Now that I’m beginning to settle into Arizona, I’ve been attending a local writers’ club. These are hobbyists, mostly—people who want to have fun putting words on the page. They give each other prompts, and they read each other what they responded with. It’s a good time.
This last session, one of them asked if the members wanted to grade the session. He explained that we could give each work a numerical ranking that spanned from poor through average and into very good, and then the writer would know if her piece was in some fashion “good.” He meant well, hoping it would help us get better. And he was shot down.
We talked about this for a few minutes thereafter and, as I was walking home, the conversation got me to thinking.
Just what is “good?”
I recently read a great piece from Ursula Le Guin about how a writer goes about making something “good.” If you are a writer, I strongly suggest you read it. If you are not a writer, I suggest you read it anyway because it’s a good piece of advice, regardless.
But I do want to make a point of the differences in these questions. My question is not “how does one make something good” but is instead, “when do I know that what I’ve created is actually good?”
The abrupt and mostly true answer is: you don’t.
At least not always, or at least not the way you might be thinking about it, anyway. It is cliché that a writer is her own worst judge.
It’s probably fair for “us creative folks” to consider it unfortunate that a person who creates something does not get to be the final arbiter of whether that thing is good or not. The writer (or painter, or film maker, or photographer, or …), instead, must be subjected to the seemingly arbitrary nature of an audience in order to make this decision. This is how it is in the big ol’ commercial world.
An audience will let you know exactly where they stand on your work, good or bad, or just merely “too short” (yeah, inside-ish joke there). And, yet …
This isn’t quite true.
As I was walking through the February winter here in Arizona, slogging through the 80 degree sunshine, downhill both ways, I thought about the question and I thought about Le Guin’s essay. I decided that she touches on the “what” part of this question in a sleight-of-hand kind of way. Here’s her quote:
The important thing is to know what it is you’re making, where your story is going, so that you use only the advice that genuinely helps you get there.
This whole creative thing, you see, is a shell game in which your goal is to keep looking under all the cups until you find that magic thing that tells you what you’re actually making. Until you’ve done that, there really is no way to know if you’re succeeding.
Let’s get something straight here first—merely the idea that you are making something is enough for you to begin and to finish. In other words, what you make does not have to be good. In fact, while you are making it, it cannot possibly be good. This is because while you are making something, there is no “good,” there is only what you are making and whether what you are making winds up being what you intend to make or not. This can be very frustrating at times, because your inner psyche will not always tell you what it is that you are making until towards the end of the process (read Le Guin’s comment there…note that nowhere does she say that the image of what you are doing actually happens when you start—only that in order to do something “good” you need to know this).
Sometimes you know what you’re going to do when you start—but not too often. Sometimes you have no idea what you are doing until right before the very end. These last are the stories that surprise you, or the stories that make you realize you started in the wrong place, or that make you understand that the entire first draft must be scrapped in order to write the real story. They are also the stories you finish and step back to say … “wow, I wonder where that came from.” Yes. It’s insidious as all hell.
Regardless, speaking for myself only, there is no “good” in the work of creation. What there can be, however, is a form of pleasure in the act of creation itself, a sense that I’m making something that no one else can ever make because they are not me. Then … and only then, really … comes this thing where I understand what my work of the day is trying to say (*). This is when I decide if something is good—or, as I’ve grown to consider it: when I become proud of what I’ve done.
That’s the key.
If you’ve enjoyed the process it was worth doing. And if, by its end, the work has made you feel something important, then it’s “good” because then you can be proud of it—even if no one else likes It, though I suggest that if you do something that makes you feel something in some way, there will be other people out there who like it. It just won’t be 100% of people, because in that sense (the commercial sense of the consumer) the term “good” means something different to everyone, and, let’s face it, there is no writer of any worth who has ever written anything that everyone considers good.
There will always be someone out there who will say TLDR, or “weak,” or whatever.
(*) Realize that what you think you are saying or doing in a piece of art is not necessarily the same thing as what everyone else will think you are doing. People bring their own biases and frames of reference into everything. At the session in question, I read “After.” This is a 200+ word story that appeared in both Analog and 16 Single Sentence Stories. After hearing it, the group discussed it for a few moments, and of the eight others there, at least three separate veins of thought existed about it. This is, in reality, one of the coolest things about being a writer. People pick things that have meaning from their own palate, and apply it to what you bring to them. Sometimes everything lines up, but not always.
Do your best.
Read Le Guin’s piece and work hard to make something “good”—whatever that is to you. And when you do that work, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll work harder to decide what “good” means to you, and you’ll have your standards shift around like mine have and like most dedicated writers I know have.
“Good,” you see, is weird. It isn’t about how long it takes: write fast, write slow, it doesn’t matter. Dig into a work, or throw it to the wind, no one cares—not even you, really. Looking back on something you’ve made, what you care about is whether you gave it the proper due, whether you did your “best” in regard to the piece and whether that effort makes you feel good in some way or another. In the end, “good” is whatever moves us.
I realize this can sound borderline pretentious. But, while pretension has its roots in the segmentation of “good,” this is idea is not pretentious of itself because this idea is the antithesis of segmentation. It is about letting the creative spark happen as it will happen, about recognizing that spark—or at least trusting that spark (sometimes over every other fiber in your body), and about conveying that spark in a way that makes you feel something. It’s about playing, it’s about valuing the thing inside you that makes things, whether that thing you are making is a happy little poem, or a splash of color you threw on a canvas that made you feel good, or a novelette that gets published to quickly disappear, or a story that gets optioned, or wins an award, or a picture you planned out and captured just as you thought it should be (or the quick digital flash that caught the love of your life in one of those perfect moments of pure accident).
The key is to be able to see what a piece says to you at the right time, or even better to be able to feel it. The key is to know that what moves you will move others. They key is to get used to the fact that what you and your work have to say matters, even if it only matters to you. Because if something you’ve made matters to you, if you understand what it means to you, then you can be proud of it.
And as a person who creates things, that is what “good” means to me.
In that light, here’s an interesting way to spend 50 minutes: