16 September 2012

On never being good enough

Today I came across this blog post by writer and teacher Lisa Morrow, who asks, "What are the best ways to improve as a writer?" I agree with her that it's not enough to write a lot; one also must solicit and respond to feedback. However, I find the question itself problematic because when I have asked it in the past, underneath lay a crippling belief: I am not good enough.

This self-doubt has affected me life-wide--for example, there was a period of time during which I used the excuse that I was not yet the person I wanted to be as a reason for avoiding romantic relationships--but lately I've been examining how it has affected my writing and my friends' writing.

One of my friends has wanted to write for as long as she can remember, but she never felt like she knew enough about the craft of writing. She spent years reading about others' processes and the "rules" for good writing rather than actually practicing writing.

Another of my friends was writing a research paper on Spalding Gray's performance art and felt that, in order to speak with authority on the subject, he had to read everything Gray ever wrote, everything ever written about Gray, and everything ever written about performance art. For the purposes of the class, he only needed 10-12 sources, but he read over 30 sources and still felt ill-prepared. He lost sleep and lost his appetite and made himself literally ill trying to feel like he knew enough.

I've been wanting to write articles about traveling in Paris and Madrid, but when I sit down to do it I'm overcome by nagging self-doubt about my "expertise." And when I wrote the series of posts in this blog about how to be a published writer, I fought with myself about my "right" to do so, since there are other blogging authors out there who have been more widely published than I and who have been at it for longer.

Somewhere along the way I must've gotten the message that it's not good enough to speak from my own personal experience, that I have to have widely researched others' experiences and views and speak to some mythical Universal Experience in order to be worth listening to, and that what I write at a particular moment in time should be applicable to all people for all time.

Yet my experience as a reader is that those who write from their particular experience and from their perspective at a particular moment in time are more effective than those who aim at Universal Truth. Those who write firmly situated in their "I" generally speak more truths that resonate with me than those who try to encompass the entire human experience in their "we."

Historically, I have let the idea that I don't know enough, that I haven't experienced enough, or that I am not a good enough writer keep me from writing. Finally, earlier this year, I realized that if I don't start writing and putting my work out there, despite its imperfections, I will never get it out there.

I don't want to always be coming from the perspective that what I currently know/think isn't enough, that who I am isn't enough, that my writing isn't good enough. Instead of asking myself "How can I be a better writer?" I want to ask myself "How do other people experience my work?" and "What do I think and know about Subject X now?" I want to connect with my curiosity. I want to create a mental playground for myself that encourages discovery, play, and risk-taking. I want to affirm that where I'm at right now matters too; I don't want to devalue it just because it's not where I someday want to be.

Because I will never become "a better writer" if I don't write. And it is only by accepting and validating where I am now that I can work toward where I want to be. By writing what I currently know/think about Subject X, I will identify questions I have about the subject, and then I can try to find answers to those questions. I think most experts become experts by being curious, not by trying to know enough to be an expert. Likewise, I think most good writers become good writers by giving themselves permission to experiment, not by trying to eradicate deficiency. They write something and see what happens, change it and see what happens, write something else and see what happens.

At least, that's what I think now. What do you think?


  1. As history has shown, being a good writer is often not the result of writing a lot. It's usually about refining what you've written. The act of writing facilitates this, but I know of few authors whose first words are golden.

    The idea of experimenting is a good one. Essentially, you need to free yourself from shackles while you write. However, conversely, certain restrictions should be considered in editing and rewriting.

    So, like many things written today, that is my opinion. A good writer shouldn't be worried about writing, but should have the good sense to have an editor.

    As for knowing what your writing about, it's probably better to know more about your subject than less, though it depends on what kind of authority you're writing with. Details can help bring clarity, and they can also be flourish. Both can work, but clarity keeps readers from potential frustration.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Anon! I agree with you that revision is an essential part of the writing process. From your perspective, what are the "restrictions" one should consider "in editing and rewriting"?

      You also say, "it's probably better to know more about your subject than less, though it depends on what kind of authority you're writing with." At what point do you decide you know "enough" about something to be able to write about it with some measure of authority? Aren't we always writing with authority if we are writing about our own experiences, even if those experiences are different from most other people's or we have less experience with a subject than someone else?