What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?
Innate talent does not exist. If you want to become a writer—or a better one— you need to devote yourself to learning and practicing your skills. There’s a wonderful book by Geoff Colvin, which I highly recommend, called Talent is Overrated: what REALLY separates world-class performers from everyone else. The book explains what scientific researchers in the area of expert performance have learned in over three decades of research. They have shown that in athletics, music, chess, and many other fields, what makes people great is not a natural ability that makes it easy for them to perform well, but what they call “deliberate practice.” The same thing is true in writing: the more you devote yourself to practice, the more you will build your skills.
Would you mind sharing a recent success story about one of your students?
Not long ago I was talking to a group of adult students who would be taking a course called “Telling Tales,” which I teach in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University. One woman exclaimed, “I just realized who I am as a writer—I’m a storyteller!” I call this a success story, because on the path to writing success one of the steps everyone has to take is to discover what kind of writing she or he really wants to do. By that I don’t mean that if you want to write stories you can’t also write poems. I mean that you need to find out where you fit in today’s very large world of writing.
What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career has had the biggest impact on your success?
Peter Wayne, my t’ai chi teacher, says repeatedly in class, as we do the t’ai chi form, “Inhabit each movement as fully as you can. Be present in it; don’t be thinking about what’s coming up next.” I keep this advice in mind all the time as I work. It enables me to be more present with what I can do now as a writer and teacher; and when I fully inhabit the place where I am right now, I see much more clearly what I need to do next.
What’s the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?
I think that new writers need to take the time to build their skills before they attempt to get published. There’s a lot to learn about writing, and you can waste a lot of time and energy trying to get into the “big leagues” of the publishing world when you should be mastering skills. For this reason, I also think that the focus in many writing workshops for beginners is misplaced; there’s far too much emphasis on producing finished pieces and not enough on learning skills. Aspiring baseball players don’t just go out and play games—the sports equivalent of producing stories or poems—they practice. And research has shown that the best practice involves breaking down an activity into its component skills and devoting lots of time to practicing each one of those skills. So rather than working obsessively to perfect a single story or essay, new writers need to practice skills, such as using their imaginations or their powers of observation. Once they have trained their skills, then they will be able to produce writing of much higher quality.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m extremely fortunate to be able to spend most of my days engaged in writing and teaching, the two things I most love to do.
If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?
The publishing industry is changing constantly these days, and writers can’t control this change. So instead of focusing on what’s happening, or not happening, in “the biz,” I encourage my students to establish their own paths towards writing excellence. To set your feet upon such a path, and to stay on it, learning your skills through dedicated practice: that’s something completely within your control. And, more than anything else you can do, achieving excellence as a writer will lead you to publication.
In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?
Thanks to Writer’s Digest, my book How To Be a Writer is on its way out into the world, where I hope it will be of help to aspiring writers. I also have a new website, www.WhereWritersLearn.com, where I offer free writing lessons to help beginning and stuck writers learn their skills through practice. And I’m now at work on a second book. How To Be a Writer focuses on training what I call “content skills,” the mental faculties (such as imagination and curiosity) that enable us to come up with material for pieces of writing. The next book will focus on using deliberate practice to develop skill with language.
Do you have any advice for new writers on building an audience?
I think that building an audience actually begins as we write. I see establishing a natural relationship with readers as an essential skill for writers, and there’s a section in How To Be a Writer that focuses entirely on developing this skill. It’s crucial to be able to imagine your particular audience and to be in relationship with them as you write. Who, exactly, are your readers? What kind of people are they? What do they need or want from a story or a poem or an essay? What do you have to give them? How will what you have to say help them? When you ask questions like this you develop a felt sense of real people “on the other side of the page,” and that helps give the quality of voice to your writing. And then, when you are ready to send your work out into the world, you will already know who your audience is, and can concentrate your promotional efforts on reaching those particular people.
What about advice for writers seeking agents?
Most baseball players don’t get agents until they are ready for the major leagues; that is, they have spent a long time developing their skills and are now ready to “go pro.” I encourage aspiring writers to do the same. There’s a lot of competition out there, and you are only wasting your time and energy trying to get an agent before you have trained your skills to close-to-professional level.
Any final thoughts?
Excellence in writing is available to anyone. It all depends on how much time and energy you are willing to devote to deliberate practice in training your skills. Ted Williams used to practice hitting until his hands bled. Ben Hogan used to say, “Every day you don’t practice you’re one day further from being good.”
I’ve talked about learning skills through practice as a way to publishing success—and I believe it is. At the same time, dedication to writing practice has its own rewards. When you become a practicing writer, you are always engaged in learning, and the activity of learning is inherently satisfying and pleasurable. Even if you never get published, writing practice will build your brain, make you a better communicator, increase the pleasure you get from writing and reading, and make you feel more empowered. As Geoff Colvin says in Talent is Overrated, “Being good at whatever we want to do is among the deepest sources of fulfillment we will ever know.”