Writing thoughts and questions

Boy writing in fogDo you have any thoughts on why writers can’t tell if their own writing is any good or not? I mean, I think there are probably some writers who do know (or believe) that their writing is good, and there are probably some writers who do know (or believe without any trouble) that their writing is bad, but I think it’s more universal to hear writers talking about not really knowing if something they’ve written is any good or not, don’t you? I feel compelled, probably culturally so–following the hand me down line that’s usually used for questions like this one–to say perhaps not being able to see one’s own writing in a very clear light is like it is to be human, not being able to see ourselves as others see us, from the outside, except perhaps in small glances here and there. I confess some days I read over something I’ve written and think, I really like this. I’m surprised that it’s something I’ve made. Then there are days when I might look at that same thing and think, this is dreadful, this is horrid. How could I have let myself make something so bad/ugly/awkward/boring/shallow? The worst thing about all this is not knowing which of these evaluations is true, or thinking perhaps both are. That’s an even worse thought for me. But perhaps it’s correct. Maybe our best stories are still, in the long view, just more scratches on the cave wall, and if there is beauty in them at all it is not in the product but in the story that the story tells, the one under the surface of what’s written, that someone made this for some reason, stepped away from the business of living and gave a portion of their time in living to make something that might be around for someone else to stumble across now or years later and know that they haven’t been alone in all of this…this thing we’re doing here in the world.

I think about that, but then I think that’s perhaps too forgiving and seeing everything in its best light. I think maybe I’m probably really only forgiving of things that’ve been made with a certain earnestness in the quality of their final shape, despite whatever flaws they may have. But less forgiving of things that may be mostly flawlessly made but not meant to be much of anything at all, other than perhaps a comfort fiction, as it’s being called these days.

That’s another thing that’s been on my mind lately: consolatory art. What these days, in the speculative fiction field at least, is being called comfort fiction (at least sometimes, I think, by some people who see consolation and comfort as one and the same thing). I think the rise of the comfort fiction brigades has done some damage in its crusade to rid the world of fantasies that lie to us about the nature of living in various ways (and not good lies, not ones that are really truly helpful to us, so I sympathize with what they’re saying about those in that way). But I do think that to a certain extent there’s been a sort of confusion made at times of two different sorts of writing that are separate things altogether, for me at least. One of these I think of as wish fulfillment stories, which are the ones that lie about the nature of our lives perhaps. The other I think of as consolatory stories: stories that can console while still telling the truth. I think that’s possible. To tell the truth and still find consolation in something. Not comfort, but consolation, something to go on, to feed and keep the spirit while we’re here for a little longer. Not to insulate us from the horrors of living here, but to stoke our fires and keep us going on despite the wolves howling at the door.

Thoughts? Anyone?



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14 responses to “Writing thoughts and questions”

  1. […] Joshua Fox wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptI confess some days I read over something I’ve written and think, I really like this. I’m surprised that it’s something I’ve made. Then there are days when I might look at that same thing and think, this is dreadful, this is horrid. … […]

  2. pyrogyne Avatar

    This is a terrific post, beautifully written. And I can identify with it so easily; there are times when I can look at my words and think that I’ve created something, if not beautiful, then at least worth looking at. And then, of course, the doubt sets in, and I never know which is more realistic: the confidence or the doubt. Maybe both, in equal shares.

    And I love what you said about stories being scratches on the cave wall; I think that’s what all art does, ultimately. I think that all writing, all art, reaches for the subtext that lies beneath everything we do, and has done so since humans first learned to make marks on stone with charcoal.

    Thanks for the lovely post.

  3. […] unknown wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptI feel compelled, probably culturally so–following the hand me down line that’s usually used for questions like this one–to say perhaps not being able to see one’s own writing in a very clear light is like it is to be human, … […]

  4. Beth Adele Long Avatar

    Great post.

    Some initial thoughts: a lot of my struggles with evaluating my own work arise from the thought that coalesces the instant I start wondering “is this good,” which is, “will this earn me fame, riches, and universal adoration?” I think you’re right that the essential problem is no different from the problem that keeps us unaware of our own selves — we’re basically talking about the interference of the ego, yes?

    I tend to go dualistic with my evaluations. Either “amazing! it’s going to win the Pulitzer!” or “abysmal! it’s tripe!” The few times I can really let go of ego worries and just look at a story, I do seem to get a roughly accurate sense of its quality in the context of “how much I would like this if it were someone else’s story.”

    Time is also an important factor — if I’ve just finished a story, I’m still conflating the murky idealizations with which I began and the raw words I’ve put down on the page. The brain needs some time in order to catch up, like updating one’s body image to include a missing limb (or, in this case perhaps, a new limb).

    Your ponderings on viable consolatory fiction are wonderful also, and I’m going to think about that a bit. I very much like the idea of comfort stories that still don’t lie.

  5. Alan F Avatar
    Alan F

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve always known I couldn’t be the only writer to suffer with these kinds of doubts, but it’s gratifying to have the fact confirmed.

    I don’t think I’ve every really been confident about anything I’ve written, even when I look back on the handful of stories that have been published. I always seem to place myself in the shadow of every other writer in the world. It’s a habit I haven’t learnt to break yet. And actually, in some ways that’s the most frustrating thing about the whole process; still wanting to write. Continuing to struggle, despite all the doubts.

  6. Haddayr Avatar

    Here’s the thing: it’s not my job to like or dislike my work (although, for the record, I usually dislike it passionately until it’s completely finished, and then I stumble upon it later and I’m often pleased.).

