In a by-phone interview yesterday, I was asked an interestingly tough question, one that I’d never been asked before. “On a scale of one to ten,” the interviewer asked, “how would you rate yourself as a writer?”

With a truly abashed bow to how immodest I sounded, I answered “Ten.” But, I continued, it was a ten with plenty of conditions.

In advertising, I am on familiar ground, confident in my ability to express the voice of the consumer, quick to understand the strategies that guide me to the right answers, experienced in the different techniques and devices that convey the message. And here comes the “but”—a considerable one:

Ten is a grade that comes with caveats; a constant striving to be better, to work toward the elusive goal that any writing represents, to maintain a passion to learn from those who are more skillful at it than I could ever hope to be.

In other words, I consider myself a ten-with-reservations who works—and works hard—every day to be an eleven.

Like any good question, this one raised more for me than it answered.

The “ten” answer speaks, perhaps, more to a goal than a reality. Do I really consider myself a ten? No. Do have moments of ten-ness? Yes. Am I, as a novelist, as ten-ish as I might be as an advertising writer? I dunno.

Fiction writing, like advertising, requires mastery of a lot of building blocks: plot, character, pacing, conflict, inventive new constructions; the harnessing of unknowables. Unlike advertising, the tasks of fiction are not as finite and well-defined.

And still, the issue is bigger than that.

The writer struggles every day to be as good as her imagination. Like a ballet dancer (an analogy I find myself making constantly to describe the daily reality of writerdom), she practices not necessarily to become good, but to stay that way. Good is the carrot at the end of the stick. The view of the edge of the universe. The magic bullet. The secret of the magic trick. The finish line that never comes. The face of god.

The Truth of Ten is that there is no ten.

And as for the answer I gave in the interview, may I have a do-over, please?

 

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