"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


Why Writers should Stop Worrying about Greatness

August 15th, 2016 by

In a recent conversation, a friend mentioned that Stephen King, in his memoir on writing, acknowledges that there are great writers and then there are good writers. My friend correctly pointed out that King doesn’t say where he would put himself in his ranking.

I also think that there is another question in play here: Does it matter whether you are great or good?

This is the question I found myself thinking about–one I’d like to address now, thanks to my friend’s influence.

Defining Terms
Indeed, the difference between being great at something and being merely good at it may be more on the minds of critics and those who do not practice an art than those who do. We should care and do our very best. But greatness is certainly not something that I have ever heard quantified very well. King certainly doesn’t define his criteria in his memoir. We may know the greatness of an idea and its execution when we experience it. Yet we must admit that the difference between great and good is not always simply a matter of passion. And it is not always simply mastering a technique, though many people will claim both of these criteria in their assessment.

I can see that technique matters to a point in most endeavors. Even Shakespeare was once termed a flawed genius, criticized for not following certain “rules” of drama in vogue during the 17th century. But as with Shakespeare, we have to finally admit that the “rules,” the unities, atonal modes, or whatever they are, come into fashion and then fade from importance, while greatness remains.

The truth may really be that with many years of hard practice, most only become good–at writing, performing music, dancing, or gymnastics. It took a while, but in my late twenties I accepted that this was true of my guitar playing. And it is probably true of my writing. This will not stop me from writing more, or, for that matter, continuing to play guitar. I’m not doing either so that someone will call me great. I’m doing both because they enhance the quality of my life. I can’t claim that they enhance the lives of others.

I just got through the draft of another big project and can say that it isn’t great. It is near to completion, and it may not even be good. In fact, it may not even be finished. I’ve recently gotten new ideas that I still need to add to it.

But what I can say is that I have done it.

Contributing to Creativity Studies
It should be clear from this that I have little to contribute to the recent books and discussions on creativity.

But I know this. If I worried every time I got an idea or started working on something about its greatness, I would not write it. The thing is to do your best with the tools you have and what you’ve learned from previous attempts and your reading. If you have no previous attempts, get started now. Novelist Walker Percy wrote several novels before publishing The Moviegoer, which won the National Book Award. Beethoven wrote two symphonies that sound today like Haydn could have written them before emerging with his own voice in a symphony he almost dedicated to Napoleon. And contrary to popular mythology, Beethoven remained a tireless reviser.

Get started, do your best, and then move on.

I like finishing a draft because it means that I have material to work with and to shape. In rereading the stuff, I see new possibilities and new ways to develop. At a certain undefined point, I go on. When I get new ideas, I am starting again.

I know many consider this a waste of time. I do sometimes wonder what else I could be doing. I know I could be learning to play the stockmarket. I could be campaigning for office.

Writing seems more sincere and safer. I suspect that the lessons I would learn on the stock market would be costly. Writing has its cost, but it works well with other activities, like prayer and good conversations. Sometimes it seems like one of a few things I do that keeps my feet on the ground. And that, to echo the language of the ancient Hebrew in the creation story, is good.

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Replies:

Comment by Emily Griesinger on August 15, 2016 at 11:33 am

Yes, indeed. You say these things so well, Tom. I enjoy your writing. I look forward to reading the book you are working on!

Comment by Tom on August 15, 2016 at 11:39 am

Thank you, Emily. I hope this can happen.

Comment by MaxPorter on August 17, 2016 at 10:24 pm

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