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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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He Knows If You’ve Been Naughty

Look who came down the chimney for the penultimate guest post: our very own prince of darkness, quiet of late, but back in fine form  to spread some of that special love that only August knows how to serve up piping hot and with a side of bile. Enjoy!

What if we’re not that good?

What if that’s the problem? Maybe there’s nothing wrong with our query letters. Maybe our blog stats are great. Maybe our structure is passable and our dialogue works—but we’re still not good enough.

Maybe that’s why self-publishing starts making sense. Maybe that’s why we’ve bookmarked lists of rejection letters for famous novels—Cold Mountain, The Help, The Liar’s Club. Maybe that’s why agents tell us ‘lovely, but.’ Maybe that’s why editors don’t offer us $3,000 for a year of our lives: they offer nothing. Zero. Worthless.

And what if there’s no fixing that?

Do we improve as writers, after we hit our stride? Is The Plot Against America better than Portnoy’s Complaint? I think I’m getting better editorially—I see problems more clearly now—but as a writer, I’ve hit my peak. And my peak is apparently second-rate thrillers and LEGO tie-in novels.

That’s my question, this holiday season. What if you’re not good enough? Most of us aren’t. What if you’re not an exception to the rule? What if you’re nothing special? What if quiet desperation is the best you can shoot for

Prove me wrong.

84 Responses

  1. “So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing.”
    — Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star

  2. I decided about twelve years ago that I wasn’t good enough. Also, I was becoming so bitter that I couldn’t stand myself. I quit writing and went out and got a day-job which I’ve had for eleven years now. I started writing again last year. I’m still not good enough, but I no longer have any bitterness. Working on a novel has given me a powerful feeling of control over one little world. When things suck in the real world (mother-in-law’s dementia, father’s dementia), I can make things all happy in my book. So, fictional happiness (rather than quiet desperation) is my target.

    • What kind of day job helped you get -less- bitter?

      My goal is fictional misery and nonfictional income.

      • I’m always surprised to realize it, because I don’t *count* it as writing, but my day job involves a lot of technical writing in a niche market. So it’s nonfictional income in more ways than one.

  3. Uh…Betsy?…Lego tie-in novel? Is that wrong? Doh! Back to the drawing board.

  4. What if some people like your work and some don’t? Then it’s a question of who are these people–the likers and the unlikers–and then it is no longer about the work. It’s about the people. So let the work be what it is. It’s for you anyway. Not them. And I don’t get what you need proved wrong. You know we all like hearing from you, and all is a lot.

  5. you’re right.

    what if?

    what if the universe doesn’t give two shits?
    what if your kids find out who you really are?
    what if you’re not the smartest person at your neighborhood cook-out or office party?
    what if you’re going to die in that cubicle?
    what if your parents didn’t love you as much as you loved them?
    what if your comments only amuse you and your emails aren’t that funny and nothing you’ve ever said is all that deep anyway?

    what if writing isn’t a passion?
    what if it’s just your ego’s way of avoiding success?

    shit. now look what you’ve done to me. at 2:00 in the morning no less.

  6. Besides, second rate—I’d kill to be second rate.

  7. Several years ago I too was ready to throw in the towel. Then I read The Forest for the Trees and decided to go another round. I agree most of us live at length in quiet desperation, yet the factors involved in being recognised as ‘good enough’ are many and fickle, requiring great courage and common sense. I agree that so few will ever be able to assemble this package, and have it in hand the moment that chance or luck come to the table, but the opposite? Overconfidence, an unreal sense of worth? I think we just have to accept doubt, failure, not always getting there – it’s a task, no different from many, no use in getting all lordy about it.

  8. At 16 I was a flat-chested late bloomer. Every day I pictured the boobs I would one day have, and, eventually: double-d’s (and a healthy booty to match, unfortunately).

    When I was 35 and living in a shithole and married to an irresponsible stoner, I wrote my way out of debt and got a divorce and moved on.

    I never, not once, asked myself what would happen if my boobs never grew or if my shithole got seized by the bank. If you want it bad enough, and you refuse to settle for anything but the vision of your book, your real book, on a shelf in an actual bookstore, it’ll happen. And you don’t even have to be good enough–you just need the balls (or the boobs), and the faith that there still will be bookstores and publishers beyond 2012. Yes, I believe in fairy tales, damn straight.

    The good enough question isn’t about being published though, is it?

    • good lord, thank you for pulling me out of that rabbit hole.

    • >>When I was 35 and living in a shithole and married to an irresponsible stoner, I wrote my way out of debt and got a divorce and moved on.<<

      Necessity is the mother of everything.

