In response to Jade Park’s post on having doubts about her writing, I wrote that from my experience, every writer (or almost every writer), no matter how talented or successful, has these same doubts. I’m talking about writers who have been on the New York Times Best Seller’s list, writer’s whose names you would recognize, writers who have won National Book Awards and a host of other accolades. I hear them say things like they feel like their best seller was a fluke, they’ll never write a book that good again, they have no more good ideas, they can’t handle criticism, they don’t know how they’ll pay their rent next month, they sometimes wonder why they’re writing at all, etc, etc, etc. And yet those same people continue to write despite through their doubts and get another book deal or publish another big magazine article or win another award. And the people who haven’t published yet think they have “made it” and yet they don’t feel they have made it at all because they are comparing themselves to someone even more successful than they are.
When I was in my MFA program I thought my writing wasn’t literary enough, that no one would take it seriously, that it was “fluff” compared to some of the more serious writers in our class. But then I realized that my writing makes people laugh, while some of the more literary writers put people to sleep when they read their work out loud. So I realized that my writing has its own merits, that it serves a purpose, just like the literary writers’ stories do. And since then I’ve encountered writers who are less literary than I, who hardly use any description or figurative language at all, who are selling stories and getting book deals. And I think, “I want to be like them.” So there are all different types of writers—the ones (like Yiyun Li) who win awards and the ones (like my friend Julia) who make the New York Times Best Seller list. And one isn’t better than the other. They all serve a purpose, and they’re all great writers who have achieved a certain amount of success. (And we could talk for hours about success, and what that means, and whether it matters if you get published at all, but I’m writing from the stance of someone who does want to get published, who does want to achieve at least that degree of “success.”)
In one of the last episodes of Six Feet Under, before it went off the air, Claire was talking to her new boyfriend about her photography. She was saying, “I just don’t know if I’m good enough.” And he said, “Then get better.” And that has always stayed with me. If your writing isn’t good enough, then get better. Keep working on it, keep revising, keep reading, learning, practicing, writing and you will inevitably get better. So just because your writing isn’t today what Tobias Wolff’s or Yiyun Li’s is today, doesn’t mean that it won’t be someday, or that it’s not as good as Tobias Wolff’s or Yiyun Li’s was a long time ago. And it doesn’t matter how old you are or how long it takes you to write a book. One of the greatest French movies, Jules et Jim, was adapted from a book written by an 81-year-old man, and it was the only book he ever wrote. If you write your first book at 81 and it’s as big a success as Jules et Jim, you’ve done extremely well.
My book isn’t done. It’s not good enough to get published. It still needs a lot of work. But I will keep working on it until it is done and until it is good enough. I will “get better.” And along the way I will learn a lot more about writing than if it had come easily for me, if I had sat down and written a brilliant book in six months. Because as much as I like to write, and as much as I’ve learned, I was always better at math. Writing isn’t my strongest skill. But it’s what I love to do, so I’m going to do it. And I won’t compare myself to others because there is no value in that except to make myself and others feel bad. I’ll just write the best I know how and hope for the best. And if you’re a writer, I hope you will, too.