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.

Writer Tag and Blog Hop

The last time one of these went around (that I knew about, anyway) I didn’t quite think I was writer enough to participate. So I avoided the whole thing and eventually it went away. I regretted not participating, and letting fear get in the way.

Anyway, I was tagged by Brent van Staalduinen, a writer who has been writing and publishing and shortlisting so much that it would re-ignite my writerly self-doubt again, except for the fact that I’m over that. Today.

Brent also tagged Steph VanderMuelen, writer, creative writing mentor, copy editor, and one of my fellow Story Intensive TAs. Check out her site, because it’s fantabulous and Steph has great things to say about writing and process.

So. The Questions.

1) What am I working on?

Many things, but the big projects are a novel about a marriage (that’s about as specific as I’m willing to get right now, it’s very early) and an autobiographical play about my experiences as a landlord. But I also have some short fiction and a personal essay churning in my brain.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The short answer is that it doesn’t.

The longer answer is that I’m not convinced that being different is necessarily a virtue in writing so I don’t pay attention to being different. Sure, the truly Great Works are both original and good. But what’s wrong with just being good? Why does work always have to be different?

That said, I’ve been writing cross-cultural stories more and more, and one of the things I’ve playing with is to go against the grain in what people expect in these stories, even though I love those stories. No going back to the motherland (so to speak) and learning all the horrible secrets your mother never told you about why she really left and then coming to a new understanding of her and your culture and yourself. (The file name for my novel in progress is Amy-Tan-but-not, though it’s taken a number of twist and turns so who knows what it will be about when it’s done?)

In any case, very little of what I’m currently working on is at a stage where I can analyze it in comparison to other work, which is to say, nothing I’m working on is finished. I’m very wary of comparing my work to other things while I’m still writing it. And stuff I’ve already written that’s out there, well, I’m the last person to be able to look at it critically. I know its secrets too well.

3) Why do I write what I do?

This question implies that I have a choice in this.

This isn’t to say that I’m a helpless slave to a fickle muse. But my writing is very much a reflection of where my head is at, and my head is at its best when I give it free reign. That doesn’t mean that my writing is necessarily a reflection of what is going on in my life right now, though, since sometimes my head gets stuck on something from the past or even something very random like the fate of the Donner Party.

4) How does my writing process work?

I write.

I have never in my life been able to consistently form a good habit.  A bad habit, sure.  Good ones, no.  The moment I’m supposed to do something, I rebel against it.

So my writing process has turned into, write when and how I can.  Sometimes, that’s in the morning, sometimes at night, sometimes in the afternoon. Sometimes by hand, sometimes on my laptop. Sometimes, that’s in a coffee shop, sometimes in my office, sometimes in silence, sometimes with the television on.

There’s a lot of value in consistency in terms of creative practice, but rather than beat myself up for not being consistent, I’d rather just make do. Contrary to typical wisdom, I don’t think you have to write every day–you just need to write enough to make yourself happy.

All that said, when I have a deadline, there is no tool I like better than Write or Die.

And the nominees are…. 

Chris Tarry is a Canadian writer and musician, and it’s totally not fair that he’s amazing in two creative fields while some of us are eking out an existence in just one. Chris’ short story, Here Be Dragons, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and his debut short fiction collection, How To Carry Bigfoot Home is forthcoming in March 2015 from Redhen Press.

Sierra Skye Gemma is an award-winning writer and journalist from Vancouver who writing is emotionally honest, funny, powerful, and basically everything great creative non-fiction should be. I’m not the only one who thinks so, since she won the Edna Staebler personal essay competition and a National Magazine Award for best new writer for her essay, The Wrong Way.