If any ambitious man have a fancy to revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment, the opportunity is his own--the road to immortal renown lies straight, open, and unencumbered before him. All that he has to do is to write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple--a few plain words--'My Heart Laid Bare.' But--this little book must be true to its title.
--Edgar Allen Poe
Let me tell you about Writer, his desire to know if he is good, if everyone's been lying or been truthful, his need to get to the heart of it all. He wants this truth, be it, as Thoreau once divided it, mean or surreal. He requests, or maybe demands, you be honest with him. He reads the truth into comments on stories, rejections and acceptances, the feedback you give him, the things you say or never do. Am I really a writer? Am I good? How good? He cannot say to himself with any certainty that he is "good," because that would mean something horrible, yet it is the thing he wants more than anything for you to say. Even if he doesn't believe it. In short, Writer wishes to know if he is good and that drives himself and stories into existence. (He wonders, writing this, about you, if a part of you asks the same questions of yourself or if he is alone and crazy).
This Wednesday's insight is the realization that he is involved in a wishing ritual, the wish to know what can never be known, and like all rituals it's coded in the desire for certainty, attached to a deeply held desire since childhood: to know beyond all doubt his worth and value. And way leads onto way, down other paths, the dark kind, the ugly and brutal kind, with things that sting your eyes and scratch at your skin and make you either lose your way or find another one. In other words, less writerly ones, that insight leads to other insights, but it starts with his
wanting needing to know if he is a good writer--and his wanting needing you to tell him, in that truthful, no holds barred way.
He tries to get to the core belief, to fill in the missing condition: If I am good at writing, then what? If I am not good at writing, then what? What's at stake? Isn't that at the heart of stories, what makes them matter? What's at stake, he asks himself, when he writes? And the answer comes, a bit oddly, as no surprise: his existence. And what consequences come from that?--this need to know if he is good & the writing to be good, above all things it might otherwise be?
All or nothing. Either Writer is good or he is nothing. That's all there is, and so he's set his writing against some deep-felt sense of his own worthlessness. Thus, he needs to be all-good or else he's all-nothing.
Laziness. This need to be good creates a mixture of arrogance and fear, the arrogance driven by the belief "I must be good or I don't matter," the fear driven by the ever-present question, "What if I'm wrong about being good?" The arrogance makes Writer feel he doesn't need craft books, workshops, rules, prescriptions, advice, feedback, and the like. The fear leads him to avoid such things, because all they can do is confirm his fears, that he doesn't belong, isn't good enough, doesn't matter.
Competitiveness. Every other writer takes away his chance of mattering, and so he must stay away from them or focus upon his perceived weaknesses in their writing. Each writer who becomes "good" lessens his own chance of attaining worth.
One good. There is one good that satisfies all. One universal sense of good, like gravity and death and all the other things the gods & goddesses have given us. It resides in the heavens or in Plato's cave. It resides in truth, in each reader laying his or her own heart bare and saying what each one thinks of Writer's writing. It is all or nothing. They can say he is good and then he must have agreement from the next one, and the next one, and so on. Or they can say he is not good, and then they will conform his deep doubt and what will arise is something of life, of that little kid in that kind of ugly childhood who set himself against it and said, "I'll show you!"
There must, he is sure, be some other way of writing. He imagines this desire to be good lies at the heart of this distorted belief. It is what has made him search elsewhere for his "okay-ness," and now his value has become conditional rather than absolute. It resides in Reader rather than Writing (and thus in being read rather in writing). It has become something passive. It does not see the sense of evolution, of writing as process with challenges and successes along the way.
He is involved, he has decided, in a wishing ritual, the wish to know for certain if he is good at writing and (by extension) of value in the world. There must've been a time when he did not question his value, when he did not write to get it. And what, if he does not ask from Readers to give him his self, should he ask for instead? He cannot imagine anything else. Can you?