Towards the end of last year, I planned to write a thing or two about this writing business, the snail progress I’ve made, some of the things I’ve learnt so far, but the year ended in anticlimax, so I couldn’t get on the right frequency to write such a thing. You would have been spared the drudgery of my lessons for good had someone not asked a question that stirred the sleeping dog.
If any part of the above sentence remotely gives the impression that this is going to be the regular spiel of a neophyte turned pro, that is far from the case. I am no pro. I am very much in my process, still striving to get my work out there, still rooted in the struggle of finding my own voice as a writer.
The question: how does a writer, especially an emerging writer, know when she’s under-valuing or over-valuing her writing? We were planning for the forthcoming CFW Workshop for Emerging Writers, brainstorming ideas on what it should practically achieve for participants, which writers to invite as workshop facilitators, when the question came up.
Judging from the context, I took this to mean that after finding the courage to sit yourself down at the table to write, the determination to push through the self-doubt and inner censure, and then finally cobbling something together—how do you know if that piece of writing has earned you the license to make a beeline for any publisher’s door. If you do manage to know, what sort of license has that piece of writing earned you? A license to the foremost literary magazines in the literary world, or a license to ancillaries, which also stand classified according to general and individual ratings.
Suffice to say, most young writers, including myself, have these ratings etched in our collective minds. The prestige of where a piece of writing ends up is tied to the amount of gratification we allow ourselves. But that’s only logical, I suppose, given the existence of those classifications, and it goes without saying that where your writing features does impact your status as an emerging writer at any rate.
These classifications draw a clear picture of why this is especially important for an emerging writer, who is after that extra edge, gunning for any slight advantage, looking for the smallest push to kick-start a writing career. More practically and succinctly put, under-valuing here is a young writer not rating her work enough that she finds herself aiming to submit only to the smaller names instead of the foremost literary magazines. While over-valuing is making submission after submission, striving to get your writing published in a top-tier magazine when your writing is simply not at the required level. Is there a sure way for the writer to measure these things and act accordingly?
Another question followed the first one: can engagement be used to measure if your writing is any good or not?
“The prestige of where a piece of writing ends up is tied to the amount of gratification we allow ourselves.”Jeff Omenyuru
Art is simply too subjective to be pinned down with generic specificity through any one medium. Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person for all its “engagements” (New Yorker’s most read piece in 2017), having been published at the heights of the #MeToo movement when conversation around the nuances of consent and body shaming was raging, could not get readers to unanimously agree on whether it’s deeply subversive or very problematic, whether it’s a great short story or just good. While Kaith Welsh argues in the Guardian that the fact Roupenian was able to make the story “so personal, so immediate, so like a true experience, speaks to her consummate skill, not some channelling of the collective subconscious,” there’s a whole Twitter account dedicated to men who disagree in no uncertain terms.
John Updike went from the best American novelist of the postwar years to the guy whose name and profligacy is mentioned next to bad writing in recent years. The “engagement” Updike’s works garnered up until that moment didn’t deter John W Aldridge from remarking, in his 1965 review in the New York Herald Tribune, that though he “does on occasion write well…Mr Updike has nothing to say.” Harold Bloom called him “a minor novelist with a major style.” More recently, Christopher Hitchens, in his review of Terrorist in The Atlantic, a book that draws from the disastrous events of 9/11, wrote: “Updike has produced one of the worst pieces of writing from any grown-up source since the events he so unwisely tried to draw upon.” While time has certainly had a hand in the buzz around Roupenian’s Cat Person and Updike’s catalog of work getting gradually de-canonized down the line, even that fails to hold up as a conclusive criterion. Objectively, no writing or writer is “good,” neither can any writer or writing be granted literary merit or value solely because of the engagement it garners.
