Saturday, March 4, 2017

The reason you overrate your own writing, and why that might be okay

A few years ago, when I started getting serious about writing fiction, I was genuinely flummoxed by what I thought I saw in literary journals: stories lauded as examples of how to do it right that I thought weren't any better--and maybe worse--than what I was turning in and seeing get rejected. More than three years into my rebooted attempt at writing, I can see that a lot of what I wrote in 2013 wasn't as good as I thought it was. This is a trap that most of us fall into, one that all the writing how-to books warn us of. It's hard for us to see where we suck.

Part of this is rooted in human nature. It was noted at least 2,000 years ago, when a moral leader advised his followers to take the log from their own eye before they worried about the speck in the eye of another. We are all much better at finding fault in others than in ourselves. We are critical and willing to blame that fault in others on defects of character while finding mitigating factors for our own weaknesses. It's very, very hard to overcome vanity, to practice the necessary self-critique (or listen to the valid critiques of others) needed to get better. Having this ability to be tough on oneself is the mark of a professional.

But not all critique is good, and not all vanity is bad

But that's not really what makes it so hard to develop as a writer. What makes it hard is that real development comes from knowing when to listen to critique and when to stick to your guns. You have to learn when someone is telling you something you just don't want to hear and when someone is telling you something you shouldn't hear.

Here's the real hell of trying to figure out writing: almost every great work comes about, at least in some part, by some writer telling everyone else to pound sand and going with her gut. But a lot of bad writing also comes from someone who refused to listen. The difference between a brilliant maverick and a stubborn hack might not always be that great.

And here's what really throws off your sensors with your own work

"If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."
-Toni Morrison 

Yes, we all have to fight vanity. But there's something more fundamental at work. I write some stories about Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants because it's what moves me. I was inspired by my experience in the Marine Corps during a time when there weren't a whole lot of wars going on to write a story about a former Marine who feels like his manhood is invalidated by his own lack of a war record.

I wrote these stories because they came to me and I'd never read anything like them. I started thinking about the stories and thought, "I'd like to read that." So I wrote it.

One literary journal editor told a story about hopeful writer who'd been rejected by the journal over and over. Finally, the writer threw a fit and launched into an invective about how he couldn't believe the journal continued publishing the crap they put out and rejecting his work. The editor rightly wondered why the writer wanted to be published in the journal if he thought it was so full of crap.

I actually identify a little bit with the petulant would-be writer, though. Not that I think it makes any sense to be burning bridges yelling at editors. Editors aren't making money doing what they do. They don't derive joy from rejecting work. But I can understand the feeling that your story somehow seems to have a validity that nothing else you read holds. That's why you wanted to tell the story.

You're not overlooking the faults in your writing because you really think your writing is flawless. It's because with all those flaws, your story is still about something you connect with deeply. It's the story you have always wished someone would write, and so you wrote it--even if you didn't write it that well. It's going to seem to you to be better than it is just because it's the story you wanted to hear.

The kind of help we need as writers

The help we need, then, isn't the help that questions the validity of the stories we imagine. If we're wrong about what kinds of stories are worth telling, then we might as well quit writing altogether. Advice like "I just don't find a story of a homeless illegal immigrant compelling" is useless advice. You need help from someone who believes in your story, but just wants to help you tell it.

That can still mean massive revisions, even total gutting. When it becomes evident that this is necessary, I think my initial repulsion to the idea isn't vanity. It's more like when I realize that I've screwed up the assembly of some piece of Ikea furniture three hours into the project. I just can't deal with having to redo it.

When that happens, try sitting down on the backwards chair you've just put together for a minute and having a beer. You're allowed to be pissed. You just blew a whole Saturday on that. If it makes you feel better, take a sledgehammer to that chair, go back to Ikea, buy the exact same one, and put it together right some other time. Let it be a message to all the other Ikea furniture not to fuck with you.

The guy you need helping you is the one who will help you understand the instruction manual for the chair, not the guy who is going to tell you furniture from Ikea is tacky and cheap and a terrible idea.

Over time, if you never, ever manage to put anything together right, maybe it's time to accept that you are not meant to assemble Ikea furniture. But that takes a while to judge correctly. And it doesn't mean there is anything wrong with the idea of your chair in the first place--just that you might need to figure out a different way to see your dream of a chair come to life. 


  1. I think that one issue is not necessarily vanity, but the fact that the writer knows what he or she doing, but the read might not. As a writer, you know all the references, all the subtle structuring that you think makes what you've written interesting and artful. Many readers, however, will not expend the care to understand all that, and so it gets missed. Now, if you had some credibility, a big name, then you'd find readers pouring over what you've written to tease out all that cleverness: but if you're a nobody, nobody is likely to bother and so what you're doing will not be appreciated. I doubt anyone, for example, in reading my thing on bureaucratic resistance would notice that the first four chapters are all written in the third person. But once the argument goes to the role of individual responsibility, it shifts to first person. The very first word of Chapter 5 is "I" and it's part of what the argument is about, but I guarantee that no one picks up on that. If I were a Machiavelli, however, people would be hunting for those very clues to unlock the message.... Why? Because they would understand a priori that there was something there to find in the first place.

    1. There's probably no real doubt that what you say is true, and that known commodities have more freedom. This isn't fair, of course, but lately I do find that I get a small amount of perverse pleasure in playing the unfair game--of trying to pull in readers who are going to give me a very short rope and using those few inches to win them over. At the very least, as an unknown writer, I'm not forced to compete with somebody else's conception of what I used to be. I don't have my own ghost to overcome. I don't have to write something different from my past work, because there is no past work.

      At least, that's what I keep telling myself.