Saturday, May 23, 2009

Good, Better, Best


By Christine Thackeray

We all know the story of the Master's Touch, an old violin seems worthless until it is played by a virtuoso and then everyone wants it. Well, I remember as a child having that same experience, ironically, with a violin. Growing up, my mother wanted each of us to learn a musical instrument. I chose the violin and screeched on it for two long years before we all agreed it was better for the whole human race if I put the thing away and never touched it again.

The following year a woman moved into our ward who was petite and demur (two things I will never be.) I remember standing in awe of her and then one Sunday she performed the special musical number, "Oh My Father" on, you guessed it, a violin. It was GORGEOUS! I sat in my chair crying at the opportunity lost. I could have made music that lovely if I had persisted. But the reality is that when I played, it was squeaky and awful. I remember wishing that I had listened to her playing while I was practicing. Then I might have endured.

As a writer, I often make the same mistake. I get trapped in my own favorite words or languish in my flat voice, sometimes getting flatter the more I continue. It's imperative that as I write, I keep myself exposed to great material so that I can hear that well-played violin and have a better idea of what I'm reaching for, rather than wallowing in my own mediocrity.

One way to do this is to constantly read good books. Another is to join a critique group with writer's you admire. Last week Betsy Grow came to our group and brought a piece she has been working on. I'd never heard her stuff before, but it was brilliant! She used metaphor and simile A LOT but it worked and made things come alive! In one scene a girl is in the high school cafeteria being embarrassed in front of a boy she likes. As she turns to go, the football team rushes through the door, surrounding her with jersey-clad torsos the size of trees.

I got home and decided my descriptions could use some more umph! So, I did a rewrite. Tell me what you think-


GOOD:

Lindsay ran her hands through her wet, light brown hair and stared at the dark circles under her eyes. It’s going to take three different kinds of foundation to hide this face from the ladies at church.


BETTER:

The corners of Lindsay’s mouth pulled downward as she ran her hands through her wet, light brown hair. The last traces of the golden highlights it once sported were gone, and she knew she couldn’t afford to replace them, leaving her hair the color and texture of a used industrial mop. She leaned over the yellowed counter and inspected her reflection. Broad crescent shadows rested beneath each eye, and her hand smoothed across two miniscule wrinkles on her forehead that hadn’t been there a few weeks ago. It’s going to take three different kinds of foundation to hide this face from the ladies at church.



I'm sure it's not BEST yet so if you have any suggestions for that first line, I'd be grateful. But it is a wonderful thing to learn and get better every day. What a gift! I have good friends who are taking classes from WritersU.com and others who are constantly reading, attending workshops and challenging themselves. They are reaching for better, which is awesome.

From my debached violin experience I learned that practice doesn't necessarily make perfect. We can simply practice our mistakes over and over until we become really good at stinking up the place. No, I need to reach for better every day, not just in writing but in everything I do. An important key to doing that is to have a standard of what BEST is. Without that, we don't really know what we are aiming for. In writing that standard may changed, but in life I suddenly appreciate the perfect standard given to us by a brilliant Father in Heaven. Christ gives us something to emulate and strive for so someday we can be our best. Cool.

6 comments:

  1. OUTSTANDING POST!!!!! Wow, Christine, I really like this. You bring up some great points and good examples. And I think your second try at your paragraph is more interesting. Way to go!!!

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  2. Thanks Christine. Tons of brain food here. I get confused by two schools of thought. Some tell me it is best to write simpler, shorter, cleaner, and others tell me to embellish with more details. Of course you always hear show, not tell. So now I am going to rethink this all again.

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  3. "Good is the enemy of great."
    — Jim Collins

    I love this quote and I try to remember it. So often we settle, thinking "it's" good enough. Whatever "it" is.
    I pray I don't ever reach the day I think I've got it all going on and don't need to improve. Being teachable is important- and transforming into a sponge is even better. I love it when I'm feasting on improving the craft.
    It's thrilling.
    Thanks for the reminder...

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  4. Love your post Christine! I agree that having a standard for what is best is very important! I remember being a charge of a Sacrament meeting program put on by the ward's YW. The girls did an outstanding job. AFter the meeting, one sister approached my saying, "The program was very nice, but don't you think it was a bit too idealistic? I mean, no one has FHE go that smoothly, etc, etc...." My shock prevented me from making any comment in return. Thanks for the great reminders and thoughts...Your post is going on my fridge!

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  5. Wow Christine you are much better at descriptive narrative than I. I tend to read and write in a more clipped manner. Probably because adventure stories aren't necessarily known for thier descriptive propensity.

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  6. Christine, I hadn't realized how very, very far behind I'd allowed myself to get in reading and commenting on ANWA blogs. You may never read this, but I'm commenting, anyway.

    This blog was beautifully done, and so ... YOU.

    I've heard all my life that, "What's worth doing is worth doing well." I have also disagreed, at times. I think there are things that are good to do, but not important enough to take the time to make it the best. For instance, your years of squeaking on a violin was not lost. See what a lesson it taught! Yes, you could have put in your 10,000 hours of constantly improving practice, but what would you have given up for that talent? Which would you rather have, or be?

    I'm writing my memoirs. No matter whether I write well, or simply get them down, my descendants will be glad I wrote them. I wish all my forbears had taken the challenge to write and preserve something. Anything.

    However, the better I can write about me, the more clearly my descendants will know and understand what I'm like. So I'm trying to novelize it, telling faults as well as triumphs. Trying to express how my life FELT.

    Rough draft is still an important step. I can't improve my writing until I have something down that i can improve.

    But that's what you've been saying all along,.
    Keep up the good work. Nobody else can write quite like you do. And that's true of everybody.

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