Monday, December 19, 2011

The Rare Species

It's not too common to come across a writer who is in love with every last word they've written; most of them, published or not, detest the bulk of their work. I think it's important, not necessarily to shower your creative efforts with put-downs and mockery, but to develop an objective, realistic outlook on a draft of "that idea that sounded really awesome in my head." And while reading published work is a means of achieving that, so is reading the unpublished work of peers.

I looked over a short story for a friend a while back, which I frequently do for just about anyone who asks; I find editing and critiquing a lot more enjoyable than writing much of the time, and in any case, I think it's an important thing to do periodically if you want to gain a better perception of your own writing.

Others' opinions aside, she happened to think it was a fantastic story, and when I interrupted her from addressing an envelope to The New Yorker to explain the massive (not the word I used with her) amount of work it needed before it was ready for submission anywhere, she employed the also not-so-common "Well, You Just Don't Get How Great This Is" attitude and quite blatantly rejected my comments.

(It should go without saying, but...don't ask for constructive criticism if you're not open to it.)

I like to think I've developed a good sense of objectivity when it comes to labeling a story good, bad, or something in between, and I usually have no problem giving a writer the truth as I see it about their work, when they ask for my two cents. When I say this friend's story was was the kind of thing that would be better off rewritten completely, if not discarded in favor of working on a more promising idea (side note: I think that, too often, writers fall into the trap of writing around an idea instead of letting the idea develop around plot or character. Not to say the former never works, it's just too gimmicky for most people to pull off). So her reaction to my comments was just that much more outrageous. She genuinely thought she was sitting on some golden words (I would say paragraphs, but there weren't any, so...).

Having an obsessive love with your own writing is something I'll never understand. I'm not saying every writer needs to live up (down?) to the self-hating stereotype, but have a little perspective so you can wisely choose what projects to pursue and which ones to abandon or set aside. I've written four novels, dozens of stories, hundreds of poems, and a handful of plays; of it all, I'd maybe single out one of each that I think has any promise as a cohesive, meaningful, engaging whole (none of the plays, actually...just trust me on that one). Have the sense and objectivity to distinguish your duds from your non-duds; otherwise, you could waste a lot of time trying to publish something that's dead in the water.

And (going back to my friend's story, which was the first she'd ever written), once you write your first story, poem, even your first novel, instead of trying to publish it right away, it might serve you better to go back to your desk and write another one. I don't think writers advise that often enough. I'm grateful to have had mentors who insisted I keep writing and building a body of work, instead of trying to run with the first thing I produced. You know, the eggs all in one basket, or some such thing.

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