I can’t tell you how many times writers hand me a stack of pages and ask, “Is it any good?”
I’ve stopped answering this question. Sure, some writing is better than others. Sure, I have strong opinions about what makes a good story. But I’ve become increasingly wary of writers’ need to ask this question and my ability to answer it.
When a work-in-progress is deemed “good” by a reader, what purpose does this serve? All artists—all humans—want and need external affirmation; to continue hard work, we need our efforts affirmed and the essence of our endeavors recognized. Over my years of teaching writing, however, I’ve found that engaging a piece of writing (by sharing what happened to me as I journeyed through the manuscript, by asking questions, by trying to articulate what the piece is about at its core) gives a writer the external affirmation he or she needs to continue—without my having to sit in judgment on it. All creative work is becoming; it is more alive or less alive, and our job as artists is to nurture life.
The question “Is it any good?” comes from the ego. The small, grasping self wants bolstering with goodness. We want the strokes, but more than that we want deep down to know we are good and that the work we do is worthy.
For much of my life I’ve been told that my writing is good, and, frankly, it’s done me great damage. For years I strived to write well rather than write honestly. It’s exceedingly difficult to write a “shitty first draft” when you’re such a “good” writer. When my work isn’t good, I feel like a failure instead of an ordinary human. Judgment infests my creative process.
I’m reminded of that peculiar exchange Jesus had with the rich man who asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus retorts, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Here’s a moment when Jesus is just himself, a flawed human being. By attributing the source of goodness elsewhere, Jesus stays on the path of openness and emptiness. He goes on to give the rich man a thorough answer, so it’s not like he’s feeling miserable about himself or in denial about his agency in the world. He just refuses to get caught up in ego-gratification.
These days I’m applying this same spiritual practice to my writing and to teaching writing. The quality of goodness and the authority to decree goodness reside elsewhere, beyond me or any other human. What we do own is our agency. We can engage the work. We can do the practice. We can participate in creation, and this alone is enough. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Second Fridays; 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions, Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.
November 11: Place
December 9: Symbols & Metaphors
Participants in the Book Binders’ Salon will read from works-in-progress on Tuesday, December 6th at 7 p.m. in the front lobby at 2615 Park Avenue, Minneapolis. Hope to see you there!
SAVE THE DATE: October 2-6, 2017: Alone Together: Living Revision at Madeline Island School of the Arts.