Who’s Your Worst Critic?

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The gem I take from Joyce Carol Oates today is that writers and artists are their own worst critics.

To put it more bluntly, she says self-criticism is about as good an idea as self-administered brain surgery.

She gives many examples of writers who scorned their most “successful” works and esteemed their least “successful” works. What we like in our own writing, others might dislike. What we hate, others might love.

The major blinder for many writers and artists is perfectionism. A few flaws often obscure for us the many virtues of our work.

A piece of writing might be good enough for publication and sales, and could even change a reader’s life, but it might not be good enough for us.

The down side of perfectionism is that it can be paralyzing. It can hinder you from getting anything done or published or sold. On top of that it can drive you into serious depression because your expectations are never met and you always feel inadequate.

There’s a clear distinction between always wanting to do your best and being a perfectionist.

Work your hardest, but submit the work before those deadlines pass.

Don’t slave over one piece at the expense of all those other great ideas you have, which might work out better.

To blend mostly JCO with a little bit of Auden, art and writing are “far too various to contemplate.” They are “elusive matters that will reside in the [guts] of others to judge.”

Just as you can’t hide away in a cave until you are perfect, you must share your writing when you’ve done everything you know to do.

The Truth About Inspiration According to Joyce Carol Oates

By inspiration, I don’t mean ideas. JCO is talking about something far greater than mere ideas. She’s talking about the kind of inspiration that we equate with genius, the kind that drives you to a 48hr writing marathon, the kind where you don’t even notice the passing of days.

Through a series of anecdotes about some of the world’s most celebrated writers, JCO depicts inspiration as a mysterious, spiritual, otherworldly phenomenon.

Her description alludes to a kind of spirit possession when she says, “Something not us inhabits us; something insists on speaking through us.”

But this source of inspiration, whatever it is, can’t be conjured up by formulaic rituals.

To be inspired we can only be open, sensitive, and receptive to both the fantastic and the ordinary.

She expounds on this directly by saying, “The epiphany has significance, of course, only in its evocation of an already existing (but undefined) interior state. It would be naïve to imagine that grace really falls upon us from without–one must be in a spiritual readiness for any visitation.”

More directly she says, “Images abound to those who look with reverence and are primed to see.”

I love those last three words because they apply to so much of how we exist as humans beyond any literary or artistic applications. “Primed to see” applies to our everyday relationships, politics, emotions, decisions, and the list is infinite. Think of psychological conditioning, perception is reality, we see what we believe, and so on.

So how do we make ourselves open, sensitive, and receptive? Again, the process is elusive, but JCO might provide insight in her description of Henry James: “James was one of those who knew how to keep still, and to listen.”

Perhaps that’s one avenue to priming ourselves to receive inspiration. Be still. It’s a phrase from Psalms 46:10 that I’ve not applied often enough.

Be still.

What are some of your moments of most profound inspiration?

Joyce Carol Oates on Failure

JCO essentially says that writers, are secretly attracted to failure, and they have good reason to be.

I know for the writer struggling to finish their latest story or struggling to get published this may sound crazy.

You’re probably thinking that only a writer as successful as JCO could say such a thing.

But every writer we perceive as successful has had plenty of failure to back up their success. Regardless of how much success a writer like JCO has, she admits that “Nothing gets easier with the passage of time, not even the passing of time.”

So even if we have dreams of grandiose fame and fortune, we can rest assured that living as a writer, no matter how rewarding or fulfilling it may be, will always be a demanding process. Writing is a creative act, and the act of creating doesn’t magically become easier just because we’ve been published and our most recent novel was turned into a hit movie.

I understand why we may initially recoil at the idea of embracing failure. JCO points out that we live in a society where expecting failure is deemed un-American. We’re the nation of hope and manifest destiny. This might be why she asks the question “Is the artist secretly in love with failure?”

Not a love of failure because failing is so great, but because there could be “something dangerous about success.”

I know you’re doubtful, but how often have we seen people throughout history in all fields let success go to their heads and ruin their careers? From the singer who has a smash hit and is forced to keep producing the same kind of music to appease her record label, to the athlete who’s so busy lining up endorsements and shooting commercials that she neglects training, we’ve seen countless stars implode under the pressure of their own acclaim.

Beyond a possible love of failure or leeriness of success, JCO speculates that “the addictive nature of incompletion and risk” really drives us to continue working. She adds that writers have “An affinity for risk, danger, mystery, a certain derangement of the soul; a craving for distress, the pinching of the nerves, the not-yet-voiced; the predilection for insomnia; an impatience with past selves and past creations that must be hidden from one’s admirers.”

But to get to a more practical application, she asks the question:

“Isn’t there, perhaps, a very literal advantage, now and then, to failure?–a way of turning even the most melancholy of experiences inside out, until they resemble experiences of value, of growth, of profound significance?”

