223. Arrogance

When famous writers speak of writing, other writers take notice. It doesn’t hurt if they have a Nobel prize to their credit.

Hemingway said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”

Interesting. I was much impressed by his observation when I first read it during the seventies, as I was just starting to write. Decades later, it still seems sound.

Harlan Ellison said that the thing a writer needs most is arrogance.

Maybe, if well mixed with competence, but even then I have some doubts. Ellison had plenty of arrogance, and he was about the best short story writer ever. But if you drop in at wikiquotes and read what he has to say there, you might wonder if arrogance and competence alone are enough. Decide that one for yourself.

Regarding ego – and a strong ego is first cousin to arrogance – take a look at the words Rex Stout put into the mouth of his fictional character Archie Goodwin.

“If your ego is in good shape you will pretend you’re surprised if a National Chairman calls to tell you his party wants to nominate you for President of the United States, but you’re not really surprised.  (Champagne for One, p. 5.)

That sounds like something Donald Trump might enjoy reading.

What Hemingway, Ellison and Stout have in common is the unstated understanding that they are talking about success on a national or international level. Ego approaching arrogance and an unfailing shit detector are necessary.

They are not enough.

One of the great American lies is that hard work will bring you success. Every time an Olympic gold medal winner is interviewed, they say with mock humility, “I wasn’t particularly talented, but I worked hard for my success.”

Whereupon my Hemingway-brand shit detector goes off like a fire alarm.

Take a thousand swimmers. Let them each work equally hard. One will win the medal and nine hundred ninety nine will fail. Fail! Yes, I said the F— word. Fail. Only the N— word is more feared.

I hear the kindergarten teachers shouting, “We are all winners!” No, we aren’t. Telling impressionable children lies like that is child abuse.

I hear middle school teachers saying, “The only difference between winners and losers is how hard you work.” There goes my shit detector again.

“If you don’t work hard, you won’t succeed.” That might be closer to the truth, although I’ve known some successful incompetents. Just go look at some of the novels sitting on book store shelves. “If you work hard you will succeed,” is simply a lie.

So, writers (who else would be reading this?), listen to your shit detector, have the ego to believe you have something to say, and the arrogance to believe that it’s their own damned fault if the rest of the world doesn’t listen. Work hard. Don’t give up.

And get a good day job.


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