By Margaret Lucke
What's the best thing I've ever written?
Posing a question like that to an author is like asking a mom to choose her most loved child. No one benefits when you play favorites, and the answer is likely to change from day to day, depending on the behavior of the offspring in question. Who's being naughty today, and who's being nice?
If I get an email from a reader praising a book of mine, that becomes my favorite, at least for as long as the glow lasts. Hey, that one might be my best! But that bubble bursts when it's pricked by even a slight reservation in an otherwise positive review.
It's possible that writers are not the best judges of the best things we've ever written. It's hard even to know what the criteria for that judgment should be? Beautiful prose? A compelling theme? A page-turner of a plot? The amount of fire we felt during the writing process, the ratio of drudgery to passion?
A few years ago I wrote a short story that I really liked. I submitted it to a market or two, but to no avail. I blamed its length, close to 8,000 words. For a long time it languished on my hard drive, but my thoughts kept returning to it. Bits of it stuck in my mind -- a few beautiful sentences, some intriguing characters, a couple of strong and moving scenes. I kept thinking it might be one of the best things I'd written.
Recently I decided I should send the story out again, give it another chance. So I pulled it out and reread it. All of the good things I remembered were still there -- but so were some flat stretches where I told rather than showed, some conflicts and plot issues that went undeveloped and unresolved. I realized that for this story, even 8,000 words weren't enough to tell it properly. I'm in the process of expanding it into a novella, maybe even a novel. When I'm finished -- when I've given the characters the room they need to become real people, and when I've explored their situation fully and deeply -- then perhaps it will really be the best thing I've ever written.
That hope gives me something to cling to as I write -- not just this story but whatever tale I might be writing at the moment. In my post two weeks ago, I described how I'm often afraid that my current work in progress must the worst thing I ever wrote. But the opposite is also true. There is the possibility that this will be my masterpiece. In that tension between fear and hope, the fear might win in the moment, but over the long run the hope almost always prevails. And that is what keeps me writing.