I once read in some liner notes on a record jacket—yes, that dates me; it was an LP—saying Johannes Brahms was never sure of the quality of his musical compositions and was in the habit of carrying them around in manuscript to fellow composers asking their opinion of, say, his Op. 45/Ein deutsches Requiem. “Is this any good?” he’d anxiously inquire. That sounds ridiculous today, when his German Requiem is recognized as a masterwork. But I like the story because it speaks to my own uncertainties as a writer.
Typically writers don’t admit to having doubts about their art. We’re supposed to be confident. It’s even OK to be openly proud or even arrogant, especially if we’ve produced a boatload of best-sellers to justify our high opinions of ourselves. But I think most folks who know me will tell you I’m often doubtful about my writing. Why is that? I’ve been published; my books have earned favorable notice and even won some prizes. And best of all, I’ve kept a small but enthusiastic readership. I ought to be content. And confident.
But I’m not. So I thought I’d use this blog to air my doubts in public, not just to help me clarify my own opinion of my work but, more importantly, to let aspiring writers out there know that a five-times-published author can nurse dark misgivings about his work just as they sometimes do.
I think the largest reason for my uncertainty is my deficient literary education. The fact is, I didn’t study literature. History was my major. Elsewhere in this website you’ll find ruminations on my love of history and my long-held desire to write historical fiction. So I came to fiction-writing not by way of literature but by way of history.
That’s not to say I didn’t read any literary fiction. I did. But I read selectively. As a result, there are enormous and embarrassing gaps in my knowledge of high literature. And as is often the case when one is ignorant about something, I’m defensive about my shortcoming. I’m a reverse snob—I tend to act badly if I’m exposed to a literary intellectual or told I should read the latest New York Times Notable Book. Because the truth is, I feel inferior. All too often when someone asks me, “Have you read (insert here the title of the latest book by Colm Toibin or Wendell Berry)?” my answer is a sullen and maybe even belligerent, “No.”
As a result, when in the company of literary figures who are friends of mine but also happen to be giants of serious writing, I feel like plankton at a whale convention. I never dreamed a few years ago I’d be keeping company with the likes of Fred Chappell, Kay Byer, Isabel Zuber, Ron Rash, or John Ehle. Or with less-famed but equally formidable writing talents such as Seabrook Wilkinson and Marlin Barton. Or with the distinguished publisher of my last book, Deric Beil of Savannah. But I do. And all these gifted people and more have been generous enough to count me as one of their own, to rank my work as a worthy part of the literary canon. I suppose they’ve done for me what Brahms’s friends did for him. In one way or another they’ve said, “Yes, Johannes, this work is good.”
I know these writers to be honorable persons who wouldn’t stretch the truth simply to make me feel good. Their dedication to art is too great to allow that sort of compromise. So, as hard as it is for me to do, I have to believe what they say. I suppose Brahms must’ve believed his friends too when they told him the same thing, or he wouldn’t have gone on to perform his music.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting I’m a counterpart of Brahms in the world of letters. But if others believe in me, shouldn’t I be able to believe in myself? I’m going to try that. Those of you out there in the blogosphere who want to be novelists but too often take counsel of your fears, pay heed. You can doubt yourself and still do the work—good work too. Maybe it’s even true that doubt—or maybe humility’s a better word—can make you a truer and more honest writer.