Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2013 | Features

Lessons in Humility

By John McNally
In his new book, Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction, novelist and creative writing professor John McNally, 89MFA, provides blunt and humorous counsel for wannabe writers. In this excerpt—relevant not only to writers but to all people—he addresses the essential yet elusive art of being humble.

As defined by dictionary.com, humility is "modest opinion or estimate of one's own importance, rank, etc." I would add that humility is an understanding that perfection hasn't yet been achieved.

If the writer's life is a house, humility is the front door through which editors, professors, fellow writers, agents, and peers can enter to offer feedback and criticism. Shut that door, and you're turning your back to a world that's essential for growing: the world of advice.

Here's a story I cringe telling. When I entered college, back in the early 1980s, I was pretty cocky about my writing because a few grade school and high school teachers had patted me on the head and told me how creative I was. In college, when I turned in my first poems to Rodney Jones, an award-winning poet, I expected him to tell me what a genius I was. When he began reading aloud the best student poems submitted to the class, I assumed he was saving mine for last. I waited. I watched the clock. At the end of the hour, after he finished reading several poems that weren't mine, I assumed there had been a mistake.

Rodney handed back my poems the following week, and up and down the margins he had written these three words, over and over: didactic, cliché, abstract. My ego was instantly crushed. Who exactly was this guy, Rodney Jones? I went to the library and checked out his book, The Story They Told Us of Light. I found and read his poems in dozens of literary magazines. I saw that he had been publishing since at least the early 1970s, that he had won numerous awards, and that he had taught at a number of different schools.

My next batch of poems came back: didactic, cliché, abstract. But this time he had underlined one sentence and written, good: concrete. So, I placed all my poems side by side and began reading all the problematic sections in groups: all of the didactic parts, all of the cliché parts, all of the abstract parts, and then, finally, the couple of good, concrete words. Instead of dashing off a poem without much thought, assuming everything I was writing was brilliant, as I had been doing, I wrote several poems, tossing one after the other away, until I wrote one that seemed unlike the others. I no longer remember what the poem was about, but I still recall the sensation of having written something that was distinctly different—my very first breakthrough as a writer, although I didn't realize that's what it had been.

I was nervous turning in the new poem. But, at the beginning of the next class, Rodney walked up to me, shook my hand, and said, "You've made quantum leaps."

I tell this story because if I had been committed to the view of myself as a genius, someone who didn't need advice from someone with much more experience, I wouldn't be writing this essay today. It frightens me how a slight shift in attitude early on made a life-changing difference that I could not possibly have seen back then. I was too naìve, often set in my ways, so it was even odds as to whether I was going to open a door and invite Rodney Jones in or shut it in his face. I got lucky.

I've been thinking about humility a lot recently because, as a creative writing professor, I see less and less of it each year, and it depresses me.

"I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don't want this to seem hurried. It must be slow and measured as the rest but I am sure of one thing—it isn't the great book I had hoped it would be. It's just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do."

I had a student not long ago who, whenever he saw me in the hallway, would tell me about whatever story he was working on. "This one's particularly brilliant," he would say each time without a hint of irony. A few years ago, a student came up to me after the first day of a beginning short story workshop and said, "I'm afraid you're going to compromise my artistic integrity." Was he joking? I wondered. No, he wasn't.

More recently, when I suggested to a student that it wasn't a good idea to begin a story in an omniscient third-person point of view and then switch to first person, he bristled. "I'm a good writer," he told me. "I've read all of Hemingway."

In all fairness, the problem isn't just generational. I've seen it among older conference participants, aspiring writers in their 60s and 70s, who will say to me, if I mention a problem with sentimentality, "You'd understand if you had kids" or "When you've lived as long as I have, you'll know what I was talking about."

The students of mine who've had success were, without exception, the ones who exhibited the most humility. Is this a coincidence? Absolutely not. Once you start getting verbally defensive about what someone's saying about your work, you permanently shut the door, unable to see grains of truth in what's been said. If you train yourself to listen, even if you're silently disagreeing with the criticism, you may find eventually something in those comments that proves to be the solution you've been looking for, even if it's a month or two later.

I'm not suggesting that only the humble triumph, only that humility will serve you better in the long run.

In Kurt Vonnegut's Palm Sunday, a collection of essays, he actually grades his own books. He gives two A-pluses—Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five—but he also doles out a few Ds—Happy Birthday, Wanda June, and Slapstick. As for the high grades, he notes that he has compared himself to himself. "Thus can I give myself an A-plus for Cat's Cradle," he writes, "while knowing that there was a writer named William Shakespeare."

When I work, I keep next to me John Steinbeck's book Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath. His journals weren't written to be published, so they're brutally honest. One week before finishing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck wrote this:

If John Steinbeck felt that way about The Grapes of Wrath, one of the greatest American novels ever written, I think we can all, each and every one of us, afford to be more humble.