offer?”
In The Writing Life Annie Dillard contrasts writing a book with selling shoes—as in, the average citizen needs new shoes more than he/she needs your book. Even if John Doe needs your book–which, she says, John doesn’t—“Why not shoot yourself … rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?”
How’s that for putting the art in perspective? Anybody else ready for a heaping helping of humble pie?
I guess writers are hard-headed … or delusional. Whatever the reason, reality checks don’t seem to stop us. Faced with Annie’s question, I shrug and offer the only answer I have: I finish the manuscript, because it’s there.