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.