Friday, August 26, 2022

Am I Any Good? What to Do with That Question and How to Tell

I subscribe to quite a few writing newsletters and blogs by writers I admire. One is George Saunders who writes a Substack newsletter called Story Club. This week, Saunders answered a reader question about self-consciousness and the question "Am I any good?" In a brilliant response he gently guided the new writer through the self-education of two parts: the writer and the editor. If the question (Am I any good?) is asked during the writing part, it stops the process. It's an editor question, a question best asked and answered once the writing is at least roughly drafted.

A reader of this (my) blog wrote in recently about my recommendation to let a manuscript rest for 1-2 weeks before the editing part dives in. The 1-2 weeks is my best-guess minimum. Some writers need more time, some less. The goal of this rest is to allow a clean transition between the writer who is typing words on a page and the editor who is asking, Is this any good? The two are not usually in sympathetic conversation. They need to operate in separate rooms, especially if writing books is new to you.

Saunders was citing a great example of how we gain awareness of our own process. He says he usually gets stuck about 3/5ths of the way through a story. Instead of berating himself for the stupidly of being stuck, he is now aware that it's just a marker along the journey--actually a positive one, letting him know he's 3/5ths of the way there.

I find a similar awareness is needed for the timing of the question Is this any good? or Am I any good (usually the second one is asked on a really difficult writing day, when my personal writing struggle becomes a life struggle)? I've trained myself out of asking it in the early stages, the shitty first draft as Anne Lamott famously named it. I have to not care if it's any good, if I'm any good at writing, during that stage. If I ask such an editor-mind question, it absolutely freezes the writing process. So I don't. Or I should say, I try my best not to. If the question begins to creep in, I type more furiously.

The question feels very appropriate when the piece has rested the required time and I gain enough detachment from it to almost view it as if someone else wrote it.

Here's an extreme case in point.

Back in the early 2000s, I spent a year or two writing short stories. This was before I went back to school for my MFA and launched into novel writing. I took a slew of writing classes on the short story and one instructor, bless her, had us write a long list of 25-50 story ideas. As crazy as we wanted. I did it. And from those ideas, I actually drafted about 35 stories.

A few got published, even. Some won awards. But soon my writing interests moved into long-form fiction and the stories were filed away. I didn't get a chance to ask the question, Is this any good? I had a lot of fun writing them, allowing myself to go places with some very strange and wonderful characters. But I didn't take it further.

Fast forward to 2022. My third novel is in my agent's hands, my second one is revised from editor feedback, and I'm done with books for a while. The stories called out. They had sat for 20 years! Plenty of time for me to gain detachment, wouldn't you say?

I opened the files and started reading, quite delighted by what I found. I could ask the question, Is this any good? and get a clear answer. To test my sense of the story's worth, I got feedback from my writing partner and hired a well-published short-story writer and teacher as well. "These are a lot better than you think," the teacher told me. Would I have said that to myself if I'd asked the question in 2000 when they were first drafted? Probably not.

Happily for these stories, back when I first wrote them I didn't have time to ask. I was launching myself into an all-consuming MFA program. the distraction that provided gave these babies the rest they needed, so my critical self couldn't get its hands into them. A lot of the whimsy would've been wiped out.

Happily, also, these stories are now getting accepted for publication.

Am I any good? Is my writing any good? Important and necessary questions for any writer who wants to be published. But have a care for the timing, as George Saunders recommends. Timing is everything when incubating a story.

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