Do You Strive to be a Brilliant Writer, or Good Enough?

All writers are bipolar—at least all the ones I know. We are a crazy mixture of egotistical, manic, single-minded, optimistic on the one hand and sensitive, catastrophizing, scattered and pessimistic on the other. How do we live and produce work in a world filled with such extremes?

Every step of the process toward publication for writers is fraught with potholes that can potentially blow our tires. Equally, every step promises to build to a run and then we’re off, we’re speeding along, we’ve done it—we are indeed the writer god we always knew we were destined to be.

What about the beginning of the writing journey? In our up moments, we know our novel will be worthy, it will stun readers and reviewers, it will make our parents proud. We may only have the concept, and in our minds it’s brilliant.

But in our down moments, we know with equal certitude that we will fail. Miserably. We will be pedantic. No one will understand what we’re getting at. Our characters will be considered dull and stupid. Our finely wrought scenes will be thought clunky or even worse, laughable.

In those moments, aren’t you just a little tempted by the idea of being “good enough” rather than brilliant? There are millions of good enough books out there that people love. Do we always have to strive for brilliance?

When you read a great book, do you feel buoyed and hopeful? Or do you feel dispirited and intimidated? This is where the magic of denial and delusion and diligence all work together to keep us tethered to our computers. We find the tiny spark of hope deep inside us and we keep going.

I’ve moved offices six times since I started writing seriously, and each time I lug my favorite books with me. I keep them close for moments when I need inspiration, and to remind myself that brilliance comes in many different forms.

I still flip fondly through my yellowed high school copy of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. This one sentence is scribbled on the back cover: “…l’ennui, araignee silencieuse, filait sa toile dans l’ombre a tous les coins de son coeur.” I can’t do the language justice by translating, but the choice of words suggests the image of a spider—the insidious, invasive spider of boredom (those words are not actually used, merely suggested)—stuck with me. How much you can convey with the right word choice!

When I read Sue Miller’s The Good Mother, I’m reminded to keep it real and close. To give the mundane and miniscule the opportunity to become monumental. Rose Tremain’s stunning, muscular novel about gold mining in New Zealand, The Colour, had me stalking her online like a besotted fan (I found virtually nothing, by the way). For weeks afterwards I was dreaming about the characters and the story. Need guidance on writing historical fiction? Read The Colour.

Nick Hornby’s Speaking With the Angel is all about voice. Oh the delectable beauty of an author’s inflections, his or her characters, the unique and differentiated cadences that all work to different effect to create such a symphony. (I could get all flowery about it…) Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, is a masterful primer on point-of-view. The Pleasing Hour, by Lily King, reminds me of the goal of effortless yet impactful characterization.

I could go on and on about the books I turn to—especially some of the newer ones from the past five years—but my point is this: We must not allow ourselves to be cowed by the idea of brilliance. Though we may seek to write brilliant books, like those precious favorites that changed our lives, sometimes it’s better to strive to be good enough instead.

Sometimes we need to trick our frantic, hypersensitive brains into just getting on with it. Just trying. Doing it and seeing what happens. We might discover our own brilliance along the way.

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