Monday, October 29, 2012

A Writer's Creed: Good, Better, Best



As a teacher, I often talk about the idea of gradual progression. That is, improving your skill one small, measured step at a time. I talk at length about taking your starting point, your baseline, and building a level (or a layer) to that baseline. But, I tell them, the important part is to realize each layer comes over time. It doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, I start every school year by talking about your name and how everything you do attaches your name to the end result. I even take it a step further and explain that your name is a reflection of your parents and loved ones, and that just “good enough” isn’t good enough for those who’ve dedicated their lives to you. My last ditch effort in explaining the concept of constantly striving to do your best and improve comes in a story about me baking a cake. I like to start off by admitting I am no Cake Boss (I do an imitation of Buddy), and tell them the truth: I am a decent cook. I get it done, I tell them. However, I say, when I am baking a cake, even though I am not Buddy and have no aspirations to be the Cake Boss, you can be darn sure I’m going to bake the best darn cake I can! The reason: I – AM – BAKING – A –CAKE! So why not make it the best I can. That’s why people like the actual Cake Boss and any other person at the top of their profession got there: by busting their tail to get better, a little at a time.


Then, last year, I had a conversation with this student who writes well, but doesn’t seem compelled to advance her writing. I was discussing the idea of adding depth to her arguments and layering her elaboration with details. She turned to me, straight-faced, and said, “Mr. Winchell, I know how to write, and I have never received anything under an 80 on any writing assignment. Ever! So why do I need to advance my writing?” 

My response was simple. “Because you shouldn’t rest with what you are. You should want to get better with each new word written. If for no other reason: your name is attached to the writing on the page, and in turn, your writing is a reflection of you.” She rolled her eyes, of course, and mumbled something about having no desire to do anything in her “career” that involved writing. I could have debated this with the fact that ALL careers involve writing of some kind, but the conversation was over.

This isn’t uncommon for student writers who are “good enough” to rest with that and simply put out the same effort over and over. It’s the unfortunate state of things, and something that makes my skin crawl. Conversations like the one I had with that “good enough” student are what make me question not only the motivation of the youth of America, but make me question what I am doing in education in the first place. A feeling of wasted efforts, you might say. Then I turn around and see the few kids who get into everything, and are just awesome kids in general, and I’m reminded why I’m teaching.

So, the question I put to you is just that simple: Are you looking to just bake the darn cake, or are you looking to bake the best darn cake you can? More directly geared toward authors: Are you looking to grow as a writer, or do you think you’ve already reached your max potential? And, what steps do you take to keep that gradual progression going?

15 comments:

  1. This is such a motivational post! I'm always looking to improve and move forward with my writing. I read all kinds of books, anything and everything, which definitely helps. And I write outside my comfort zone; writing prompts and exercises are terrific for that.

    I like the advice you give your students. Don't you remember being a teenager? Many teenagers pretend not to hear what you're saying, but they remember it and apply it later when all those hormones stop raging, LoL.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks. Yes, I remember being a teenager. Reminded every day whenever surrounded by them. I sure hope some of them are playing that "pretend" game, because it seems that more and more I am seeing it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Inspiring as always, Mike.

    The more I grow, the less I feel I know. I am always looking to improve, and do so by reading other novels in my genre--not just reading, but studying! I read lots of craft books, go to conferences to study with pubbed writers, and work hard in my critique groups. And, of course, I write daily. Like any craft, writing can definitely be improved by practice.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Michael, isn't it funny how much there is left to learn? I do the same thing when I read MG books: study. I learn so much from reading others' work. It's amazing how many times I'll stop and say, "That's a cool way to do this, or a nifty was to say that." But in keeping with my post, the only reason I learn is because I allow myself to, and because I'm yearning to learn and improve. I just wish I could better help students build that sense of yearning. I'll keep trying.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think that in order to care enough to want to do your best, you have to have a passion for a thing. That passion is not always discovered right away, either. For example, I always enjoyed writing when I was younger, but it took giving up on it for years, and then actually finishing a novel, before I realized how much it really meant to me.

    ReplyDelete
  6. True. Is there a way to help create this passion toward everything we do, though? What I mean is, how do we help young people see that EVERYTHING you do should be approached with passion? Or am I wrong about viewing life this way?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think you're wrong, per se. And I think it works differently for teachers than it does for parents, but as a father, I try to take the view point that my kids ought to know that I expect them to do the best they can at everything they do, but I also understand they will only truly excel at things they love. Passion.

      I guess another example would be at work, I always do my job to the best of my ability, because I'm paid to do it, and that's professionalism, you know? But I will never put forth the effort into my day job that I do into writing a book, and certainly not for free.

      Delete
  7. I gotcha, Matt. Makes sense. I do have things that I am not as passionate about that I don't put that extra "oommff" into, but my philosophy has always been that whatever I'm doing, I have to give it my all, even if it's vacuuming the house (seriously). See, long ago a professor of mine read an essay where I paid homage to my mother and all her sacrifice for me. I told her I'd never be able to repay my mother for all she's done for me, and my professor had this cool comment: "If you value her brand on you, then make sure your brand is always clearly marked for all to see." She chuckled in her unique way and added, "If you always put your all into all you do, you'll pay her back in spades." Kind of emotional remembering that now. The professor had a profound impact on my life as well, so my brand includes her I guess. Anyway, I hope I've done just that to this point in my life.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Your post comes at just the right time. I've been hearing comments coming from my child similar to what your saying. Our teacher has put an emphasis on how your name represents you, your family and your community (classmates). I've seen how it installs some pride in their work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad to hear other teachers are of a similar mindset. Also glad to see parents supporting what the teacher is trying to do. Kudos to the teacher, and to you.

      Delete
  9. Mike, what a great post. This is one of those questions I ask myself all the time! I will never plateau as writer. There will always be more to learn and I want each story I write to be far better than the last. Every writing "failure" is never a failure. It just means I learned a valuable lesson in reaching my next success. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good points. No one should strive to achieve the same each time out. Risk also plays in here, since sometimes people resign themselves to just keeping things as is, writers included. Thanks.

      Delete
  10. A great reminder of why we need to continually challenge ourselves in writing, or anything we do. I especially like the tying your name to your work part. Keep teaching! Some of those kids really are listening! (Or they'll look back later and remember).

    ReplyDelete
  11. Just read a book that brought your post to mind. It illustrates very nicely about how your name represents your family. You might like it The Kite Fighter by Linda Park.

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for adding to the mayhem!