Chasing Excellence

I’m a writer. I’m nineteen years old, unagented, practically unpublished, and I’m afraid I’ve already peaked.

This isn’t a new fear, but it is a pretty dumb one. It crops up every few months, after I reread the comments on a Figment contest entry from a couple years ago or go over a critique partner’s thoughts on an old novel, and suddenly their compliments and gushing praise don’t feel like they’re directed towards me, but a different girl who wore the same face and hands but somehow, despite knowing less about writing, was better at it than I am. That Little Ol’ Past Julia was better at everything.

I don’t know why that girl was, or how, but Past Julia seems to have had a lot more figured out than I do now. After all, she was the one who wrote Dreamcatcher–a novel that needs so much work it’s barely worth rewriting, but my critique partners raved would be taught in classrooms someday as the Great American (Young Adult) Novel. She’s the one who wrote “The Things I Leave Behind”–the first short story ever penned by Julia Byers for a college-level creative writing class, which went on to receive hardly any critique, an “excellent” from the professor, and first place in the Writer’s Digest Annual Competition–whereas everything I’ve written since then has received a “very good” and nothing more.

No matter how hard I try, it has been impossible for me to match the response of that first short story. The people who’ve read it compare everything else I do to it, and always their response is, “Good, but not as good as the Colorado Story,” or “Well-written, but I prefer the voice from the Colorado Story,” and always, no matter what I do, “The Things I Leave Behind” comes out as the best thing I’ve ever written, period. I can’t beat it.

When I wrote that story, I was just afraid of my professor telling me I sucked and that I shouldn’t be a writer. I had just finished the first draft of Cadence a week or so earlier, I’d never had much instruction in creative writing before, and I was used to being a big fish in a little pond, after spending so much of my childhood as Julia the Wonder-Kid-Writer, with constant support and very little competition.

It was pressure, but it wasn’t personal–so it made me nervous, but it wasn’t a big deal.

Now, when I write a story for creative writing class, the game is different. It’s a competition against Past Julia–against the person I was at the beginning of winter semester 2013. I open a blank Word document, and the only thoughts running through my mind are, “Will this one be good enough? Will this one live up to the bar set by ‘The Things I Leave Behind’? Will this one finally beat Past Julia, or at least fall even with her abilities?” Every time I go to work on a novel, the questions become, “What will my CPs think? Will they read this and still tell me Dreamcatcher was better? Will I ever be able to write something better than that?”

It’s been almost two years since I wrote Dreamcatcher–I was seventeen. I wrote “The Things I leave Behind” when I was eighteen. And now, at nineteen, I almost wish I hadn’t written them at all, because they have made it impossible for anything else I’ve written since then to be “good enough.”

Everything I write now is a comparison that falls flat. Anything that is not as good as Past Julia’s best is bad.

What did Past Julia have that I don’t now? I’ve studied those pieces, tried to replicate the parts that readers praised. And when that didn’t work, I tried to write stories that were so entirely different that it should have been impossible to compare them to their predecessors–but still the comparisons came.

I am chasing a shadow that I will never see solidified. Even if I do manage to write something better now, why do I have to be in competition with the things I did in the past?

I want to be proud of my best work, not resent it. My past-self should not be someone I feel like I need to live up to, but instead someone I am proud to have been.

I want to be proud when people ask me what’s going on with the Writer’s Digest Annual Competition, not ashamed that I haven’t written anything better since the piece that won first place. I want to be proud when my critique partners ask me if I’m going to start on the Dreamcatcher rewrite soon, not disappointed that they aren’t as enthusiastic about my current projects too.

I am done. chasing. excellence.

It doesn’t matter if my critique partners like Dreamcatcher more than what I’ve written since. It doesn’t matter if “The Things I Leave Behind” remains the best short story I have to my name. Because while I want to believe that someday those statements will no longer be true, my chasing after that elusive “excellent” scrawled at the end of each story I turn in for class is not helping Present Julia become a better writer, or Future Julia be the best writer she can be. All it’s doing is making me look back at someone I can never be again and wish that I had never left her behind to become who I am now. And that isn’t fair to anyone.

I’m doing amazing things with my life right now. I’m living out dreams I never thought I’d be able to realize, and I’m sick of the paralyzing fear that comes with looking back, trying to reach into the past to shake some answers out of the memories I never thought would be important at the time. I’m sick of people comparing me to Past Julia, but more than anything I’m sick of the comparisons that come from myself.

Maybe what I’m writing now isn’t as good as what I wrote back then, sure. But that doesn’t mean I’m not good enough. Because I am. And it’s time I let Present Julia admit it.

I’ve changed. My writing has changed. I’m done chasing after the writer I used to be. It’s time to chase a new kind of excellence–becoming the best writer I can be now. No comparisons attached.

I will continue to get better with every short story and novel I write. I will continue to grow, and improve, and someday I will stumble across “excellent,” just like I did before. But it’s not going to happen as long as I’m sitting here drowning.

I wrote this on the whiteboard on my desk the other day:

If you know where you're going, don't look back.2

It’s time I started living by it.

No more comparisons. It’s time to let Past Julia stay in the past.

I know where I’m going. I’m not looking back.

