March 29, 2010

How do you know you're not a hack?

Back in November, I wrote a draft in Blogger about something I call American Idol Syndrome, defined (by me) as, "a person's oblivious, gross overestimation of their own talent."

You know, the really bad contestants. The ones who beg for a second chance; the ones who scream at Simon that he doesn't know what he's talking about because their mother told them they were good; the ones who tell the judges they'll be sorry for passing over them, The Next Big Thing.

American Idol Syndrome.

I never posted the blog and because I figured there was a real, scientific theory that explained the phenomenon and I was too lazy to research it. Last week, the blogfather himself, Nathan Bransford, blogged about something called the Dunning-Kruger effect and all my questions were answered.

Here's Nathan's explanation:
The basic theory is that when people are incompetent at something they tend to lack the ability to realize it and they overrate their abilities relative to others. Meanwhile, people who actually are good at something tend to underrate their abilities and may as a result suffer from lack of confidence.
Nathan's point was that if you don't always have sterling confidence in your writing, that may be a good thing.

My first reaction to learning of the Dunning-Kruger effect was - oh, good! I'm one of those good people who underrate themselves! I'm not one of the American Idol crazies!

But then I thought... wait... because I said that, does that mean I am one of the crazies?

What if I have American Idol Syndrome? What if I'm just another hack tap-tap-tapping away on the keyboard, wasting my life? What if people laugh at me behind my back, roll their eyes and say, "Oh yeah, she thinks she's a writer."

Because, hey, these people are so sure that they are the best at what they do. And in the back of my head, I'm pretty darn sure I'm good - sure enough to keep going, at least. So how do I know I'm not one of them?

Maybe that's the difference, though - the fact I ponder it, the fact I worry whether I am one of them. Those people we watch during the first crazy weeks of AI auditions are so sure they're the best. They don't even think twice.

And I know I'm not the best. What I know is that I have talent and ability and that if I work long enough and hard enough, it might just pay off.

How can you know for sure if you are a sufferer of Dunning-Kruger?

How do you know you are her...

...instead of her?

5 comments:

The Blue Lipstick Samurai said...

The way I see it is, you don't need to be either, you can be a writer whether or not you write well. You can be an /author/ whether or not you write well, and a damn successful one at that. (Don't make me name names, sparkly vampires.) In attempt to quote Natalie Goldberg, whatever we fully do, we do alone. Or is a lone journey. Something like that.

Not that we're lonely, that we're without help, guidance, recognition. But if we're fully into what we're doing, if we love it and we can't live without it, hell, why stop? Why let anything or anyone stop you? Writing is between you, just you, and the writing. Leave insecurity, your mother's scolding, your father's praise, the seven thousand rejection letters and seventeen blog comments of adoration from that one well-meaning creeper, at the door. Leave it all.

Granted, this philosophy may not pay your rent, but not even the most amazing of authors see fiscal stability from their writing.

And go read Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird, particularly the chapter on Radio KFKD.

...Lord, I leave the longest comments here.

Rachel Bateman said...

I think one of the real important things is that we are really, truly taking the time to improve our craft. Instead of just slopping some words on the page and sending them out into the world, we spend time with beta reads and edits and conferences and reading industry blogs.

We know we have talent, but we spend time working on the skill, and I think that sets us above those who just throw themselves out there as "like, wow! the best thing ever!!"

Um...not that this post was supposed to sound as conceited as it probably did.

Great post, Abby!

Icy Roses said...

Wow, what I coincidence. I agree with the Blue Lipstick Samurai: Go read Bird by Bird. It's excellent as an answer to this question.

Besides, I think, to use singers as an example here, it's a complicated question. Because if you love to sing, even if you're horrendously bad at it, you're going to keep singing. And the hope is that if you sing enough, you'll get better. That's how I tend to think of writing. If writing is something you love to do and you're willing to stick with it, I'll bet you'll end up improving no matter what.

Joseph Rooks said...

Makes me think of the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition. Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreyfus_model_of_skill_acquisition

Abby Stevens said...

Blue - I love your long comments! Please, feel free to keep leaving them. :) After reading the comments, I'm not sure the comparison between writing and singing was such a good one after all. I think you are right - with writing, the point is not whether you are good or not, but whether you are willing to keep working hard until you achieve the results you seek.

Icy - With singers, I genuinely think some people are just bad, no matter how hard they work. I think you are onto something though about writers... my comparison of writers to singers probably isn't a good one because, while talent gives you a head start with writing, it is not essential - if you work and work and work, you will eventually catch up to (or surpass) those with natural talent.

Rachel - I agree. You didn't sound conceited at all. It's fine to admit talent because talent doesn't equal success - hard work, constant improvement, and dedication do, just as you said. :)

Blue & Icy - I've read Stephen King's ON WRITING, which is another one of those 'essential writing books' but not BIRD yet. I've been meaning to pick it up for a while.

Joe - that model is really interesting. I compared various skills of mine to the criteria. Interesting results. :D It is sort of a scientific way of saying that you must first learn the rules to know how to break them properly.

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