What Makes Writing Good?
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I was flying from Los Angeles to Minneapolis, MN. From Minneapolis, Mike and I would rent a car and drive over an hour home to the farm I grew up on. I've been flying a lot lately, not sleeping enough, packing and unpacking and re-packing my bags, and sleeping in a lot of strange beds. Airports get more annoying each time I'm in them. Don't people know to have their ID's out? Why can't they put their bags in the overhead bin and sit down already? On a recent flight to Denver, someone around me kept farting. I hoped it was a baby the row ahead of me, but I feared it was the man next to me. At any rate, I breathed into my sweater the duration of the flight.
On the flight to Minneapolis, I read through some of David Sedaris' work in the New Yorker. Then I went to the Poetry Foundation website and read through a few recent poems-of-the-day. I recently read The Tender Bar and I'm currently reading The Dog Stars. I've enjoyed reading all of these things, but in between the good things, I've also started (and stopped) reading a handful of bad. One notable read that I didn't enjoy was a book of poetry I bought in San Francisco. It was so nebulous as to be absolutely indecipherable, and I'm someone who studies/reads/writes poetry. If no one can understand it, what's the goddamned point? I wondered.
What makes writing good might be somewhat subjective sure, but we all know when something is good don't we? What is that? I wanted to understand, and after spending lots of time considering the question, I arrived at the following:
Good Writing is Understandable
It is not the job of a writer to make the world more complicated than it already is. Good writing should clarify something or illuminate a subject in a new and interesting way. It should not, like the book of poetry from San Francisco, make the world a more confusing place. Each time I've written about a new subject in any capacity (for work or for fun), I spend a considerable amount of time learning about what I need to write about. Know what you need to say and then say it in the most clear way possible (this applies to fiction as well).
Good Writing is Unique
You don't have to come up with brand new ideas. Most of the thoughts you've had have already been thought by someone else. But you cannot describe someone's eyes as blue as the ocean or the sky and expect to make any waves. Comparing blue eyes to an ocean is predictable. Comparing blue eyes to the color of an Siamese fighting fish, or a turquoise bracelet from a gift shop in New Mexico, or a cornflower blossom, might be a bit more interesting. Say old things in new ways and avoid the ordinary.
Really Good Writing is Honest
You can write a very good essay about the specific way that algae blooms in Midwestern rivers, however, if you don't give half a damn about algae blooms in Midwestern rivers, your reader will likely know it. Write about what matters to you. Write something honest and true and it will be eons better than writing in a way that you think you ought to. Sometimes, writing honestly is harder than we'd like to admit, but it's always more resonant and always more beautiful.
Really good writing can send shivers up my forearms, and as I settled into my hard Delta seat, I thought about my favorite writers, the ones I can turn to when I need some inspiration. As far as poets go, I turn to Maya Angelou, Andrea Gibson, Buddy Wakefield, Billy Collins. When I want to read something engaging and interesting and unexpected, I look for the books with the best reviews and go from there. Or, I turn to some of my favorites, like Hemingway, Plath, or Bukowski. And when I want to listen to good music with lyrics that are built out of magic, I turn to Zach Bryan, Chris Stapleton, Johnny Cash, or Jewel. I try to find inspiration wherever I can and wherever it comes.
I've been trying to write well for a very long time. We all know what good writing is and one of the most frustrating things about it is that it takes a long time to learn to write well. It takes a lot of practice, a lot of patience, and it takes producing a lot of mediocre stuff. But the more I read and the more I write, the more I'm able to discern the difference. What frustrates a lot of young writers is knowing that their writing is somehow, not so good. But instead of frustrating us, that knowledge should motivate us to keep on practicing and writing and failing until eventually, we write something halfway decent.
Les Brown said, "Everything we do is practice for something greater than where we currently are. Practice only makes for improvement."