 

~Julia

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20 thoughts on “Chasing Excellence

  1. Pingback: NaNo Day 12: Interview with Hannah Rose | Julia the Writer Girl

  2. I never read your blog, because I’m too lazy and I forget it exists. But I went on Facebook for the first time in a while and saw this, so I clicked on it.
    Honestly, this happens to me all the time. I read my past writing and I wonder why the stuff I write now isn’t that good. But not everything I write is going to be perfect. There’s a lot of stuff I wrote back then that was awful. You keep improving and writing, and you’re probably going to write stuff that’s bad or mediocre (or in your case, good). But you’re going upwards anyway. I haven’t read any of your recent writing (because again, I am lazy, and I haven’t read much of anything lately) but I know that you wouldn’t just lose your writing talent. Keep writing good stuff, and soon enough something brilliant will come along again.
    And I’ll go read something recent of yours because it’s not like I’m going to do my homework anyway. 🙂

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  3. Looking through the comments, it looks like pretty much everything has already been said. You’re going to keep on getting better and better at writing until the day you die. (That escalated quickly) But really. It’s who you are. You aren’t just going to stop. It’s not like you hit a wall, and even if there was a wall, you’d be the person to brutally knock it down with an ax or something.

    I’ve had a similar experience with piano. I started taking more serious piano lessons about two years ago and I improved like crazy, where I skyrocketed from a decent piano player to a serious one. I hit this point where the improvement just kinda stopped and went into slow-mo. At the time I was like WHAT’S HAPPENING TO MEEEE! but now I realize that what it was was I’d hit a new level, not really a wall. The type of improvement/growth changed because the road changed I guess and I felt like I was starting out completely knew again, if that makes sense.

    I guess what I’m trying to say, is you probably have hit something along the road, but it just means it’s only getting better from here and that you reached something. Now you have to reorient yourself and reach for that next thing.

    Hope this was encouraging. Maybe. Maybe not. I ramble. I know.

    Jules, you are one of the best, most dedicated writers I know and you haven’t hit your peak. You’re still climbing upward, just like you always will be.

    Over and out.

    I think I win the award for the longest, most rambling comment.

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  4. “The Things I Left Behind” was not your peak by any means. Instead, it was just a glimpse into what can be, what is to come. You will have highs and lows as a writer throughout your life. That’s just the nature of the business. I totally agree with CL; don’t worry so much about your audience. Write from your heart. Write for the joy of writing. When that happens, then great stories happen.
    Always look forward, don’t look back.

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    • I always write from my heart–the difference is that the audience doesn’t always think that I have. Like I said, though, it’s time for me to stop listening to their comparisons; it’ll be easier to hear myself once there aren’t twenty other voices shouting at me at the same time. Thanks for the comment!

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  5. I don’t think that you’ve peaked, or that you were a better writer before than you are now. I feel like most of it is that, as you mature, the level expected of you is higher and the competition gets tougher. But don’t worry — every day you’re learning more and you’re absorbing so much from the world around you. Even if that doesn’t amount to something immediately, I’m sure that it will eventually. As long as you keep writing, I know that you’ll get published. I’m kind of in the same boat too. All the feedback I’m getting is that I’m a good writer and I’ll definitely have a long writing career blah blah but nobody likes my book enough. Now, I feel like I have what it takes, but I have to wait for the right novel.

    Hang in there! And in the meantime, enjoy the many other parts of life besides writing. 🙂

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  6. Oh Jules, we all feel like that. All of the time. I feel you. I panic semi-constantly about if I’ve written the best novel I ever can and if that means I’m done, or if someday soon I’ll stop having ideas, or if I end up like a one-hit wonder when I get published, or all sorts of similar things.

    And I would like to point out that never ever would I say that you’re done or have hit your peak, because you are brilliant and improving all the time and I mean that. I’ve seen it. Dreamcatcher was an incredible, unbelievable hit, and it’s true that it’s one of my favorites of your books, but I love all your work, and I’m excited for what you come up with next. MAJORLY excited.

    Snark face ooh haha? *tentative smile*

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  7. I sort of know the feeling–most of the stories people enjoy of mine were things that weren’t necessarily my favorites–but never, ever doubt that you’ll get better. You’re going to mature as a writer, you’re going to find subjects that you want to indulge in, and you’re going to be happier with what you produce. I think, to some extent, you’re writing with a metaphorical window open. It’s totally understandable because now that you share work, the only thing on your mind tends to be the audience. Try to close that window. The next time you write, just write for yourself. (If you’re not already.) It also sounds like you’re doing a lot of work for a class. Maybe try writing something separate. It doesn’t have to be complete, or good, or even very legible, but write it for yourself and try to just enjoy the process. That might help you block out those audience concerns that seem to be plaguing your mind while you work.

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    • I’m doing very little writing for anything OUTSIDE of class (and work) right now, to be honest. I don’t have time for much else–I write a few poems/songs a week just for myself, but it’s different, because they’re not narrative pieces. I’ll have to try to find the time to write something just for me again, sometime soon. 🙂 Thanks for the advice!

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    • Feel free to laugh! I know it’s silly.

      It’s less perfectionism (which I have problems with too) as much as just the fear that I’ll never be as good as I used to be. It’s not that I want to be perfect–just better than I am.

      Thanks for reading!

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      • The professor definitely understand your concerns, though! (I just have a bad habit of laughing things to scorn; like Mark Twain you might say.)

        Hmm… It is a dilemma. But I’m sure you’re–at least–just as good now as you were then. You couldn’t have gotten worse. The professor is sure of that. Just don’t look back. I liked that.

        Absolutely! It’s the professorish–and Punchyish–way!

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        • It’s complicated, but definitely none of the short stories I’ve written since “The Things I Leave Behind” have had the same spark as that one did. Something just clicked with it that hasn’t with any of the others. My writing itself, *in general,* hasn’t gotten worse, of course–it’s just that it hasn’t matched the level of that one story, either. But like I said in the post, I’ll get there again someday. It’s just time I stopped beating myself up over not being there already. 🙂

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