On the last day of the quarter, I often ask students in my memoir class to write down on an anonymous slip of paper a question about writing. When I did this recently, I received a number of questions about the legal implications of writing about others, how one finds an agent, how to decide on the structure of a book...all good questions. But then there was one question that stood out from the bunch. On a torn piece of lined notepaper, the writer asked simply, "Am I good?"
I've been asked this question point blank by several students over the years, but the beauty of this ask was this time there was no name and no face attached to the question, underscoring the universality and, in fact, the absurdity of the question. The writer, I believe, understood that I cannot answer that question and yet still needed to ask.
My answer to this question was this: I completely understand the need to ask this question. Why should you throw away hundreds of hours of your life on writing if you are not "any good"? Isn't it fair to ask at the early stage of your development that someone tap you on the shoulder and say, "Hey, this really isn't going to head anywhere"? But while I understand the need to ask this question, I cannot answer it and I don't think any other writer can answer this question for a new writer and here's why:
No matter what I've read of your work so far, I have no idea what you'll do next. Maybe you'll dedicate yourself to reading the best of your genre and take in the critiques of others with an open mind and a determination to make your work better. Maybe you'll stay true to your vision and your desire to write in the face of all the rejection letters that are an inevitable part of a writer's career. Maybe you'll keep writing even after you've written a book that even you don't like that much. I don't know.
The other problem with the poignant and ubiquitous "Am I good?" question is the obvious response, "Good to whom?" When a new comedy is previewed before a focus group, it's predicted that the film will be an epic hit if 30 percent of the focus group thinks it's funny. 30 percent! When I look up on Amazon the customer reviews of books I personally might take a bullet for, I find many one-star reviews and comments like, "This book isn't worth the paper it was printed on."
Yes, I do think there is such a thing as talent. Some people have a natural ability with words and storytelling, but not all those with that talent decide to keep writing. There are also many writers who might have shown little discernible talent in their early years, but for whatever reason, they kept writing, and their skills improved.
But I remember longing for the Am I Good question to be answered, and when it was answered affirmatively, it inspired me enough to write, and it was the act of writing that helped me to improve as a writer. In my college freshman writing course, we were asked to write a self-portrait as our entrance essay to the course. When I received my essay back from the instructor, she'd written something about talent with words at the bottom, praise that inspired me to work very hard in her class. Recently, I found that essay in a box of stored papers.
I started reading the essay greedily, looking for early evidence of talent. But, instead what I read was the most ordinary of college freshman essays. Ordinary to the point of appalling. Where was this "talent" the teacher had seen? I don't know. And yet, it was her praise that had set me to work.
So now my answer to your question is "Yes, you are good." Now get busy.
This June, Theo Pauline Nestor will be teaching Memoir 101, a teleseminar on memoir writing designed to help new writers to understand how story structure works in the memoir form and to discover their own memoir material. Read more about it and more about writing on her blog Writing Is My Drink.
Follow Theo Pauline Nestor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/theopnestor