I was speaking at a local high school about writing. Afterward, a girl came up to me with a notebook of handwritten poems. She showed them to me shyly and asked,
“Are they good enough?”
I didn’t need to read them to know that they were good enough. She was fifteen. She had a dream. While her friends were playing violent video games and getting pregnant, she was writing poetry. That’s good enough for me.
“They are wonderful,” I said.
I am not sure we were talking about the same thing.
It’s a big question for a writer: am I good enough?
Am I good enough to get published? To get reviewed? To win an award? To make money? To come out in hardcover? To move people to tears? To win the respect of my older brother who said I would never make it?
I advise English majors. Every so often, I get a young writer in my office who says they want to be a novelist.
“And what will you do for a living?” I ask them.
They stare at me as though I was hard of hearing.
“Write,” they say. Sometimes they follow this up by saying, “I’ve seen all the junk that gets published. I can write better than that.”
So can I. So can lots of people. But the kind of success that sends Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Gray to the top of the charts isn’t just a matter of “good enough.” It is a matter of talent and timing and professionalism and supply and demand.
“That may happen,” I say. “But you will need to eat while you’re waiting for the miracle.”
That’s not a bad thing.
Am-I-good-enough is an ever moving target. The book that sells a million copies may not be the one MFA students study for generations to come. The award winner may not make any money. You may move one person but not another.
I believe the key is to answer the question “yes, but…”
Yes, you are good enough. I am good enough. We are all good enough because we are alive and we are trying.
But, there should always be another challenge on the horizon whether it is getting one person to follow your new blog or publishing a third novel that is better than your second.
Keep your eyes focused on the near future. Don’t cling to that one good review you got in 1998, but do not set your sights on selling a million copies and count everything else as a failure.
I recently met the New York Times bestseller Amanda Kyle Williams. Here is a woman who must surely answer the “am I good enough?” question with a resounding yes. Her books sell! She makes money as a writer. She lives a life I tell my English majors does not exist.
However, while she seemed like a charming and confident person, she did not strike me as someone who had cracked open the universe like a melon, looked inside, and found only her own perfection within. She seemed…normal, like someone who probably had good days and bad days like the rest of us.
I think that is comforting. I think striving should be our natural state. I think the question is more important than the answer. I think “never” and “always” can hang suspended by the same thread. I think we get to define the question, and we get to define our happiness.
and, coming soon, Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before