Good Writing/Bad Writing

It was a brisk winter afternoon in Manhattan and my husband and I were spending it exploring the Museum of Modern Art, better known to Big Apple residents as MoMA. The exhibits were as diverse as the pale snowflakes falling outside and as mysterious and intriguing as the latest Nora Roberts/J. D. Robb suspense novel. Some unique exhibits even rivaled the likes of a Stephen King horror story. 

In one exhibit hall a young couple intensely stared at a huge canvas and were in deep discussion about it. I watched in fascination, wondering what the interest was in a square canvas painted all red. I just couldn't see the need to discuss, except perhaps which shade of crimson, scarlet, or burgundy the artist had used.

Now what, you might ask, does this have to do with writing. Honestly at the time I couldn't have told you. But today, several years later, it occured to me while reading the book "Fearless Writing" by William Kenower. In this book, which by the way is a juicy tidbit for successful and struggling writers alike, he discusses the issue of bad-vs-good writing. It reminded me of how I had judged that gargantuan red canvas as not worthy of discussion, or even of looking at for more than a passing glance. Beauty, in art or in writing, is indeed in the eye of the beholder. It's all about judgement.

Kenower shares an example of how two reviewers made conflicting judgements about the same sentence in a novel. One praised it like a sparking diamond, the other made a comparison closer to the black coal before compression. How could one sentence be both gemlike and disastrous. And what does it all say about the wonderful author who penned those words? According to Kenower it isn't about judging our own writing as good or bad, worthy or not, but about writing from your heart. Writing the story that calls you and keeps you up at night. The story that keeps the pen sliding across the notebook page, or the fingers swing dancing over the computer keys. It's about finding and writing the story only you can write. You can't please every reader, but you can't please any reader if you aren't pleased while you're writing.

This whole issue recalls a writer friend of mine who revised an entire manuscript based on one writer/editor's comments. A story, by the way, she had read to our critique group and that was loved by everyone of us. I was filled with love and humor. She then sent said manuscript off to an agent who told her to rewrite the whole thing in a totally different way. A way that her fellow critique groupers thought sucked the humor and life from her genuinely funny and heartfelt style. In the end she couldn't sell the manuscript and went on to write something entirely new.

It just shows that editors, agents, and your readers all have their own subjective opinions about what they like. And whether or not they like a story or not is not a reflection of it being good or bad writing.

Like that red canvas at MoMa, every novel, every story, every poem, will be seen differently by all who behold it. In the end unless the writer loves the story she is writing as she writes it, no reader will spend hours reading it and waxing poetic over the quality of its redness.


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