Art is simply too subjective to be pinned down with generic specificity through any one medium.Jeff Omenyuru
Writers are natural skeptics of their own work. Though a serious writer may have to leave it to the world to tell if her work is genius or just plain good, she should damn well be able to tell if her work is generally up to scratch or not. To put it another way, you’re always the first in the line of judges to gauge your work, then you must make a decision where to send it afterwards. And to be a good judge you need what I like to call a sharp antenna, the same phenomenon the writer and photographer Teju Cole referred to as a “detector,” in an interview with Kunle Ajibade. When asked what he thought his work represented to the “diametrically opposed” Philip Roth and V.S. Naipaul that saw them able to point out his work in a very distinctive manner, he responded with an anecdote on how he developed his detector as an emerging writer: “…While my peers were trying to win story contests, submitting stuff, I never submitted anything. I spent all my time reading and writing and refining my art, my detector, so that I know if the work is good or not. If you know there’s something you need to put into the world and you need to put it into the world in a very intense and precise way, in a highly elaborate and thoughtful and committed way, then you’re going to do everything possible to make sure the work is up to scratch.” This is a model you may want to borrow to sharpen your antenna.
True enough, the start of your writing career can be lonely and perplexing, but it also presents such an important opportunity for your learning curve, because at the point you’re bold and forward enough to let yourself do certain things that will force you to learn. Make those mistakes; that’s precisely the time for them. I used to be the very antithesis of Teju Cole in his fledgling days, presumptuous enough to think I was better than I really was, submitting subpar stories with the eagerness of a greenhorn, until multiple rejections (or the deafening silence) set me back to reality. These days I joke to myself that those writings were so bad that some of the magazines thought it’d save them more time to simply bin them, couldn’t even be bothered to bless me with a rejection.
This forced me to begin to read more closely, more critically, as opposed to when I breezed through books for pleasure. Hemingway remarks that the most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. The only way to acquire a shit detector is by reading other writers; don’t just read them, in fact, study and dissect them for better application. Disregard the mindless reading marathon online these days, for which there’s no prize, not even the consolation of a plastic medal, let alone gold or platinum. Unless someone suddenly ups the ante, what’s the point of setting yourself a reading target of 250 books a year? For a young writer, what will help your writing isn’t the number of books you’ve read, but what you’re able to learn with each book.
Sentences are the lifeblood of any story. While reading, if a sentence catches your attention, pause and check why it works. Or doesn’t work. On occasion, I substitute some words in a sentence as I read, replace them with words I think bring better symmetry and balance, even go as far as rearranging the entire sentence with my eyes, in more ways than one if length allows. Then I let my taste buds feel their harmony as they commune with each other. In First You Write a Sentence, Joe Moran writes that “a good sentence gives order to our thoughts and takes us out of our solitude…A sentence should feel alive, but not stupidly hyperactive.” At the end of your reading, analyze it as a unit, interrogate the structure, the characterization, the flow of the narrative and its exploration of the human condition, the almost imperceptible switches that allowed the writer move back and forth without creating a hole, etc, and let the book answer them.
At first, this practice takes out some of the fun in reading, slows your speed, but with time your eyes acquire the knack for attention to detail, your mind begins to assimilate quicker, reigniting speed and fun not at the expense of learning. But in all your learning, though, avoid importing the “cool” bad habits of an established writer into your writing. A Hausa aphorism best captures this: “Idan wani yayi rawa aka masa kari, wani in yayi shegen duka zai sha.” Where an individual dances and is sprayed with money, someone else might get the beating of their life for daring to pull the same act.
All of these ensures that the baseline for your writing is high enough, and that when you write according to your own standards, you can be sure of producing work that is acceptable out there. As you read and write more, your standard for yesterday’s work may cease to be the standard for today’s, a sure sign that you’re improving and well on your way to finding your own writing voice and style. With each completed story, however, it all comes down to where you decide to send it off to for publication. A decision you may have to make, for many possible reasons, amid a range of negative human conditions: fear, doubt, uncertainty, anxiety, and other insecurities. Each of them can end up influencing your decision.
If your work eventually gets published in a hallowed magazine, lo and behold some validation, but even that places no inherent value on your work. Surely, I cannot be the only one who has read some grossly uninspiring works published in foremost literary magazines, or the only one who has read some stunningly electrifying prose in magazines whose name hasn’t gotten around a lot. If this reveals anything, it is the nature of rejection: it isn’t personal. Most magazines have specific things they’re looking for in a story, which are almost always available in their call for submission page, and before submitting your work to that top-tier magazine, it is your job to know what those things are. Even then, your work may still be rejected for reasons that are not personal.
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