The Lack of a Writing Calculus

I stood there, waiting, agonizing, worrying.  But he would not be rushed.  He would not speed-read through the story to satisfy my doubts and give me the answer he knew I wanted.

I couldn’t stand in place, so I started to pace his office, going round and round in front of his desk.  He had to like the story.  He had to.  Dr. Sutherland was my academic advisor, had been my professor in three classes over the past two years, and knew how much I wanted to be a writer.  When I’d asked him if he’d read a five-page story I’d recently completed, he agreed.  I appreciated his willingness to read something that had nothing to do with the syllabus or the program.  He was doing me a big favor.  But now, with me wearing out the beige carpet in his small corner office, perhaps he regretted his decision.

Finally, he flipped over the last page of the story and placed it, face-up, on his desk, strewn with ungraded essays, a half-eaten ham sandwich, and a mug of cold black coffee.


I stopped pacing, waited for him to tell me what he thought.  Outside his door, all was quiet in the hall.  It was late afternoon on a chilly western New York November day, the trees beyond his window going bare for the coming winter.


I could stand it no longer.  I coughed.  “Well?  Do you think it’s any good?”

He smiled, sat back in his swivel chair, put his hands behind his head.  He even glanced out the window for good measure.

“You know,” he said, “writing’s a funny thing, Mike.  A funny thing . . .”

I waited for him to continue.  He didn’t.  Was he trying to torture me?  Of course, I knew his idiosyncrasies and his mannerisms well.  I’d seen them on display in the classroom many times, and, generally, I liked them.  But not here.  Not now.  My heart rate increased, and I just looked at him.  I was a junior in college, but at that moment, I felt eight years old, a child seeking the approval of a respected and admired uncle.


“I remember when I was your age,” he said.  There was a knowing look in his eyes.  “Long time ago . . . I wanted to be a writer.  Poet, really.  I’d write poems about nature, love, hate, war, peace–you name it.  I tried it all, experimented with form and language.  Sent some of my work off to journals.  Made my own chapbook.  And yeah, I’d share my poems with others, ask them what you asked me just now.  ‘Is it any good?’  ‘Do you like it?'”  He smiled again.  “Well.  In my case, I guess the answer was clear enough.  I’m here now, right?”  He spread his arms, looked around his office.  “I’m not out on Walden Pond writing prize-winning verse.  But then–maybe the answer wasn’t clear.  Not really.  I stopped submitting after just a few rejections, told myself I had no future in it.  I got my PhD, and here I am, teaching writing.  It’s the path I chose, that’s all.”


I nodded.  I appreciated the disclosure, but what was he saying?  Where was he going with this?  Was he trying to tell me, in a roundabout, oblique manner, that I wasn’t any good as a writer?

“Writing’s not like physics,” he said.  “There’s no writing calculus, Mike.  There are no formulas.  It’s not two plus two equals four.  It’s an art.  It’s not a science.  There is no piece of writing, in the history of the world, that is universally admired as perfect, or even great.  Shakespeare has his critics.  Hemingway.  Show me a perfect novel.  To Kill a Mockingbird?  Maybe.  I’d sign off on that one.  But I know colleagues–respected colleagues–who dismiss it as overrated.”


He paused, as I reflected on his words.  Through the window, behind him, I saw a flock of geese, flying low, their honking audible even through the glass and the walls.  Flying south for the winter–if not today, then tomorrow or next week.  I felt a shiver, thinking of the long, unending stretch of cold that lay ahead, the gray months of snow and frost and winds whipping in off the lake.


“Look,” Dr. Sutherland said, sitting upright in his chair now.  “My opinion of your story doesn’t mean very much.  Your opinion does.  Is this your best work?  Have you edited it two times over?  Three?  Four?  Have you chopped every extraneous word?  Did you write the story from a personal place?  Does it matter to you?  Those are the things that count.  Everything else is just an opinion.  Personal taste.  Some people like Faulker.  Others prefer Fitzgerald.  There’s not one right answer.”


