Once a week, I teach creative writing in a correctional facility for men. We meet in a classroom on the lower floor of the prison, which one gets to by negotiating the usual labyrinth of corridors, past armed ‘threshold guardians’ of various sorts, descending flights of stairs going down, down, down, and a number of clanging gates. The classroom has a noisy window air conditioner – a GREAT luxury in this place — a clutter of locked cabinets and battered chairs with built-in writing shelves that look far too small for many of the big-footed, hulking men who must fit into them. (I always forget how SHORT I am, until the end of the class and they all stand up!)
Last week, we talked about conflict in fiction, and about how, sometimes, what’s stopping us from getting what we want is, … well… us. We were talking about the kinds of flaws our characters might have, and I suggested writers might want to take a look at the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. The issue of pride generated some discussion.
“You have to have pride,” someone said.
“You don’t have pride, you don’t have anything.”
“What’s wrong with pride?”
One of the many things I admire about these men is the way, for the most part, they handle life in this extremely difficult environment. They have little or no say as to what happens to them, much of the facility has no air conditioning and in the summer hovers around 100 degrees, the corridors smell of drains and too many people packed in one space, the food is only fair, the noise is excessive, the tensions run high, they’re often moved from one environment to another, they are often lonely although conditions are crowded and they must maintain an attitude of submission, which isn’t easy for young men at the best of times… But they handle it. I’m not sure I could. Some in the class are talkative, some naturally funny, some hesitant, some more easily frustrated than others, but all are deeply respectful not only of me but of each other. They are all smart and kind and supportive. One or two hold themselves with a natural air of leadership.
“Exactly,” I said, “What’s wrong with it? If pride can be a reasonable self-respect arising from something you’ve achieved, say, that might not be a bad thing. So why, if that’s so, would it be considered a sin? Can you feel pride without being arrogant, without acting superior?”
One particularly thoughtful young man said, “You might feel pride, and that’s fine, but then you think you’re better than someone else. You get arrogant. You make somebody else feel bad. You’re flashing it around.”
“So when we do something that negatively affects someone else, that’s where the problem is.” I said maybe if one was truly confident one didn’t NEED to flash it around. Maybe people who walked around all puffed up with themselves, always throwing their weight around, weren’t really confident, since it seemed they had to prove it all the time. Maybe confidence is knowing you’re all right, no matter what happens to you, no matter where you are. Maybe it has something to do with believing in something greater than yourself.
I talked a little about how writers are always asking for other people’s approval — agents, editors, readers, critics — and how it can be hard to remain confident in the face of a lot of rejection and criticism. Sometimes writers get arrogant as a sort of self-defense, hollering about how brilliant they are, loud as bull-horns, as though trying to convince everyone, maybe even themselves.
“Look like fools,” someone said.
“Certainly can do,” I agreed, thinking of one or two spectacularly blow-hard writers I’ve had the misfortune of meeting.
The particularly thoughtful man said, “Yeah, you have to be confident enough in yourself so you’re not comparing yourself to other people. It’s not about you and them.”
No, it’s never between you and them. I learn a lot about humility and self-containment, those great antidotes for inappropriate pride and arrogance, from teaching in a prison. This week I was reminded of the prayer attributed to Mother Teresa:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
As writers, we might add to that — If, for years, you pour your heart and soul into writing a book, publishers may still reject it, critics may flay it. Write it anyway.
There are worse things than the difficulties of the writer’s life. Be grateful for things like freedom, and the power to choose how you’ll spend the day, and the great gift of a quiet room, or a walk outside…