My mother once heard a story about a grading scale for some non-traditional school. It was a 1 - 10 scale, with 10 being the best. And a colleague of hers had once had this amazing semester where she got straight As on her assignments, she was always on time for class, she participated consistently, and the teacher loved her.
And when it came time to get grades back, she got an 8.
After class she marched up to the teacher's desk and demanded an explanation. She felt that she deserved a 10, or at least a 9. And the teacher told her "10 is for God. 9 is for me. The best you can hope for is an 8. And that's what I gave you."
Now, I'm not saying that all attempts at excellence are met with such an unjust response. But I am questioning what excellence is, what kind of response it merits, and who gets to judge it in the first place.
When I was in high school, I had the same English teacher for two years in a row. (And I loved her, she's one of the best teachers I ever had!) The first year I would consistently get grades in the high eighties and low nineties on my assignments. And on report cards and in parent-teacher conferences she would say that I'm a good writer and I understand literature well, but there was just a little something that my writing was lacking, and she would love to see me break through that ceiling and produce really excellent work.
The next year, everything I turned in got a grade in the high nineties. And about halfway through the year, she asked me if I could feel the difference in my work. I told her "yes" because I wanted her to be proud of me and how much I had learned and grown.
I have no idea what it is that I did. To this day, when I look back on it, I remember myself putting forth the same level of effort and writing the same kinds of pieces. I really just don't know what changed.
So I've been thinking about what makes excellent work. Whenever I put up a scene in my scene study class, I think about what other people have done that has been really extraordinary, and I try to use whichever of their techniques work for me. I break down the script. I work on the character in depth. And it still feels rough and shallow whenever I actually do the scene for the first time in front of people.
When I'm writing a script I start off excited about the idea, and then I look at other, extraordinary scripts, and I always feel like my own is lacking something meaningful no matter how much planning and outlining I've done with it.
Now, that's probably in some part because we are all our own worst critics. Most creatives never feel good enough. So I suppose I'm in some pretty good company.
But also, will I ever know when the work I'm doing is really good? I can't just produce everything I ever write, after all. How do I know what's really worth it? Or do I just produce all the things I like the best, and keep chugging along, and hope other people like it because that's all I can do?
Boy, I hope one day I have an answer to that question.