Friday, June 22, 2012

Can You Write?

Letting the ideas flow
Do really good writers ever question if they have the ability to write? I think some writers love to write but think their writing isn't good enough to read. So maybe writers, good or bad, don't doubt if they have the ability to write, rather they doubt the quality of their writing. I read two amazing short stories the other night, and it made me think long and hard about the quality of my own writing. I've been thinking about it for years, actually.

I remember the first time I read about a writing critic. If you read Anne of Green Gables and loved the writing of L.M. Montgomery, chances are you also read the Emily of New Moon books. In the first book, Emily shares her writing with a favorite irascible teacher of hers who basically tears her creations apart line by line, highlighting a few pieces of excellent craftsmanship here and there. She thinks he is telling her that she'll never make it as a writer. Instead, the teacher tells her that she has promise.

“Ten good lines out of four hundred, Emily—comparatively good, that is—and all the rest balderdash—balderdash, Emily."
"I—suppose so," said Emily faintly.
Her eyes brimmed with tears—her lips quivered. She could not help it. Pride was hopelessly submerged in the bitterness of her disappointment. She felt exactly like a candle that somebody had blown out.
"What are you crying for? demanded Mr. Carpenter.
Emily blinked away tears and tried to laugh.
"I—I'm sorry—you think it's no good—" she said.
Mr. Carpenter gave the desk a mighty thump.
"No good! Didn't I tell you there were ten good lines? Jade, for ten righteous men Sodom had been spared."
"Do you mean—that—after all—" The candle was being relighted again.
"Of course, I mean. If at thirteen you can write ten good lines, at twenty you'll write ten times ten—if the gods are kind. Stop messing over months, though—and don't imagine you're a genius, either, if you have written ten decent lines. I think there's something trying to speak through you—but you'll have to make yourself a fit instrument for it. You've got to work hard and sacrifice—by gad, girl, you've chosen a jealous goddess. And she never lets her votaries go—not even when she shuts her ears forever to their plea.” 
That scene stuck in my brain for years after I read it. I must've read it for the first time over twenty years ago and I can still recall how I felt when I read"Didn't I tell you there were ten good lines?"  What writer doesn't crave those words from a reader they respect? What writer doesn't seek some kind of external validation that their choice of words, their flow of dialogue, for knowing their imagery has caught something deep inside their reader?

At one point in graduate school, I received a somewhat similar compliment from a critic who didn't care about my personal feelings but only about evaluating my writing. It's a scary but wonderful thing to hear people honesty assess your writing...and find something of value. In my case, it was a graduate student working on his PhD and he said, "The part about the bee and the cicada was really great."

Yesterday when I can home from school I saw a bee killing a cicada. I had just gotten out of my car and I heard this weird clacking noise. To my left, I saw this cicada spinning on the concrete upside down. Its wings were beating against the cement, making the clacking. I thought it was stuck upside down so I got this dead day-lily leaf. There are hundreds of those leaves around our yard. Whoever planned the garden put those plants in a bad spot. They bloom so briefly and then litter the yard. I picked up the day-lily leaf and tried to stick it near the cicada's legs so it could grab on and straighten up but nothing happened. 
Then I saw the bee. It was this huge yellow and black striped bee. It wasn't bigger than the cicada, but it was climbing all over the underside of the cicada. I thought the bee had some red coloring, too, but I wasn't sure. I felt sorry for the cicada, but I don't know why. It just looked so helpless and frightened, spinning and clacking it's wings. It was really ugly. 
I flipped the pair of insects upside-down so the bee was under the cicada. I used that dead day-lily leaf. I watched the bee push its skinny legs all around. I think it was chewing and stinging the cicada. Even though the cicada was on top, it couldn't get away. Pretty soon they were flipped again and the bee was on top. I knew there was nothing I could do, but I poked at the bee a few more times with the dead leaf. Then I left.
I wrote that back in 2002. As I read that segment now, I know I could tighten it up. I see the flaws and rotten spots. But there may be one good line in there. And if there is, that's all I need to give me the boost to keep writing for another ten years.