He shook his head.  “That’s the beauty, and the torment, of creative writing.”


I like to think I’ve matured as a writer since my junior year in college.  I like to believe I’m not as reliant on the approval of others, not as much of a worrier over the work I produce.  But, truth be told, I often still struggle with the same things.  Sometimes when I write a blog post, or finish a new short story or chapter in a novel, I ask myself, “Yeah, but is it any good?  Does it work?  Will anyone really get it, or have I failed to bring out the drama, the themes, the motivations, and the meaning?  Is it flat?  Does it just sit there, lifeless, on the page?”


It’s something Marc Kuslanski would rail against.  Marc always seeks the right answer, the factual solution to the problem.  Without a formula in place to “prove” that a piece of writing is first-rate, that a scene works, that a character resonates, Marc would quickly grow frustrated.


I think, at times, all writers have a little Marc Kuslanski in them.  I know I do.  When writing a particular scene is akin to having a dental hygienist scrape the plaque from my teeth, when the words seem stuck and unwilling to come out, when the characters perform their own version of the literary silent treatment, I find myself wishing for a true, definable, and irrefutable writing calculus.


In moments like this, when I can’t seem to overcome the inevitable insecurities and doubts of the writing trade, I  take a step back, force myself to remember the conversation I had with my academic advisor on that late fall day in the 1990s, as the twentieth century took its last, dying gasps before giving way to a new millennium.  I remember his words, his advice, and I try my best to apply them.


As I turned to leave his office, Dr. Sutherland held up his hand.

“I wanted to thank you for sharing your story with me, Mike,” he said.  “I know–believe me, I do–that it’s not easy.”

I didn’t know if he was finished, so I stood there a moment longer.

“Keep at it,” he said.  “Don’t give up.  Keep writing.”

“Thanks,” I said.  I smiled.  There was nothing else he might have said that would have meant as much.

Walking out into the fading November afternoon, the sun already sinking low to the west, I felt as though I were walking on air.


Thanks so much for reading!


58 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. rosiebooks2009
    Oct 17, 2015 @ 19:34:57

    I liked this, and I think Dr Sutherland is right. You can only use your instincts, that’s all you have. And sometimes you can spoil a piece by over-correcting it. It’s more important to make it match up with what you feel – like seeing the statue inside the block of stone.


  2. peaceof8
    Oct 17, 2015 @ 19:40:33

    Love this! Thank you


  3. mcwoman
    Oct 17, 2015 @ 20:17:34

    When I was in college in a creative writing class, the most disheartening comment I got from my professor was: “Very well written, Barbara, but your story begins on page 23.” It’s part of the process Mike. That’s why we writers keep at it.


  4. John W. Howell
    Oct 17, 2015 @ 20:20:29

    Enjoyed this. “keep at it.” was a nice thing to say as a professor.


  5. Nightwriter11
    Oct 17, 2015 @ 20:40:01

    Another great post.


  6. europasicewolf
    Oct 17, 2015 @ 21:39:04

    I’m so glad you kept at it! Your professor was very wise. I think it’s very true – it’s what we think of own work that is perhaps most important rather than what others think – though that’s pretty important too! Especially if you’re planning to aim for publishing. But I do find that even if I get an absolutely fantastic number of likes here on W/P for example (and that’s a rarity! lol) and those that read the work in question genuinely love it, if I’m not 100% thrilled with my effort and it doesn’t have that extra something for me it just isn’t good enough. I guess there’s no winning with some of us! 😉


  7. Sonya Solomonovich
    Oct 17, 2015 @ 22:05:17

    What an amazing prof! Every writer should have a mentor like him. I was not always so lucky, as the first writer in residence I ever consulted told me that my vocabulary was too 19th century and my writing was derivative of Hollywood’s cliches. I guess he thought he had writing calculus all figured out.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Oct 19, 2015 @ 18:27:48

      I’m glad you stuck with it, Sonya! It’s always hard overcoming criticism like that, that is off base and given without thought or tact. I’ve had my share of criticism like that, too, over the years. I suppose the # 1 thing a writer needs, in many ways, is the ability to believe in him- or herself regardless of feedback. Not always easy!


