Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination

The Burden of Good Taste


I’m constantly captured by other writers’ stories – of course, their literary masterworks, but in this case I’m talking about their personal stories: how they struggled, how they anguished, how they sweated, persisted and survived (or sometimes not) until they managed to squeeze out something from their fingertips and hearts that moves us again and again.

I read these writers’ tales to find comfort in my own struggle, in the constant feeling that, despite my best efforts, yet again I’ve missed the mark. For writing, there is no formula, no rubric that explains for us unequivocally what we’ve done right or wrong. There’s only the subtle sense that, whatever it is, it’s just not quite there.

Ira Glass, host of “This American Life“, has as interesting explanation for this in this video:

It’s “because we have good taste”! As such, we know when what we’ve done is not up to snuff. If we couldn’t tell the difference, we probably wouldn’t sweat or drink or attend years of writers workshops or wake up to jot down notes in the middle of the night. We’d be happy with mediocrity and move on.

Instead we demand of ourselves months and years of revising. We subject ourselves to the opinions of others whom we hope – pray! – are wiser than ourselves. We tear up yet another stack of drastically edited pages and open up the file at Chapter One again. No one is asking us to do it. Very few of us have an anxious editor breathing down our necks. And yet obsession and the intractable vision of perfection spurs us to suffering. Or is it martyrdom? Or joy?

I came across two useful reservoirs of writerly angst, method and madness. First, from NPR.org, What’s The Story? Writers Reveal Why They Write, and second, an online treasure trove of literary greatness, The Paris Review’s entire archive of interviews with some of this century and last’s most influential writers.

Needless to say, I haven’t had a chance to do more than peek into this extraordinary repository. But what I’ve seen displays the wisdom of experience and the depth of thought that must inform all efforts to create something worthwhile. There is no author out there who hasn’t had their share of struggle, self-doubt, and failure, even after monumental success. It is all a journey and all of us are constantly learning and relearning our craft.

As Ray Bradbury succinctly put it, “You fail only if you stop writing.


Author: Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

5 thoughts on “The Burden of Good Taste

  1. LOVED the video! How cool is he to out himself like that? Hilar. Love “This American Life” too.

    Such a powerful message here about persistence. I have a note beside my computer that says “Continue under all circumstances.” Not always easy, but necessary if we are ever to narrow the gap between our taste and our craft.

  2. Judith,

    You are so right about The Paris Review archive! The interviews inspire me and strengthen. I’ve printed a few and I read them when I need inspiration. Since I write humor, I love the SJ Perelman and PG Wodehouse interviews.

  3. Hi, Wayne. Nice to see you here at The Writers Circle. The Paris Review archive really has something for everyone. Even the Times just published an article about it. Check it out: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/23/books/23interview.html

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