Writers Often Ask Me a Question I Can’t Answer

Photo credit: denisbin

Today’s guest post is by author, editor and writing coach Mathina Calliope (@MathinaCalliope).


If you’re reading this blog, chances are you have been told at some point, by someone, likely more than once, that you are a good writer. Maybe even a great writer. Your mom, maybe, as she pinned your block-lettered picture-sentence stories to the refrigerator when you were in first grade. Or the seventh-grade teacher who read your poem to the whole class, which was embarrassing but also super validating. Maybe you won a high school essay contest. Or your colleagues praise your memos and emails, perhaps, for their clarity or wit.

And you know it to be true. You have a knack for it. You’re comfortable with your fingers flying over the keyboard. It pleases you to put together a sentence whose rhythm feels right. Your mind bristles with ideas, clamoring to be let out onto the page.

But becoming a Real Writer? About this you’re not as certain. Maybe you didn’t go into a writing field—you had to put food on the table, raise the kids. Maybe you did pursue a writing degree, but your main output now is press releases or ad copy. Something always draws you back though. You’re reading a memoir and the protagonist’s story reminds you of yours. I could do that, you think. I should do that. Why aren’t I doing that?

So you take a writing workshop and there it is again, just like in high school: validation. Your classmates love your story. “These details are great,” they say. “I love the tension you create in the beginning,” they say. “I can really sense the emotion the narrator was feeling in this paragraph,” they say.

Of course, they also note that maybe you didn’t need that whole first paragraph at all, and that you probably could explain this bit about the relationship between the brothers a little better, and overall it’s pretty long and repetitive, so maybe go through and try to cut unnecessary words?

Still, you’re encouraged. Not just from the feedback but from the feeling you got writing it all down. The memories that emerged and surprised you. The satisfaction of finally doing a thing you’ve said for years you wanted to do.

Now you decide to take a plunge. Get some personalized guidance and accountability, invest in yourself. You hire a coach. She’s encouraging and interested in your story. She leaves little margin notes reacting to the story, and you see that she gets it. She understands what you’re trying to do. More validation, because what are writers after if not readers who get it? Just like the workshop classmates though, she has more than praise for your masterpiece. She has criticism, questions, and suggestions. She wants you to rethink the structure. She thinks you should take out that whole section you labored over. She doesn’t understand how several of the paragraphs relate to the chapter as a whole. She’s put commas in all over the place.

You start to wonder if you should keep going. Coaching’s not cheap, and the publishing industry is ruthless. The field is saturated with writers, so many people wanting to tell their interesting stories. What makes yours so special?

You wonder: Am I good? Am I a good enough writer to keep doing this?

I’m so, so sorry. No matter how much I love your writing, no matter how much it impresses me, or—on the other side—no matter how much I think you have to learn, I cannot answer that question. It’s not because I’m trying to be coy, or don’t want to hurt your feelings, or—on the other side—boost your ego.

It’s because it isn’t an answerable question.

“Good enough” implies there’s a benchmark of writerly skill. Learn these techniques, practice this structural approach, master those literary devices. As if there were a bar out there somewhere, and your inherent talent plus practice puts you either above it or below it.

Don’t I wish.

Other fields have more rigid standards. Lawyers, for example, must know a canon of precedent and must possess logical minds and rhetorical skills.

But art isn’t like that. Not only is there no way to answer the question of whether you are good enough, there’s no way to even define what it means. Good enough for what?

  • Good enough to share with your kids?
  • Good enough to be published on HuffPost?
  • Good enough to get a book deal?
  • Good enough to move some specific audience of readers?
  • Good enough to convey your truth, to help you discover what that truth even is?

On top of all of the above, good writing isn’t even the main criterion for publication. Sadly, it’s not even in the top three or four. What gets someone published is whether their story is relevant, timely, and MARKETABLE; what sort of platform (social media following) they have; their degree of expertise; and the uniqueness of their idea, its angle. Knowing people in the book world is awfully helpful, too.

No one person can ever know the answer to that question, then: Is your writing good enough. Not the agent who might or might not sign you. Not the editor who might or might not buy your book. Not even the reader who picks your book for book club, where a disagreement emerges about the quality of the writing.

It’s not knowable.

Because of that, “Is my writing good enough?” is not the question you should ask yourself.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard tells an anecdote about a student who asked a well-known author if he, the student, could become a writer. The reply: “Do you like sentences?”

I love this answer so much. It goes straight to the point, which many aspiring writers, in their visions of publication, book parties, and New York Times bestseller lists, skip over entirely. I take it to mean, Do you love writing so much that you cannot NOT write? Because if you like sentences, you probably like words, paragraphs, pages, chapters. You like writing for writing’s sake, and not for all that other stuff. The other stuff is fine; there’s nothing wrong with the other stuff.

So, do you? Like sentences, I mean? If the answer is yes, then keep going. Put in the time. Read, read, read, read literature. Work hard. Enjoy the process. And see where it leads.

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Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Mathina Calliope is a writing coach, teacher, editor, and writer whose coaching is informed by more than twenty years’ experience teaching students ages 9 to 89. Her years in the classroom, plus an MFA in creative nonfiction writing and an M.Ed. in teaching, have given her powerful pedagogical tools to use with her clients. Her words can be found in Creative Nonfiction, Longreads, The Rumpus, The Wall Street Journal, Outside, and elsewhere. Her memoir and personal essay classes at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC, regularly sell out.

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