  8. Lyn
    Oct 17, 2015 @ 22:33:51

    Another great post, Mike 🙂 After reading the comments by others it was easy to see resonate with all your readers. After six years (or is it seven?) of working on my first MS, I’m on the final, final edit. I’m really happy with it…until I reached chapter 22. It just doesn’t do it for me. To quote from your post…, Is it flat? Does it just sit there, lifeless, on the page? And I have to answer “yes.” Everything else – before, after, over, under, I’m happy with. This bit – which is important – is just… grrr. That’s why we keep on keeping on.


  9. Carrie Rubin
    Oct 17, 2015 @ 23:29:32

    Glad he gave you words of encouragement. Sometimes one negative comment can send us into self-doubt and make us want to throw in the towel. Luckily, the more confident we become with our own work, the easier it is to shake those comments off. But I’m not sure we ever reach a point where they bounce right off us.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Oct 19, 2015 @ 18:31:28

      That’s a great point, Carrie, and you’re right–I don’t think we ever do get to the point where negative feedback bounces off of us. It’s really an act of courage to put your work “out there.” I know, for me, every time I do, no matter how many previous times I’ve done it, there are still a few butterflies. I suppose, in a way, that’s a good thing . . .


  10. jjspina
    Oct 18, 2015 @ 00:24:25

    I agree, keep on writing, Mike! You have a wonderful talent with words!


  11. Rosaliene Bacchus
    Oct 18, 2015 @ 00:58:14

    Sometimes when I write a blog post, or finish a new short story or chapter in a novel, I ask myself, “Yeah, but is it any good? Does it work? Will anyone really get it, or have I failed to bring out the drama, the themes, the motivations, and the meaning? Is it flat? Does it just sit there, lifeless, on the page?”
    ~ I know the feeling, Mike. I suffer the same self doubt every time I submit a chapter of my novel-in-progress to my writers critique group.
    ~ Excellent post. It came from the heart.


  12. jacquelineobyikocha
    Oct 18, 2015 @ 01:10:03

    I totally enjoyed reading this 😊


  13. aliceandembo
    Oct 18, 2015 @ 06:15:14

    This is what great stories look like…real and so grounded. You do have it in you to be a great writer because you already are. 🙂 Thanks for this share!


  14. blondieaka
    Oct 18, 2015 @ 07:52:31

    I like sounds like we all hve these moments of doubt and maybe we should because that’s where on occassion a great story is born 🙂


  15. lifeconfusions
    Oct 18, 2015 @ 07:59:37

    Loved how beautifully you ended this marvelous post 🙂


  16. Karina Pinella
    Oct 18, 2015 @ 16:51:21

    We are human and to some degree, we have feelings of insecurity, especially when we share our creation. Such act makes us feel vulnerable. The fact that we share is generous. We put in the time and energy for the love of. Let that be the motivation to keep you going. Your passion and pleasure will shine through and it’s that spirit that will captivate.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Oct 19, 2015 @ 18:37:25

      Beautifully said, Karina, and really right to the heart of what motivates us to write and create. I couldn’t agree more. The #1 thing always for a writer or artist is to create something for the love of it . . .


  17. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel
    Oct 18, 2015 @ 18:31:33

    Hey, Mike… Never give up. *Wink* I mean it. Inspiring post. Thank you and Dr. Sutherland.


  18. Jilanne Hoffmann
    Oct 18, 2015 @ 18:38:26

    I wish I’d had that courage (and that wisdom from a professor) in college. Instead, I pursued a career in engineering. It wasn’t until much later that I decided to pursue the writing path. It’s a tough one and very subjective, as your professor noted. Even those who are considered “masters” or “prize winners” are not enjoyed by many readers. So subjective. Great post, Mike!


