Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Importance of Humility in Writers (Or, Unless You're Teaching the Writer's Workshop, Shut Up)

Dear Esteemed Reader,

I know we usually have a writer here to face the 7 Questions on Thursdays, but alas, Michael Grant wasn't available to join us. Update: he did join us seven years later.

So, instead, I'd like to talk to you about humility in writers and Barton Fink. Total rip off, I agree. Next Thursday I promise we’ll return to writers answering questions, 7 of them to be precise. But today, I’m afraid it’s just you and me and Barton Fink:

Why Barton Fink? Because Barton Fink is one of the best of the Cohen Brothers’ many great movies (The Big Lebowski is my favorite) and one I wish every writer were required by law to watch. If you haven’t seen Barton Fink and you’re a fellow writer and old enough to watch 'R' rated movies, watch it.

The main plot is thus: Barton Fink is a young playwright whose first play, though terrible, has become a major success on Broadway. Barton heads to Hollywood where top studio brass want to pay him some real money to write a boxing movie. Barton doesn’t want to sell out, he wants to remain an “artist,” but he also needs the money. Barton proclaims that he must get to know the common man, to really hear his story, in order to create high art within his boxing movie. However, every time Barton meets a common man, instead of listening to his story, Barton drones on in length about his own success and ambitions. One common man, named Charlie Meadows, promises Barton that he can tell him some stories, but every time he opens his mouth to tell Barton, Barton cuts him off with more of the same boring babble about himself.

Long story short and a necessary spoiler: at the end of the film, Barton is amazed to learn that the common man he refused to listen to is really a notorious serial killer with the most interesting story of anyone Barton is ever likely to meet. But by then, it’s too late to hear Charlie Meadows’ story. Barton goes on talking incessantly about himself to other common men, learning nothing from the experience, and his boxing movie is as terrible as his first play. Barton finishes the film as both a sell out and a lousy writer, but he’s so full of himself, he seems not to notice. It's uplifting stuff:)

I think we all know someone like Barton Fink. Mrs. Ninja and I used to put up with a neighbor who would come over and monopolize the conversation so thoroughly and for such long periods of time just before dinner that we used to hide inside and pretend we weren’t home if we saw him outside contemplating a visit.

Another fellow I once worked with had the same problem. He was always talking to himself about himself in the presence of others. He would literally ask me a question about myself, and before I could answer, he would be talking on in monologue about his own interests again. This signaled to me that he couldn't have cared less about my answer to his question or any input I might have had to the conversation. He asked me his question only as a springboard to other topics he wished to lecture on at length. This man was despised by nearly everyone he came into contact with, and he had no idea why. He sat alone at lunch and when he approached the break area, it cleared out fast.

Incidentally, I don't worry about these fellows reading this blog. Neither knew me well enough to know I had an interest in fiction. I was only a substitute wall for them to be talked at and then forgotten.

There are Barton Finks everywhere and what a sad sort they must be. Alone and thinking and talking of no one but themselves. They suffer the worst sort of insecurity, the kind that manifests as arrogance. We hate them because we know they do not care about our opinions or us at all, unless our opinions validate them—their actions make this perfectly clear. And we hate them because we all succumb to pride at one time or another and there’s a little Barton Fink in all of us.

Writers are particularly susceptible to this Barton Fink syndrome and beginning writers even more so. I don’t know why this is exactly, except to say that writers are often insecure (not me, but the rest of you). Writers pour a large portion of themselves into their writing and then put it out there for readers to judge, which is very hard at first.

 A writer has to have thick skin, especially when she is just starting out, because readers will critique her work, sometimes harshly. Or her work may be subject to a far more severe judgment: readers may not read it at all. And so the poor beginning writer has not yet developed her thick skin to rejection and criticism and she is just turning out her first writing efforts, which inevitably aren't so great and are therefore deserving of criticism—it’s how we learn and get better.

Also, someone they know often discourages beginning writers and veteran writers. To paraphrase Stephen King in On Writing: “For whatever reason, whenever you do something creative, someone will try to make you feel bad about it.” Perhaps one or both of the writer’s parents think it’s nice that their baby has dreams, but she ought to be more practical. Perhaps someone less kind tells her she’s no good and wasting her time. Perhaps her husband or children resent her spending time away from them to write, or perhaps the writer herself is fed up with rejection and convinced that she’s being a silly dreamer when there’s laundry to be done.

