I’ve told the story of how a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (1) without talent became a master of creative nonfiction and literary journalism.
I mentioned that he took three creative actions that any of us can take.
I want to reiterate those three actions to further disabuse us of two myths:
Myth 1: That great writing stems primarily from magical talent or divine inspiration.
Myth 2: That great writers stick it out alone like lone wolves.
All three of these actions help abate (though not vanquish) the voices of fear, doubt, shame, and armor. By the way, these annoying voices – like telephone solicitors – call every single one of us, the Dalia Lama included. (2)
1. Voice of Fear & Doubt: “You don’t know what you’re doing!”
Action that Great Authors Like You Take:
Devote yourself to your book’s genre and field more than to the marketplace or to mass opinion.
Trump the voice that says, “You’re not talented,” and listen to the voice that says, “Hey! Let’s learn your craft and apply your imagination to that!”
When you do so, your risks and failures and victories are not so much about good or bad performances or good or bad character or good or bad talent. It’s not about good or bad anything. It’s about how you’re working your material and learning to become a great maker of art.
As an artist or entrepreneur, artistic devotion gets you through the challenges more than passion.
Passion + grit + apprenticeship to the making = artistic devotion.
2. Voice of shame: “You’re going to fail and humiliate yourself.”
Action that Great Authors Like You Take: Be an audacious experimenter.
When you make art in your creative laboratory, no one but the ones you invite in can see your work. As you apprentice yourself and apply your imagination to a craft you’re devoted to, then risk-taking becomes an experiment. You test stuff out. Some of it works. Much of it doesn’t. You cry. You laugh.
And you grow amazingly confident. Why? Because through the tears, you didn’t perish. You actually honed your own creative process and method.
U.K. psychologist Richard Wiseman might call it the “as if principle.” Experiment as if you’re an author, and you will gradually become that author. Why? Because in the making and doing, your body and brain become entrained to think, imagine, and act as thriving authors’ do.
Many years later, Richard Todd would say of Kidder: “Kidder’s great strength is that he’s not afraid to write badly.” In their co-written book Good Prose, the co-narrator notes, “The truth was that Kidder was afraid of writing badly in public, not in front of Todd.”
Kidder has written really crappy stuff, by the way, including a novel based on his experiences in Vietnam that he and Todd can laugh about now. He never published it, but writing it did prime him to write a stellar memoir.
Great innovators like you put themselves on the line. They ultimately care only what their trusted ones and mentors think. Kay Larson stopped fretting about what art critics and historians and John Cage “experts” would think, so she could write a truly audacious book for Penguin that blew the cover off of anything written about Cage (or Zen and art for that matter).
3. The Voice of Armor (3): “You should have this writing stuff figured out by now! Real writers figure it out themselves!”
Action that Great Authors Like You Take: Find a mentor.
A mentor doesn’t have to be a professional editor or professor. A mentor can be a trusted colleague. Possibly a friend – although friends as mentors can get tricky. You can study an author’s work like a writer and learn to read like a writer.
But in my experience as a writer and in my pursuit of the art of living, nothing has substituted for a real person.
A trusted mentor walks a little ahead of you, knows when to walk beside you, and knows when to walk behind you.
A young F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway both found an audacious mentor in editor Max Perkins who single-handedly changed what an editor could be. Perkins was a book architect, psychoanalyst, marriage counselor, and more. (4)
T.S. Eliot’s bloated manuscript of parodies and monologues and sermons and Sanskrit phrases might have remained a wasted heap. But he gave the pile to Ezra Pound who patiently waded through it and found the golden threads, fiercely cut the excess, and helped check Eliot’s ego without diminishing his brilliance.
The waste heap became The Waste Land. (5)
Are you really better and more a genius than Kidder, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Eliot? Hmm.
Thanks for running with me,
(1) Kidder’s and Todd’s Good Prose is what its title claims. And it’s testament to a fine partnership, 20 years in the making. My favorite chapter: What Kidder articulates about the narrative of revelation (something I’ve fumbled to articulate in my teaching for 20 years but never mustered this mastery).
(2) Not that the grinning trickster has told me, but I have it on good word by Patanjali (the Yoga-Sutras author from 2000 years ago) that fear plagues even sages.
(3) Yes, like every other “sensitive male” out there, I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly off and on for the past few months. I definitely think of myself as being in the category of “I don’t do that vulnerability stuff.” But I’m sure that by saying this I’ve just disproven my self-perception. 🙂
(4) I’m rereading A. Scott Berg’s biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. I first met Perkins’ brilliance when studying his letters to Fitzgerald when Fitz was writing the manuscript that would become The Great Gatsby. Perkins’ empathetic and craftsman insight are, truly, genius.
(5) I’m also rereading Howard Gardner’s Creating Minds (Basic Books, New York 1993). Gardner studies the role of mentorship in the lives of Eliot, Picasso, Einstein, Freud, Stravinsky, Gandhi, and Graham. May I use the word “brilliant” again?(6) Very well, then. It’s a brilliant study.
(6) I’m aware that I’m susceptible to blogger and pop author cliches such as the use of “brilliant.” I’d like to think that the real influence for my using it, though, is a delightful actress from London whom I met in Woodstock. Whenever we’d have a conversation, she’d say, “That’s absolutely brilliant,” and her use of it, the way the ll’s lobbed off her British tongue, all those years ago felt so natural that I often pined some day to use it naturally. So I am. Or I am testing it out.