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Oct 19, 2015 @ 18:40:25

      Thanks so much, Jilanne! And it is that subjectivity that always keeps writers insecure to some degree.:) I guess all we can do is write from the heart, put forth our best efforts, and then share our work. Easier said than done, though, and those insecurities never fully go away, I don’t think . . .


  19. Sheryl Wright Stinchcum
    Oct 19, 2015 @ 08:02:28

    Michael, you’re awesome! I love how you describe your professor and build up suspense. In the end, he nailed it: Faulkner or Fitzgerald. Personal taste. I wish I had more time to read your stories. I’m always taken aback by your energy, style, and creativity. 🙂


  20. teagan geneviene
    Oct 19, 2015 @ 11:21:38

    I felt like I was right there in your professor’s office — as though the person pacing the carpet was me. I’m glad you kept writing, Mike. Hugs.


  21. Sherri
    Oct 20, 2015 @ 09:41:02

    Keep writing Mike, keep writing. And so glad you did and are! Wonderful piece 🙂


  22. imaginenewdesigns12
    Oct 23, 2015 @ 05:12:10

    Thank you for liking “Fountain” and for following my blog. Nice post! You kept me in suspense until the very end. 🙂 When I was younger, I took English writing classes that stressed the importance of considering your audience when you write, but over the years I have learned that it is okay if your writing does not please everyone. And why endure the discouraging pitfalls and hardships of writing if you do not receive some personal satisfaction from your work? Your professor gave you some great advice. 🙂


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Oct 24, 2015 @ 01:06:07

      Thanks so much! Great comments! It’s true, isn’t it? Paradoxically, the best way to please others with your writing is to write for yourself . . . I’m glad we’ve connected!


      • imaginenewdesigns12
        Oct 25, 2015 @ 02:37:39

        You are welcome and thank you. 🙂

        Yes, paradoxical is a good way to describe the exchange between an author and his or her audience. Although creative writers may write about something personal, their individual experiences can tap into common experiences that have universal appeal. 🙂

        Yes, I am glad that we have connected too! I hope you enjoy the rest of your weekend. 🙂

      • imaginenewdesigns12
        Oct 26, 2015 @ 07:42:52

        And thank you for liking “Creepy Towers” and my “About” page. I appreciate your interest in my blog. 🙂

      • The Eye-Dancers
        Oct 27, 2015 @ 18:52:13


  23. Carol Balawyder
    Oct 28, 2015 @ 01:20:19

    This is a really nice post…Very inspiring and I like your writing style. It’s authentic and real. 🙂


  24. Stephanae V. McCoy
    Oct 30, 2015 @ 18:26:24

    You never disappoint and hearing you share your doubts is encouraging. Sometimes we just can’t get out of our own heads. Very enjoyable read. Thx


  25. isabelburt
    Nov 22, 2015 @ 15:59:23

    Yes I agree with Rosaleine – straight from the heart. Lovely post. Thank you for waking me up – I had begun to blog nod off!


  26. authorkellymiles
    Dec 31, 2015 @ 19:58:34

    This is wonderful. I love your writing style. I’m only a few years into writing myself, but I sympathize. I think all writers go through this, waiting on pins and needles for that approval of greatness. My hats off to you for a job well done! My last book went through grueling edits before I was “satisfied” & now that’s it’s been released, I still find things I wish I would’ve changed. I think the process would be never-ending if we didn’t draw the line somewhere.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Dec 31, 2015 @ 20:04:17

      Thanks so much! Much appreciated.:) You’re so right, too–isn’t that always the way it is?:) Anytime we look back at our work, even finished novels and stories, we tend to see things we might have done differently. I guess all we can do is do our best and then, as you say, we have to be able to draw the line somewhere.:) Thanks for sharing, and I’m glad we’ve connected!


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