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Benjamin Kunkel is a New York-based writer, critic, and co-founder of the literary journal n+1. He is the author of the best-selling novel Indecision, the essay collection Utopia or Bust, and the play Buzz. Kunkel’s writing has also appeared in publications including the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and The New Yorker.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned about writing? And how has this helped you as a writer?
Obviously everyone who writes wants to write well. But I’ve learned that it’s best to avoid evaluation of your own work until you’ve finished a draft. This is important for me because, like many writers, I’m liable to experiencing extremes of mood, which come from extremes of evaluation, as I write. You write a paragraph or a scene and pat yourself on the back, thinking “I’m a little bit of a genius, aren’t I?” and then, upon encountering some trouble the next day, or even in the next sentence, you think: “There is something profoundly wrong with me – I have no memory, no intelligence, no ear! Why even try to write when I’m so bad at it?” And bouncing between such extremes is emotionally brutal and, worse, unproductive. Excessive pride tempts you to take a bit of a break, as a reward, and excessive despair tempts you to take the rest of the day off, or the month. And neither feeling is likely to be accurate. You’re not as good as you suspect you are when you’re happiest with yourself, and you’re not as bad as you fear you are when you’re most disgusted with your prose. So I try to postpone evaluation, one way or another, until I’ve finished a draft. In editing yourself, evaluation is necessary, but not before then. I call this a valuable lesson mainly it’s necessary for me to learn it again and again.
—Gabriel Packard is the author of The Painted Ocean: A Novel published by Corsair, an imprint of Little, Brown.