Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Asymptote of "Good Enough"

In about a week and a half, I'm giving a reading. It's up to me what I read as long as I fill 20 minutes. So I started mentally shuffling through my work to see what would suit. Nothing I've written in 2015 was appropriate, for various reasons, so I went back to 2014. A good story to read, I thought, might be the so-called dreadful story, which I wrote last fall about two hipsters going to Medjugorje, a site in Bosnia where the Virgin Mary appears like clockwork to a small group of religious visionaries. So I opened up the file to have a look. (I also thought I might submit it to the Portland Review, which has an open call out until December 1.)


I could not tell you exactly what is wrong with this story. Not with a single definitive noun. I think the problem is, as ill-defined as this may be, that it's just not good enough. It's unevenly anxious about itself; sometimes the writing gains confidence for a few phrases or a sentence or two, but then it leans back into effort. And the organization feels stilted even while being conventional. And some significant amount of the dialogue tells the story instead of telling the characters. And it telegraphs its Big Ideas while trying not to.

I was not especially skilled then at writing through indirection (because I was still fighting it as a necessity), and I was determined to make my point (because the point was the reason I wrote the story, not these hateful characters), and I was barking at an experimental squirrel in the next yard (while I ignored the enormous catchable literary squirrel in my own plot of ground). I was trying to make language do something instead of letting it do something.

Does this sound vague and impossible? Good. That's how I feel about getting better at writing.

Asymptotes keep surfacing in my life over the last several months. There was this one about mastery, and there was one in Ojai which I can't remember now but which was a major point of enlightenment for some of the other women, and there was one in my theory class which I also can't remember. (It has been a difficult autumn.) This morning as I was thinking about the slush I read when I briefly ran a litmag, I realized that slush, too, is an asymptote. Submitted stories vary in quality from super-duper crappy all the way up to good enough to publish. A whole lot of them are almost there, but not quite.

My Medjugorje story has very good sentences, it's well-proofread, it's got a nice moment in the lyric register, it has good craft and a lot of work behind it. It's clear in reading it that I am a thinking person and a pretty good writer. But the story is Not Good Enough. The distance between the Medjugorje story and Good Enough is short, but takes exponentially more effort to cover than the distance between it and super-duper crappy.

In the course of workshopping and trading stories with writer-friends, I read a lot of stories like this, that are smart and thoughtful and good, but not good enough. Not worth reworking. Worth trunking as a lesson and writing something else. I wish there was a way to say this, kindly, to a writer - this is good, but it's not Good Enough, so try something else and don't waste any time trying to get this one published. I wish there was a way to say I encourage your talent and craft and perspective while still saying this one's a loser, pal. I would have wasted a whole lot less time on stories I loved throughout the past decade if someone could have done that for me.

So I'm not going to read the Medjugorje story next Friday (the 20th, at CSUN, if you want to come. I'd love to see you there). And I'm certainly not going to send it to the Portland Review. Waste of time. I might try rewriting it someday, because I still think Medjugorje is an interesting place to set a story, and the idea of a cynic being inspired by the faith of followers, rather than by some flash of light from the sky, still strikes a bell in my mind.

Ultimately I've decided to read a story that I retired from submitting after too many rejections. I reread it this morning, and I feel confident about reading it aloud. I may be too close to see what's wrong with it as clearly as I can see what's wrong with the Medjugorje story (clear as mud, that is). But it's a personal favorite and it's representative of what I like to write about. In case it bombs, I'll also read some stuff that's been editor-approved. And I think the Biff Tannen story. Because why not?

1 comment:

kiivibo said...

Rats, I wish I went to your reading!