28 April 2008

How do we know if we're good?

There's a good discussion about writing and publishing and talent in the advice column at Salon.com today. "Writing is in my blood," the letter writer says, "but how do I know if I'm any good? What if I have no talent? How can I find out? Who can tell me?"

Ultimately, I believe, this is a question we writers must answer for ourselves. Are you "good" if
(a) your novel is published by a big name publisher? (several members of my writers workshop)
(b) your book is a NY Times bestseller and gets turned into a movie? (my father)
(c) you are awarded a masters degree in creative writing? (many people seem to do this)

How many poems must one publish, in order to be a success? 1? 2? 5? 10? A pamphlet? A chapbook? A 'selected'? What if you write one poem, that everyone adores, and anthologizes, and the remainder of your work is quietly ignored? What about all the writers whose work is -- gulp -- only recognized as "good" after they are dead?

One answer that caught my eye quoted a poem I hadn't seen before -- the answer is from robertwt:

Don't forget W.S. Merwin's poem "Berryman," where he talks about asking John Berryman the same question. The poem ends:

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't
you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write

I think I'm with Berryman and Merwin.

(P.S. To see the entire poem, go here.)

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