On Not Settling

On the one hand, it’s important to believe in yourself, give yourself pep talks, all those platitudes. If you don’t have at least some small amount of confidence as a motivator, it’s next to impossible to force yourself to actually sit down and write.


But on the other hand: you’re not as good as you think you are.


Yes, it’s deflating. But adopting a realistic perspective will help you develop a much-needed thick skin when it comes to the inevitable rejection—from your writing group, from lit journals, from grad schools and agents and contests and retreats—and, more importantly, will urge you to foster constant improvement.


This is one reason why an MFA program is a beneficial, if not always economically feasible, option (and no, we’re not going to do the MFA vs. NYC debate). Ideally, the MFA workshop takes the stimulating, nurturing environment of your community writing group and adds all the teeth that are often missing in groups comprised of nice, normal, non-desperate people. Ripping each other’s work apart week after week toughens you up and forces you to go questing for better material, fearlessly explore wildly different structures for presenting it, get ruthless about their execution, devote countless hours to your delivery. When it comes to writing, you have to have that devotion—not to the work you’ve already done, but to its improvement.


Sylvia Plath had Ted Hughes slip her writing prompts to encourage herself to take on different perspectives. Thomas Wolfe kept his writing sessions going until he could stroll down the street chanting to himself, “I wrote ten thousand words today! I wrote ten thousand words today!” On the eve of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’s publication, Raymond Carver wrote to his editor, Gordon Lish, begging him to pull the book because it wasn’t up to his standards (which, of course, had up to then been heavily decided by Lish, but you get the point).


Let’s ignore the fact that none of these great writers are well known for their long, happy, healthy lives and acknowledge the fearsome energy they gave to the constant development of their craft. That, almost as much as their talent, is what made them great.


And to round out this list of well-adjusted writers, let’s remember what David Foster Wallace said of his craft:

Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.

It sounds like a bit of reassurance, but it isn’t. Take it as a challenge.

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