One of my creative writing professors in college had a mantra of sorts: “Alcoholism, depression, suicide….” It was supposed to be a joke. He’d say it after discussing one of the more challenging aspects of writing, and we would laugh. It did seem funny at the time. That’s the cliche, right? Fitzgerald drank himself to death before 50, Hemingway and Sylvia Plath killed themselves, the Brontes were famously unhappy, and Emily Dickinson was a recluse who never showed her work to anyone.
You’re supposed to be miserable, the story goes. You’re supposed to think you’re worthless. You’re supposed to be the worst, toughest critic of your own work.
But anyone can do that. Really, anyone can be miserable, anyone can hate what they create. It’s harder by far to find what you like in what you do, and harder still to build your own confidence in yourself, especially when the story goes that you shouldn’t. You can even find yourself clinging to bad habits like being hard on yourself just because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. It’s not cool to like what you do. Besides, if you’re not twisting with the internal agonies of trying to create the perfectly formed sentence, then maybe what you do isn’t worthy of the word “work” at all.
And believe me, I’ve done the writhing in agony thing. It’s not fun and it sure isn’t pretty. Once, in college, I came home from a critique and tore up the drafts of my story and tossed them in the recycling bin–not because the critiques were wrong, but because I was convinced my story was so awful. There were at least two occasions when I said “I quit!” to the whole thing, and the second of those times lasted the better part of a year.
But recently I’ve been feeling something else. I’ve written stories and liked them. I’ve written a novel that I well and truly like, that I feel proud of. Instead of feeling wholly inadequate I’ve been able to look at my own stuff and think, “You know, you can really do this…”
And damn if it isn’t a hundred thousand times better than wallowing in my own misery. But it’s weird, because that’s not part of the myth. The story goes we’re supposed to hate our work, so when you find yourself admiring your own sentences you start to panic, think you’re getting egotistical. As if there’s no middle ground between self-degradation and narcissism.
A couple weeks ago Daniel Jose Older, author of the ghost-noir collection Salsa Nocturna, sent out a series of tweets giving writers permission to like their own work. It was maybe the first time I ever saw anyone suggesting it’s okay to love your work. There are tons of posts out there about how to handle self doubt, but almost none about how you can and should cultivate actual love for your work. I think there’s a belief out there that a writer’s loathing for her own work is what helps her edit that work to perfection, but Older suggests that love is what gives us the ability to critique our own stuff. And you know, I think he’s right. The stuff I’ve written in the past that I hated? I could hardly stand to work on them long enough to edit them. But the stuff I love? The novel I’ve been trying to write for over ten years? Those are the ones I can accurately and correctly critique. Those are the ones I see clearest. It’s a labor of love, so why not own it?
Kate Elliott, author of the excellent Spiritwalker Triology, responded to Older’s tweets by asking folks to tell her at least one thing they like about their writing. One thing they’re confident they do well. (I would link, but I lost the tweet…)
I like the idea of doing that. So I’m going to do it. It’s kind of scary — somehow it’s easier to confess what we’re bad at, rather than what we like, because at least if we say we’re bad and we’re not we’re being modest. If you say you like something and it’s done poorly, what then?
But if we can’t find something to like in our writing, why should anyone else? If we can’t like what we do, why do we do it? So, here goes.
I’ve got an ear for language. I’m pretty good at writing prose that’s highly readable but still beautiful. (I balked at “beautiful” at first, almost wrote “interesting,” but what is that?) And I’m good at characterization. Sometimes my plots leave a little to be desired, but at the very least I’ll have some interesting folks running through my stories, folks that I and others end up caring about.
Owning your work means more than just admitting to your flaws. You’ve got to own your skills too. So tell me: What are you good at? What do you love about your own work?