I heard Seth Godin interviewed on a podcast. He said:
The fact that the market is noisy is not the same as the fact that your work is mediocre. Mediocre work is mediocre work! And we have a choice instead to dig super deep and bring stuff to the table that is worth talking about. And it’s not easy and it won’t happen right away.
It’s hard to take time to dig deep and bring to the table writing that’s worth talking about. Excellence doesn’t usually spill out of an untrained, undisciplined, inexperienced artist, so we have to find ways to grow as a writer.
One way is to surround ourselves with excellence.
Surround Yourself with Excellence
I used to regularly crank up “Bring on the Night,” a live album for which Sting pulled together several top jazz musicians, including Branford Marsalis on sax.
Part of Sting’s genius for that concert and much of his career has been to surround himself with excellence. For various projects over the years, he’s brought together gifted artists to join him, and they performed at a level of complexity and energy he might never have achieved on his own.
Sting has the means to do this, presumably leveraging fame, friendship, and money to convince people to accompany him on a recording project or concert tour.
I don’t have those same means at my disposal to convince the top names in writing and publishing to join me on a project, yet I see how the principle of surrounding oneself with excellence is key to advancing in just about anything. And I’m determined to make choices to advance my writing in hopes of avoiding mediocrity.
Look for the Masters
I look for where I see mastery modeled so I can stop settling for my current best and push for more. From masters, I seek to learn new techniques, methods, and skills in hopes of one day achieving the same level of excellence.
How can a writer with limited means surround herself with excellence?
We’re in an incredible time in history. We have access to libraries with just about every book we could ever want. We can read classics online for free. With the click of a button, online, we can meet or at least greet gifted writers who live across the country or on the other side of the world. We can read interviews and essays and poetry.
The possibilities of engaging with excellence are all around us, but so is the temptation to interact with mediocrity. So we need to go look for excellence. Track it down. Expose ourselves to it.
Here are some ways to go about that.
1. Read the best
Don’t waste time on fluff. Fill the library of your mind with the best work available. Turn to the most respected authors of both current and classic literature. Immerse yourself in quality composition. Study writing styles, taking note of a turn of phrase that captures your imagination, a passage that stands out, or dialogue that flows fluidly.
These authors can be your mentors, because they share your love of the English language and demonstrate how to use it well.
2. Listen to the best
I’ve participated in some lighthearted dinner-table debates about audiobooks. If you listen to a recorded book, can you say that you’ve “read” it? I say, technically, no. The person who lent his voice to the project read the book, while you listened to him read it. It’s a different verb, a different action. To read, by definition—at least in my personal dictionary—involves using the eyes. Listening is a different skill.
At the same time, I promote listening to books as a means to invite the rhythm and language of great writing into our minds by a different sense.
When we hear dialogue and descriptive passages, they sink into our brains differently than merely reading the words with our eyeballs. I’m primarily a reader in the technical sense of the word, but audiobooks offer excellent literary input.
3. Locate a mentor
My friend Ruth Vaughn is an author who has long since retired from writing, but she advised me over the years. She’s served as a long-distance mentor to me in small ways.
You could try writing an author you admire and see if you could strike up an interaction. But there are other ways to find a mentor. For example, you could take a writing course from a local college and consider if the instructor could be your mentor beyond the class. Just ask and see.
You could look for online or local continuing education classes and seek out the leaders who impress you the most—maybe they would consider coaching you in some way or they could recommend someone who could.
4. Find like-minded, working writers
If you live where literature is valued and hard-working writers gather to discuss the writing process—New York City, perhaps, or a university town like Oxford, Mississipi—you may find seminars, writing sessions, lectures, and poetry readings you could attend. There, you’ll find other writers. Strike up conversations before and after those sessions. Take your business card and share contact information.
5. Consider a writing partner
From your writing relationships online and in person, you may find a writing colleague or writing buddy.
My friend Ellen and I assisted each other on professional freelance projects years ago, providing proofreading for each other and offering editing suggestions. We brought slightly different strengths to the partnership and yet had similar styles and philosophies of how to approach our work.
My co-author, Charity Singleton Craig, and I shared a similar balance, each bringing our individual personality and strengths to our book On Being a Writer.
Writers will sometimes meet at a cafe or coffee shop to write simultaneously, as a sort of in-person accountability. They aren’t working on the same project necessarily, and they aren’t coauthors, although they could be; rather, they’re meeting up at the same location to work together in terms of proximity and provide that support.
I’ve done this once or twice, and it kept me off social media long enough to complete a short project. Typing at a laptop across from another serious writer-friend inspired me to focus and gave me a heart to produce excellent material.
6. Find an obsessive-compulsive grammarian to check your work
Excellence in writing requires, eventually, excellence in grammar and punctuation. After you’ve done big picture edits, strive to review every crossed “t” and dotted “i” of a final draft, seeking to catch every error before it goes to press. That’s excellence.
We Don’t Need More Average
In that interview with Seth Godin, he also said, “If you’re not a Fortune 500 company with the wherewithal to force your banality—your mediocrity—on the world, no one’s going to engage with it, because we don’t need more average.” He says we should write a book “that people can’t forget…that changes people.”
People can’t forget excellence. Find the excellence you aspire to and surround yourself with it, and you’ll rarely settle for mediocrity from yourself.
- The Beautiful Writers Podcast – Seth Godin: Tribes, Blogs and Book Biz (31:00 mark is the main quote)
- Why Every Writer Needs a Buddy (episode 44)
- When You Really Need Next-Level Edits (episode 96)
- Don’t Miss This Platform-Building Opportunity (like I did) (episode 72)
- Seth Godin interviewed on The Beautiful Writers podcast
- A Short Word on Masters, via The Rabbit Room
- Charity Singleton Craig, on Mastery
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Dheepa Maturi says
Such a gorgeous — and poignant — description of your grandmother’s home and your relationship with her. Inspired me to explore memories of my own grandparents’ home in India. Thank you.
Ann Kroeker says
Oh, I hope you will. That will be rich!