In New York City, we offer offhanded compliments. “I don’t hate it,” we say. “Couldn’t hurt,” we say.

Years have passed; the uber-cool attitudiness persists. In the compliments we offer ourselves.

A two-sentence end to a passage. A revision from “see what’s coming” blatancy to something a little tighter, a little closer-in, a little stylier. As I closed down the work for the night, I found myself speaking the sentences aloud, as I do sometimes to road-test the idea. The to-me-from-me reaction: “That’s not terrible”…a variation on the time-honored New Yorkism “That doesn’t suck.”

Why do we do that?

What is it about us that keeps us an arm’s reach from being comfortable with praise—even the praise we offer ourselves? What makes that discomfort more seemly, more modest? And what makes us feel that anti-praise is so much more richly deserved?

The psychology is too deep to contemplate here. But the markers are easy to understand. Writing is an endless exercise in perfectionism. We do what we do. We do it again. And again. Until the music rises. Passages that sing from the first note are rare. Divine discontent is as necessary to our repertoires as our laptops. The trick, the talent, is not letting the off-key moments throw the work into chaos; to weight us until we sink under the surface of hope.

The same exercise that purifies us is one that can exhaust us. We look into our own faces and spit into our own eyes. Writing is tough enough without such relentless self-criticism. And being on top of that understanding, even for a moment…that doesn’t suck.

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