Shakespeare, Woolf. And Austen. These are my favorite writers. If you’d ask for a forth, it would be Kate Chopin, Djuna Barnes after that. They were brilliant, their talents and abilities last, and there is no end to finding something to love in their writing, in a phrase, a single sentence, the placement of a word.
I studied American literature (English, as they say). Professors don’t care what you think about the reading material they chose to teach you. They just want you to dig into the text and find something, some kernel of meaning that nobody else has found yet. I always did tell my instructors what I thought of the text, though, whether I liked it. Just because I could. You see, it’s easy to say whether you liked a text, if you consider it a good text, a worthwhile text. That is, if the text was written by someone other than you.
Because all objective evaluation flies out the window if you look at your own text. Sure, you love that one phrase, you actually think it’s brilliant. There’s that one story you worked so hard on to get it right, you love it. But that’s not objective. You don’t actually know whether the text is good or not – you love it because you know the kind of effort it took to write.
I find that this is one of the most frustrating aspects of writing – you need someone else to tell you how good you are. And oftentimes, you need someone who is not related or emotionally linked to you to tell you how good you are, because relatives and friends are too nice to tell you the absolute truth.
Writing fanfiction, I often find that my audience does not appreciate the stories I especially like. There may be a story into which I poured my heart, where I find the characterization especially felicitous, the plot wonderfully gripping – and then it gets four likes and one review. And another tale I just put down in an hour, without much effort or attachment and people are enchanted. And I’m wondering, what happened? Is it the story? The timing of the post? Mere coincidence?
I often say that I write for myself and that’s true. I’m a reader and appreciate good stories. I’m a consumer and a producer, if you will. Thus, I know what I like and if I lose interest in a story as a writer it follows that the reader in me also lost interest – bad story. But if I stick with something it’s for me as a reader as well as the writer. It’s the only way for me to evaluate my own writing, but it’s far from objective. Also, I’m kind of a temperamental reader and don’t always finish books even if I liked the beginning… weird, I know.
So, what I did these last few weeks was thinking about and writing a short story for a publication in a zine (if they take it I’ll tell you, if they don’t, well… I may post the story here or hide it where nobody will ever find it). It’s a story about a queer character but it’s not about their queerness – that was the premise of the submission. Since I cut it short to the deadline, there really was no time to have somebody else beta-read. And I sit and I read and have absolutely no idea if it’s good. I just don’t know. I sent it in anyway because the worst that can happen is that they reject it but… it’s one of those times I would really like to be able to evaluate my own writing. To be able to say, this is good enough. But that’s not how it works.
There’s a constant element of surprise when one is a writer about what people like, what people think about your writing. It works both ways. Sometimes I’m surprised that people like a certain story, sometimes I’m surprised that a story I thought was really good is being ignored or even rejected. It kinda makes for a community of writers that is desperate for acknowledgement, to be positively surprised. Or maybe it’s just the way I function. It’s addictive to know what people think about your work because they’re the only ones who can say that you’re good.