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...

In Praise of Praise

In raising two lovely little boys, I have been thinking a lot about praise. People and books offer all sorts of advice about how to raise children, and one suggestion is that parents praise effort and persistence, rather than simply the child’s existence. Obviously, the idea is that if you reward the push, you’ll get a child (and then a grown-up) who keeps trying, who doesn’t give up. These qualities are required for success or even just for hobbling along in the world, so why not nurture them? I was at a dinner party last night, and someone talked about praising children so that they would grow-up feeling good about themselves. I pointed out that “self-esteem” acquired from being told you are great is hollow if effort and persistence haven’t been encouraged. Someone else pointed out that praising kids for “trying” sometimes leaves us with people who feel good about making an effort even if they don’t actually achieve anything or gain the necessary skills to accomplish whatever they are trying to do. As a parent, abandoning formulas which can never be proven anyway, I find myself praising all of it: effort that leads to failure, effort that leads to success, and just the downright praisability of their very beings. In editing writers, people often forget the importance of praise. Here I do not mean empty or false praise. I mean praise, lodged in the middle of a rigorous critique, that acknowledges what is working (and perhaps why). Writers need to learn what we do right as much or more than we need to learn what we do wrong....