Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Am I Better Than My Work?



Often my writing sucks. Big time, and I remind myself often as I am drafting a manuscript with little side bars, for example, as I write this post, I may insert (THIS SENTENCE STINKS UP THE ROOM. ) but I am not criticizing myself, just the horrible combination of words that passes for a sentence.

Elizabeth recently posted a comment on Facebook criticizing a group of her poems, and several people remarked she should stop being so hard on herself.
“I was NOT insulting myself” she said, “I was critiquing the poems. I didn't say I'm a terrible poet, I meant, these poems poems need revision.”
“One must be hard on the work in order to improve,” I said.
“Exactly.”
“You’re a good enough poet to be cognizant of when your work is weak.”
“I’m not going to apologize for myself deprecating humor,” she said. “It’s who I am. I have an excellent self esteem.
Elizabeth needled me about a posting I had shared on ‘15 things you need to do to be happy.’ “I hate when people try to tell me how to improve myself,” she said. “I like my bad attitude and imperfect life.”
I laughed, and nodded. “Our writing comes from unhappiness and suffering. We kind of enjoy our pain. Pain is a catalyst for work.
She agreed. “Just because I criticize my own work does not make mean I’m unhappy. I can write really wonderful depressing poems when I am extremely happy. Being happy is overrated. I’d rather be fulfilled”
“I once had a drawing instructor tell me when you’re content with your work, you’re dead.”

Today I saw a badge on a FB writing site that said “Write What You Like”. Depending on the interpretation, writing ‘what I like’ in the context of being free to write anything, I agree. But writing only what I ‘like’ stunts me as a writer. Real writing comes from what bothers us, what we don't understand, and what scares the bejesus out of us. If we only write about what we like, we won’t grow as writers. We won’t explore the messy layers of the human experience and its gritty ugliness. We should not avert our eyes because something is unpleasant.

When I was in my MFA program, my first mentor asked me, what bugs you? I replied, “I didn't get the whole tattoo-piercing thing.” She said, “That’s what you need to write about.” All semester I entered the foreign country of tattoo parlors, marked bodies. I even attended a three day tattoo festival where I was the only unmarked person. I spent my time asking participants about what motivated their tattoos. One heavy young man said, “I don’t fit the standard of beauty, so I find beauty in my body by making it a canvas.”

Unlike journalist Dennis Covington, who chronicles his slow seduction into the snake handling culture in Salvation on Sand Mountain, I was not propelled to cover my skin with tattoos and piercings, but I gained insight into why others do it.


Good writing comes from what we feel passionately about, either positively or negatively. What bothers you? What scares you? You might not like it, and you may not like writing about it, but your writing will improve.

Happy Writing.

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