On BART last night I was sitting next to a woman who seemed to be writing a blog or journal. I couldn’t help reading what was on her screen, which I realized was incredibly rude on one hand, but on the other, I feel like if you’re going to type on your computer on BART, you can’t necessarily make any special claim to privacy. The thing was that this woman was not a fabulous writer, or better to say that her writing was not that polished, but she was very engrossed in it, spending a lot of time getting it right, and I found the subject matter compelling in a certain way, and I kept sneaking peeks to see if she had written any more.
This experience made me really think about what it means to write “well.” What makes me hunger for this woman’s next rough-hewn sentence, while something much more finely crafted can leave me cold? If I want to know what comes next, isn’t that the most important thing, more important than whether the adjectives are perfectly chosen or the metaphors scintillating?
Earlier today, I was trying to break down, in writing, what I found disappointing in someone’s radio piece. It didn’t challenge me, I said. It raised important issues but didn’t give particular insight into them, or suggest ways of looking at them that listeners might not have thought of themselves. The commentator reported that someone could not find “appropriate” clothing for his daughter, but didn’t delve into what would be appropriate.
I don’t know if the person I gave that feedback to found it at all helpful, but it was helpful to me, to have to get really concrete and specific about what makes a piece work for me. At the same time, I realize how subjective this standard is. Is there such a thing as writing which is objectively “bad” or “good”, or is there only writing one person likes or doesn’t like? This is hardly a new question, but it’s one that’s very much on my mind because I am once again knuckling down to the process of sending out my novel, this time to small feminist or lesbian publishers. As I steel myself for the inevitable flurry of “Thanks, but not right for our list” replies, I can’t help wondering, how many rejections does it take to tell you your book is no good? I know all the stories about John Grisham getting rejected however many times, “Star Wars” getting turned down by every studio, Jane Austen recently being rejected by every agent in Britain. But the fact is, Grisham’s writing is actually pretty bad, though some of his stories are engaging. Really, he could use some better editing. Jane Austen was a genius at capturing the ironies of her time, but despite the obsession with remaking movies based on her novels, it’s not very surprising that in 2009, novels written in that style get a pass.
If I can’t score a publisher, and end up self-publishing online, am I a failed writer? How many people have to read your self-published work before you get to climb out of that particular category? Or is the only failed writer one who stops writing? I know that’s the established answer, but I always get this nagging feeling that writing that is not read by anyone but one’s close friends is fairly useless in the world, that if no one wants to read what I’m writing, my time is better spent doing things people do want – whether it’s making money to give to charities or organizing demonstrations or giving parents a break from their kids.
Okay, but maybe this woman sitting next to me on BART thinks no one wants to read her writing. Yet it’s obviously not true, because I wanted to read it. Maybe she will never post it on a blog or send it to a publisher, because she assumes it’s not good enough. Maybe she will read it at a writing group, and people will gently suggest that it’s not quite there yet; maybe she will send it out and get polite letters from publishers saying it’s not right for them. And maybe she’ll put it away and decide that no one wants to read her writing, so she should spend her time seeing more clients or getting another degree. And the world will be poorer for lack of her writing.
My friend Steve wrote last week that his goal is to write something that approaches the best things he has read. So what if he never gets there? Not to say he won’t, but that’s a high standard. If his writing is only okay, but people who read his book enjoy it – which I did – did he succeed or fail? What if he never tries to publish it because he never thinks it’s ready? A guy I used to work with worked on a novel for something like 25 years, from when he got out of college, or even longer. And he kept revising and refining it, and finally he sent out a few chapters, didn’t get any responses, and then a few years ago, he died. And I swore that wouldn’t be my life, but how can I say that his effort was more wasted than that of someone like James Patterson, who has a factory grinding out a dozen formulaic best sellers a year under his name?
If I spend three hours writing a flier and no one who gets it takes any action, did I waste my time, as well as the people who spent time handing it out? If we hold a vigil to stop U.S. Aid to Israel or shut down Guantanamo, and no one converts to our cause, did we waste our time? For some reason, I can see the usefulness of things like those, despite the objective evidence of their futility, while I can't seem to value my own creative expression independent of other people's judgments. I don't usually make those same judgments about other people's efforts, though sometimes I might seem to. Certainly I feel that Tom, the guy who worked on the same novel for his whole adult life, spent his time better than some of my current coworkers, who spend all their non-working time (and most of their work time) being depressed and wishing they could get it together to write a novel. On the other hand, I can't help feeling like people who garden are using their time better than any of us, but if I published my novel - even if it wasn't any better than the ones people didn't publish - I would not feel that way.
Okay, enough of this not-so-scintillating brooding.