On the rare times I share a work, whether it’s a story or music or a painting–anything creative–I usually present it with the caveat “it’s not my best.” Sometimes I say that out loud to the person to whom I’m presenting it. Other times, it’s a given in my head, a silent reassurance to myself that I can do better.
But, more often than not, I find myself using it as a defense mechanism.
I preface my presentation of a work with the line because the blow of any subsequent criticism or dislike is cushioned by my personal acknowledgment that, no, it’s not my best, so they’re not really judging the full me or the extent of my skills, just a mediocre or satisfactory part of me. And I’m my own worst critic, so anything they have to say is kitten purrs compared to my own narrow-eyed frustration with my work.
Before learning that I had won honorable mention (fourth prize) in my writing group’s annual short story contest earlier this week, I explained to a fellow writer, while we were talking about the contest, that my submission was “not my best work.” To be fair, it wasn’t. The prompt teased, laughed at, and finally turned its back on me, so that the story I had been trying to manufacture in the two months we had to write it fell apart the day before it was due. After an hour of painful brainstorming and rearrangement, I selected a different story to write, which I submitted about an hour before it was due after only a cursory editing glance. So, not my best.
But my use of the line made me think. What is my best? The works of which I have been somewhat proud have all been critiqued one way or another, always found lacking in something–hey, I’m not perfect, and don’t expect that any of my stories will find a universal audience. Nonetheless, I continue to tell myself, even when these stories are picked (or ripped) apart, it’s not my best effort. I can do better. They just haven’t seen my best yet.
That, consequently, sent me into a spiral of despair. What was this mysterious, elusive “best” piece I had in my portfolio? What shining weapon of cutting prose did I keep in my arsenal? Why was it so good? What made it my best? The answer came to me like a thunderclap: It doesn’t exist yet.
My work will never be “my best” because my best is hiding somewhere in the future, and it may not ever actually be written. My best work is not necessarily my best possible effort–the full potential with which I have been gifted. I may never reach a point when I utilize it in its entirety. And that’s okay, because I’m always improving. With deliberate practice, I work hard to get better. That means that the short story I wrote last year looks ridiculous to me now, because between then and now, I’m a different writer, with new perspectives, aesthetic tastes, and priorities. My interests remain the same, but my approach to them shifts over time as new understandings and new influences alter my writing style.
So, while no work may ever be my “best work” at any given time, I can stop hiding behind that line, which is little more than an excuse for material not up to par. My best work lay out there somewhere. But more importantly, I think, than even my phantom best work is my better work, because each improvement is a step closer to best. The ultimate destination of where “best” lies is up to critics and readers, if ever I make it that far, but I can rest assured knowing that I am and will continue improving. I want to own my work, best or not, with all its faults and failures.