In my early days as an editor a new client came to me, signed my contract, paid my fee and, after several weeks, I sent my constructive critique of his work. I thought his novel had lots of potential, and lots of room for improvement—in short, what I typically see in a first draft. He’d admitted he was a “newbie” who, after a lifetime working, was now, in his retirement, pursuing his dream of writing.
He emailed me about a week after he received my comments, very unhappy. “I didn’t need to know all of this stuff,” he wrote. “I just wanted you to tell me if I am any good.”
After scratching my head for a while (really? You paid me money to tell you that?), I came to this answer: “Whether or not you’re “any good” is really beside the point. Is this particular work where you’d like it to be? Does it meet the criteria for whatever goals you have for it? Writing is a craft, not a science, which means it can continually be improved upon. Does your work need improving? Most likely. Is that because you aren’t good enough? Not likely. Many writers suffer from the myth of talent—that you either have it, or you don’t. But the fact is, just like cabinet-makers, teachers, pilots and so on, you get better at your craft with practice and attention. Besides, “good” is arbitrary; you’ll be good enough for some, while others will reject you. It’s a standard you’ll never live up to because it’s subjective and always changing.
Beating yourself up over being “not good enough” is a form of stopping up the free flow of creative energy. It can even be a form of self-sabotage. In the worst case scenario, it’s an excuse to not have to get any better at it; a statement of “This is just the way I write.”
False! This is how you write at this time, in this moment, with whatever resources are at your disposal. Every time you read a fantastic book, your writing has a chance to crack open. Every time you hear a lecture, attend a class, or pick up a writing guide, you can learn or see something in a new light, and your writing changes. Time and distance also change how you see your writing.
What you can be is committed to continually probing the depths of your work, or taking time to learn something you struggle with, or just stepping back completely and reading when your own work feels too unwieldy.
These voices of doubt and uncertainty are gremlins sent to test our creative mettle, to strengthen us up. The more we fend them off by patching the leaks they tear open inside us with further work, the more power we have to overcome them. Like the “dark side” that calls to us with its illusion of power, its promise of the familiar, which is cozy in a bleak sort of way.
Shine some serious, badass light on those demons when they come, instead. Write them into a new narrative.
Don’t worry about being good. Be enough. Be committed.