Here’s a question: Can a good writer become great?
Stephen King says no:
“While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
If he’s right, then I am utterly demoralised. Does that mean I’ll never be any better than I am? Is there no point in even striving towards excellence? Should I settle for the status quo and never reach for the next level?
I think if I believed that, I’d have to quit right now. Striving always to be better, to reach the next level, is part of being an artist. Succeeding is not as important as trying. The only real failure is giving up. Yes, those words sound like lines you’d hear in a sports movie made for kids, but that doesn’t mean they’re not true.
When I started working seriously at my writing, I stuck with it. I read everything I could on crafting a story. I attended lectures. I rewrote pieces incessantly. I read. And I read. And I read. I was able to weather the inevitable rejections and the hard work because deep down I knew I was a writer. I knew if I persevered I would succeed.
If success means publication, then yes, I have met that goal. But is that a reliable standard? Who decides what is bad or good or excellent?
If you’re just starting out as a writer and if you’ve never been published, then you may believe as I once did that publication is a reasonable measure of excellence. After all, it says that someone other than your best friend and your family rates what you’re doing. But think about it. Aren’t we assuming that just because someone is an editor or a publisher they must have excellent taste–especially if they decide to publish our own work? Yet we have all heard the tales of extraordinary works of literature being rejected over and over until someone saw their merit. By the same token, we can all name at least fifty shades… uh, examples of stuff that should never have seen the light of day being published.
So much for publication being proof of anything.
Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others. Virginia Woolfe.
Why should I care what King thinks? He cannot speak for me. I’m the only one who can know if I’m reaching the standards I set for myself.However, it would be foolish to deny that greatness is very rare. Is it inherent or can it be earned? I don’t know. I’d like to think that a good writer, if she works hard enough, can on occasion produce work that is on another level. Maybe not with the frequency of, say, a John Steinbeck, but at least once in a career.
So, how do you do that?
Willa Cather, author of O, Pioneers! and My Antonia, started her writing career as a journalist. The work was demanding but lucrative. Her friend, the novelist and short story writer Sarah Orne Jewett, advised her to forgo journalism in favour of literature. “Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience,” she wrote. “You must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country—in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up… We must be ourselves, but we must be our best selves.”
There seems little doubt that Cather was an inherently gifted literary novelist. But how can the writer know if he or she has the same essential gift?
I am, I think, a good writer. But where I fall short is I have spent too much time focusing on the craft of writing rather than the art. Like any literary student, I can examine a piece of prose and tell you exactly why it works–or doesn’t. But while such analysis has merit, it isn’t the same thing as producing original and insightful work of one’s own.
“Technique holds a reader from sentence to sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.” ― Joyce Carol Oates
Then again, it’s only by analysing great writing and determining why it’s great that we can grow. We read the greats, determine why they are great, and apply as many of those lessons to our own work as possible.
Writers have to be willing to fail and fail repeatedly. We have to be willing to study our art even when we have become successful. We must keep on striving and we must believe that greatness can be within our grasp if we stretch ourselves far enough.
When I started writing in the 1800s (it seems like), I was bad. I mean pee-ooh! bad. By dint of hard work and determination I’ve become pretty good. Great? Well, it’s early days yet. A few more years of frustration, sleepless nights, and hard work and I may get there. The point is, if I can get from bad to good, why can’t I get from good to great?
So, if it’s such hard work, why bother? If you’ve been a decent, even half-way successful writer at one level, why would you try to get up onto the next step, knowing how hard it is? Because we cannot help ourselves. Because striving for more is part of an artist’s DNA. Dorothy L Sayers could have rested on her Lord Peter Wimsey laurels, but she chose to write serious essays about religion and to translate Dante. Stephen King tried to write serious fiction, but couldn’t get it taken seriously by the critics. Hell, even Paul McCartney wrote an oratorio.
The purpose of literature, TS Eliot said, is to turn blood into ink. Is it painful? Very. Challenging? Indeed. Yet we cannot help ourselves.
What do you think? Can a writer transition from bad to good, and from good to great? Why do we keep trying? Let me know in the comments.