On expectations

Quality is subjective, especially when referring to a creative product. What is good to me may not be good for you. You may really enjoy Will Self’s new novel, while I find it too difficult to fully get into. I don’t fully understand visual art. You might.

When it comes to creativity, how do we gauge quality? What do we measure things against? Should I be comparing every novel I read to East of Eden? Or should I lower my expectations, placing these novels side by side with an average potboiler?

The subjective nature of quality – of creativity and of brilliance – comes to mind whenever I begin working on a project, especially one that becomes personal. I write, and I review, and, most of the time, I find I don’t care for it. I show it to others, and most find no fault in it. But I’m always sitting on the edge, mulling over an odd turn of phrase, seriously considering scrapping the entire project and starting over with another idea that (of course) I’ll probably end up not caring for. It’s a vicious circle.

Is the problem that the general public has lowered their expectations enough that an average piece of moderately worded work becomes something special? Or is it that I’ve raised my expectations to an unreachable level. Am I comparing myself to my peers? Or am I comparing myself to John Updike, Saul Bellows, or Ian McEwan?

What is more damaging – expectations that are too high or expectations that are too low? And whom do you turn to for advice when your biggest critic – that insatiable, unloving critic that you can never please – is yourself?

I’ve been slowly constructing a short story – one of an unknown length and, as of now, of unknown theme. I stop and start. I know what I want to say, but when I try to type it out, it’s jumbled. I don’t have a style yet. I’m trying to build one from scratch, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s not working.

I have two paths. I could slam something out of average value, just for the experience, and force myself to be happy with it. In other words, I could lower my expectations. Or, I could continue to beat myself around the cranial area, attempting to write the next great work of short story fiction.

On one hand, believing in low expectations develops a culture of mediocrity. Everything is attainable, often with little work involved. Projects are created and finished in little time. Quality doesn’t matter. Productivity goes up, creativity goes down.

On the other hand, pushing for expectations that are too high tends to lead to frustration and stress. If a person expects everything to be perfect, it’s going to take a much longer time to complete menial projects. Deadlines become less flexible, and revisions take longer. Nothing ever seems to work out correctly. Nothing works out perfectly.

This is the fracas I’ve jumped into – the fight between getting it done – expecting the pedestrian, happy enough with simply finishing the project – and doing it perfectly. It’s the difference between having my mother say “that’s nice” and having New Yorker magazine say “we’ll pay you for it.”

How does a writer deal with this kind of thing? Is there a culture we’re missing out on? Is there some unwritten set of rules that, when followed, let’s us ignore the critics and the self-doubt and sends us wallowing through a pool of positive thought and self-determination?

Expectations are healthy, and keeping them high leads to bigger success. This I know. It’s just that it’s so hard to keep looking up when you’re not yet confident enough to ignore your feet.

This was lovingly handwritten on February 9th, 2007