  9. Success as a writer is a never-ending search for people to whom your work appeals. It won’t appeal to everyone. I wax about it here: http://angelhorn.com/2011/11/22/rejection-reaction/. Anyway, the journey is more important than the destination.

  10. If I lived in a world of “what ifs” I’d never get out of bed in the morning. I’d be too intimidated. It’s a worthless road, carved in terror. The only time such a question deserves attention is when you’re writing fiction. Then those two words can be the key that opens the door to a world unforeseen. Those two words become a writer’s salvation. Otherwise, they’re nothing more than intangible bullies and deserve to be flushed from your consciousness.

  11. I am reading the Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy (is he good enough?) and highlighted a passage. Jolyon Forsyte (an artist) is musing about his son’s future career ” . . . he knew that Jon would never be a painter, and inclined to the conclusion that his aversion from everything else meant that he was going to be a writer.” Pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? Nice if we can be good writers, or even good enough, but that aversion from everything else keeps us going.

  12. Wherever we fall on the writing trajectory, we can always aspire to the next level – from hog wash to mediocre to good enough to good to great. We might never get there, but there is something in the trying!

  13. Oh to heck with that. I’ve read enough bad books to know getting publishing has a lot to do with persistence. I’m writing the best book I can. Not in my hidey-hole, either. I put myself out there with critiques, writing groups and courses. I do my best to help other writers as well. An in doing so I learn more about my own work.

    When I’m good and ready I’ll write the best query letters I can and so forth. And while I’m busy sending queries,I’ll write the other story I have planned because I’ve decided I’m good enough. And that’s good enough for me.

    Merry, Merry…

    • Very well put!

      Ever read The Da Vinci Code? Really, pretty crappy. The whole time I was reading it I kept thinking “This is all it takes? Really?” You too could write a crappy novel and make millions – if you really want to be known for a crappy novel. Or you could write the best book you can.

  14. I’d love to prove you wrong by writing a LEGO tie-in novel that gets a spot of the NYT bestseller list . . .

    But I think I’ll do it Deborah’s way.

  15. While I want my writing to be the best it can be, I also know that I don’t have any choice but to keep writing. It’s what I do. It’s a part of my essence. I write. I keep writing.
    Whenever I get too freaked out that I’m never going to be good enough (whatever that means), I re-read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, or one of my favourite quotations by Flaubert:
    “For none of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”
    And so it goes.

    • “Letters to a Young Poet” terrifies me. I wouldn’t die if I didn’t write, I’d talk too much and be generally miserable, but I would still be here. For years I worried that that meant that I wasn’t a real writer. But then I realized Rilke was just talking out of his ass and I’ve been writing ever since. (I love his poetry though.)

      • For me, Rilke was important when my life was out of control. Somehow, reading him was like meditating; it’s the same frame of mind I get into when I’m in the writing groove. Thus, the connection for me.

      • That makes good sense. Rilke is an amazing poet. And by “pulling it out of his ass” I probably also meant “was in his own writing groove.”

        The “New Poems” are my favorite. When I read them it is as if I were in his world (or my ideas of his world) even more so than with other poets.

  16. Yes, I want to be on the bestseller list; yes, I want a big fat advance; but I don’t think that is why I write. I mean I’ve been going at this for years, and the encouragement, the “success” has been so measly. I’m not sure why I do this, but, while I want to get paid and I want to be recognized, I don’t write chiefly for either anymore than I have sex to make kids.

  17. Bloody hell, not good enough? Oops. Well, I’ll live and write for the day when I am. It’s out there somewhere.

  18. My six-year old couldn’t sleep the other night because he didn’t know what his “talent” was and was concinced he didn’t have one. I don’t know who placed the idea in his head of a “talent”, but I know what he was getting at. I listed everything that made him different from other kids, a long list from the mind of an adoring mom, no doubt. At the end, he said, “Yeah, but what’s my TALENT?”
    This time I told him that when the things you love to do line up with what you’re good at, you’ll find it.
    “Oh. Like swimming!” He took lessons for the first time and although not the best swimmer, he was the bravest. He loved being in the water so much that he worked harder and as the weather got colder he was the only one jumping in with no prompting. He improved monumentally because he loved being in there like no kid I’ve ever seen.

    • “concinced” is writer-speak for concerned, damn phone keyboard…

    • Lyra—if he’s still worried, try The Talented Clementine by Sara Pennypacker. A kid with a unique outlook on life is sure she’ll ruin the school talent show because, after several chapters of trying with hilariously messy results (the tap shoe incident is pure gold and thank heavens she isn’t mine), she doesn’t think she has any talent . . . but she works it out in her own way. The grown-ups get a nod for being (mostly) savvy, too.