    It’s my job to make my work better. I think and I hope that I have the skills to do that, liking it or disliking it aside.

    As to the comfort stories: I actually think your Language of Moths is one of the best kind of comfort stories.

    So I suppose I like them lots.

    Wish fulfillment stories . . . we’re not supposed to like them, right? Because they’re not Real and Raw and all that.

    But what if I have the same wish as the author who wrote the story? I’m going to love it, like it or no.

  7. Christopher Barzak Avatar
    Christopher Barzak

    Thanks for all your thoughts on this, guys. I appeciate hearing what other people think about things I’m thinking about, and as there’s not a huge writing community around me here, the best place to take those thoughts and questions I have about writing are here on the journal, I think.

    Matt Cheney has written an entry on his journal about the comfort fiction thread, after reading this and after a couple of emails we shot back and forth too. He tries to tease out a bit more of what I hastily scribbled here I am much more of a scribbler on my journal than a committed essay writer, like Hal Duncan. 🙂

  8. Jeff VanderMeer Avatar
    Jeff VanderMeer

    I always know when I’m working on something more or less ambitious, and I always know when the vision in my head is substantially different than the end result. But you can’t control reader reaction–which is sometimes right and sometimes horribly wrong, or changes over time. So I’m not sure the question’s all that relevant.

    As for the idea of comfort fiction. My problem isn’t with comfort fiction–it’s with fiction that seems to think it’s NOT comfort fiction but actually is. Just because you engage political issues or whatever doesn’t automatically mean you’re not writing comfort fiction. Or if you engage personal issues. Sometimes it’s just an excuse for the writer and reader to wallow. Sometimes it’s just a way for the reader to feel a lot better about the fact he or she is doing fuck-all about global warming or whatever issue you want to pick. *Honest* comfort fiction is perfectly fine. Fiction that is not in fact genuinely edgy or making the reader genuinely uncomfortable in some way but seems to *front* that approach…is simply dishonest. Of course, where in the morass of the subjectivity of reader reaction, reviewer reaction, and writer introspection you can find the truth of which is which, I dunno. In some ways I think all fiction is escapist–it diverts you from real life, regardless of the harshness it contains. It is its own virtual reality, and whatever is happening within its confines is happening to *someone else*.

    Usually when I post something like this, it gets ignored. But that doesn’t make it less true.


  9. Christopher Barzak Avatar
    Christopher Barzak

    Thanks for that really thoughtful response, Jeff. I appreciate it. A lot to chew on there. I think what you’re saying does have truth to it though, and don’t understand why others would ignore it when you’ve posted something like it elsewhere. I suppose maybe it’s a more realistic concept of what fiction is/does and perhaps for some people it’s not a romantic enough idea, which genuinely disturbs their fantasies about what they’re reading or writing and why they’re doing that in the first place. But it’s definitely a valid understanding of what fiction does no matter what else we want to believe it does–or hopes it does–too.

  10. Maureen McQ Avatar

    The novel and short story are usually about being middle class (even when the characters aren’t) and often end up being about success in relationships, about the importance of friendship and love over power the theme that wealth brings unhappiness shows up a lot. Bad guys drink wine and eat weird food (like Hannibal Lector). Things in fiction have meaning, and that meaning is often consolation. These are gross stereotypes, and some literature is about how these things are now true (which is of course, equally about those things.) But a book like To Kill a Mockingbird is comfort because it is so much about soothing our anxieties about right and wrong and the way those things are natural (Scout is a precocious but innocent child and she is morally right most of the time).

    I don’t know how that connects with your thinking about comfort fiction, but I offer it.

    I can never tell if my own fiction is good or not and I am really swayed, most of the time, by the opinions of others. When people I trust like stories of mine, I tend to feel afterwards that /those/ stories /are/ good. Although if I really feel a story is bad, I am willing to continue believing that no matter how many people like it. But that says a great deal about me, doesn’t it.

  11. Deb Avatar

    Several years ago, when I hadn’t sold a single story in five years, I realized that there’s no way to tell if you’re a good writer who just hasn’t ‘hit’ yet or the sort of person who writes 25 novels and never gets any better. Because if you’re the sort of person who writes 25 novels and never gets any better, well, you’re not the sort of person who’s ever going to realize it.

    For me, I want honest emotion in my fiction. And I want the existence of hope.

  12. Christopher Barzak Avatar
    Christopher Barzak

    I like this: “Things in fiction have meaning, and that meaning is often consolation.”

    It’s as if providing meaning in itself is an act of consolation, and maybe it is.

    I love the To Kill a Mockingbird example. Love love love it. It’s a great example of the different kinds of comfort a comfort fiction may offer.

    I’m with you on taking into consideration the voices of people I really trust who say if one of my stories is really good, I trust that even if I can’t see it, maybe it is. And also I can continue believing a story of mine is really bad even if multitudes like it. And on top of this, no matter how many people dislike one of my stories, I can maintain a belief that it’s good anyway. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or bad thing or just a thing.

    Thanks for your always perspicacious responses!

  13. Christopher Barzak Avatar
    Christopher Barzak

    Thanks, Deb. I want honest emotion for sure in fiction. Though sometimes I do feel like a good life is hopeless story (but only if it feels honestly as if it is hopeless in the context of the story). 😉

  14. […] nature of consolation and comfort in reading and writing: Christopher Barzak and Matt […]

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