Sunday night question: What do you do when you’re not that great? July 7th 2013


Dear Friends –

I have just finished Nathan Englander’s most recent short story collection, THIS IS WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK, and it’s a brilliant, daring, rewarding, read. Englander is a master short story writer, by which I mean he can do things with the form, that make a short story as deep, as complex and as emotionally and intellectually satisfying as a novel. Bruce Holland Rogers has taught that fiction manipulates the emotions of the reader, and Englander is absolutely fantastic at doing this. The stories twist and twist again, offering us not just one surprise, but many – pushing the narrative in surprising and often drastic directions.

I heard Nathan Englander speak with Aimee Bender in 2000 in Los Angeles at the Writers Bloc series. That afternoon was a crucial one for me, as it encouraged me to sign up for a year-long writing course with Bender at UCLA extension.  But I was also inspired to seriously try fiction writing, when Englander shared a humorous story about himself. He told the audience that he kept on waiting for an angel to come down from Heaven and tell him “YOU ARE A WRITER.”

“People,” I remember Englander saying. “The angel is NOT coming.  So you’d better just start writing anyway.”

I took Englander’s advice. And I’m still taking it.

But reading his most recent short stories, as well as the work of Aimee Bender, Stacey Levine, Kathleen Alcalá, Ana Maria Spagna, and Assaf Gavron, to name a few. I have realized something.

They are all GREAT writers.

I am not.


This, as some of you already know, is not a particularly happy realization.

It also feels rather dangerous to even say, because most of us in the creative world are pressured –internally and externally – to insist that we’re geniuses just to get heard.  The general atmosphere in literature is that the whole writing business is so fragile and so overcrowded that if a writer actually says “I’m not a genius” – well, what the heck is that person doing even trying to get us to read her or him in the first place?

I don’t know the answer to that, but Englander does.

When a writer-protagonist in one of the stories tells his lover that he doesn’t have any good stories to tell, she replies simply “tell the story the best you can.”

That seems like a good piece of advice.

And if you feel – as I do often these days – that you’re just a LOUSY writer, remember that moment in Daniel Deronda, when Gwendolyn says she going to give up singing altogether, because she doesn’t sing well enough. To which the hero responds:

“For my part, people who do anything finely always inspirit me to try. I don’t mean they make me believe I can do it as well. But they make the thing, whatever it may be, seem worthy to be done…. Excellence encourages one about life generally; it shows the spiritual wealth of the world “ (Daniel Deronda)

Mary Anne Evans, the author of Daniel Deronda knew something about obstacles to writing success. Daniel Deronda was written as her own fame waned. But it is, to my mind, the greatest of novels written by Evans, whom most of us know as George Eliot, her pseudonym.

And perhaps we all need to create safer spaces for writers to say openly, “I’m not that great. But I ‘m trying to get better.”


6 thoughts on “Sunday night question: What do you do when you’re not that great? July 7th 2013

  1. I’m not a writer, but I am a publisher. I’ve seen writers go from so-so to amazing. It takes consistent work. It also takes finding a theme that the writer cares passionately enough about to pour herself into. And it takes finding the right reader. Not every story is going to touch every reader, but some stories will touch some readers and they will feel about your work the way you feel about Englander’s.

    1. Thanks for this beautifully put comment! I agree that enormous improvement and change are possible for all artists who really put their minds and hearts to the process. I think that is part of what Mary Anne (aka George) is getting at with her hero’s comment about making work in response to the great work he sees being done. And as for your final hope — as the rabbis say, from your mouth to God’s ear! 🙂 Thank you, again.

  2. The idea of greatness, especially for a writer, is such a difficult concept to understand. Is greatness popularity? Is it longevity? Is it even what the critics and academics say it is? I agree somewhat with Ann, above, that the reader’s perception is what makes a writer great, but mostly I think that greatness is too much an arbitrary quality to define.

    What I do believe is that most great writers don’t think they are particularly great, but are more concerned with whether what they’re trying to say in any particular piece of writing gets said. After that, it’s up to the reader to decide. And if one reader believes in the work of one writer, the writer is great. It’s also important to note that most writers who are considered great are always working to get better at their craft. So in that respect, and several others, Stephanie, you are a great writer.

    Side note: I believe you’ve purchased a copy of my collection (if not I’ll send you one). A lot of what I believe about writing “greatness” is just beneath the surface in the story, “The Killer of the Writer.”

    1. Thanks very much for this thoughtful comment, Joe. You are right that “greatness” is a complicated term, and I tried to hint at that with my silly quote from *Twelfth Night*. The “Some achieve greatness” speech is spoken by one of the absurdest, drunkenest characters in Shakespeare. Sir Toby Belch — whom I had the honor of playing in 8th grade (why that play got chosen for 8th grade girls is a bit of a mystery) — is a mischievous clown, who is anything BUT great (unless you include great consumer of booze). I ordered your collection and look forward to reading it, now that I’ve finished with Englander. I will look at that story first. And thank you, of course, for your kind words about me. As someone in grad school put it (rather facetiously), I am “one of the hardest workers.” So are you, and in the end, that’s all one can do. Thanks again. SBH

  3. What does “great” mean? You can be a great singer and mess up a song, be a great doctor and make a fatal mistake. What I believe is I have to write what is the truest to me. I know it feels like a world-wide competition, where he who dies with the most toys or audience wins, but it isn’t.

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