The good of your writing

“The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

We writers sure like quotes, eh? Tacked up on our bulletin boards, scrawled and underlined in our notebooks, lodged up there in the old noodle like a stray bullet. I’ve got that well-known Woolf passage on an index card among all of the other desk detritus: brown-edge postcards, Jane Austen action figure (with writing quill!), a beer stein stuffed with old nickels. Don’t you love the intricacy of that question: What’s the good of your writing? It’s one I ask myself every day in one way or another. I ask it on a micro level as I work on a story — What’s good in here? What’s working? What can go? — and on a larger level during contemplative long walks, during weepy moments alone in the shower (or, hell, at the grocery store, usually in the cereal aisle), in the deep dark moments of uncertainty: What’s good? What’s at all good about this?

The answer matters. Because writing matters — to you, if to no one else. Understanding that is crucial in pursuing this writing life, because let’s be clear: in most cases, no one is asking you for a g-d thing. No one’s waiting on tiptoes for that lovely little story you’re penning in the wee hours, in snatches at work, in long hours at the desk. Bret Lott’s personal essay, “Why Write, Anyway?,” touches on this idea. About one of his novels in progress, he writes, “Who cares, I had to ask, about an RC Cola salesman whose wife had just left him and how he would then live? … And the answer that came to me, while writing a book no one had asked me to write … was that I cared.” So care. After the people in your life, care about this the most. Breathe it into your serpentine clumps of cells, feel the thrum of it in your veins.

More good news about the good: the process itself. The world’s guffaw that Woolf mentions is real, and it takes on different tinges and tones for all of us, no matter our genders (although, her point remains valid and can be expanded to include the intersections of race, class, and sexuality). Perhaps it is the scoff of your father, a worried frown from a partner. Maybe it’s bafflement or apathy from co-workers. Or maybe it’s sharp, pin-dropping silence from everyone. Maybe it begins externally but creeps inward, becoming the astringent voice of your Inner Critic. But: the very act of writing can be a response, a defiance, to the skepticism in the question. The good? I’ll show you good.

But don’t forget: the process is joyous, too. Think of it: on those best days, hours pass, CDs loop, housework goes undone, plants photosynthesize, the sun slides right off the edge of the sky, and there you are, lost in the bright fire of your imagination, with what Elizabeth Bishop called a “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” Finally blinking up at the clock or at the dark window is the most stunning kind of joy, isn’t it? Plus, every time you write, you’ll discover something new, whether it’s about technical craft or about a character or about what you don’t know. Every single time.

In Fires, Raymond Carver says, “If the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done your best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave.” That satisfaction: you can’t get it off the shelf, in the bottom of the bottle, from the bank. Trying to get a story right, trying to make it good: there’s nothing like it. Tell yourself, as I tell my students, C’mon, break my heart. Meaning: Keep working. Don’t hold back. Make it count. Not for publication credits, not for accolades or money or fame; you want to — must — get it right, for reasons that come only from your own internal pulse.

We can’t know the good of our writing out there in the wide, wide world, only of our hopes for it. Audience is inherent in storytelling, even if the creative impulse is purely personal. Though it’s first important that our stories matter to us, we also want them to matter to others. Something else Woolf mentions in A Room of One’s Own:

“All these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded … whether from the women at the street corners with their arms akimbo, and the rings embedded in their fat swollen fingers, talking with a gesticulation like the swing of Shakespeare’s words; or from the violet-sellers and match-sellers and old crones stationed under doorways; or from drifting girls whose faces, like waves in sun and cloud, signal the coming of men and women and the flickering lights of shop windows.”

Finding those stories is part of the good. Look in those corners and alleyways, the real ones and the shadowy ones in your mind. Look beyond the obvious. Look and then look again. No, look. Find, as Thomas Hardy suggests, “the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things.” Be that kind of writer. Be good. Do your best. Find some aspect of the fragile, shining human condition, and then give it to the world with the faith that someone, somewhere, will find it to be true.

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