      • Have I mentioned that I have bought upwards of twenty books for my IMMEDIATE family this Christmas, and over half have been recommendations from my friends?
        And August, there is in fact a Lego tie-in because you know what? My little guy loves them. So although it isn’t art, if it brings kids closer to loving books well, hell, that’s enough for me. If you really do write them, I hope it’s yours (although I may curse you under my breath by the second reading…).

      • There isn’t. I -dream- of a LEGO tie-in (my kid loves them, too). I’ve considered pitching one, but I’m not sure how that works. And I can imagine the conversation with my agent. Maybe I should shoot for a MegaBlocks tie-in. That LEGO shit is pretty competitive.

        The SpongeBob activity book, however, is money in the bank.

    • One of the greatest things I’ve learned from my daughter is watching how things develope — traits, personality, talent, etcetera — things she is probably not even aware of but make me so proud because they’re what she has put lots of thought into and because they are hers.

  19. This was the year I copped to my limitations. There are whole genres of writing I suck at, that make me want to do anything other than write – clean the toilets, scrub the grease filter on the stove. So this year, I’m focusing on the stuff that is worth the effort; the stuff that rings true, the stuff that gets me a little high.

  20. Dear Santa,

    Can you please make a Hanukkah exception this year? My friend August needs a set of earplugs and a blindfold so he can stop second guessing himself, writing for the masses and let that razor sharp wit and talent shine though. Maybe a hug or a kick in the ass as necessary too. Thank you.

    Your friend,

  21. There’s an old story about a young man who gets a chance to be evaluated by the world’s greatest violin player. After he plays his heart out, the maestro says, “I’m sorry, you lack the fire.”

    Heartbroken, the young man quits playing, goes to business school and eventually becomes one of the world’s richest men — and a patron of the arts.

    Years later, he meets the maestro again at an event, and tells him, “You know, I wanted to be a musician, but you told me I lacked the fire.”

    The old man looks at him and says gently, “Oh, I tell that to everyone. The ones who have what it takes don’t pay any attention to me.”

  22. It’s not just writing — it’s that the world is quite possibly going to hell in a hand basket, or some other trite maxim or third world carrying case. Garbage sells just as well, maybe better, than art. There is no underestimating the gullibility of the American people (A Newt for president? Come on.).
    Here’s a holiday tale: I work for a small rural post office that will probably soon be shuttered and boarded up. The P.O. loves to sell people on Express mail. The promise of overnight delivery brings in big bucks. Trouble is, the mail from here doesn’t go out until the following morning leaving virtually no hope of a package getting to its destination 24 hours after it is paid for. But we’re not supposed to tell the customers that. Take the $$$ and smile. Priority is a little slower, but much cheaper. First class is a crap shoot. My boss is a dedicated postal employee, but he also cares about his customers and doesn’t care if Owney the postal dog hunkers down and squeezes out a red, white and blue turd; he’s going to tell people, especially those on fixed incomes, how the service really works. It seems like it’s bad business, but it is the right thing to do. And happy customers buy stamps here instead of Wal Mart. It goes against the grain, but everyone is happy.
    The moral: Do what feels right for you and let the chips fall where they may.

  23. How do you know you’ve hit your peak? You’re not dead yet. Leave your pity party, put your boots back on, and start climbing again. And if quiet desperation is what you shoot for; that’s as far as you’ll get.

    I love to read your posts, August. You’re a great writer. Now write!

  24. I’m not going to pimp my website by including a link in this comment, but you can go there and you can read my work. Therein lies the proof.

  25. “all sorrows can be borne if we put them in a story or tell a story about them.” (I. Dineson)

  26. My significant lack of talent has directly contributed to my best successes, my greatest joys. I believe I’ll stick with it and see what happens.

  27. I’ve read too many terrible, poorly edited books that DID make it into print not to believe that persistence will eventually pay off. ^_^
    I have a story that needs to be told. And while my writing capacities may be somewhere in the range of mediocre, I’m the only one who can tell it.

  28. August…might you be spending too much time analyzing your writing? The part of your brain that’s telling you you’re not good enough is lying and likely about some childhood crap. You need to tap into that other part of yourself that knows that you have something to say. The real challenge here is getting over yourself and your expectations. This is workmanlike shit.

  29. Welcome back, August. Let’s write because of how it makes us feel when we do it right: the lift in mood, the drop in misanthropy, the dim possibility that others may read it and be affected. If we were all painting in little studios, we wouldn’t expect an exhibit at MoMA, would we? But we would still dip our brushes into the fresh paint and feel lucky to have the drive and the space to do it.