I say yes, and I’m sure you can acknowledge moments in your life that initially seemed disastrous but ended positively.

JCO sheds light on four practical reasons to accept failure, if not wholly embrace it.

1:“An interesting failure has more value than a too-obvious success.” JCO quotes another writer here, but the idea is that any experience that teaches you something is more valuable than an experience that makes you feel great but doesn’t offer any wisdom.

2: “James Joyce was protected by the unpopularity of his work.” Think of it this way: In the early years, your writing may not be very good, and years from now you’ll look back with relief that you were spared the embarrassment of having your weakest work distributed to the masses. By delaying success, you increase the chances that your first introduction to the world will present a much more capable writer.

3: The more we expect a piece of writing to fail, or the less likely it is to succeed, the more freedom we take to do what we really desire and experiment, which stretches our skill and creativity as writers. These are the exercises, journaling, and general writing we do “just for fun” or “just playing around.” In these instances we are actually able to accept failure almost humorously.

4: “Success is distant and illusory, failure one’s loyal companion, one’s stimulus for imagining that the next book will be better, for, otherwise, why write?” If we reach perfection on the first try, if there’s nothing more to strive for, we lose the magic of the process.

To close, I’ll leave you with a question and answer that don’t correspond in the essay as JCO has written it, but that I think are effective together:

Will one fail? is a question less appropriate than Can one succeed?

The writer, in the end, can have only him/herself for measurement.

We know we will fail. Every writer does at several points throughout their career. But not every aspiring writer succeeds. Ultimately, however, you succeeded when you say you’ve succeeded. The standard of success is yours to set.

That’s how I understand Joyce Carol Oates’s essay on failure.

What are your views on success and failure?

A Writer’s First Loves: Betty, Nikki, & Langston

We’re always asking who a writer’s influences are. There’s something romantic about it.

Undoubtedly, Joyce Carol Oates has influenced many writers, but in her 2003 book, The Faith of a Writer, she tells us about the writers who influenced her early on in life. Among them are Louis Carroll and Robert Frost.

Oates opens this third section of her book by expressing this:

“There are two primary influences in a writer’s life: those influences that come so early in childhood, they seem to soak into the very marrow of our bones and to condition our interpretation of the universe thereafter; and those that come a little later, when we are old enough to exercise some control of our environment and our response to it, and have begun to be aware not only of the emotional power but the strategies of art.”

From this beautifully written passage, you can see how much fun I’m having exploring this book.

Oates describes the first time she fell in love with a piece of literature, Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass:

“Out of nowhere this marvel came to me, a farm child, in a work-oriented household in which there were very few books and very little time for reading. . . . [it] would be the great treasure of my childhood, and the most profound literary influence of my life. This was love at first sight! (Very likely, I fell in love with the phenomenon of Book, too . . .).

Like Alice, with whom I identified unquestionably, I plummeted headfirst down the rabbit hole and/or climbed boldly through the mirror into the looking-glass world and, in a manner of speaking, never entirely returned to ‘real’ life.”

I’m sure every writer relates to this feeling. We remember the first time that a poem or novel or story made you feel more alive, made you want to live, and changed our world forever.

For me, though I’d read stacks of classic YA fiction like The Babysitter’s Club (heart) and Sweet Valley Kids or Girl Talk, I didn’t know the true inspirational depth of literature until I read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Like Oates and Alice, I identified almost completely with the protagonist.


My older sister had checked the book out from the library, probably required reading for school. It was in hardback with a missing dust cover, and I was struck by the vintage look of its faded green, woven textured cover and its brittle, yellowed pages. The book was two or three times thicker than any book I’d ever read, and the words were more densely packed on the pages.

At first, it began as a challenge to see if I could get through it and how quickly. The experience of reading it eventually grew into my ultimate enjoyment. Each day, I couldn’t wait to open it and delve into the story again. Viscerally moved, my soul perked up with each turn of the story and every epiphany of the narrator. For the first time in my life, a story made me cry.

Years later, as I’ve told my students countless times, I again fell deeply in love. I was a fourteen year old, high school freshman. In English class we read Nikki Giovanni’s “Kidnap Poem.”

This poem sparked my love for the English language and all the magic it can do.

I don’t remember the moment I discovered my passion for Langston Hughes, but it was later in my high school tenure. I desperately wanted to know him, to hear what he had to say about the daily happenings of the world, about the latest turns in politics, and all of the contemporary singers I obsessed about. But he had been dead decades by then, and so I read and read and read his poems and memoirs.

Not everyone who’s had these kinds of experiences grows up to be a writer, but I’d say every writer has had an experience like this.

What were yours?