Writing is in my blood, but how do I know if I'm any good?

What if I have no talent? How can I find out? Who can tell me?

Published April 28, 2008 10:32AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

A couple of weeks ago, I mixed up Freestone with Olema. I was thinking of the wonderful and restorative enzyme baths at Osmosis, which clearly is in Freestone. Everybody knows that -- and many pointed it out! So my apologies -- it won't happen again!

Dear Cary,

As of late, you have answered many questions from aspiring or professional writers, and every time I have hoped it would include an answer to the pressing question in my life, but it has not.

The writers who have been writing you, lately, are already certain that they have talent. They suffer from writer's block, they're aggravated that their talent is going unnoticed, they wonder how to integrate writing into their lives. I am in a much earlier stage, at least psychologically. I have committed my life to writing, and I have no idea if I'm any good.

What it comes down to is this: How can you tell if you have talent? I submit to magazines and they reject me. I submit to contests and I lose. I try for the creative writing awards at my university every year, and never get so much as an honorable mention. I work and work and work on my craft. I read and read and hope to absorb skill by osmosis. Everyone says this is normal, and no indication that I'm in the wrong life trajectory; this is how all writers begin. But that's obviously not true -- my peers seem to be shooting by.

I know I will always write. It's in my blood. But when should I give up on making a career of it? When should I stop trying to send it into the world, and keep it shamefully to myself? How can I tell if I'm just part of the pathetic, misguided slush that clogs the mailboxes of magazines?

There is a line from "Little Women" that always stuck with me, after reading it as a child. Laurie is trying to write music like Mozart, and he realizes: "Talent is not genius, and no amount of work will make it so." He goes into business.

There must be someone who could read one of my manuscripts and then whack me across the face with it -- or tell me, yes, keep on trying, there's something here. Where do I find him?

A Writer or a Fool

Dear Writer or Fool,

One does not write only to display one's talent. One also writes as a spiritual practice and a mode of self-discovery. One writes in order to see. One writes in order to remember. Writing is like a sixth sense used to apprehend a reality not detected by the other five. It is the memory-sense, or the feeling-sense, the organ through which we make known to each other a rich world not otherwise knowable. It is also the medium through which we make known history and the soul of our culture. It keeps something alive that otherwise might die. It is an important act regardless of whether it gains an individual writer fame and praise.

So if you are writing, and if writing is, as you say, in your blood, your question about talent is moot. It is more a question about how you persist in writing through the fear, discouragement and disappointment that are endemic to the activity.

Logically, it works out like this. All the practice you get makes you better. Whatever stops you from practicing makes you worse. One thing that may stop you from practicing is the belief that you are no good. So the belief that you are no good may prevent you from becoming good -- unless you persist in writing. Many of us wake up believing we are no good and persist anyway, knowing that if we do not persist through our feelings of worthlessness then surely we will get nowhere. Our beliefs about our value are meaningless. Writing is a thing that must be done. In doing it, we often get better. It is not guaranteed how much better we will get by daily writing. How good we get, who knows? How long it takes, who knows? But surely we will not get better by not writing. So to keep at it is a logical necessity.

It is also a personal necessity if it is, as you say, in your blood.

These are not trivial matters.

The related question is one of professional competence and success. There is no guarantee of success for talented writers. Success is a whole other ball game.

But let's back up. It is important to talk about how we persist in doing the most demanding writing. I have for seven months been holding writing workshops at my house. So naturally I have been thinking about the creative process and why the Amherst Writers and Artists method works. One reason I think it works is this: For reasons psychological, spiritual and philosophical one must learn, through practice, to regard one's creative work with some compassionate detachment, and not to equate it with one's own worth as a person. We are attempting to contact a source beyond our conscious control. So we must be willing to be surprised by what we find. In order to be surprised, we must have some distance. So in the workshop we try not to address the creator of the work directly. We talk about the work as if it were separate from the creator. The hope is that this will allow the creator also to gain some distance from the work, to be detached as it unfolds. Otherwise, ego fear emerges. The ego will try to remain separate and distinct; it will impede and filter; it will try to steer us away from things that resonate with other people. The ego is too concerned with its place in the world. You need something broader and more subtle to act as your guide. You need a method that encourages you to gain detachment from the work.

I think much good writing, of the kind I like now as opposed to the kind I liked when I was younger, is very simple writing. In writing this column I have come to love the unadorned voice of the letter. I have come to love the subtle variations in individual voices that indicate who is speaking. They are not reducible to tricks of style. They seem more like that complex and undefinable combination of traits that we think of as individuality. I have come to love the individual and untutored voice.

There is a political dimension to this. One of the fundamental assumptions of a society that wishes to live in liberty is that individuals matter. That means the lowliest person matters. When we accord value only to the high, the famous and obviously accomplished, we endanger the esteem in which the lowly are held. So I say give more esteem to the low. So give voice to the voiceless. Help the voiceless find their voice. This is work that helps our society as a whole. It strengthens those on the bottom.

And, damn it, most of all, if you are in doubt as to what you have to say or why you are writing, it must be true that each of us has some searing white-hot core of feeling and being that is trying to find its way to the surface. It may seem alien to us; it may frighten us if we identify it with ourselves. So we must have a method by which we can assure ourselves this white-hot core of our being is not something to fear, that it may be something individual to us or it may be part of the voice of our species, the collective voice of humanity in all its pain and grandeur. It may be our desire to survive. It may be our primordial sense of existence. It may be a prenatal consciousness. It may be childhood's first glimmer of separate being, our love of beauty, our sense of the divine, our wonder and amazement, our most secret and delicious ecstasies, our most fervent beliefs, our moments of pure being, our strange battles in the night, our dreams, our best meals.

It may take a while scratching around on the surface to find those things and coax them up. But writing, if undertaken seriously, strips away layer after layer, making it more likely year by year that something of this white-hot core of being will emerge. You scratch the ground year after year hungrily looking for something good. You exhaust what is on the surface. You keep pawing away, you keep digging, you keep staring, you become uncomfortable in your chair, you think you hear a voice from beyond, you think you see the glimmer of a ghostly nightgown in your family home bending over you in your bed, you become distracted, you watch the dog moving about the yard -- there is the dog draped like a courtesan on the deck, her head hanging over the redwood edge, contemplating a bug traveling across the concrete step, her white fur mottled in the shade of the camellia and the tea tree; you notice the yellow clover and green grass and lavender, the April air impossibly fresh and clean, and suddenly you realize you have scratched away and scratched away and have found traces of a lost world and then were hurtled back into the now and you find -- what? -- you find the family dog under a flawless sky watching a bug move across the step. After mucking around in the murky past you explode into the present. You find that you exist! It may seem like not much, but it is a beginning. And tomorrow you can go again in search of that ghostly white nightgown.

This takes perhaps many years.

In the meantime, I don't believe you are ever wasting your own time writing. Some people might think you are wasting theirs, but that's their problem.

So we end up with many pages that will never be seen. But we did the work. And the work was important.

Afraid to write? See page 120!

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