Have you ever lit a fire and sat and watched as the flames lick their way around the paper, before tentatively dancing and wrapping themselves around the wood? Sometimes the paper is totally consumed before the flames take hold and you’re left with a charred surface and no warmth. Other times the flames shyly stroke the wood like tiny fingers, eager to assert their grip but wary of working their way into the surface and texture of the wood. And then, you get the roaring fire. The one that draws instantly. The wood is alive with flames, radiating instant warmth and settling into an intense glowing ball of concentrated heat that lasts and lasts.
I’ve been faced with some disappointing competition results over the years, and I have had to ask myself some serious questions – not least of which is, “Why on earth did I think I could write?” Does that sound familiar?
The conclusion I came to is “How on earth did I think I could do well, when I could have done it better.” I don’t know about you, but that’s a very painful conclusion to have to reach, especially when the writer in you is supremely (and perhaps, foolishly) confident that this piece of work was the best you’d ever written.
I think that when push comes to shove, many of us are guilty of settling for what we know in our heart is skimming the surface of our greater potential as writers – not unlike the flame that scorches the wood before being extinguished, leaving only a smudge of effort behind it.
It is the detail, the thoroughness and the depth you are prepared to go to that sets great work apart from what is simply good or even ho-hum.
How we approach a piece in our writing can depend on so many things. How deeply you are prepared to immerse yourself into what you’re doing will determine how well your work turns out. I believe we need to learn to give ourselves permission to reach deeply inside ourselves. Feel, think, see, hear, smell and taste what we are writing. Don’t just dance on the surface. Drag everything out of your characters by knowing what is going through their minds, hearts and lives. Go as far as you have to and create that concentrated heat that will set your work apart from all the others.
And when you think you’ve finished, ask yourself – How can I do it better? When we can honestly tell ourselves (with pride) that yes, this is the best thing we have done, then we can move forward.
In the words of Gustavus F. Swift: “Don’t let the best you have done so far be the standard for the rest of your life.”