For my second Write-a-thon topic, I want to tackle the last thought in my notebook:
Sometimes I like my work. Sometimes I hate it. I don’t know which time I’m correct.
When I did my shadow Clarion West, I knew that there was one thing a real student would get that I didn’t get: critiques. What I didn’t know was that giving critiques, and listening to the critiques of others, was actually the more significant experience. (Discussed here in last year’s Write-a-thon post, The lifelong workshop.)
Prior to the workshop, I think I had a fuzzy image of an idealized crit session lurking somewhere in the back of my mind, and had the equally inchoate notion that Clarion West would magically provide it. I thought it would tell me the answers to all my questions. When is my work good? For real? When it’s bad, how can I fix it? How can I take this collection of creepy scenes about ants and turn it into a story?
The problem is, no crit group will ever actually tell you that. You give them a story, and you know you spent the first few scenes just noodling around trying to figure out what the story was, and you hope they won’t notice, but they always do. You give them a story without a real ending, hoping either that they won’t notice (they do) or that they’ll be able to tell you how to end it (they won’t.)
You hope they’ll all either love it or hate it, which will give you the definitive answer about whether the story is any good. But instead, what happens is that everybody is “meh” about it except for one person who just loves it. And for all you know, if you do send it out, you will happen to snag that one editor who feels exactly the same.
But, you know, probably not.
A crit group can help you a lot, but they’ll never be able to simply tell you what to do. They can’t tell you how to end your story. They can’t tell you what your story is about. They can’t tell you if it’s worth trying to get it published. They can’t tell you how to fix that one bit that you already know is a problem. What they can do is make suggestions and give impressions, and if you’re lucky, the lightbulb goes on in your own head, and now you know how the story ends, or what it’s about, or how to fix that one bit, or whether it’s worth it.
Ultimately, no matter what anyone ever tells you about your work, it’s your work, and you’re the only one who can do it. That’s the point, right? Isn’t that why you’re bothering in the first place? You can’t assume you’re going to be better in some ultimate objective sense than the great writers already doing it, but you can be better at writing the kinds of stories you write. On some level, you believe that’s worth doing, or you wouldn’t be here.
On some level. But on other levels, you doubt yourself. Why am I doing this? Why am I bothering? Why do I think it matters? And sometimes we get the external validation that seems to confirm our sense that it matters — a story is published, or praised — but those doubts always return. Maybe Stephen King never doubts his chosen path, because it’s made him gazillions of dollars, and he’s famous. (But you know, I bet he does doubt. Sometimes.) The rest of us? We doubt.
I tend to see this in existential terms, as a crisis of faith. And my answer is to give myself the existentialist pep talk: if nothing matters anyway, you might as well try to make art. It might pay off. And even if it doesn’t, well, it’s not like you’re worse off.
The Shadow Workshop, where you’re writing alone in your room, though — it’s not always the best place to rekindle your faith. That’s why religions have meetings.
It’s also why I do the Write-a-thon. It’s not only a chance to give back something to Clarion West, it’s also a ceremony, a ritual, a way of reminding myself why I think any of this is worth doing.