What Makes Art Good?
Updated: Jul 31, 2018
As a kid, I think you're fairly oblivious to good and bad until an adult steps in and tells you that what you've done falls into one of the two categories
I remember writing a whole 80-page novel at eight years old. It was a breeze. I never asked if it was good. But adults told me it was.
At that age, it obviously wasn't prize-winning literature. The adults were saying it was good for my age, good that I had done such an ambitious thing.
Did I write it so I could create something good? Did I write it so adults would say it was good? No way. I didn't give a flying F what anyone thought. Things were much simpler then. I wrote it because I had an idea, a story to tell. That was all.
When I was nine, I wrote in a personal essay, "If I stop writing, I'll be dead." I went on to explain how I felt like I was one of the characters in the story, and I had to keep going or I would die. I found that essay when I was 27, and it resonated so deeply that I had the words tattooed on my right wrist.
So back then, I wrote because I had to. I wrote because I had a story to get out and because it kept me alive.
These days, I find my writing dies the minute I start asking if it's good—in particular, when I start asking if someone else will think it's good. Will my blog readers think it's good? Will The Writer Magazine think it's good? Will my partner think it's good?
I want to channel the eight-year-old girl who didn't care. I want to step inside her and grab hold of the pen and go.
Sometimes, I'm there. I'm in that other state where all that matters is the writing itself and opinions are irrelevant, nonexistent. Opinions are something in another dimension, one beneath the one where I'm flying high with pen flowing.
Because I'll admit something now, something you're not supposed to admit in erudite creative circles. When I do write what I feel, whatever story I need to get out of my chest, I never think my writing is bad. How can I think it's bad when it felt so damn good?
So I decided to reconsider the definition of good. Is a piece of art good because lots of people agree that it is good, or is a piece of art good because it felt damn good to make it?
Put another way, is the greatest goodness to be found in the legend we leave behind, or is it in the experience we have in the present moment?
As a growing practitioner of presence—thanks to my favorite book of all time, The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle—I believe the latter.
It's more important to enjoy the present moment and to feel good while writing (or doing whatever it is you love to do) than it is to leave some legacy where lots of people laud your efforts.
I write all this, I confess, after a string of rejections or non-responses from editors, where no one has been lauding my efforts. I write all this, perhaps, to convince myself that it's okay.
Or, maybe, I write all this for a far simpler reason, with the spirit of that eight-year-old Erin who never needed any reason at all.
A plant needs no reason to soak in the sun. It does it because this is what keeps it alive. And that is why I write. Not to be good, but to be alive.