I write an elder writer the following e-mail with the subject line I am an arrogant asshole, but I am really bad at it:
When I write I pretty much labor under a giant neon sign that reads YOU SUCK. I spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy fretting about how awful my work is. Then I have a bunch of people read it and basically say, “it’s fine,” and I wonder, how can that be? When I was a young spark, I thought that if I ever got good at this writing thing, the YOU SUCK sign would go away, yet here it remains unchanged. Today I realized why that is: I am not holding up what I write against the work of my peers in workshops. I am not even holding it up against most of the stuff that’s out on the market today. I am holding it up against Gustave fucking Flaubert. No wonder I always feel like crap! Immediately I also realized what a hilariously arrogant thing that is to do, and then I thought–wait, don’t arrogant people think that they are awesome? Yet I somehow figured out how to be arrogant while also feeling like shit all the time. You have to admit that is a display of ineptitude bordering on the magnificent.
“If there is an alarming object in this world it is a writer delighted with something he has just written. There is no worse sign.”–William Maxwell
But, does such a writer exist? Trying to understand such a person is like trying to visualize Peace on Earth. My brain just shuts down.
Oh, I encounter plenty of them. Except, of course, they’re not real writers. I’ve seldom met a real writer delighted with anything to do with his work. In other words, don’t stop comparing yourself to Flaubert. That’s the goal; not acing it in a workshop. And it’ll keep you nice and insecure.
You are my new mommy.
Yes, don’t stop comparing yourself to Flaubert. A mentor of mine (and ours, really), said that we shouldn’t compare our writing to any book that is published, but to the literary greats.
(She wanted us to avoid the damning “If that person can be published, why can’t I?” cycle of thought).
This raises the bar, but why shouldn’t we aim for the top?
If it gives you any comfort, I’m in your “I SUCK” club with you. I want to write a novel as great as The Great Gatsby (even though of course, my writing style has no similarities to F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Sigh. Standards–aren’t they a pain in the ass?
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