Growth Mindset and Writing: A Celebration of Risk and Failure

Writing is hard. If you are honest with yourself and you really are a writer, you will admit that you like it that way.

I was listening to a quirky little interview with Ethan Canin yesterday, and he as much as confessed that he writes novels because they are harder for him than poetry or short stories. When I arrived at graduate school lo these many years ago, I was surrounded by people who had been considered the best writer in their class or school. Many found it frustrating to be part of the crowd now, to be told they weren’t ready to write a novel or that a story needed profound revisions.

But I suspect that the (many) people who went on to publish and continue writing welcomed–or learned to welcome–the challenge of writing well. There were a lot of people in that class who are doing remarkable work, and who have gotten some serious recognition, too, but all of them probably sit down to the blank page feeling at some level like a beginner. Afraid. Excited. Worried. Trepidatious, even.

Writing is hard. You have to ask yourself questions whose answers you don’t know (Barbara Kingsolver). You have to use your own flesh as bait (Annie Dillard). You have to follow the story, getting better at writing as you go, not waiting to know how to write before you begin. There is no bunny slope.

I just finished reading Mindset, a sort of pop-psych book by Carol Dweck, a non-pop-psychologist at Stanford. She proposed, and has done a lot of research to support, a theory that there are two mindsets that shape how people view learning, risk, challenges, intelligence, ability and self.

The fixed mindset sees intelligence, artistic ability and the like as, well, fixed. These are givens. Therefore, people with a fixed mindset are usually trying to prove that they are intelligent or able, rather than trying to get smarter or more able.

The growth mindset believes that intelligence and other abilities are gained through hard work, effort, learning, struggling and growing. These folks approach challenges and even failures as opportunities to become more intelligent, while the fixed-mindset folks are threatened by challenges which might de-throne them from a status such as “smart” or “good at writing.”

Dweck assures her readers that it is possible to change, that she herself changed from being a fixed mindset person to being a growth mindset person. At first, I found it hard to believe that one could change. This, I saw, put me in the fixed mindset group. At least in some respects . . .

I know that as a teacher, I have embraced a growth mindset, although even there I have been influenced by the reading of this book. But I see many ways in which I have a fixed mindset. And even with my students, I’ve sometimes had the desire to protect their egos instead of pushing them to do their very best. Dweck talks about the difference between praising someone’s qualities and praising his or her efforts. Some of these ideas go against the very grain of how I’ve been taught to interact, to encourage. Dweck shows that folks who are praised for their abilities tend to turn away risks and challenges that might prove that in fact they are not so great, while people praised for their efforts gladly take on new opportunities to grow and get better, smarter.

In the background, I hear Angie explaining this to our lovely babysitter: “If you can remember, and we can’t always ourselves, try to praise effort instead of ability. So instead of saying, ‘You are so strong,’ say, ‘I can tell you’ve been practicing.’ We’re really trying to emphasize the idea that learning and practice and effort are good things, over ‘being smart.'”

To her credit, our babysitter, despite having years of experience with kids, is very open to this new idea and not at all threatened by it. Growth mindset. See?

As writers, we have to encourage a growth-mindset. You simply cannot sail through with no challenge to your ego or your ability. This is a great good thing.

In New York, I taught at the Gothem Writers Workshop. One thing I loved about those classes was that because they were open to anyone but cost a fair amount, the people in them generally had some serious success in their careers but were willing to be beginners again–beginning writers. These are fun folks to teach. They have a growth mindset.

So what can you do to give yourself a growth mindset today?

Drawing from a wonderful chart Dweck publishes (on p. 245):

Accept challenges. Writing is hard. Don’t wait until it feels easy or you think you know what you are doing. Sit down and start. Expect it to be difficult. Welcome the challenge.

Persist in the face of setbacks. Writing seem terrible? Feel stuck about plot? Not sure you are even making sense? Keep going. The way to get better is to practice, to do the work, to keep at it.

See effort as a path to mastery. Someone told me when I was twenty-one that there was a ten year apprenticeship for being a writer. That really helped for for those first ten years. Then I forgot–after the first apprenticeship comes . . . another decade-long apprenticeship, and another. You are not proving your brilliance and talent when you write, you are learning that mastery. You are getting better.

