Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 25, 2014

Writing Agreement # 4: Always Do Your Best

Kathryn Craft

Turning Whine into Gold


I had just turned in my second novel after an intense ten months of 15-hour days. Since most of that time was spent sitting, my first celebratory act was taking a walk with my husband to brainstorm ideas for this blog post, the fourth and last installment adapting Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements for writers.

And I couldn’t think of the fourth agreement.

I ramped up for momentum:

  1. Be impeccable with your word.
  2. Don’t take anything personally.
  3. Don’t make assumptions.
  4. and…still drew a blank.

Dave pulled out his smartphone and looked up the fourth agreement—and started laughing.

He finally paused to take a breath. “The fourth is, Always do your best,” he said. “That one’s so ingrained in you it’s no wonder you couldn’t remember it.”

Dave was referring to my tendency toward perfectionism (But I am not a perfectionist! I am a “recovering” perfectionist!), a condition that can, over time, destroy one’s soul and relationships.

Read what Don Miguel Ruiz has to say on doing your best, and you will see the difference between that and perfectionism:

 Always do your best

Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.

If you’re a perfectionist, your life is all about self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.

My circumstances

Seventeen years ago I butted up against the toughest circumstances of my life when my first husband killed himself after a daylong standoff at our idyllic little farm. He was an alcoholic, and even though he had plunged our family into financial jeopardy, and I was going to divorce him, I still went to the wall again and again to get him the help he needed, making the standoff’s violent conclusion all the more shocking.

I learned a tough truth: there are forces in this world that are more powerful than any one high-achiever’s means to combat them. But my actions absolved me of what could have been a horrific load of guilt and regret after his suicide. I knew I had done my best.

I also knew I would one day write this story, and when my agent presented The Far End of Happy as my option book, Sourcebooks gave me the opportunity to publish its novelization.

Ruiz cautions us to do our best “under any circumstance.” Writing this novel, which as anyone could imagine was emotionally wrenching, came with its own set of extreme circumstances:

The Far End of Happy• After writing The Art of Falling over the course of eight years, I had ten months to write The Far End of Happy—under contract.

• Those rights my agent sold? She did so with a sketchy 2-1/2 page synopsis and an author’s note. No sample pages. Meaning I had very few approved guiderails for the writing of it.

• In the midst of that ten-month period I had to suspend writing on it altogether for six weeks so I could complete my blog tour and launch for The Art of Falling.

• I had to wed fact and fiction and come up with something that felt true.

• I experimented with backstory and failed. I had integrated prior events in reverse order, which seemed the best way to get the story down on paper—but I hadn’t done my best at meeting my readers’ needs for an emotionally relatable journey. After my first delivery date I had three weeks to rip out all the backstory, re-order, and re-insert, revising to make all that work.

• At the moment of my second developmental deadline—when it seemed all was coming together—I discovered the manuscript had corrupted, garbling three days worth of changes, which demanded a 21-1/2–hour marathon to correct.

Despite all that I refused to exhibit the dreaded yet well-known sophomore slump, and wanted to meet or exceed the bar I’d set with The Art of Falling. Now that the book has been delivered, I must rest knowing I did my best given these circumstances.

Will it be perfect? No. There was nothing perfect about that goddawful day anyway. It was very human, and the book and the way it’s written will reflect that.

Was it simply “good enough?" Hell no. I have not, and will never, aspire to mediocrity. In a tough competitive industry, I do not believe that this is how one stays published.

I fretted a bit—but only a bit, because the fretting happens when you are NOT doing the work, and I didn’t have much time off! But I never panicked. I just wrote every day, enjoying the process as always, pushing into the sleeping hours when need be so I had the time to do my best. As it turned out, this past week I had a chance to polish it to my usual standards—and turned it in a day early.

I am simply a writer, doing my best. I encourage you to do the same. Don Miguel Ruiz promises, “If you do your best always, transformation will happen as a matter of course.”

To that I say, "Amen."

Do you have perfectionist tendencies? Have they injured your self-esteem? How do you work around it when it comes to your writing?

About Kathryn

Kathryn CraftKathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy, due May 2015.

Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she now serves as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing.

Kathryn lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA. Although a member of The Liars Club, she swears that everything in this bio is true.

Website: http://www.kathryncraft.com/

30 comments on “Writing Agreement # 4: Always Do Your Best”

  1. There's something to be said for working under time pressure. With all the time in the world, I will do 30 drafts of a piece, flogging it into oblivion. Every word will be exactly what I wanted, but all the energy and immediacy will have been lost. You might look at The Far End of Happy later and think, “Darn; I should have moved that clause” or “Why didn’t I use [word X] instead of [word Y],” but your readers won’t think about that. They will be moved by the raw emotional power of a story that has not been overwritten.

    1. Thanks Eric, I hope so! I think it's quite possible this was the ONLY way to do this one. Emotionally, it was more like taking a Polar Bear Plunge instead of swimming the Atlantic (although for many of those 15-hour days, I felt I was...).

