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.

Interview: Following Your Bliss

Recently, a friend of mine put out a call to talk to people who felt their work was a calling. This has lead to a series of interviews about following your bliss, including one with me that you can read here. But do keep an eye on this blog series.

I think one of the hardest thing for writers, especially in the beginning, is realizing that they are writers.  They don’t need a degree, they don’t need publication credits, they don’t need some fairy godwriter to come down from the heavens and anoint them as writers.

To my mind, so much of this is tied to the notion of tangible success being a determining factor about whether or not something is worthwhile to do. That one cannot legitimately claim to be a writer without showing proof of their writerliness. This isn’t true.  Writing isn’t like being a doctor–you need a certain about knowledge and training and qualifications to be a doctor. To be a writer, all you need is to write. It’s so simple that sometimes it’s hard to absorb.

I think were it also gets problematic is that other people, non-writers, figure that if being a writer only requires writing, then it has no value because most people can construct words and sentences into something comprehensible. What’s so hard about that? But this is the difference between writing well and just putting words on paper.

So in some ways, the only thing to really be a writer is to care about your writing. To have it matter to you. To want it to be more than just basically functional, but for it to be good, to be beautiful, to make you think, to make you feel–whatever writing that matters looks like to you.

None of that is a promise of success. Granted, doing something well gives you better chances of success than doing something poorly. But there are no guarantees.

But you probably know that. If you’ve been writing for a little while, if you’ve tried to submit work anywhere, you probably know that just having written something you think could maybe be good is no guarantee that other people will decide to publish it, let alone pay you money for it, let alone pay you a lot of money for it.

But you still wrote. You still tried. You are still trying.

That’s why you’re a writer.

(Psst! I have a class starting next week and there are just 2 spaces left!)