Learn from criticism. No need to get defensive. Your draft is not a submission to a contest that deems your worth as a writer. Your draft is an opportunity to grow. This doesn’t mean you have to listen to all criticism or believe everything someone else has to say about your work. But do be sure you are wringing it for everything is has to offer you and the work.

Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others. This is a big one. There’s a wonderful interview with Jonathan Safran Foer by Micheal Krazny, on Forum, where Krazny quotes Flannery O’Connor’s famous dictum that writing workshops don’t discourage enough young writers. Krazny seems to be hoping JSF will agree with O’Connor, but instead he is so gracious and joyous about finding that his work encourages other people to write. It’s been a while since I’ve listened to it, but it is quite inspiring, and I recommend it.

So, as you head into the New Year, consider celebrating some of the failures and challenges of 2008–risks you took and opportunities you grabbed (often mistakenly, when you hoped you were grabbing the gold ring at the merry-go-round) that made you smarter, more talented, and better than you were before.

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  1. This was such a wonderful, and timely, post for me.

    I tend to learn very easily more or less, but writing is something that I find very hard to do, and do well. So I have avoided it for most of my life, even though I adore it. Crave it. Need it!

    Thanks for such an inspiring post, and here’s to a growth mindset in the New Year!


  2. “There are no bunny slopes” is one of my favorite lines from this post. I laughed out loud.

    Very few things that have the power to engage us over long periods are easy. Otherwise we’d lose interest. (And we may lose interest for other reasons as well.)

    I don’t know if the following comparison fits, I’ve been driving a lot and listening to many audiobooks but this popped into my head based on one of the books I listened to. The “fixed” perspective is like the Puritan view of salvation; it is pre-determined and your life on earth at most may reveal which way god has already pegged for you. Changing your path is not possible.

    The “growth” mindset is more like Catholicism (or Anglicanism in the case of the book I listened to) where salvation was not pre-ordained. It’s important for people to keep striving to achieve salvation. And there are ways to atone for mistakes in the eyes of god in order to continue towards the goal.

    I may be full of shit here. My mom is Catholic and my dad’s family is the stereotype of repressed new england-y Puritanism/Protestantism. And this fits based on what I know but I do not practice either religion and am not a theological scholar.


  3. @Gretchen: my own raised-Catholic Angie suggests that original sin as a concept is a little outside the growth mindset. There is redemption, she concedes, but it’s not quite the same. That said (by Angie), I have always been drawn to Catholics, so I think you may be onto something. 🙂

    @Kimberley–Thanks; glad it helped. Happy New Year!

  4. I didn’t know Angie was raised Catholic! Funny the things you learn about folks well after meeting them.

    Yes, I see the point about original sin. Though I wouldn’t say a growth mindset would require that perfection or salvation is achievable, just that improvement is possible and that the tools of that improvement are within a person’s control or action. In that way you might be able to shoehorn the religious comparison… 😉


  5. Dear Elizabeth:

    Your’s been a very refreshing and inspiring blog to read this new year. It’s a thought-provoking piece of abiding relevance. Your take on the writer’s mindset undergoing change and growth is commendable and highly appreciated.

    I am also inspired by your words in the following lines:

    “As writers, we have to encourage a growth-mindset. You simply cannot sail through with no challenge to your ego or your ability. This is a great good thing.”

    Indeed, through some difficult, writer’s block times, such growth mindset deeply helped me finish my upcoming book: American Galaxy:

    Interestingly too, Professor Dweck’s works have been helpful to me personally. I have read some of Carol S. Dweck’s empirical papers and theoretical articles; and especially her 2005 published book edited with Professor Andrew J. Elliot: “The handbook of competence and motivation.”

    Thank you so much for caring enough to share your growth mindset article. I am very grateful. With Angie, Leo and Charlie plus your extended family, have a wonderful and abundant harvest new year 2009 in GOD’s loving care. Keep well, and cheers!

    With very good wishes:



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