How to know when the writing is good (or good enough)

When I was in grad school working on my doctorate, I took a class on the form and theory of poetry, with poet Bruce Bond. It was a fascinating course that taught me a lot, not only about poetry but also about my own approach to fiction. Bond has a way of asking provocative questions that don’t seem provocative at first — he manages to incite self-analysis without pushing it on people. One night, for instance, during the general run of class discussion, Bond tossed us this question: “How do you know if your own work is good?” It was just as an abstract consideration — he wasn’t literally asking, really, not in the sense that he expected an answer right then and there — and we quickly moved on to other topics. But I lingered over the question, and began scribbling a response in my writing notebook.

This is a much-revised version of that response:

I don’t think it’s a question of how you know, but if you can know. And I don’t think you can know. You can have ideas about which of your works are good, or what in a work is good, and you can make arguments — good, solid arguments, sometimes — but inevitably, people will disagree with you, and some of them will be correct.

For instance, I published two stories in Amarillo Bay. The first story I thought was terrific. I had worked on it a lot, polished it, tinkered with language and sneaked in some pretty impressive imagery and even what I think are two very potent metaphors. It’s a good piece: Solid, clean, and moving. The second piece, I dashed off in an afternoon. I’ll grant you, I’d had the idea for a long time, and I’d even written two drastically different drafts of that idea (one of them unfinished, and one with a lame, happy ending). But the draft I settled on is almost just that — a draft. I sat down at my computer, frustrated that I had nothing to write even though I desperately wanted to write, and I finally decided to just knock out a character sketch. And even then, I couldn’t come up with a new character, so I simply pulled out a character from my novella and aged him roughly a decade, and then, just to get a sense of who he was, I stuck him in the situation I’d already written two other drafts on. A few hours later, I had “Distance.”

Of those two stories, only the latter has elicited comment on Amarillo Bay‘s site, and the comment was praise from a fellow writer. Later, another dear professor of mine — the inimitable Tom Preston, a wise man well versed in literature whose tastes are very like my own — approached me about both stories. He said the first — the polished, metaphorical story — felt “sentimental” and was clearly the lesser story of the two; the latter — the draft — he praised at length. And, in perhaps the best compliment any of my fiction has ever gotten, no less an author than Tom Franklin commended the impact of the story’s ending.

So much for knowing what’s “good” in my own work.

Then there’s the strange case of the backward compliment I received at an academic conference several years ago. In 2003, I’d read what I considered then to be one of my best stories, what was to become the first section of my novella, at a regional PCA/ACA conference. It was well received, and a number of friends who’d read earlier drafts of it commended the improvements I’d made. The next year, I returned to the conference to read a new story. Again, this second piece was a story I’d essentially dashed off in a night (again as a character sketch). I’d worked on it a great deal since the first draft, but the bones of the story remained intact: All I’d really done to it was tweak a word here, change a word there.

After my second reading, a writer whose work I really admire and who’d heard my first reading in 2003 approached me wide-eyed and said, “Wow, Sam, that was a great story — your writing has really matured. That was a lot more polished and engaging than the piece you read last year.”

So no, I think it’s actually impossible to know “good” in your own work. But I do think you can know if you’re satisfied with your work, which is another matter entirely. Take that last example: Clearly, I was more satisfied with the first story I read at conference than I was with the second. In some ways, I still am; though that first story has undergone significant revision in the context of the novella, it has always had what I think is a richness and a depth of meaning, which I’ve spent years honing and polishing, that simply cannot exist in the dashed-off character sketch. And as happy as I am with the sketch — it’s a good story, I think, in the generic sense of “good” as “finished, and not bad,” and frankly, the thing won the Jerry Bradley Award for graduate creative writing at that conference — I still personally prefer the richness, the depth of a more developed story. So I remain more satisfied with the first story.

But that’s just me. And it’s not a hard-fast rule, either. In the earlier two examples, the stories published on Amarillo Bay, I took to heart Tom Preston’s comment about the first story being too “sentimental,” and I went back and re-read both pieces. Turns out, he’s right: I liked the sentimentality at the time I wrote the first story, and I was also awfully impressed with myself for working in the deeper metaphors and whatnot, but the more I read those two stories, the more I came to realize that the second one feels more honest. Maybe that’s because it’s starker, or shorter, or less polished. Several years ago, Dan Chaon suggested during a Q&A session while visiting the University of North Texas that we writers need to leave a few rough edges in our stories, lest they become too polished, and I have always loved that idea. Or maybe it’s because in that shorter story I managed to connect with the character through the sketch process in a way I couldn’t connect with the loftier, more metaphorical story. Whatever the reason, I’ve since decided that I’m more satisfied with “Distance” than I am with “Coffee, Black.”

All this is just a rambling way for me to explain how one writer embraces his fiction without assuming he can ever really know anything about it. Which is not cynical or depressing at all, I think — it’s liberating. It frees me to write whatever makes me happy. I have my standards (which, I admit, are perhaps higher than anyone can really achieve, especially me, which is why I thank Dan Chaon for the permission of “rough edges”), and yes, many of those standards are based on how I want people to react to my fiction, or how I think people are going to react to my fiction. I have my standards and I write according to them, until I’m satisfied that I’ve met those standards. But I find I can accomplish this a lot faster, a lot more easily, and often a lot better if I stop worrying about whether my standards are “correct” or not, stop worrying about whether I’m getting my fiction “right,” stop worrying about whether my stuff is any good. And just write.

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3 thoughts on “How to know when the writing is good (or good enough)

  1. I had a similar sort of discussion with a friend yesterday. The infamous “When is a story done?” rambling. She said that she heard of a writer who writes a first draft, tucks it away for a year, pulls it out and does one revision before sending it off. I want to commend that idea, but writers are all so different. I’d more be commending the fact someone was able to do one rough draft (if it’s a true rough draft, the “plow through” draft as I call it) and put it aside for an entire year. To me, that sounds like the best way to go about things, though I’ve had some luck doing things in a completely obsessive way.

    Maybe it’s just because I’ve been around music more and delved deeper into it than literature (though I’m no slouch when it comes to reading, I’m just a music guy first and foremost), but when I write songs, there’s a nonchalant and mostly obvious way to move through it. I start off with a riff that I like and then have to decide where it sounds like it would appear in a song. I can almost always tell if a part is meant for the beginning, middle, or end. Sometimes I’ve got that same sort of luck with sentences, but not very often. From there, it’s just a matter of putting that riff into context, finding a theme, figuring out the length, etc. Then, when the song is done (I consider it done when I complete the writing of it and finished when the full band runs through it from start to end), I can usually tell what’s missing, whether it be a transition that’s off, some riffs needing to be rearranged, or maybe just little things that could be added (I’m big on idiosyncrasies in music, the little bursts of feedback or vibrato that end up happening when someone is playing a song with style. It’s what I equate to voice in writing, which is, not surprisingly, my main focus when working on a story).

    Those sorts of movement make sense to me, but in a story? No way. It’s impossible for me to look at a story and think, “Now, what would I want to read next in this thing if I wasn’t writing it?” With songs, I do it every time, and it works. “Would I dig this song if I heard some other band playing it?” If the answer’s yes, I keep it. If the answer’s no, I write a new part.

    I wonder how interesting it would be to try to make an outline for a story based on a “key” similar to that in music. If you’re writing in D-minor, what are the correct “notes” and when does it sound the best to play the “wrong” ones?

    1. You know, you and I have exchanged comments related to this subject before, and in fact I was looking over some of them today with the idea to do a follow-up post here tomorrow, which I’m going to do. And now some of these comments will get to turn up there as well. Thanks, man!

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