Over my years of teaching writing I’ve had hundreds of people ask me, “Is this writing good enough?” This question shows up in different forms—“Is it publishable?” “Do I have talent?” “Should I keep going?” But it’s inevitable. I’ve yet to work with a writer (or meet any artist, for that matter) who didn’t ask it.
For a moment I’m always tongue-tied. Good enough for what? And why do they ask me? I’m just someone who has stubbornly written long enough and been lucky enough to have a few books published. But of course that publishing record gives me an odd credibility, and I understand how amateurs can make the mistake of assuming someone, anyone, has the authority to pronounce on their writing’s worth.
When I was in college, a professor (and decorated novelist) told me I shouldn’t bother pursuing my writing. This was a blow, but not as bad as you might imagine. What he didn’t know—and what I clearly did know—was that I had no choice. I had to write. I suspect my deep need was born of personality and curiosity, a passion for stories, a love of writing’s healing powers, and the fact that writing was my best form of prayer. I never stopped writing or stopped valuing the act of writing because I simply couldn’t.
Over the twenty-five years that followed, I, like every writer who has shipped her work out to be judged, received a phenomenal amount of rejection. Publishers and grantors and contests have rejected me so much I’ve come to expect it. Meanwhile I watch contradictions abound in the writing world: Poorly written books hit the best seller list, agents drop their celebrated literary authors, readers tell me about unrecognized books that have changed their lives, Margaret Atwood agrees to contribute her current novel to a time capsule library that won’t be opened for 100 years, clients with extraordinary talent choose not to share their projects of many years with anyone, self-published books gain respect, and thousands of closet writers put pen to page daily.
Is it good enough? Who knows? Who can know?
I do know, however, where not to look for confirmation of writing’s worth: The publishing world. And egotistical professors. Or anyone else that you don’t know or don’t respect. External affirmations may be great, but I’ve yet to meet anyone for whom they satisfy that aching doubt.
So I answer these writers by asking, “Is it worth it to you?” Quality writing comes more from hard work than talent. The process itself is unquestionably valuable. If it’s worthwhile to the writer, it is worthwhile. The opinions of respected readers are all gravy. An important part of becoming a writer is learning to trust what you value, and to be discerning in the readers you value. Join me on this journey. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew