Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

How Do You Know When Something's Good? (08/15/03)



Featured writer: Susan Starbird



Contributors this month:
Betty Winslow
Christine Falcone
Martha Ley
Pat Tyler
Susan Bono
Susan Starbird


Susan Starbird



How do you know when something is good? How do you know when something is done? In Igolochkoy embroidery and other forms of embellishment, too much is when it's done, and good. In Japanese architecture, spareness is when it's done, and good. In painting, when the mystery finally rises to the Surface, and even the creator is filled with wonder, it's done, and good. In writing, when the perfect balance is achieved between the unspoken and the spoken, it's done, and good. In a cake, when the knife emerges free of crumbs or moist batter, it's done, and good. In a knot, when it cinches down neatly, and seats itself in place, it's done, and good. Goodness is sufficiency, integrity, and simplicity, and when these are present, all is good. Perfection is not required.

Susan Starbird is a Sebastopol, CA writer and marketing consultant. Find out more about her work and her shoes at www.starbirdcreative.com.

Betty Winslow



How do you know when something's good?

When it makes you laugh.

When it makes you cry.

When it makes you wish you'd written it.

When it makes you dig out a pen and your daybook, to record it for the future.

When it changes your life.

Betty Winslow, Bowling Green, OH, writer and reader extraordinaire

How do you know when something is good?

  by Christine Falcone

If it gives me chills, it's good. If it makes me cry, it's good. If a piece of writing jumps off the page and sticks it to me - right here in my gut - chances are it's good.

If the lines of a poem linger in my mind, resonating in the air like long columns of a wind chime, I know it's good - and if not good, at least important for me at that moment in time.

If a story changes my life, makes me think differently about a foreign point of view, if it's not good, at least it's meaningful.

What does 'good' mean anyway? Isn't it just a value judgment? Maybe 'good' has to do with timing. So many works of art - visual, musical, literary - are never understood and recognized as good in the artist's lifetime. Take rock n' roll, for example, or the Expressionist painters. They were considered barbaric, clumsy, even offensive in their day. Elvis was downright scandalous!

So who am I to say anything is good or not? All I can do is recognize a thing's beauty or its truth for me, let it enter me, piercing my soul or my heart in a way that will, from that moment on, leave me changed, make me a different person - better perhaps - open me so that I am larger than I was before.

Christine Falcone is open for change in Novato, CA.

How Do You Know When Something's Good?

  by Martha Ley

My first clue that I'm really onto something is when I read a piece out loud to a friend without seeing his eyes glaze over while stifling a yawn. Often I suck in this high praise, bask in it and ask coyly, "Did you really like it?" The poor listener, of course, has no alternative but to murmur, "Oh yes!"

Sometimes, however, I need to make the important decision of labeling my work "brilliant" or "worthless" all on my own. Perhaps my friends don't answer their telephone, or their email messages tell me they are away in Tahiti for a month or two. If no colleagues are available, I print out my creation, carry it to the dining room table and pour myself a drink-scotch, if I have it; a lowly, but noble beer, if the scotch bottle is empty.

My first reading, I do silently with pen in hand, playing impartial editor. I run back to the computer, make the changes I've marked, print it out, return to the dining room table and, thirsty again, pour myself another drink.

Sipping discretely, I read the piece out loud to my two black cats who laze about in patches of afternoon sun. If I smile broadly, if I laugh, if tears come to my eyes, if I hear myself say, "Wow!" then I know this is good. "It's resonating, it's singing, it's universal," I say modestly to the cats, and I refill my glass.

"One more reading-just to be sure," I admonish myself. This time, I choose to stand up to read. For dramatic effect, I look up from the paper at brief interludes as if I were in Copperfield's, addressing the assembled multitudes. My pets, who are bathing themselves on the Oriental rug, stop for a second and look up at the sound of my raised voice and return to their task. I end with a flourish and sit down, hard, on the chair, almost breathless from the effort of projecting my voice.

At this point, I am surprised to see the scotch bottle is sitting on the table. "How did this get here?" I ask myself. My throat is parched from the reading, so I pour more golden liquid over melting ice in my glass and relax, feeling pleased. It's becoming increasingly clear to me that I've written something that's not only good, it's probably a masterpiece.

Martha Ley manages to be both funny and sober in Santa Rosa, CA.

Pat Tyler



How do you know when writing is good?

I know that writing is good when it evokes a memorable emotion in me.

I don't require that writing evoke an orgasm, but I do require that, at the very least, it will assist me, at some gut level, to remember what one feels like. Now, that's good writing.

Most often such intense emotions are missing, but if a piece of writing forces a fleeting smile to cross my lips, brings a tear to my eye, a chuckle to my gut, or a yearning for some former life or lover, then I have experienced good writing and I can tell myself, "Oh, yeah, I know how that feels; I've been there. I've felt that." Obviously, the author has, too. I'm seldom able to remember or recite a particular passage from a favorite piece, unless I've experienced the emotion it evokes, be it hilarity, terror, frustration, love, anger or utter defeat.

The lines "Stand up. Your father is passing," are lines that would evoke no memorable emotion in any reader taken out of context, but recall the courtroom scene in To Kill A Mockingbird: Atticus Finch, a small-town white attorney, is leaving the courtroom, after valiantly defending-but losing-the case in which he has been selected to defend the alleged black male rapist of a poverty-stricken young white woman in the deep south during the time of the Great Depression.

One particularly memorable scene ends as Atticus fails to win his case. In the balcony overlooking the courtroom, his children, Scout and Jem, in the company of the black citizens of their community, sit behind the balustrade quietly observing their father leaving the room, legally defeated. At that moment their friend, and minister to the black community, tells them, "Stand up. Your father is passing." And these white children stand with the black community to pay tribute to their father, a defeated lawyer, but above all else, an honorable man.

"Stand up. Your father is passing." Simple words, long remembered, and they still cause my eyes to well, whenever I revisit that long-ago book or movie.

The courtroom scene is one of many memorable scenes from To Kill A Mockingbird in which Harper Lee, with plain, straightforward, evocative words and a powerfully memorable voice, evokes laughter, smiles, and tears, while making me yearn for a better world-a world that only I can begin creating. Her writing changes me, it exposes me to a new worldview, it's beyond good. It's better than good. It's the best.

But I am not Harper Lee. And even if I never create the best kind of writing, I will know that mine is good when I read the third or fourth revision into my tape recorder, listen carefully, and tell myself-"Yeah, I know just how that character felt. I've been in that situation. I've felt that same emotion. And my readers will feel it, too."

Pat Tyler lives in Cotati, CA. She is writing an historical novel about salvage divers in turn-of-the-century San Francisco Bay.

Tell me Something Good

  by Susan Bono

I believe it was Emily Dickinson who said she knew she was in the presence of good writing "when I feel as if the top of my head were coming off." Unfortunately, I'm not sure she said anything remotely like that, but it pleases me to think she had such a visceral response to well-crafted words.

In the presence of good writing, I experience an energetic response, too. My scalp stays attached to my head, but I feel as if the writer's words lift right off the page and meet me halfway in a rush that is rather like an embrace. The meeting place between my forehead and the printed page becomes a private room, which is softly lit and lively, and furnished solely by the author's voice. It's a voice I always recognize, even if I've never heard it before.

I often have a similar feeling when I hear good writing being read aloud. The distance between me and the speaker will vary, but about halfway between us, that space opens up and takes me into a burrow, a bubble, a womb.

When my own writing pleases me, I feel lifted on the wings of my voice. I am buoyant and floaty, never aimless. I am a self-directed wind; I am on my way. I believe, then, that my words can create a room for some reader. The door will swing open, perhaps to you.

Susan Bono is looking for lift-off in Petaluma, CA.

Susan Starbird



How do you know when something is good? How do you know when something is done? In Igolochkoy embroidery and other forms of embellishment, too much is when it's done, and good. In Japanese architecture, spareness is when it's done, and good. In painting, when the mystery finally rises to the Surface, and even the creator is filled with wonder, it's done, and good. In writing, when the perfect balance is achieved between the unspoken and the spoken, it's done, and good. In a cake, when the knife emerges free of crumbs or moist batter, it's done, and good. In a knot, when it cinches down neatly, and seats itself in place, it's done, and good. Goodness is sufficiency, integrity, and simplicity, and when these are present, all is good. Perfection is not required.

Susan Starbird is a Sebastopol, CA writer and marketing consultant. Find out more about her work and her shoes at www.starbirdcreative.com.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000ó2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devilís-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so heíd know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. Davidís dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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