A Call to Excellence

Have you lost your passion for writing? Is it harder to get to work than it used to be? Is it writer’s block or burnout? Not necessarily. You may have lost your passion for writing because you’ve lost your passion for excellence.

In the beginning of my writing career, even though I was tripping over babies and toddlers, I made time to write. I really studied magazines and market guides. I bought and read and marked up and re-read many writing craft books. I kept a writer’s notebook handy to jot down detailed character and setting descriptions. I did many writing exercises simply to improve my writing–not with an eye toward selling it. I revised and revised and revised. I let things “sit” before doing a final editing. I read award-winning books, trying to absorb by osmosis how these writers created imaginary worlds.

I wasn’t satisfied to be a good writer–not even a published writer. I wanted to be–tried hard to be–an excellent writer. I was rewarded, I think, when my earliest books won awards, landed on many children’s choice lists, and went into paperback and foreign editions. I have never done more satisfying writing in my life.

Exchanging Excellence for Rushed Writing

But when we turn professional (i.e. begin selling), the emphasis often shifts from sharing our stories and passions with the world to selling the next manuscript, or writing faster, or finding an agent.

Unfortunately, this shift often changes our priorities. Instead of telling a story with excellence, instead of writing an article based on in-depth research, we may subtly ease up on ourselves. Perhaps we don’t do quite as much research. (After all, we only use about 30% of what we unearth anyway.) We write briefer character sketches because (a) they’re too time-consuming, (b) we need to get to the real writing, and (c) less than half the details in those profiles make it into the finished manuscript.

Speed becomes an issue. We read books on writing faster, making more money per hour, finding hot topics. We don’t take time to revise and get critiques and revise some more. Sometimes we can’t, if we’ve become over-committed or we quit our day job to write full-time.

With many projects and deadlines, you may still do acceptable work. But will it be your very best work? Nope. The “hurry hurry” shows, and you end up with books you’re not proud of, that get poor reviews, and that undermine your writer’s self-esteem. “Have I lost it?” you wonder in private. No, you haven’t. But when you rush, the writing suffers. It can’t help it. And your desire to write diminishes.

Deeper Solutions

What can you do about this spiral? Can you get back the passion for your writing that comes from a commitment to excellence? Yes, I believe you can, but it may require overhauling your entire life. Having an excellent writing life is part of leading a life of excellence–period. Writing is only one part of your life.

As I remembered the early years of my writing, I realized that not only had I pursued my writing with passion, I had (in spite of many struggles) pursued excellence throughout my life. My four kids were read to, played with, well taken care of. My house was clean, I cooked nutritious meals from scratch, kept a tidy (huge) vegetable garden, and taught classes at church. I even quilted and created homemade Christmas presents.

A few years ago, I took a hard look at myself. Boy, had I slipped! My husband and I only ate really healthy meals about half the time. My office was often cluttered and dusty. My small flower garden had more weeds than flowers, and I hadn’t quilted in ten years. I had stopped running, but hadn’t replaced it with anything else aerobic. I wasn’t pursuing excellence in any area of my life really. Acceptance of mediocrity–and the dissatisfaction that accompanies it–had settled in.

Back in the Saddle Again…

I decided to clean up my life that week. I started with small changes, but changes toward excellence again. I cooked nutritious meals and froze a week’s worth for convenience. I scoured the house and weeded the flower beds. I sorted, filed, then dumped my piles of “stuff.” My office gleamed. I cleaned the junk off the treadmill and put it to use.

And there was an odd side benefit. When it was time to write, I found my standards had gone up. I took more pains with my writing: doing the daily exercises, keeping a notebook again, nurturing the muse, ignoring hot topics and returning to my own ideas and passions. As I put more effort into my work, I enjoyed it more. As I enjoyed it more, I worked even harder. Momentum built as I grew excited about my writing again. I relearned an old truth: being stretched and challenged renews our passion for our writing.

Living–and Writing–at a Higher Level

A “call to excellence” will look different for each of us. Strive to live an excellent life, not just one where you get by. If you have a day job, arrive on time, work hard, and take care of your personal business elsewhere. Pay your bills on time. Lose that 20 pounds you gained when you had your last baby (who’s now in junior high) or when you stopped playing touch football with the guys on weekends. Cut down on your TV time; watch programs that nourish your mind and spirit. Get exercise and fresh air. Keep commitments and promises, even if you regret having made them.

Believe it or not, deciding to live an excellent life will translate into living an excellent writer’s life too. You–and your readers–deserve that. Don’t settle for less.

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8 Responses to A Call to Excellence

  1. Karin Larson says:

    Great post, Kristi! Well said and thoughtful. I couldn’t agree more!

  2. Vijaya says:

    Great post, Kristi! It’s so true that discipline and excellence in one area will carry over into other areas of our lives. I see that with my kids all the time. That’s one of the reasons we do organized sports. The life skills it teaches is beyond measure. And regular prayer time and walking means regular writing time for me as well. Funny how that works.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Vijaya, all my girls were in music and sports for much the same reason. Discipline tends to spread. Even the days that I exercise help me to eat better, almost by osmosis. :-)

  3. great post. I’m at the stage of writing with a young child at home. I’m making changes to create excellent writing in the phase I’ve been given.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Good for you, Christina! I remember that rather long “phase” very well. Every phase of life has challenges for writers, so I’m glad you’re not putting off your dreams for “when my child graduates from high school” or something. I certainly wrote in bits and pieces when my kids were small, but you can do an amazing amount of writing in your head first while pushing swings and walking teething babies. :-)

  4. Thank you Kristi, I really needed that. I am recovering from the loss of my daughter who died a few years ago. My whole life is a mess and I have begun to put it back in order. It will take some time. When I started to write again I also began to get the desire to take care of the other things around me. Life is changing for me because of my writing. It does all seem to go together.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Elizabeth, first my heart breaks for you about the loss of your daughter. I have always feared that and wondered if that would break me–losing a child. I know the experts say that that is the worst grief there is, and I believe it. I applaud you in your efforts to put things back together, and I’m glad if the post helped. By the way, I popped over to your blog and read Ch. 8 of The House. Riveting writing there! You’re a gifted writer! I didn’t actually intend to read much, but it sure pulled me in.

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