Looking for Good Writing

How much or how little “natural” ability anyone has is nearly impossible to gauge. When Emily Dickinson composed the lines that filled the pages she kept in her lonely desk, she could not know that her pure apprehension of the language, her immutable style and breathtaking line breaks would forever change the landscape of American poetry. She would never know that her unpublished meditations on life and love, with their bone-chilling observations about the human heart, would touch readers a century later.

I would like to believe that there are brilliant poems and novels tucked away in drawers and closets across the country. I would like to believe that there exist correspondences as rich and revelatory as those between Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo, from Rilke to his wife about Cézanne’s powerful influence, and between Flannery O’Connor and the woman identified only as “A” in O’Connor’s collected letters, The Habit of Being, which provides some of the most astute thoughts on morality and truth that one is likely to find anywhere. I would like to believe that there is writing, which may or may not see the light of day, that possesses genius and that the solitary figure behind its manufacture composed her prose because writing is what came naturally. This is what editors live in the hope of—that one day they will somehow uncover and bring to the world a piece of writing that will change the way we understand or perceive the world. …

Most editors will agree that the work of reviewing manuscripts feels like slow death. We keep reading, and although much of what we read is coherent, very little impresses itself on us. We begin to wonder if our senses have been numbed, if we’re suffering from burnout, if we will ever again read something that makes our hearts quicken and about which we will say, This guy’s the real thing. This one can write.

—Betsy Lerner

Transcribed by me from pages 45–47 of my paperback copy of The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, © 2000, Riverhead Books.


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Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. Stephanie Kane says:

    How terrible that slow death. I wish you heaped blessings and a hug for enduring.

    • jamiechavez says:

      Oh, thanks for those kind thoughts. Fortunately, I love my job! It’s all joy to me. :)