A commentator (OK, it was my wonderful sister, Anna) asked a very pertinent question in response to the last blog post: How do you know if your work really is a piece of shit?
Anne Enright says you must not to listen to that internal voice, but instead practice some “mood management.” You must “…wrestle [your emotions] down to something roughly the size of the page.” While I do think that this is solid advice, there are ways that you can, with some practice, learn to assess your own work.
These methods I’ll call developing your intuition, developing your powers of assessment, and building an external feedback loop.
Developing Your Intuition
How do you know when you have done a good job at something? Think of a non-writing example here — something to do with your day job, perhaps, or some task you may complete regularly around the home. I’ll use an example from my own life: how do I know when I have done a good job with editing someone else’s work?
This is how I know: I have an internal feeling about it, a kind of satisfying recognition that yes, I have fully engaged with the work, understood the author’s intentions, and helped them to be realized. It’s a definite kinesthetic feeling in my case, a solidity and warmness in the gut. Just thinking about it causes it to kick in a little. It feels good. I think it’s a form of intuition.
Try this for yourself. Go on, try it. Think of something that you have done, recently, that you know you have done well. It doesn’t matter what kind of task it was — small, domestic, physical, cerebral, creative — there must be something. Now, pay attention to how it feels inside. Isn’t there a feeling of recognition? Don’t you just know that yes, that was a job well done?
In my opinion, this information, that kind that comes from the gut (or the core, or the heart, call it what you will) is solid and trustworthy and true. As writers, though, we tend to discount it. We let the bullying voice of our doubts stomp all over it till we loose touch with it all together. We are doing ourselves a disservice.
When you get a flash of contact with your writerly intuition, listen to it. Trust it. It is, by its very nature, trustworthy. That inner feeling will not lead you astray. By paying attention to it, seeking it out, and respecting it, it will grow and guide you.
Developing Your Powers of Assessment
This one is easier to write about because it’s less of the body and more of the mind: sharper, intellectual, definable. If you have a voice inside telling you that your work is a piece of shit, you can work on training up that voice. Learn to understand the mechanisms of writing. Understand what makes for successful or unsuccessful prose. These are learnable skills — any good craft-based writing class will help you. It’s like practicing your scales as a musician or studying the history of art as a painter or any other solid, craft-based, artistic application.
Though, yes, it will always be harder to assess your own work than it is to assess the work of others, if you have a solid understanding of technique and craft issues, and you understand what it is about other people’s work that makes it tick, the bullying voice of doubt should turn into a more detached, incisive and useful teacherly voice instead.
To use my own example again, I know when I have helped a writer improve their work because, after years of editing, my critical faculties have become pretty honed. If an author has a problems with transitions, or with characterization, or with story arc, I can understand it, and talk about it, and provide counter examples. I’m inside the work, I can see the mechanisms working (or not) and I can help the writer take the piece apart and put it back together again, in the same way a master mechanic can strip and rebuild an engine.
With that knowledge comes a certain confidence which is an invaluable resource to fall back on when the doubt kicks in.
Building in an External Feedback Loop
We all need feedback. Seeking out trusted readers who can be guaranteed to give you honest but non-bruising feedback is essential. It can take a while to get this set-up, but once your have established those resources, they are invaluable, and they tend to endure. Try taking some workshops. Ask other writers that you meet if they would like to exchange work. Set up your own writing group. Hire a freelance editor and coach like me. Use family members or friends, as long as you can trust them to be honest and not overly harsh. Get some real, critical-but-supportive feedback. Be prepared to learn, and revise, revise, revise.
If you work on these three things, that nagging voice of doubt might never fully go away but at least its power will be diminished — and you should have some solid, true and useful ways to judge the worth of your own work. My point is that there are things you can do. You don’t have to let yourself be cowed by the bullying voice of doubt!
And what if, using these feedback methods, you discover that your work is not as good as you’d like it to be? Well then stay true to the force within you that pushed you to create it in the first place, and learn, and revise, and move forward. That’s all that any of us can do.