through a glass, darkly

I’m going to give you a break. You don’t need to read another word about The Situation this morning. (Not That Situation, This Situation.) Instead, I’ll dive directly into the usual meshuggaas as though everything is normal. 

Just when I thought I was out, they drag me back in!

—Michael Corleone, The Godfather: Part III

I got some nice responses to last week’s essay. Let’s see. Here’s one:

“Fantastic. Your writing is so good.”

—Mom

There were other responses, too. But really, isn’t this one all you really need as a writer? If Mom’s happy, who cares what anyone else thinks? I wasn’t even aware she knew how to use italics. It raises questions. Did she click on the Gmail formatting menu? Is it possible she knows the keyboard shortcut?

Long story short, a handful of you actually seem to care whether the Maven Game shows up in your inbox every week. It feels good to know. This might explain why Larry David and Quentin Tarantino always threaten to stop making stuff. It’s marketing 101: create artificial scarcity. 

(By the way, has anyone actually taken “Marketing 101”? If so, what’s it like to read every single marketing book ever? According to them, everything you were taught in that class was the exact opposite of the truth.)

Apropos of recommitting to the newsletter, I wanted to talk about how we judge and value our own work. Based on my years of experience digging through the slush pile, many writers have a rose-colored-glasses problem—if you can call that a problem. If you like your stuff when it’s no good, you might be puzzled when no one else does, but hey, you’re still amazing, aren’t you? Besides, thanks to the internet, there’s an audience out there for nearly anyone, as long as you’re willing to keep putting your stuff out there until you’ve gathered them from the far corners of the Earth. And what undiscovered genius would hesitate to share their brilliant work until that happens? Thus, these people often find that audience.

No, the other problem is much harder: Nothing you do is any good. You’re not getting any better. This whole thing is a waste of time. Don’t even bother suggesting I share any of it. Etc. They’re wearing glasses of a different color, one that evokes a smell nothing like roses.

It doesn’t always feel like this, for most of us, but there are days. It’s easy to get into a funk for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with the writing itself. During revision, I’ll arrive at a particular paragraph that stops me dead in my tracks. “Who the hell wrote this and why hasn’t he been fired yet? Oh, right…” Some days, nothing works about how I’m working. Then time passes, I look back at the same piece of work, and it’s fine. Nothing special, maybe, but perfectly adequate to the task. Maybe it was indigestion the first time. Who knows?

Fix individual mistakes, of course. But when everything isn’t working, doubt your impartiality before you doubt all your material. Storytime: In The Theatre, the tech rehearsal is an opportunity to run through all the lighting and sound cues using the finished sets and final blocking so that everyone knows what to expect and you can make last-minute adjustments before the dress rehearsal. The director and stage manager sit at a table in the center of the house while the crew, lighting designer, costume designer, and any other creative collaborators hurry around fixing problems. 

During tech for one college play I directed, nothing was going right. It all felt muted, dull, pallid: the sets, the costumes, the action itself. (I’d written the play, too, so I had myself to blame twice.) The show was inert, lifeless, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why. After all, I’d liked it before lunch. Now, it all rang false and nothing I did seemed to help.

Over the intercom, I asked the stage manager, designers, and crew their opinions. Had they noticed anything different about tonight’s run-through? Why’d the play suck all of a sudden? According to them, everything was fine. But I knew they were wrong. They simply didn’t have my taste, my talent, my well-honed aesthetic discrimination. Clearly, I’d clued into something subtle but crucial about the production that they didn’t have the capacity to detect.

On the verge of despair, I put my head in my hands, only to encounter a pair of sunglasses with my fingers. I’d never taken them off after returning from lunch. Removing them, the set burst into Technicolor and the actors’ faces came to life.

When your brain offers up an opinion about your work, don’t trust it. Put it aside. Come back later. Sample it at different times of day, in different moods. Better to forge ahead and lay more track than puzzle over what seems dead on the page but is only obscured by the tint of your glasses.

(Honestly, every time I think I’ve shared the last embarrassing story from my youth in this newsletter, another one bubbles right up. I’ll never want for material.)