Narcissism, Humility and Juiciness

Author Teju Cole
Author Teju Cole

I’ve often thought how I might have easily become a narcissist. I’m not being hyperbolic, either. Without trying I can make everything be about me, blame others for my faults and obsessively drone about real or imagined hurts.

It makes complete sense, then, that I should want to become a writer; not just any writer, but a writer who publishes in nationally renowned journals. The same journals with two percent or less acceptance rates. A narcissist’s wet dream, you say.

Yes, of course. I can make everything about me, so a failure to achieve a “yes, we’d love to publish this” ought to cause me to rail against all the moronic editors, blah, blah, blah. In a reaction that I can only describe as astonishing, when I received another rejection on Saturday, I found myself more tender and open-hearted. “I’m going to double-down,” I thought to myself. Go in deeper, expose myself even more, attempt a hundred rejections of the same piece. I mock myself, yes. But of all the possibilities I imagined I might experience in the face of ongoing rejection, gratitude and humility never cracked the top one hundred.

Gratitude is the less surprising of the two. The likelihood that I would be born in this particular time and place; grow up in circumstances that allowed me to change genders as an adult; marry Ms. H; work with a boss who helped me create a part-time schedule at work (on the weekends, no less, too); and then have the compulsion to write; well, I think that chance is like 1 in a trillion.

I’m also grateful to be able to participate in an honorable profession. Art creators get scoffed at quite a lot in the U.S. (“yabut canya make money??”) but the profession is one where the price of admission is actually doing the work. And while I might find a particular author’s work not to my taste, they have put in the time.

Finally, I’m grateful to pursue my honoroable profession in the English language, a delight of verbs and borrowed terms, an action-oriented mish-mash of latin and anglo-saxon. All languages are fantastic and, in translation, can take my breath away (I recently finished a Street of Thieves by Mathias Enard, in which I now know conclusively that Arabic is the language of love. Those poets writing in Arabic make French seem like the ingredients on a box of cereal.)

Oh, the humility in this honorable profession. Averageness, or being just like everyone else, spells ruin for the narcissist. Don’t put yourself out there in case you fail. Blame others when you do. Drive away foes, then friends. Sit alone, morning after night, until only the paramedics will find you, dead.

Such might have been my fate. Astonishingly not. On Saturday after reading yet another rejection email, I thought myself in a great river of words, riding in a flow of creation through words that extends back thousands of years. Everyone in this river works hard and suffers and many are much better than I. To find some modest success, whenever that might be, among all this talent makes my smile and keeps my heart juicy.

I’m looking forward to where the juiciness leads. My writing can only get better.