Tag Archives: David L. Ulin

Writing Wednesday: Is Greatness Sabotaging Your Writing?

18 Dec
For better or worse, I don’t recognize a lot of critics’ names. David L. Ulin is an exception. Book critic for The Los Angeles Times, Ulin writes reviews that do so much more than summarize or sweep up a book in a blanket statement. His reviews critique on a higher intellectual plane.
Of course, it helped that he articulated so much of what I felt when I’d read Bruce Bawer’s attack in the New Criterion on Jack Kerouac being included in the Library of America. That’s not to say he unscrupulously defended Kerouac’s poetry—he admitted the Kerouac poem Bawer quoted is “negligible”—but he called Bawer out on spending more time focusing on the so-called Beat label and the people associated with it than on digging into Kerouac’s individual style and innovations.
But I digress.
Ulin has an essay entitled “My First Book(s)”  in the Paris Review Daily that first-time and struggling writers should read. With humorous (not silly—witty) self-deprecation, he writes about what provoked him to write (jealousy, opportunity) and how he got so bogged down in ideas that he incapacitated his body of work. Perhaps my favorite line from the essay:
I was twenty that summer, turning twenty-one in August, and I felt a growing pressure to be (how do I put this without reservation or irony?) great.
That parenthetical itself says so much about not only writing but the human condition. Guarding ourselves through cleverness we can become inauthentic. Sometimes the more we strive to be “great,” the more we lose our true vision and voice. We lose our stories. We lose ourselves.
He writes:
But here’s what is important: I sabotaged my own book. I did this in two ways, first by overthinking and then by overtalking, by telling everyone I knew everything about the work.
Replete with quotes from renowned authors, “My First Book(s)” explores the expectations an author puts of himself, some of which are naïve (“I had gathered so much material—so much unused material—that I’d had the fantasy the book would write itself…”) and some of which are nearly impossible to live up to (“I wanted to write not just a novel but a landmark novel…”).
Ulin’s essay is a refreshing read for all of us who get overwhelmed by our own “big” ideas. It’s also a gentle reminder that all writing—including our unpublished writing—is worthwhile because it teaches us about the process and improves our skills.
In the same link roundup in which they mentioned Ulin’s essay, Poets & Writers linked to a blog post by Percy Jackson author Rick Riordan that also spoke to the slippery idea of greatness:
One thing I’ve discovered. People who believe they are awesome and wonderful at their profession are often . . . not. People who have more self-doubt, who question themselves and are always examining what they did wrong and how they might do better – those folks are often better than they think they are, and they are much more likely to improve. It’s a difficult balance, between self-confidence and self-reflection. No wonder writers are a little barmy. But it is an important balance to strike.
Riordan continues:
Writing is hard. Not everyone can do it. It requires a combination of innate talent and lots and lots of practice and endurance. It also requires the right story, and publishing that story at the right time.
Though they have dissimilar writing styles, Riordan and Ulin both suggest that writing requires humility and stamina.

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Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

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