"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." --John F. Kennedy
I've started picking up freelance writing gigs as of late. Now what usually happens is a magazine or a website will ask me to write something for an already established section or column. For instance, I'm currently writing a piece about Oklahoma City's craft beer scene for the "Destinations" series in Beer Advocate magazine.
I always struggle with these!
Why? Because I feel trapped in a box.
I'll get assigned the piece and the friendly editor will usually ask if I'm familiar with the particular column (I always claim that I am, even though I usually am not) before sending me a few examples of previous editions.
It becomes far too easy for me to read the previous works and just use them as a template for my own piece.
But how does that benefit me? How does that benefit the readers?!
This is C student work. (Or, rather, B or B- student work in today's grade-inflated culture.)
This isn't work that "WOWS" as Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos and writer of the brilliant book "Delivering Happiness," asks of all his employees.
“We measure our people on one thing: Did you WOW! the customer? If they each do that, we’ve done our job; everything else will flow from there.”
How am I going to make a name for myself with C student work? How are readers going to be wowed by C student work?!
I'm reminded of my own childhood. My mother, oddly enough a disciplinarian in most aspects of life--rules were rules and laws were laws and they weren't to be broken--always encouraged me to go above and beyond in my schoolwork. Guidelines apparently weren't guidelines in her thinking, they were something to transcend.
So if I was, say, assigned a basic report on Italy, mom would encourage me to make an entire multi-media presentation. Assigned an essay on Jackie Robinson, mom would encourage me to create and bind a fully-illustrated book on the man.
This was clearly not C student work.
To some teachers, in fact, it was F student work. I had totally mocked their assignment guidelines, I had shown an unwillingness to follow their rules, I had done things the other students didn't even "know" they could do ("That's not fair!"). I clearly deserved an F for my insubordination.
But this rarely happened.
What more often happened is I got an A+. I got my work passed around to other classrooms, teachers, and students as examples of what could be done. I made a name for myself. And, I probably pissed off the lazy C students and strict C teachers.
What eliminates this desire to be an A student (or an F student) from adults and makes us simply want to be bland C students? Why do we play it so safe?
My adult "F student" idol is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Hired and tasked with adapting Susan Orlean's seemingly unadaptable book "The Orchid Thief," Kaufman battled a huge case of writer's block. I can attest, adapting prose into screenplays can sometimes feel like nothing more than robotic cut-and-paste jobs.
With no other choice, Kaufman decided to write a screenplay about his struggles adapting "The Orchid Thief," going over-the-top and creating exaggerated events surrounding the writing, even creating a fictional twin brother named Donald Kaufman who acted as his co-writer. Kaufman later explained:
"The idea of how to write the film didn't come to me until quite late. It was the only idea I had, I liked it, and I knew there was no way it would be approved if I pitched it. So I just wrote it and never told the people I was writing it for. I really thought I was ending my career by turning that in!"
If Kaufman had gone the C student route he would have created an easily forgettable film no one would have even heard of by now, nearly a decade later. And, true, going the route he did could have ended in him getting a metaphorical F from the film studio--notorious by-the-book institutions--getting fired, and having to return a ton of money.
But, instead, Kaufman got a resounding A+.
"Adaptation" would go on to be nominated for countless awards, even winning one Oscar, and is widely considered one of the best and most unique films of the previous decade.
Let's all start doing the kind of work that breaks so many rules it will surely get us an F...
...if it doesn't get us an A first.