Dear Adam Smith: A Paralyzed Pen
Can Adam Smith help with writer's block?
Dear Adam Smith:
I am afraid to write an article I have promised a friend for publication. I have already put her off twice and may ruin our friendship if I dally longer. She is a wonderful friend, and I do want to produce a piece worthy of her publication. What should I do?
-A paralyzed pen
I too worry about the quality of my writing and how it will be perceived now and in the future. In fact, I destroyed many pieces of writing that I thought were inferior and worked my entire life to improve others. It is no small thing to make yourself understood clearly and to have sentiments and thoughts worthy of attention.
Public judgements can be harsh even toward meritorious works. Excellence is not always immediately clear to all readers (or critics).
Poetry, for example, is far harder to judge the merit of than mathematics or natural philosophy. Even excellent writers are often unsure of the quality of their own work. Perhaps you are familiar with Racine’s disgust at the reception of his play Phèdre or Voltaire's sensitiveness to Lord Kames’s disapproval of the Henriade?
In my Theory of Moral Sentiments I discuss the character we should aim at in more detail. I am (justly, I hope) proud of this articulation which I added to the 6th edition of the work.
Two different characters are presented to our emulation; the one, of proud ambition and ostentatious avidity. the other, of humble modesty and equitable justice. Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behaviour; the one more gaudy and glittering in its colouring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline: the one forcing itself upon the notice of every wandering eye; the other, attracting the attention of scarce any body but the most studious and careful observer. They are the wise and the virtuous chiefly, a select, though, I am afraid, but a small party, who are the real and steady admirers of wisdom and virtue. The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers, and, what may seem more extraordinary, most frequently the disinterested admirers and worshippers, of wealth and greatness.
Modern social media certainly seems to exacerbate this ancient problem of wanting to be admired. However, even if your piece does not meet with accolades, attempts aimed at virtue and wisdom are always better than striving for unearned praise to sooth your vanity.
Yours in Fellow-Feeling,
Editor's Note: Letters to the "Dear Adam Smith" column are not, of course, answered by Adam Smith. He died in 1790. Letters are answered by Sarah Skwire, Caroline Breashears, Janet Bufton, and Christy Lynn. Advice is for the purposes of amusement and education about Smith's thought. We do our best, but caveat emptor and follow our advice at your own risk.