Tag Archive | "praise"

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Posted in Mastery, Momentum, parentingComments (5)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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. Writers need to be guided by the light of their own visions along the paths they are attempting to hack through the jungle, rather than be pointed toward some far distant light or hounded off the path with complaints. A smart reader brings out a smart writer.


I can give you the harshest critique of “The Secret” and other like-minded new ageiness that makes all of us the authors of our own destinies. This logic can be cruel in many instances, and unhelpful. But in those moments of those lives that have a heck of a lot of leeway and privilege–like mine, knock wood, most days–a little dose of optimism surely goes a long way.

I’ll tell you a secret.

A writer friend of mine, Katia Noyes–hostess of the wonderful dinner party last night and author of an amazing novel called Crashing America–has been helping me structure my revisions of my third novel. First, I went through the whole thing (which I wrote in seven crazy, sleep-deprived weeks with two babies under eight-months old) and created a fifteen-page, detailed outline, a list really, of the book. Each day I had to go through a minimum of ten pages, and then report to Katia by email. In the email, I also had to include an affirmation to the effect that this novel does not have to be perfect, and that I know what the book needs and what I want.

There is a lot the affirmations cannot fix. But none of this–my hesitancy, my fear based on past experience and fatigue, my self-doubt–is one of those things.

I was supposed to post affirmations all over the house before giving birth, and you know, we never got around to it. Instead, Angie voiced them all to me throughout my labor, and that worked fine. I am not a devotee of affirmations. Or I didn’t used to be. But this daily reporting to Katia got me going. It shifted the way I felt about the project and its writer.

There’s that old story of Niels Bohr, the physicist. He had a horseshoe hanging over his office door, and a colleague said, “Niels, why do have a horseshoe there?” Niels said, “They say it brings good luck.” “Surely,” the colleague replied, “you don’t believe in that.” “No,” Niels said, “but they say that it works even if you don’t believe in it.”

So, too, with affirmations. Try it. Not for curing cancer, you know? But for changing attitudes: at least your own.

What do you affirm?

Posted in Editing, Mastery, parentingComments (1)

Related Sites

  • 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started See my blog about the wonderful Meg Clayton. The blog is guest authors’ tales of their tales
  • A Bit of This, A Bit of That Prolific, intelligent and quirky blogger and lover of all things bicycle . . .
  • Jamie Ford: Bittersweet Blog The author of The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (2009) shares the journey; lots of fun.
  • Koreanish A wonderful, helpful blog by the great writer Alexander Chee
  • ReadingWritingLiving Susan’s Ito’s wonderful blog on “trying to do it all: reading writing momming daughtering spousing working living” plus great insights into adoption and other stuff
  • SethFleisher.com Seth is a very good writer–and he’s got content: international politics, being a dad, and, of course, writing . . .
  • Sports Race Politics America Gretchen Atwood is working on an exciting book about the integration of pro-football. Here’s one to watch.
  • Towers of Gold Frances Dinkelspiel’s engaging web site about California history, economics and other important ideas.