I’ve recently started a weight-loss program provided by my day-job as a health benefit. The program, Naturally Slim, consists of a series of weekly video lessons that cover topics of nutrition, weight loss, exercise, stress reduction, and general mental and physical well-being. In one segment on exercise, the speaker pointed out that people, especially men in their forties and fifties, tend to hurt themselves by overdoing exercise when they first try to get back in shape. He further elaborated that our society seems to cling to the unhealthy expectation that to “be fit” is a destination, not a process. If you haven’t worked out in twenty years, you can’t reasonably expect to get up off the couch and power through the workouts that were difficult in your teens and twenties.
With this attitude, most people who try to get into shape to quit before giving themselves a chance to achieve their goals. Most often, they either injure themselves or are overwhelmed by their perceived lack of progress. It is better to be honest with oneself, accept your limitations and “start where you are,” even if all you can manage is a ten-minute walk. Soon enough, ten-minute walks turn into twenty-minute walks. With persistence, you’ll be able to walk for an hour or more, incorporate some weight training and more high-intensity cardio. It just makes sense, right?
At that point, I took a moment to pause the video and figure out why the point seemed bigger to me than simple fitness advice. It didn’t take very long for my mind to wander back to my writing, as it tends to do. I had been struggling with putting words on the page that week and was getting frustrated with my lack of progress. “His arguments about fitness make perfect sense to me,” I thought, “and yet, I also am frustrated when I have writing sessions that result in a lower than desired word count. I’m disappointed when my first drafts fail to live up to the awesome thing I had pictured in my head. It’s as if I’ve convinced myself that small steps means that I’ve somehow failed as a writer.” See how that logic, or shall I say “illogic,” works? It sneaks into your every day life if you’re not careful to watch for it!
As a society, we’ve bought into the fallacy that if we don’t see instant perfection we have some how failed. As such, we are unreasonably hard on ourselves and become frustrated from “lack of progress.” It is unreasonable to insist that we can go from an inactive lifestyle to sprinting without conditioning ourselves with the steps in between. Likewise, it’s unreasonable to insist that we go from a blank page to a polished work without taking the time to draft and redraft.
I, like many of y’all, have been raised and molded in a culture of instant gratification. Personally, I blame marketing. We’ve been told so often that we deserve to be a fit/healthy/sexy person and for all our dreams to come true, instantly. Why are you sitting? After all, you were meant to be up and running! The capital “T” truth is that’s not how real life works. Frankly, those sorts of expectations are unhealthy, counter productive, and only work for the people who are trying to sell you something. Real progress, real accomplishment, takes the expenditure of blood, sweat, and tears. In the end, it is the struggle that makes what we accomplish meaningful.
For creative people, this truth is particularly difficult to shake. As the legendary radio personality, Ira Glass put it, we often get into creative endeavors because we have exceptional taste. We want to make the things we love, and when our initial attempts fall short of the standards set by our own good taste, we’re disheartened.
So, the first step to becoming a better author is to realize that our early attempts aren’t going to live up to our full potential. Certainly, we won’t be able to compare to the heroes that inspired us to write in the first place. Truth be told, they weren’t born perfect either, but rather earned their skill. Don’t believe me? Find your favorite author who has published more than ten books. Read their debut novel and then their most recent work. Notice the difference?
There is no such thing as the perfect novel. Writing is too subjective for that to be possible. Rather, we must struggle to be better than we were. Most of the writers I know are too self-critical to be able to help themselves improve in the long run. Certainly, I’ve reached plateaus in my skill that I could only overcome with the help of a new craft book, or the advice and observations of a trusted friend. Not all advice should be treated equally. Instead, we have to find those with the experience to give us an accurate view of our work and who aren’t afraid of hurting our feelings in the process. This is why editors and writing groups are critical to an author’s growth. They help remind us where we are today and show us what we need to do to get better.
I recently experienced this first hand when a writing friend of mine sent me a guest post for the Fictorians. However, the first draft was less than I had hoped from her, less than I knew she could accomplish. It was full of language that hinted at depth and emotional power, but fell short of the mark. I had asked her for the post because I knew she had something to share with the wider world of the blogosphere. I told her just that in my feedback, highlighting my observations with specific examples. Sure, I was reluctant to hurting her feelings, but at that point I was her editor, not her friend. A few days later, I received a note back from her. She had taken my feedback and redrafted the post. When I read it, I found that she had delivered even more than I had initially hoped for! In the end, she ended up thanking me for the push. My honesty had helped her do her best work.
To become a master at any activity, you must start where you are, and start today. You’ll never finish a paragraph if you don’t finish a sentence. If you don’t finish a first draft, you’ll never have the opportunity to practice your revision skills. If you read interviews and biographies of the world’s greatest minds, you’ll find one thing to hold true. Becoming an expert or a professional is a process, not a destination. They were obsessed. They consumed, learned, and practiced voraciously until they reached the end of what others could teach them. Only then could they push further than anyone had achieved before. Sure, there have been a few sparks of brilliance over the course of human history, but more often than not it was persistence that allowed them to reach those unprecedented heights.