How to Find Out if Your Work is Good
We all start creating out of necessity to understand the world we live in and how we fit into it. Creating a story is very similar in a way to problem solving. As kids, we do what we do not to make a living or become famous, but to put words, images, colors on feelings, questions, fears.
These doubts and questions are not limited to the 21st century. In 1903, young poet Franz Xaver Kappus sent his hopeful work to already then famous poet Rainer-Maria Rilke, asking for feedback.
In his generosity Rilke sent an honest review doubled with precious tips on how to lead a life as an artist. Those letters, 10 in total, became Letters to a Young Poet, a short-read I can’t recommend enough.
At the beginning of the very first letter, Rilke tells Kappus how to know if his work is any good, and what not to do if he ought to write anything worth remembering:
You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that.
You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to your self whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.
This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.
If you don’t know why you do what you do, it will show. In a modern way, this is what Neil Gaiman says with his make good art speech. What is good art? What must be done out of necessity.
If you must do it, then there’s a reason for it to be here. What made me give up on my first feature screenplay was that I was trying to tell a story that would be “cheap and easy” to make as a first feature film. What’s been keeping me on going for the last 3 years with In 5 Years is that I must tell this story.
Of course, there are skills involved that will help make your work better. That’s Ira Glass’ Gap. But what will make your work more than a well-crafted piece, something that lasts and touches the hearts comes from necessity. It might resonate with one or a million other souls, but you will know it’s good because it must be.