You Are the Judge of Good Writing

William Kenower explains how to own your writing aesthetic: Be your own judge of what constitutes good and bad writing.
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William Kenower explains how to own your writing aesthetic: Be your own judge of what constitutes good and bad writing.

I was 18 in 1983 when the band Huey Lewis and the News released their hit album Sports, which included the song The Heart of Rock and Roll. The music I listened to was very important to me at that time. Along with poetry and fiction, it served as a lifeline when my days felt meaningless and stale. Not just any poem, story, or song could serve as this lifeline, however. The artist had to be able to pluck some string in my heart, and if they couldn’t, their work was just more noise and fodder to me cluttering up a dull world.

Huey Lewis and the News did not pluck that string. Unfortunately, Sports hit number one on the Billboard 200, and the News’s music, particularly The Heart of Rock and Roll, was all over the radio and MTV. To say I didn’t like this song would be generous. When I heard it, I’d dip briefly into an existential malaise. What kind of a world did I live in that this song was so popular? What hope was there to find meaningful connection with my fellow men if they were all listening to Huey Lewis and the Goddamned News? In those days my passions ran very hot and cold.

A decade or so later, I was waiting tables at an upscale steakhouse in Seattle. One evening, I approached a new table of four men in suits. One of them was talking emphatically, so much so that he didn’t look up or pause when I arrived.

“I’m telling you,” he was saying, “it’s just indisputable. I mean, listen to it. Really listen to it. The Heart of Rock and Roll is the kind of song that, well—I just can’t imagine anyone not loving it. I honestly think it’s impossible. In fact, I’d love to meet the person who doesn’t think that’s a great song.”

“Good evening,” I said.

I think of that Huey Lewis and the News fan sometimes when I’m writing. For many years I had the vague sense that there was some agreed upon, measurable notion of what constituted “good writing.” It existed and had to be learned like so many other things that had to be learned—the rules to chess, how to bake bread, the difference between 4/4 and 6/8 time. All these other rules and disciplines were conceived and perfected long before I showed up. So too, I thought, with Good Writing.

So, while I wrote, I tried to hit that elusive Good Writing target. Some days, I felt like I’d done it, I’d hit the bull's-eye drawn by some unnamed writing authority, an amalgamation of Strunk & White, Ernest Hemingway, and a committee of New York agents and editors. I knew when I’d hit it because I felt that same string in my heart vibrating. I felt like a success, and that I had pleased the Writing Authorities.

Other days, I did not hit the target, and I felt like a failure. I was ashamed. The string did not vibrate, and the Authorities would be most unhappy. I became increasingly frustrated with this experience. I wanted to be a professional, and a professional, it seemed to me, should be able to hit that target with greater regularity, he ought to be in control. I felt as though I was stuck in perpetual amateurship, forever learning something others had managed to master.

In truth, what I perceived as my struggle to achieve consistent, professional caliber writing was very much like that Huey Lewis fan’s love for TheHeart of Rock and Roll. When you love something very much, when a work of moves you or gets you dancing or inspires you, it can feel as though something has happened to you, that just as the sun warms you when you’re cold, so too a song or poem or story jolts you back to life when you have fallen into the dream of dullness and despair. You were a happy recipient of Great Art’s inarguable power, as the earth is the daily recipient of the sun’s warmth.

Love, however, always flows from the inside-out. The patron in the restaurant, like a lot of us, didn’t understand his role in the experience of listening to his favorite music. That song didn’t do something to him; instead, he recognized something he perhaps did not even know he was seeking. His recognition plucked his own heartstring, and its vibration told him: That’s it. That’s what you’re looking for.

Which is exactly how you find the right word in a sentence. The target I was trying to hit at my desk was not drawn by any writing authority. It was my personal, specific aesthetic, as personal as the songs I loved and didn’t love. As soon I owned that, as soon as I accepted that I was the only one I was trying to please, writing became much easier. I was no longer like an Olympic skater performing alone on a rink for invisible judges. Instead, I was a traveler, guided forward from story to story by the song of his own heart.

Own your aesthetic. You’ve been building one consciously and unconsciously for as long as you’ve been reading and writing. Every time a sentence lights up for you, every time you put a book down in boredom, every time you find yourself lingering over a word choice, you’re cultivating your own idea of good writing. Don’t believe in the authorities; don’t wait for the judges’ scores. Write toward what you love, toward what excites you, toward what gets your dancing even, and you’ll always be on target.

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