Issue 32: A personal definition of "good"
I have a short story in the latest issue of Taco Bell Quarterly! It’s a rom com set at the Taco Bell Hotel (it’s a real thing, I swear) and I hope you’ll check it out—or at least be inspired to go eat a Crunchwrap Supreme.
In her newsletter last week, Kate McKean wrote about “recalibrating what’s good.” When we talk about “good” writing, we often mean “literary,” aka fancy prose that deals with heavy, serious themes and Important Topics. What McKean notes is simultaneously obvious and eye-opening: there are so many ways a book can be “good!” It can “come in the prose, or the setting, character, plot, idea, dialogue.”
Over the last few years, I’ve similarly tried to expand my definition of “good books” in my reading. I fell headfirst into romance. I reread books from my childhood. I picked up books in genres I hadn’t previously read—science fiction, horror, mystery, fantasy. I read more essays, short stories, and poetry collections.
I’ve been trying to approach my writing with the same kind of open-mindedness.
But I admit that I still felt a bit self-conscious when I FaceTimed my parents and they asked about my TBQ story.
“What’s it about? Can we read it?” my parents asked.
I sent them a link, mumbled something about “satire” and “Taco Bell,” and hoped they wouldn’t judge me for using the phrase “Satan’s inflamed butthole.”
My dad, bless him, texted me the next day and said it was “funny nonetheless.”
I think part of what I’m detangling is the expectations of a “good writer” (whatever that means!) vs. the writer I actually want to be. Of course I would love the commercial and critical success of someone like Brit Bennett or Celeste Ng. Who wouldn’t? But when I catch myself daydreaming about one day being included in NPR’s annual Book Concierge, I remember that measuring my worth based on external success is an untenable foundation on which to build a writing career. There are so many other factors at play for these traditional notions of “success”—money, awards, reviews, film/TV adaptations—that striving towards them is a set-up for disappointment.
Above all, I’ve realized that I need to stop putting pressure and expectations before the work itself. The writing is within my control. Whether Obama ever reads it and puts it on his year-end list is not.
Devin Kate Pope has a great distillation of McKean’s newsletter, tying together this desire to be a “good” writer and the fear that accompanies it. Fixating on being a writer makes it “easy to avoid writing.” One way to quell that fear is to focus on the verb, not the noun.
In fact, the writing advice that I’ve seen given over and over in the various classes and Zoom events I’ve attended these last few years has been to please yourself first. Write what you would want to read. Write about your obsessions, explore the questions you fixate on, write something that a past version of yourself would’ve needed. If you’re writing a book, then it should be about something you’re willing and excited to stick with for many years. "Good" should be expansive, not limiting.
One word also jumps out at me from McKean’s newsletter: “enjoyable.” She encourages anxious writers (and readers), particularly those worrying about whether their book is “literary” to give themselves a break.
People can read your book and enjoy it even if it will never win a National Book Award or whatever. THAT’S OK. There are so many books out there! Isn’t the point that someone will read it and love it? Does it really matter who or why?
In one class, Jenna Wortham posed this similar question: “What can you do for the love of it?”
Your personal definition of “good” lies within the answers to these questions. That definition can be malleable, but it should be yours. After all, at the heart of writing is an intrinsic motivation to do it.
- “Recalibrating What’s Good” by Kate McKean
- Check out BOMB Magazine’s quarterly roundup of fellowships, residencies, and prizes accepting applications.
- Lincoln Michel’s long—and very helpful—post containing everything they’ve learned about being a “professional writer.” It includes tips on submissions, taxes, queries, and careers.
- Elissa Washuta’s keynote at last summer’s Mendocino Coast Writers' Conference on writing when it seems pointless: “Why write right now? The only answer I have is that, at times like now, writing, once you really find the form that was meant for you, could be one of the things that can keep you whole.”
- Amy Zimmerman’s essay on autofiction, TikTok, and what it means for authors to be “main characters.”
Recent reads & other media
I read Sarah MacLean’s second book in her Love By Numbers series, Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord. Ralston and Callie from the first book are still my favorite, but it was an enjoyable read. A hot antiquarian and a headstrong woman who fixes her own roof? Swoon.
I’ve been a paid subscriber of Yanyi’s excellent newsletter, The Writing, for some time. I was blown away by his book of poetry, The Year of Blue Water. Here is one of my favorite poems:
You tell me that the old you is dead. I am also not who I used
to be. The revolution is emotional. I found a reason to not fear
death. I found more reasons to live, reasons to change what is
living inside me and around me. The revolution is that I care
about my own safety, that I believe my life is valuable and worth
pursuing. As in, I am worth the work of transformations. As in, I
do not fear how I will emerge from myself, or how many times.
Note: Book links are connected to my Bookshop affiliate page. If you purchase a book from there, you'll be supporting my work and local independent bookstores!
~ meme myself and i ~
Untitled Goose Game IRL. Anxiously waiting my turn to give trash to the flight attendant. How it feels to walk down a hill. Trying to read the first paragraph of a book. Evil cat laughs. A perfect recreation of The Parent Trap.