After years of teaching creative writing and going through many creative ups and downs of my own, I’ve developed a very simple philosophy to guide what I do: don’t think about it; just put it out there and move on to the next thing. Or, as a professor of mine once liked to say, be quiet and take your lumps. If you develop a regular writing habit, I believe this is what you absolutely have to do—that is, if you intend to stay sane.
Consider that any amount of time a reader spends on your work is a compliment and a gesture of implicit encouragement. Got a bad review? That’s a lot more than the 10,000 other writers standing behind you got waiting for theirs. Got a magazine rejection telling you not to quit your day job? Do you realize how many submitters just got the form rejection or nothing at all? Many. Got panned on Twitter by a journalist with a chip on her shoulder? Great. You wrote something compelling or irritating. That’s very good. She’s helping you out, amplifying your message.
You broke out of the silent apoplexy that turns most writers to stone. You made someone feel something for a change. That’s the point. No matter how hostile or kind, excited or blasé readers act, the end result is the same: they spent their precious time considering what you wrote when they could have been doing something else. The more you think about that, the more it will seem like a remarkable gift. The only real failure, in that sense, is to misunderstand what you’ve been given.
Many writers misunderstand. They’re so busy flogging their platforms, soothing their fragile egos, and vehemently promoting themselves that they start to act entitled, even if they don’t truly feel that way deep down. It gives them a brittle exterior. They risk being crushed by a bad review or even an apathetic response from their audience, which is a shame. When they started writing, it wasn’t for applause. It was to find creative satisfaction. But over the years, they forgot about that. Now they’re like a raw nerve.
So it can be helpful to remember that indulging in self-entitlement is a very bad idea. While talk is cheap, words happen to be your business. You have to be a word factory, constantly producing, constantly submitting and posting. And if you can do that, you will realize yourself through that consistency, not by appealing to the fickle vagaries of taste. But this also means sometimes you will take a public beating. This is the meaning of take your lumps.
Of course, you don’t have to submit everything you write. Conventional wisdom tells us to sit on a draft until we get some distance and objectivity. I did it that way until a few stories I thought would never get published got taken right away and a novella I’d slaved over and considered and re-drafted and polished remained in submission turnaround for several years. It taught me a valuable, counterintuitive lesson. I realized I’m the worst judge of my own work and so is everyone else.
We never know if we’re any good and no one else knows, either. We know what we like. We know what our aesthetic values tell us is and isn’t quality work. But those values are arbitrary to culture and conditioning. They’re not immutable Platonic forms. There is no universal objective standard for quality in the creative arts. There’s only what I’m seeing from where I’m standing and how I got there.
Maybe I’m a library or an archive or the Pulitzer committee or an English department. And so I have a certain amount of status and gatekeeping authority conferred on me by said culture and conditioning. But that doesn’t change anything. It means some writers will have their scrolls preserved in the basement of Cheops and others will see their words crumble on the wind. The “test of time” is no test of quality. There is only what is being spoken, written, and read in this moment by these eyes. The rest is a dream of something written in that past or a vision of something to be written in the future.
What an upsetting idea! If that’s true, why do we even have English studies? The answer to that is what the legendary Dr. Richard Kroll gave me in his office at UC Irvine when, as a naïve undergraduate, I asked a version of that question: we study English to be able to read and write with clarity and intelligence. The rest is work for archaeologists, curators, and antiquarians—good work, valuable work, but not the work of words themselves. Writing exists in the reader right now or it doesn’t at all.
For people who write stories, poems, essays, and plays, this has radical implications. One is that critical feedback, while sometimes interesting and useful, is more like a eulogy than a prescription. The work has been read. The moment has passed. And whatever rhetorical effects have been created, whatever ideational structures rose up in the mind of the reader, either accomplished their work or didn’t.
Another implication is that taste—especially publishing taste and the marketing that oozes from it—is a creature of recent history, not really of the moment. By the time you finish taking that class in commercial screenplay writing that guarantees you’ll be producing blockbuster scripts by the end, the gaze of the industry has already shifted. Writers constantly producing derivative work in the service of whatever is supposed to be commercial are always playing catch-up.
The answer to this can be a bit scary: don’t worry about it. Flying blind is the only real way to fly. It means taking a horrendous risk with your time, emotions, and energy every time you sit down at the desk. But you wanted to be a creative artist, not a scholar of other people’s past art, right? Then shut your mouth and take your lumps. There will be lumps, many and various, if you’re doing it right.
On the other hand, it’s a reason to be joyful. If you’re committed to the idea that you cannot objectively judge your own work and neither can anyone else, you reach a point where it’s not about them. It’s about you finding your subject matter and your voice. It’s about pursuing the development of those things as a way to realize yourself. This is incredibly freeing.
My mom, who was a brilliant painter and sculptor, put it like this: once you finish a work of art, it doesn’t belong to you. It’s not your baby. It’s separate from you. Whether or not you formally submit it to others makes no difference. In an existential sense, it has entered the world. It’s now a syllable in the dialogue of creation, for better or worse. So get over it. Once the ritual is complete, the magic has been sent forth to cause change. And it will.