Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Writer's Self-Criticism

The Writer magazine had a special writing booklet you could buy for $4.95 full of interviews with well-known writers in their monthly "How I Write" section. Of course, I bought it. $4.95 for a bunch of writerly wisdom? I'm there.

While reading Chang-rae Lee's interview - author of the novels Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, and Aloft, - something caught my attention.

In his advice to writers, he said, "...be kind of stubborn about your writing and ...be very critical of it. I know immediately if the younger and beginnings writers I meet are not good writers because they tend to like their stuff. Most every professional writer I know is very critical of their material, even after it's published, even after it has won prizes, because they're constantly looking for other possibilities to push their form." (p. 6)

Are you critical of your writing? I most certainly am. In fact, while reading through my first ten chapters tonight, I kept thinking, this isn't good enough. It's just not good enough. But I've thought that about a lot of my stuff that's been published and people apparently like it (so far!).

So here's an interesting question. If you absolutely love what you've written - does that mean it's not any good?

For me, when I complete something, I usually have a feeling of general satisfaction. There may be certain parts of the piece that I absolutely love, but I generally do not absolutely love the entire piece. Does that make sense? I remain critical of it, knowing that I could have done this, or said it this way or that. But at some point, you just have to stop editing.

What about you? How do you view Lee's comment? Do you believe it is possible to completely love a piece you've written and for that piece to be good? Or do you strongly disagree with Lee and think that such an attitude is self-defeating?

12 comments:

  1. I'm probably my own worst critic. Even when I am happy about something I wrote, i can go back a few days later, look at it and think 'I can make this better'. But there are other times when I go back and think 'no, this is as good as it gets - at least right now.'

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  2. Melissa, great post!

    I agree with Lee. I see this happen so often in the classes I teach and the critiquing I do -- "newbie" writers who think just having written something is all there is to it. They feel so smug and noble! They ask for feedback, only wanting to hear how good it is, and they shrug off criticism and advice. Then they rush to submit something that is really just a first draft. Then they blame the editors and publishing in general when the rejection comes. These people are really unteachable, and they soon drop out of writing.

    For myself, I revise and edit obsessively. I'm never really satisfied with my work. But I would rather keep trying to improve, rather than face those needless rejection letters.

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  3. I agree with Lee, and am also glad I'm not the only one that obsesses over a creative piece of work once it's been completed. With both written works and visual pieces (mainly drawings and paintings), I have a hard time stopping the self-criticism and calling it "done."

    Thanks for sharing the interview.

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  4. I think you can love it, but still feel you'd like to do another rewrite. I know in my bones when it's ready to go out. But even after it's published, a few years down, I often wish I could go back with the growth I've achieved and make it even better.

    Even if I like it, I'm never completely satisfied with it.

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  5. Good post.

    I'm of two minds. One, yes, you need to be critical. It is too easy to read what you want to read in your own stuff. I've never had the problem since I generally don't like my writing. Which leads to my second thought. If we are too critical, we won't find the courage to submit. I see my writing as blah, but I also realize I'm not the best judge. I'm too close to it. In my mind I know I am a good writer because my fellow writers and my agent have told me so. In my heart, all I see are flaws. I don't know, maybe that is a good combination.

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  6. Aah, the virtues of insecurity! I must be a pro!
    I agree with Lee that, as an artist, one would always be seeking ways to improve her art. Likewise, professionals would seek to improve their skill. No?
    Also, I think you can like something but still want to improve it.

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  7. Michelle Willingham3:27 PM

    I think you're always critical of your work, no matter what happens. You always try to improve. But there does come a point when you have to say it's good enough.

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  8. Well, I do see where he's coming from, and I am pretty critical - but I don't think I agree completely. I think a lot of that is a matter of temperment and perspective. I feel like I know when I'm done with a scene because I get a feeling of satisfaction and when I come back to it I think "did I write that?!" - this is because I couldn't possibly write that until about 10 drafts later. So it doesn't feel like my writing. I think if I ignored the feeling of satisfaction, I wouldn't know when something really was done and time for me to move on - if any of that makes sense!

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  9. I'm like you - there are parts of anything I've written I absolutely love, but there's always something I feel needs improvement. I think Lee's attitude is a little much for most writers to believe. All writing can usually stand a good editing and improvement.

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  10. I think being critical of your own work comes naturally once you've been writing for awhile. Especially if it's something like fiction.

    But I know I have moments when I look at one of my sentences and think, "There it is. That one's perfect. Just what I wanted." Of course, I might come back the next day and think, "Crap! It's all crap!" ;)

    I would imagine that poetry might be a different, though. It is such a different kind of writing and so very personal.

    I can see a poet loving their work and not caring one whit if someone else doesn't, because the words have different interpretation to the author.

    I think the same might happen if a person weren't writing with the goal of being published.

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  11. I agree with Lee in many ways, but I think sometimes we can get mixed up between loving our story as a whole and our characters, but hating our writing and feeling like we haven't conveyed everything the exact perfect way we meant to.

    I cringe at the idea of other people reading my stuff and then you're expected to rave about it to agents and editors--a tall order!!!

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  12. not good writers because they tend to like their stuff

    I must be one hell of a writer. LOL

    No, I know this is true because most of the writers that I know, whose books I love, are very critical of their books.

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