You’re in the lift of a government building in London. It stops and this guy gets in. He’s chatting to someone else which allows you to learn he’s a civil servant who’s just cycled to work from Camberwell. However, he’s wearing full Tour de France clobber: all spandex– tight shirt covered in decals, tight shorts, racing shades perched on top of his head, pink racing shoes with cleats that clack on the floorboards; in one hand he holds his aerodynamic cycle helmet, in the other his aerodynamic back pack with hydration system (well, he certainly wouldn’t want to risk air resistance by carrying the weight in side panniers or waste a valuable micro-second having to take a water bottle out of its holder or simply get off the bike and take a few swigs, or admit that he doesn’t really need a drink for such a short ride into the office). You have to remind yourself: this is someone who is just commuting a few miles to work. The appropriate kit for such a task would be a non-racing bike that can carry weights easily so you don’t have to put your back out doing so; loose clothing that doesn’t make you look like a pratt and therefore become a justifiable target for cycle-hating car drivers; plain glass glasses so you can actually see through smoggy winter London air; and ordinary shoes so you can walk to your desk without looking and sounding like a praying mantis with a ball bearing up its backside.
Now, the question is: does this person believe he’s being an individual by dressing this way? If he does, then he’s almost certainly deluded. It’s far more likely that he’s succumbed to a particular trend, cleverly fuelled by equipment companies who know how to play on his suppressed desires to be ‘different’, to be a contender, to look like a pro.
Does that matter? Well, not if he keeps the delusion to himself. Okay, he will probably irritate a number of other cyclists, either because they’re competing to look the most pro and he’s got a bit of kit they haven’t, or because he’s weaving in and out of traffic and cutting up cyclists who are sane enough to realise commuting isn’t a race. But he isn’t going to impact negatively on anyone else’s development as a serious cyclist.
Okay, here’s where this analogy is going: I want to say something about writers who write articles on how to write. Some writers, at least: the ones I think are doing the equivalent of wearing spandex to commute to work.
There’s a particular tone adopted by quite a few how-to article writing writers. It took me a long time to figure out what it is, other than having a gut feeling it isn’t authentic. I think it goes like this:
STEP ONE: assume position A.
Position A is a wonderful platform woven from organic coconut fronds set at the top of the rain forest. From there, the writer can see everything (well, the tops of every other tree and a few more platforms with other article-writing writers on them at least) and is therefore wise and knowing.
STEP TWO: pretend to assume position B.
Position B is lower than A but still with a fabulous view of all (other writers) below. But because it’s beneath the very top, it allows the writer to adopt a tone of slight self-deprecation and false modesty about the distance he/she still has to go, as well as not being as challengeable as he would be if openly in A. This is a kind of reverse humble-brag, implying that the writer should be at position A but is too modest to say so, thus in one go displaying (fake) humility and protecting himself from any accusation that he’s not actually the top dog.
STEP THREE: disguise position C – where the writer actually is.
Which is where in some ways this blog post begins.
Most writers spend many years waiting to be recognised, to get something published. Probably what they should be doing in the waiting time is working on their craft and producing more stories. But it’s difficult.
It doesn’t help that it’s not only writers and cyclists who adopt this three-step approach to unchallengeable smugness. You encounter it everywhere: in the pub, the office, the gym (I hear) . . . People discuss a topic, assume position A then immediately drop to the tone of position B. Hence the smugness, because they can now discuss every subject on Earth, any of which they have no real knowledge of at all, and in a tone that implies they know everything. And you can’t challenge them because they’re at position B – or at least their tone is saying they are – which is a humble step down from all-knowing.
Where they actually are is in the position of not knowing anything much at all. The shame of it is that this would be the ideal position from which to have a real conversation. Instead of everyone swapping smug pronouncements, they could open up the subject and try to learn something from each other.
Okay, it probably wouldn’t encourage the reading of your article to start by saying, “Actually, I know bugger-all about writing” but it could help if you showed that your real position – C – is not so far above the reader’s but the point is, it is above. Then, you could both open up in the face of sharing reality, instead of the position B tutor protecting his delusion and the would-be tutored feeling they just can’t get hold of what the expert is saying.
The guy in the lift isn’t helping anyone, basically, but he’s going to continue displaying anyway. Some may be desperate enough to believe he knows how to win the Tour de France. They might ask him for advice so they can try to win it too. He might even give it.