Do you have a writer in your life? Is she prone to swinging between wild optimism and bottomless despair about the level of her own talent?
If so, you may have a case of Schrödinger’s author on your hands.
Any artistic endeavour, by its nature, involves a large degree of subjective assessment on the part of the observer. Humans have collectively developed a set of guidelines about what makes a good book, or song, or painting. But that’s all they are: guidelines. Sometimes a piece of art can follow every one of those guidelines and still leave the reader/listener/watcher cold. Conversely, it can break rules all over the place and end up loved by millions anyway. Which is why, when it comes to books, there are no guarantees. A book can be dripping with five-star reviews and still be, in your subjective opinion, rubbish. It can have passed the traditional gatekeepers – the agents and publishers – and still be rubbish. It can be adored by critics and still … you get the picture.
That’s the whole point of art. It’s a two-way exchange between the creator and the consumer. It cannot exist independently of the observer.
The trouble is, of course, that authors – and by authors I mean me, because I’m the only person whose brain I have access to – tend to be very doubtful of their own abilities. We write stuff, and we think it’s maybe possibly a little bit good, but we don’t know. It might be the greatest opus the world has ever seen. It might be a pile of old drivel. And the only way we can find out is by putting it out there for others to take apart.
What we usually discover is that no matter what we’ve written, it is simultaneously brilliant and abysmal.
Of course, differing opinions are what you’d expect of anything that involves a subjective response, so that bit doesn’t come as much of a surprise (even if we were secretly hoping that our own book was the one artistic creation in human history that would be universally adored). The surprising part is that all those opinions take on the status of facts in our brains. Because we’ve been wondering all along whether we’re any good at this writing business, haven’t we? And here are people telling us. They must be right. Yes, they contradict each other, but that doesn’t matter! It just reinforces what we suspected all along:
I am a great writer.
I am a terrible writer.
It’s not really shocking, then, if the author in your life swings between optimism and despair. She is simply discovering the sad truth that both her best and her worst fear have come to pass – and that will never change. No matter how many books she sells, how many glowing reviews she receives, how many publishing contracts she signs, she will always be a bad author as well as a good one. Take it from the author of a book that has been the recipient of all these comments:
“A beautifully written and perfectly paced debut.”
“Some pretty amateur writing/mistakes.”
“The world building in this story is fantastic. Darkhaven feels very real and vibrant, with lots of different characters and customs and styles.”
“The world building was messy and never had a solid sense of place.”
“I enjoyed experiencing this adventure with these characters; as they are interesting, conflicted, intelligently written, and grow with the story.”
“Many of the characters sounded the same.”
“Ayla’s fervent desire to just be loved and accepted by her father, coupled with her fear of him, make it easy to identify and sympathise with her.”
“Ayla is contemptuous and allows the other characters to fight her battles for her while she sits in a room complaining about the plumbing.”*
“Super unpredictable and keeps you guessing.”
“Very predictable characters and story.”
It’s no wonder we writers are a confused bunch. But I guess, since everyone is right, the only thing we can do is keep on writing. Write for the people for whom we’re brilliant instead of awful, good instead of bad, alive instead of dead. They’re the people we got into this business for, after all. Because while the critical reviews might stick in our brains more, creeping into our thoughts in the middle of the night with a little whisper about how useless we are, it’s the glowing ones that really matter. They’re the ones that mean we made a difference to someone’s life, however fleeting. And that’s the important thing.
It’s worth being terrible, if at the same time you can be great.
* This one makes me laugh the most. I feel I should say, in Ayla’s defence, that while she may have a list of flaws as long as her arm, she never sits in a room complaining about the plumbing.