It’s been a difficult few years for me and this blog became a casualty. Posts were sporadic, and I ended up posting too many Why? Radio announcements and monologues along the way. The more I thought about PQED, the worse I felt about it. The blog embarrassed me.
A few weeks ago, I started the process of changing web platforms, making the blog easier to read, and deleting filler. This forced me to re-encounter my writing and you know what? It wasn’t so bad. Sure there were things I needed to get rid of, but for the most part, I’m okay with it, and there is even some stuff I’m proud of. The volume alone pleases me. Right now, PQED has close to 200 essays on a disparate range of topics. It is a substantial body of work that I can feel good about; commitment counts.
There are people who think that everything they create is amazing and who fall more in love with their work over time. It should be a surprise to no one that the arts are full of narcissists. Yet, I have never been one of these people. I spend much more time on my writing’s shortcomings than its good qualities, and the longer I let my work sit, the more it undermines my confidence. I inevitably end-up convincing myself that what I’ve done is lame.
Reading PQED after all of this time helped me moderate my fears. It is the closest I have gotten to seeing the blog through someone else’s eyes. I read posts I didn’t remember and gained insights that taught me things I no longer knew. I had even written on topics that I had been wishing I could write about. Time away from it had given me a kind of writers’ amnesia, providing me with the distance that we all need to judge our own work. Moving PQED to WordPress turned out to be an incredible gift.
The thing is, my doubts are human, not idiosyncratic. Anyone in similar situations would ask the same thing. We question our job performance all of the time, not to mention whether we are good parents or if our friends really like us. But as a philosopher, I needed to start with more basic questions: what does it mean for a blog to be good in the first place? By what criteria should I assess my own creative work? Like all of us, I knew where to look to make myself feel bad and what to attend to, to pat myself on the back. But leading with my inclinations wouldn’t help me address my doubts, it would only give me the opportunity to wallow in whatever mood I was in at the moment. It was that very emotional cycle I needed to extricate myself from.
What I needed then was not just a clear and simple assessment of quality, but a balance of evidence that anyone could turn to, to help navigate our complex feelings. We know, for example, that the quality of writing is important to a blog, but not necessarily what good blog writing is. Do we aim for clarity or poetry? Do we mimic the florid prose of the 19th century novelist or the straight-forward narrative of an Atlantic article?
We also know that no matter how good the writing is, if it’s empty, if it contains no true insights, then it has not done its job. But who is the arbiter of these nuggets of wisdom, me or the audience? And, how much weight do I give the numbers that govern the internet? Should I consider the amount of followers, likes, shares, and comments as accurate indications of quality? Being popular is not the same as being good; lots of wonderful things are undiscovered and many people love things that suck. Yet, if we spend all of our time writing for nobody, and if people consistently read one post and never come back for more, surely that tells us something. There is value in my favorite Yiddish proverb of all time, “if three people tell you you’re drunk, go home.”
These questions overwhelmed me more than they helped. They are all blog-specific versions of classic questions in aesthetics, the philosophy of art. What is more important, process or product? Who holds priority, artist or audience? Is skill more important than content? How important is originality? I needed to avoid the rabbit hole that leads to treatises not decision.
What happened as I reread the blog is that I ended up discovering the questions I needed to ask by answering them first. I realized, for example, that my writing had gotten better over time, so I saw value in asking whether the blog taught me things. I also noticed that the blog ended up being identifiably mine, meaning that by the end, a PQED post was very definitely a PQED post. I must have been asking whether the blog had a distinct voice.
I won’t list all of them here, but what follows is a list of questions that I came to, that I believe anyone can use to evaluate a long-term creative project:
- Is there intellectual growth?
- Are your skills getting better?
- Does it lead to someplace unexpected?
- Did it develop and follow its own rules?
- Does it break those rules, occasionally, to expand its own boundaries?
- Is it identifiably yours?
- Does it have a distinct voice?
- Does it inspire conversations around it—are people not just responding to it, but to each other?
- Does it overlap with other projects (yours and others), but is still its own thing?
- Do people seek it out?
- Are you willing to make sacrifices to continue it?
- Does it inspire you to reflect on other projects and other aspects of your life?
- Do you end up talking to others about it?
- Do other people bring it up to you?
- Does it inspire an emotional response?
- Does it make you feel healthy and bring out the best in your audience?
These questions don’t actually ask whether my blog is good, but whether it’s been worthwhile, an important and, I think, often neglected distinction. What made this assessment process meaningful, is that it wasn’t solely backwards-looking, it was concerned with future action. it wasn’t really about whether I had created something worth sharing but whether I was doing something worth continuing. This is a question that all creators face every day of their lives: is it time to move onto something new?
It turns out—and I honestly did not know this when I started writing this blog post—that what I was really asking was whether I should admit that, despite a few good moments, PQED was a failure. I had decided in advance that it was and that’s why it embarrassed me. That’s also, I suspect, one of the many reasons why I stopped putting in the time. I thought I wanted to walk away, sunk costs and all.
I have obviously come to the conclusion that I was wrong. PQED isn’t a failure, it just needed to be pruned. I am confident that, for me, anyway, it is worth revitalizing and that it deserves more of my attention. My insecurities got the better of me. I simply couldn’t see my own work clearly because I was too busy looking negatively at myself and not what I had done. This is understandable, in retrospect. As I began by noting, it’s been a difficult few years.
None of this means, by the way, that it is worth your time to read PQED, of course. You have to decide this for yourself. I hope you will find that it is and that you will return to the blog frequently, but you yourself too have to assess your priorities and desires, and see where PQED fits in to them. This also doesn’t necessarily mean that the blog is good, because I still don’t know what good means. What I think I have concluded is that worthwhile is a necessary but not sufficient condition for goodness, that for something to be good, it has to be worthwhile, but being worthwhile isn’t enough to make it good.
We can now ask, not just what the other criteria for goodness are, but whether it works the other way around. Something has to be worthwhile to be good, but does it have to be good to be worthwhile? Are there worthwhile things that are bad? Should we spend time working on things of no value? I don’t have an answer at the moment, but I am inspired to add one more question to my self-assessment list above: “Does the project lead to further questions?” This, I know. There is significantly more on my agenda now than there was when I started writing this post. What remains unknown is whether you, my readers, will join me as I move forward. I hope you do and I hope you let me know what self-assessment questions you ask yourself. We are in this together. I am not drunk.
Follow the author on Twitter: @jackrweinstein