A few weeks ago, I went to see Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and as soon as I got home, I shot an email to my writer’s group asking that we go see it together. This is a great movie, not just for Woody Allen fans, but also for writers. It’s an artists’ smorgasbord, wherein the main character, played by Owen Wilson, is an aspiring writer who goes back in time — 1920s in Paris — and finds himself partying and socializing with literary greats like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, to name just a few.
In one part of the movie, the main character finds himself sitting opposite Ernest Hemingway who talks to him about writing that is “good and true.” And when he asks Hemingway if he would read his book and comment on it, Hemingway says, “No.” Not because he’s cocky and uninterested, but because he has a philosophy on writers that makes great sense. If anyone knows anything about Hemingway, it’s that during his years as a burgeoning writer, he had all his friends, including his wives, read his work. His most entrusted reader — before he alienated her — was Gertrude Stein — and it is she who ends up reading the protagonist’s manuscript and advises him to continue with what he is doing. Getting the OK from Stein is an enormous feat.
But back to Hemingway. On the subject of having other writers read your work, he says that writers are too competitive and that you will not get an honest answer out of them. You can’t trust them. He follows his “no” response to Wilson’s character with this pithy explanation:
If it’s bad I’ll hate it; if it’s good I’ll hate it because it’s good.
Now who can argue with that?
Twice a month, I take my work to my writers’ group and have it critiqued by aspiring writers just like me. I’d like to get a good one thesis paper, but I trust them. Trusting them to give me their honest opinion of my work is not the problem at all — but this may be because none of us is published yet. We are still very much in the humble place of wanting to know that our work is “good and true” and publishable. There are no egos getting in the way of honest reviews.
The problem is the subjective points of view, which isn’t really a problem as much as it is a personal preference. For example, a new writer in our group read a lovely piece that she wrote, but half the group thought she should simplify her language (make it more Hemingway-ish, I suppose), while the remaining half loved the language and the complexity of her images. With such mixed reviews, who do you listen to?
In the end, every writer comes from a different place — a place of inspiration, level of writing, and even educational background. Our experiences as people define our writing and the messages we weave into our work. We trust other writers because we must — just like Hemingway trusted Gertrude Stein, Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and all the other writers who read his work and helped him get published. We need to hear that we are on the right track, that we are good, that we are not alone in our endeavors as writers. We need the connection to other writers — even if their writing is about vampires and aliens and even if their writing is completely different from our own.
Will there be competition? Yes. Will there be jealousy when one gets published and another doesn’t? Yes. But competition is good among teammates. It is the necessary path towards accomplishment — and yes, even publication. We are all competitive by nature, not by specialty. Writers are no more competitive than tennis players or UFC cage fighters. In the end, we all stand in the center of the court or the cage and we shake hands for a well-played and challenging fight.
Be competitive, be challenged by the competitiveness of others, and keep competing. Whatever you do, stay in the game.