  2. I don't like working under the pressure of a deadline but I have to say my work never suffered from it. It somehow helped me to focus harder.

    1. Sharla I was quite surprised to see, on a women's fiction Facebook group, quite a discussion about the fact that many best-selling authors won't do it! While I don't think the work suffered, my life did—little exercise these past few months, no grandkid visits, no socializing outside of book events—so I do get it. But I don't think anyone who's truly achieved something great has done so without sacrifice.

  3. "Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret." This is so perfect! And yes, "the best" changes. Accepting that, allowing that is amazingly freeing. Great post - as always!

    1. Thanks Orly. As with all these lessons, it goes for life, too—including organization presidents and book club leaders! Carry on, doing the best you can, knowing that the world is a bester place for your best efforts, given the circumstances.

  4. I'm with Orly...that sentence simply resonated. I've adored this series, Kathryn.

    I'll tell you, it was having a daughter that changed this around for me. At work, my A-game was suddenly equivalent to my previous C-game, and it took me a while to get over feeling like a failure. But then I looked at this wonderful kid, the most important person in my life besides my husband...and suddenly it became okay. It's not that it never bothered me, but that I finally accepted that there was only so much "me" to go around.

    1. Yes, Jenny, thank you for sharing that awareness. So true! We moms can be perfectionist nightmares, thinking we're only being hard on ourselves, when really the whole family suffers. It's true with physical therapy, too! I know that if I had been willing to inflict more pain on my ankle after the triple fracture I could have had less adhesions and a little more flexion but you know what? I was done being that hard on myself!!

  5. What a wonderful post, Kathryn. Thanks for sharing your story. I can't imagine how awful that must've been. Glad you're on the other side. I've already Tweeted and FBed. I do have perfectionist tendencies and it blocks my creativity. Believing you have to get it "right" the first time is suffocating. It also means, reading it just once more before sending my first book e-released in July of 2013 to the formatters for printing. Have I found a couple of things to "fix" ? Sure, But it would've been good without. Deciding when enough is enough is hard, because every time I read something *like Eric above says) I can find a word to change or something to tweak! Being a perfectionist (all right I admit it) is not so fun. I'll copy the quote about doing my best and put it where I can routinely see it. Good luck with your books and again, thanks for sharing. 🙂

  6. What a wonderful post indeed! I have been under intense (self-created) pressure myself this year. Had a plan for self-publishing my Irish regency-period trilogy upended by major spinal surgery last September and was determined to publish nonetheless. (Third book, originally scheduled for June, will come out in this September.) Although there are twitches I would have changed (aren't there always?) I feel satisfied with the three books, and you've given me the reason for why. I really did do my best, even if sometimes it felt like swimming upstream with a two-ton weight on my back! Thank you for clarifying my thinking. Instead of brooding about the twitches, I can be pleased about the rest of it!

    1. Yes Beppie, I'm glad it is affording peace of mind. Although we must also weigh denial against reality, too—even when traditionally published, life and health issues that must take priority can get in the way. Take good care of yourself!

  7. Thx. for your insights Kathryn. Sounds very daunting. I'm gifted in that I know my best will always be flawed, so my goal becomes to always do my "better."

  8. Thank God, perfectionism is one thing I never struggled with - probably because I'm just lucky to bumble through, imperfectly! But 'your best changes' still resonated with me. I'll always do the best I'm capable of. As long as that doesn't always have to be the highest peg on the standard to hurl myself over, I can live with it! Thanks for this, Kathryn. Can't wait to read that book.

    1. Oh you don't need perfectionism, Miss Laura. Just "award-winning"!!! 🙂 I'll be curious how it feels for you to try to live up to your own standards post-Rita.

    1. Thanks Mary. Sometimes I think that social media makes it seem that writing is a lot easier than it is—as if it's just a matter of reporting your word count. There's often a lot more drama going on behind the scenes!

  9. Thanks for sharing your powerful story, Kathryn. I cut myself and others slack with the grace that comes from knowing we're all most often "doing our best" given the circumstances we face at the moment.

    When I recently published my first novel, I was finally able to let the manuscript go to publication because I knew I'd "done my best" for that moment. I knew I'd learn something new the next day, or discover some passage I could have written better with another read, or find an error that would have to be corrected in the next printing, but I had to accept that in that moment in time, I'd done my best.

  10. Carol you make such a good point—sometimes we simply don't know what those circumstances are—now of which may be under-preparedness for publication as concerns craft, or a lack of awareness of how consuming the promotional activities will be.

    As for your second point, I know so many authors who can't go back and read their first novels for the reasons you stated! One thing modern publishing no longer seems to allow for, with BN and BookScan so often determining your fates after your debut, is growth as a writer. Even if indie published—if your readers don't like your first book, it's on to one of the other million authors.

  11. Wow, Kathryn, I don't know how you survived that one! I'm not sure I would have. Congrats on making it through! - Màiri Norris

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