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Alchemy of Thought

“We must always look at things
from the point of view of eternity.”
- “Velocity,” Billy Collins, Nine Horses, 2002

I am always struggling with the measure of what is good writing. One yardstick is public success: marquee agents, mega book deals, chart shaking sales. Another measure as simple as a satisfied sigh pushing away from the writing desk. Like all art in fluid form, good writing is both the shape of expression and subjective reaction. I have no clear perspective on when writing that I feel is worthy will be perceived by others as equally so. It’s a conundrum, in that the measure of good craft should be consistent, and usually is, but craft is also frequently the least important criteria in the measure of a book’s impact. Excellence may be unrelated to public or market success. What is successful is not solely anchored to talent but may be more often linked to concept and marketability, to timing, to mass appeal.

When a writer sits at his or her desk and begins to work that alchemy of thought and imagery, etching language to paper, how is the writer to know if the ideal has been achieved? When do we know the writing is good?

I have come to this conclusion: When the writing stands for itself - strongly, and without apology or uncertainty. It does not matter how the page or novel is sold, publicized, packaged or touted. Good writing is undeniable. Good writing makes people listen. A writer can feel in his or her gut when something is really good. The word sizzles on the desk, burns holes in the slant of afternoon light, the space above the lamp buzzes with electric thought. Although gut instinct does not always translate into a novel that makes the bestseller lists, this brave, private act of creation in and of itself makes a writer successful. We bless the word, fiercely.
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