Is it Good?

When I first found my way back to writing, I gave my precious baby of a short story to my husband to read. His reaction: “Is that it?” We divorced shortly after.

I gave the same story to a friend, who liked it, and I mailed it out to a dozen literary magazines, all but one of whom rejected it with a form letter. The one that didn’t is quite famous for sending everyone personal notes and told me to keep writing. They also rejected it.

I took a creative writing class, shared my work there, and got good feedback from the teacher and the other students. I took another class. I found a writing group and began sharing work there. I shared my work with friends, whether they knew anything about writing or not.

I showed my work to my boyfriend who immediately began looking for veiled messages to him in the story. I stopped sharing my work with people I was dating. I never showed my work to my parents. But outside of that I decided I was going to be willing to show my work to everyone so I could humbly get their feedback.

I told myself I wanted feedback. I said I wanted constructive criticism. I said I wanted to be a better writer.

And yet, it was oddly empty if they just told me what wasn’t working about the story, and how it could be better. If they gave me feedback and didn’t say they liked it. Even if it was kindly and thoughtfully said, it felt like a letdown. And when they liked it, it only felt good for a minute.

What I was really looking for was someone to say “It’s good” and say it in such a convincing way that I would always believe that I was good.

People sometimes compare writing to other professions, saying how a car mechanic or an accountant doesn’t need people to tell them that they are good, so get over yourself, writer. Except that those tasks have a built-in feedback loop. If the car runs, you fixed the car, you are good. If your debits and credits match, you are good. At least, you are good enough.

There is no such feedback loop built into writing. I write something, I think it’s good, then I think it’s mule crap. I show it to someone who says they like it, I think it’s good again, then I think that perhaps that person is only trying to be nice but doesn’t mean it, because who can possibly like this mule crap?

When someone, usually another writer, can explain why they like something and why it’s working on craft terms, well, then maybe I’ll believe them a bit longer, as they have given me proof. They’ve justified their opinion.

It’s funny how we can immediately believe that something is no good without such proof, but probably if we trust someone enough to read our work, we assume that they have no motivation to actively damage our feelings. Also, we did ask for it. “Tell me what I can do to make it better.”

Or the form letter rejection. “This is a literary magazine, they have authority on what is and isn’t good, and so clearly I must suck.”

You’re never good enough for writing, you know. Even in those brief flashes when you think you might be, there’s always another rejection, another comment, another thought that makes you think you’re not. There’s always someone putting a book or a story out there that you read and it blows you away and makes you think “Why do I even try? Why am I wasting my time?”

There’s no award that at last makes you good enough. No publication credit. No special residency. No comment from someone you admire. Not even that elusive perfect sentence.

You’ll never feel good enough for writing, at least, not all the time. Even reading this, quietly thinking to yourself “yes Sonal, but once I achieve this goal, I’ll feel good enough”, let me tell you that you will feel good enough for a moment but then that moment passes and nothing has changed.

Don’t wait for the day you feel good enough.

Write anyway.

Publication is not the point–but publish anyway.

Reading my blog, you might think I’m very anti-publishing. It’s true that I don’t think publication is the magic gold medal that we all once secretly believed it was. And it definitely means a lot less than non-writers think it does. (I keep a secret mental list of the family and friends who had zero interest in my writing until after I had some conventional success whereupon it became a thing for them: I call it the Phony Assholes list, and it’s very long.)

But in truth, nothing annoys me more than reading the work of good writers who don’t send anything out. Particularly on those days when the slushpile is extra slushy. Here is this writer–a friend, a student–sitting on work that is good, that is interesting and well-written, and doesn’t do anything with it. Why? Why? Why must I read 25 pages of “spiritual fictional memoir” when there is good work sitting in a drawer somewhere unsubmitted?

One friend admitted that they just don’t know how to submit. Fair enough. It’s not a very difficult process, but it takes a little bit of getting used to. Here is blog that points to Doretta Lau’s excellent presentation on how to submit to literary magazines.

Some of it though, is confidence. “I don’t know if it’s good enough.” Trust me, if you are conscientious enough to ask yourself that question, it is definitely better than the worst of the pile.

Truthfully, I don’t think you ever really know if it is good enough, but at some point, you have to make peace with that and launch it out in the world. You really can nitpick forever. And really, if you know it is good, you have probably played it a little safe. You haven’t pushed yourself to the edge of your abilities. You might suspect it is good, you might be proud of parts of it–but I think that little bit of wondering “Did this really work?” is a good sign. Some doubt is normal to have.

But I think that goes to the heart of why you should submit writing, even if publication is not really the point. Confidence. Not so much confidence in whether or not something is good–anyone can be confident if they know it’s good. But confident that you accept it as yours. That you are willing to put your name on it and send it out for other people to read.

Sending work out into the world shows a willingness to stand behind your work, whether it’s good or bad, whether you are sure about it or not. This work is yours and you are publicly claiming ownership of it.

(I am now imagining my work as a toddler, standing in the middle of a department store screaming “I want vagina!” while people stand around looking for me, the parent, to come and claim her.)

You need to own your work. You need to stand behind and be willing to say “Yes, this is mine” even though it’s not perfect. Yes, absolutely, you need to revise and rethink and rewrite until it’s as good as you can make it or you are sick of it (the latter usually comes first), but then, one day, you need to format it like a manuscript, find a magazine and send it off. It’s your work and you are willing to tell people that.

Now, unless you are writing a spiritual fictional memoir, dust off a story and submit it somewhere.