Love Your Work

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?

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5 thoughts on “Love Your Work

  1. I just don’t know. I mean, the goal of the writing is to create these experiences in other people, and to some degree, it’s hard to say, that your writing creates an experience in you, so you know it’s good, in the same way as it’s hard to judge your own voice, because you hear it with bone conduction, not with just with your ears. So you sound better to yourself. Always; the words you choose, the images and the associations, the memories you mine, all carry with them all these connotations, which may, or may not, really work for anyone else. I hear things in the workshop, over and over again, good things, and I’ve begun to think, ok, I’m acceptable at those things. But when someone tells me I’ve completely failed at X, I can’t fight that. That’s their experience. Hopefully, as you go forward, you stop being totally surprised by critique. Sometimes critique is people pointing out the weakest part of something that is strong enough to sell, strong enough to go out in the world; that’s hard to take. Sometimes critique is people who don’t like the kind of think you have just successfully written; that’s hard to take. I had a bunch of bad crits of my latest novelette in one workshop, including this one–I know it was 12k words but seemed more like 4 or 5. For once, I let myself think, “I won, then. You read the damn thing through to the end wanting to see what the hell was going to happen. His negative crit, to me, is now one of the best crits I’ve ever gotten. 12k that reads like 4k. Thats the kind of novel you read in one night, because you can’t stop reading it. Which is all I’ve ever wanted to write.

    1. “Hopefully, as you go forward, you stop being totally surprised by critique.”

      Yes. I think the weirdest thing about my last few critiques is how unsurprising they were. I already knew what was good and what was bad. It’s a novel feeling (pun not intended). And I don’t know, maybe some of it is just having the confidence to face a negative critique and realize (as you seemed to) that it’s really a positive.

  2. Lura, I genuinely could not love this more. The fact that I’ve been writing and reading and commenting on writing blogs for YEARS now and I’ve never once come across this topic or concept… that’s incredibly telling. I couldn’t even begin to count how many posts I’ve read (and written) about doubt, fear, improving, etc. And I’ve seen a fair share of “I love writing” passion posts, but never an “I love MY writing” passion post. Which just goes to show that you’re spot on: we’re conditioned not to love our own work — or at least not to admit that we love it (or actually talk about it). But why on earth would we spend so much time and effort and emotion on something we hate? I feel like a broken record telling my critique partners that it’s just as important to know your strengths as to know your weaknesses, but you’ve taken it a step further: love your strengths. Be proud of what you’re good at. If there’s a more important message about writing out there, I genuinely don’t know what it is. We do this because we love it; why not love what we make? ‘The miserable writer’ is not an archetype we should strive to fulfill; it’s one we should strive to ignore. Thank you so much for this post. I’m off to share!

    1. ‘The miserable writer’ is not an archetype we should strive to fulfill; it’s one we should strive to ignore.

      Yes! We are definitely conditioned to think writing must always be a miserable thing, so that when we start to enjoy it we begin to think we’re doing it wrong. But we’re writers. We ought to be able to think of and live a different version of that story.

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