Two articles this week got me thinking about the balancing act we need to perform between confidence and self-criticism.

Over at Electric Literature’s Blunt Instrument advice blog Lisa Derrick (@lisajderrick) asked how you can tell if your writing is any good. It’s an important question – because the commitment required for most people to produce a polished novel or collection of stories is immense. In the absence of objective proof (like having many works already published and earning vast amounts of money) it’s understandable to look for a token or two to keep you going through all the effort.

Elisa Gabbert’s perfectly sensible answer was that there is no such thing as objectively good writing – so all you can really do is to produce the sort of writing that you want to read.

There may be important and famous writers who went to the grave tortured and doubtful of their own talent. It’s possible that you can find great success as a writer without ever feeling like you “know” if you’re “good.” To me, that sounds like no way to live. So when I write, the standards I try to meet are my own: Do I want to read what I’m writing? It’s that simple. If I write a poem or an essay that I want to read and re-read after I’ve finished writing and editing it, then it’s good by my own lights.

If you don’t feel that way about your own writing, the challenge becomes: Write something that you would want to read. It may sound obvious, but I don’t think most writers hold themselves to these standards.

That is entirely true – it is readers, ultimately, who make writing good or bad. What’s more, that determination is not definitive – tastes change all the time. Attempting to second guess such an illusory standard can become a pointless odyssey.

And yet we all crave validation. We want success – according to metrics that admittedly vary pretty widely. And we want to know we’re not wasting our time with all this bloody work. We want a voucher that we can ultimately redeem with a publisher, an agent, with readers, with critics – preferably all of the above.

This is of more than academic interest to me. I’ve been sunk in the same novel for years now, and feedback from beta readers suggests I’ve got a way to go yet. I feel like a Hobbit with a long journey already behind me wearily reaching a peak and then looking out over the wastes of Mordor – realising that the worst is still to come.

Of course, there is no comforting answer. We don’t know if we’re any good. Even as the tokens come in, we tend to dismiss the positive signs and focus on the setbacks. And there is always someone out there producing better work (or even more galling, producing worse work but getting feted for it). We’re pleased for others but a quiet voice reminds us that we’re imposters. In the end, nothing but success guarantees success. And that’s when you can reinvent the past – “I always knew I’d make it, Terri.”

But most novels are failures in their authors’ minds. They can never quite match up on the page to the sparkling brilliance that was their potential. It’s by accepting the inevitability of failure – and building on it – that we continue to improve.

If you think your writing is good, there’s every chance that it isn’t as good as you think it is. Toby Litt made a similar point in The Guardian last week.

Bad writers often believe they have very little left to learn, and that it is the literary world’s fault that they have not yet been recognised, published, lauded and laurelled. It is a very destructive thing to believe that you are very close to being a good writer, and that all you need to do is keep going as you are rather than completely reinvent what you are doing. Bad writers think: “I want to write this.” Good writers think: “This is being written.”

Your doubts prove you’re on your way – so long as you gather your provisions and rejoin the path.

Or you could give up, and that answers the question too.

At Brain Pickings, Maria Popova’s review of Adam Phillips’ essay Against Self-Criticism (in Unforbidden Pleasures) provides a corrective to this position. Although a critical perspective helps us grow as writers, if that perspective is relentless and proscriptive it will also stifle us.

Were we to meet this figure socially, as it were, this accusatory character, this internal critic, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him. That he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout of some catastrophe. And we would be right.

Philips is an advocate for overinterpretation – which is not, as it sounds, excessive analysis, but rather the acceptance of multiple critical ideas and perspectives in judging ourselves and our work. As Popova says:

Our self-criticism, to be sure, couldn’t be entirely eradicated — nor should it, for it is our most essential route-recalculating tool for navigating life. But by nurturing our capacity for multiple interpretations, Phillips suggests, self-criticism can become “less jaded and jading, more imaginative and less spiteful.”

And so, if we navigate between these perspectives, we might imagine an approach that looks a little like this: write what you would like to read in freedom from criticism and self-doubt. But then admit that failure is possible, even likely. Use critical perspectives to improve your work. Invite many voices in and treat them sceptically, constructively and playfully. Repeat. Fail again. Fail better.

photo credit: Tongariro / Mordor via photopin (license)