  30. Quiet desperation is a byproduct, not a goal, dork. I love you.

  31. Because I’m terrified of not being able to bang out new material (the rat on the hamster wheel in my head runs to the tune of what if I have nothing to say, what if I have no more imagination) I love the idea that perhaps this rewrite will be the one. The thought of a radical revision is thrilling. That said, I have not printed out the current draft to reread. Lack of paper is today’s excuse. On the to-do list, buy paper! Oy. There’s just something so magical about rearranging the words. Hopefully I’ll find the order that works.

  32. You told us here, August, that if you ever wrote something you truly cared about, your work would be better. I believe that’s true of all of us.

    Sometimes I think we hold that unwritten story as protection, the way a gambler will hold his chips, because he wants to be able to make the next blind and play another hand. He folds that darling pair of deuces, the ace-four, the suited eight-nine. He won’t pay to see the river, so he’ll never know whether he’d have made that straight, and he’s lost sight of the fact the bluffing before the flop is part of the game. Pretty soon, his stacks are depleted until the blind is all he has, and there’s nothing else to do but go all in on some sorry-looking ten-five. He’s waited too long to play the game, and everyone at the table knows it. He lost because he was afraid to lose.

    Let me claw my way out of this shitty analogy to urge you to write what matters to you. You’re a brilliant guy with ridiculous charisma. Don’t be stingy with your chips.

    • That’s a fucking awesome analogy, actually.

    • there’s risk writing something close to you.

    • Even coming from someone who doesn’t play cards, I’m glad you dealt this hand.

    • Averil, this reminds me of what Annie Dillard said about writing (bonus for you, Auggie, since the last time I quoted her you said that she was your new person to hate), only your metaphor is more vivid:

      One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better.”

      ― Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

      Seems like it would hold true for life as well.

  33. There are enough answers to the main question here that I won’t add another, apart from saying that the question doesn’t bother me.

    I am interested, though, in the question of whether The Plot Against America is better than Portnoy’s Complaint. My answer is: it’s complicated (one of my favorite answers to anything, along with “Yes and no” to a yes-or-no question). To me, the idea of TPAA sounds bigger and more important that the idea of Portnoy’s Complaint, but I haven’t read TPAA and don’t know how well it’s executed; my impression is that it’s somewhat lacking in verve, well done but not exceptional. Portnoy is executed brilliantly, I think, and yet I’d judge its idea to be less valuable. Leaves me with a toss-up. But if any of us had written either one of those on its own, we’d have something to be proud of.

  34. Perhaps what is more disturbing than the fear of not being good enough is spending a day with a 23 year old who feels that way. Yesterday, my contractor sent over a carpenter’s assistant to one of my sites: articulate, full of energy, interested in the world around him, this young man had so much promise yet was so overwhelmed with the high standards and expectations spotlighted by the media and his family, he worked menial jobs instead of enrolling in college. I listened and encouraged him to try for More. Later, I spoke to his boss and gently suggested mentoring this young man lest he get lost in bitterness prematurely.

    • I’m sure your words meant a lot to him and if his boss listened to your insights that’d be twice as good. If not now, maybe a few years down the road. Sowing those wild oats and all…

  35. As long as I’m happy and fulfilled doing what I love, I don’t give a flying fuck nut if other people deem me good enough. It starts with me and ends with me. The rest is just icing on the cake.

    (it’s a life-long lesson and i keep getting opportunities to grow in this area)

  36. I try to focus on what I have control of, which is the writing process.

    The other things are beyond me, the business of the larger world, the product of expectations, which are always killing (and usually of our own invention).

    Good enough? Kafka never knew he was. Was Fitizgerald still good enough in his final years?

    You really don’t know in life. The Olympics are always great for that. The world champion downhiller upended by the low-ranked Italian skier from a small snow village, illuminated by the moment and the circumstances.

    Later bloomers, early bloomers. Some perform at peaks, or superpeaks that burn out, like Sly Stone, and some don’t know where they’re at or how well they’re doing. They’re just doing.

    The world, for its part, is usually indifferent to all of this.

    Things may fit less of a scheme than your remarks suggest Lady Lerner, and although we must plot course and assess our progress and station, we might do well in taking our own conclusions with a grain of salt.

  37. Never mind “good enough,” what’s “enough?” How do you know when you’ve had enough? For some, nothing was enough, and a lot was too much:


  38. Ideas and execution? I had no clue. . .

  39. I can’t prove anything so I’m going to take a cue from you and go read some Philip Roth and resume my sex fantasies about his talent rubbing off on me literally.

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