Pretenseville(Spoiler: Not a real place) is a place many writers go, and I’m no exception, I’ll admit. Now it’s not a place we like to talk about–most of us just pretend it doesn’t exist, kind of like existentialism (pun intended). And now look, I’m getting all too comfortable in my visit to Pretenseville already, throwing around words like “existentialism.” But if I hadn’t brought you here, you wouldn’t know what to look out for when writing. Look out for Pretension. He’s pretty nasty, or should I say vicious, deplorable, reprehensible, or repugnant? No. I should not. I already said “nasty,” and it does the job well.
But where is the line between pretension and intellectualism? That’s a difficult question to answer, and there is no pocket response. I think in writing poetry especially, a writer should consider whether or not he or she finds the poem pretentious. If you do, chances are that everyone else will find it pretentious too. If you don’t, still have some objective party whose opinion in writing you value look it over to make sure. Also, think about specific words. Does each word–long and ostentatious, I mean pretentious, as it may be–add anything to the poem? Does using a larger word, or lesser known word, add more color or texture to an image? When I’m writing, I think to myself, “Stop trying to sound like an intellectual, and just realize what that word actually means.”
Another good exercise in humility I find helpful is to reread things I’ve written in the past, when I was years younger and didn’t know as much about writing. So try that. Then, after you read those pieces, assess your reaction. If you are reading over those pieces and find yourself laughing, ask yourself if you are laughing at your younger self for thinking you could write back then or laughing at yourself because your present self is so much wiser. If it’s the former, that’s harmless enough as long as you aren’t thinking about how great you are as a writer now, but rather appreciative of how far you’ve come. If it’s the latter, then your reaction is itself pretentious because you’re assuming a certain superiority in writing in the present. The best way to know that you’re not being pretentious is to remember Aristotle’s words: “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing, and in knowing that you know nothing, that makes you the wisest of all.” Now, don’t go thinking that if you say you know nothing that “Aha! I am now the wisest of all!” because that, my friends, is Pretension at his finest. Suffice it to say that you can never stop learning, and often–like when you’re rereading those old poems or stories–you’ll find that you can actually teach yourself a lot.
Lastly, if you find this exercise arrogant and at the same time beneath you in even reading, doesn’t that make your reaction to it by definition pretentious? Oh, yeah, and if you think I’m being pretentious, well then, haven’t I begun to make my point?
For your daily needs, I’ve just posted a sign outside all of your minds.
Beware of Pretension. He will bite you in the ass.