And so when our young writer meets other writers in a critique group or a workshop or at the bar or in rehab (wherever writers meet), she has something to prove. And she is very excited about writing—which is good, but it’s not like she’s the only person who ever discovered writing before. She is a good writer and she isn’t wasting her time. She knows this. She just needs validation of some kind from someone—and who better than from another writer?

She tells the other writer or writers all about herself and her writing and she is pleased because she is sounding so smart, so very much like a real writer, and when she sees that bored or impatient look in her fellow writer’s eye, she talks even faster and more passionately about her own ideas of writing to prove to this person that she is a darn good writer.

As though this fellow writer could, after she finished her speech, bestow on her some sort of special medal officially anointing her a real writer. The young writer’s thinking and behavior are completely illogical, of course, but young writers do this all the time. Though I understand where they’re coming from, they annoy the living you-know-what out of me.

It seems that every workshop I have ever attended featured one or two writers with Barton Fink syndrome. They would talk over everyone, and often they were the person who was at the earliest stage in their career and therefore knew the least about writing in the group. Those of you who have attended writer’s workshops know this person well. Everyone rolls their eyes when they start to talk. Sometimes these obnoxious eager beavers talk over the workshop’s leader and thus prevent you and everyone else from hearing the person you came to hear. A good instructor will shut these people down early in the workshop, but too often the insecure Barton Fink writer monopolizes the conversation and prevents others from getting the workshop they paid for.

Writer’s workshops and critique groups can be very useful to writers (and occasionally destructive), but they are not designed to validate any one person. That’s not their function. In fact, when I’ve found I was in a critique group where everyone was very complimentary of my work and very polite, I’ve started looking for a new critique group.

I don’t seek out people who tell me I suck, but I do need honest, constructive criticism to improve. If a writer wants validation, she should buy a dog or have an affair. But if she wants to improve her writing, she should attend a workshop or a critique group and try listening for a change. Writers can learn very valuable things at workshops, but they have to shut their traps long enough to hear them.

I myself have been subject to the Barton Fink syndrome once or twice (ye without sin, don’t talk to me—you’re boring and a liar). In my first writer’s group, many years ago, when I was a wee young ninja barely more than a teenager, I couldn’t stop talking about myself. People in the group couldn’t stand me, but I didn’t notice. I had eyes only for me and my writing. I didn’t want to listen to the person leading the group (which begs the question of why I bothered attending in the first place). I knew more than they did and the great wisdom I had to impart as a beginning writer to the group was surely more important than what the leader, an older, more experienced writer was going to say.

It shames me to admit this, but it’s true. And though I consciously try to control myself, once in a long while I still commit the sin of talking over others in monologue. If I catch myself doing this, I stop myself, and often Mrs. Ninja is good enough to stop me when I don’t catch it. But it’s easy to slip into, especially if I’ve been slacking off on my writing. After all, talking (or blogging) about writing is much easier than actually writing.

As a foolish young ninja, I once attended a writer’s group led by Will Allison, a wonderful author with capabilities far beyond mine. Will has been an editor for Zoetrope among other publications and at the time, he had published several wonderful short stories I greatly admired. Those short stories have since been published as a compilation titled What You Have Left, which I would strongly recommend to anyone who enjoys great writing and storytelling, but which had not yet been published when I was in his group. In short, Will has far more experience than I do and he knows more than I do, and certainly more than I did at the time.

Even so, Will was willing to grab a beer after the group some nights and tell me some of his experiences, wisdom a young writer can’t buy in stores or learn in any other way. When I was smart enough to listen, I learned a lot and better yet, Will said many nice things about my own stories. I didn’t have to prove anything to him, but I let my own insecurities get the better of me at times.

I laugh now to think of the occasions when I cut off Will to tell him what I thought about writing. Sometimes Will would correct me, sometimes he would simply smile and let me talk. I learned quite a lot from Will, but it fills me with disgust to imagine what I may have kept myself from learning because I wouldn’t shut my trap and open my ears.


  1. You've made me want to go and rewatch Barton Fink. Yes indeedy, there are a lot of Bartons in our lives... As for me, whenever I feel as if I'm wandering perilously close to becoming my own version of Barton, I make a deliberate effort to ask my fellow conversationalist a question and force my lips shut so as to LISTEN to his/her reply.

  2. We all do have those Bartonesque moments. The worst part is realising afterwards that it's exactly what you did--too late to take it back! The simplest rule for avoiding those moments: you have two ears, one mouth. Your listening:speaking ratio should be implemented accordingly.


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