The Number One Difference Between the Pro Writer and the Amateur

The other day I wrote a post about how writing has become a bit of a slog for me lately. One of my clients (Hi, Mitch!) asked me about it, saying, “You’re a professional. That’s not supposed to happen to you.”

He was kidding. I think.  But it brings up an excellent point.

Because, as I explained to him, there’s one big difference between the professional and the amateur writer.

The amateur gets distracted by Christmas and grandchildren and snow (we are currently on snowstorm #2) and allows all those things to lead her away from the computer.

The professional gets distracted by Christmas and grandchildren and snow and figures out how to get the words in anyway.

If you were a brain surgeon, would you let Christmas shopping lead you away from the operating room?

If you were an attorney, would you let snow keep you from the courtroom?

If you were president would you let your business keep you away from intelligence briefings?

Scratch that last one; bad example.

But all kidding aside, you get my point.  None of the other professionals let themselves get distracted and neither should you.

I think my client’s statement is a common misconception.  There’s this idea that the other writer–the bestselling novelist, the memoirist whose book got made into a movie, the essayist who just got a collection published–has it all dialed in.  That she sits down at her computer every morning and the words flow and nobody bugs her until her daily word count is done.  And the corollary to it is the belief that someday when you’re a professional writer, this is how your life will be.  Once you turn pro, your writing will be easy every time you sit down to do it.  Your life will be distraction-free. All that, and you’ll be making the big bucks, too.

I know about this fantasy because I have it, too. For some reason, mine tends to coalesce around English female novelists. I imagine them in their little cottage in the Cotswalds, snow falling outside while a fire roars inside. And as the fire roars, so does the author, banging out novel after novel that all are so perfect they barely need editing as they roll off her fingers.

Yeah, right.

That same author probably had to light the fire because the ancient heater in the funky old cottage went out and not only that but she had to mush through the snow to chop the wood. And every time she just gets into the flow of the writing, her uncle who lives next door appears with his latest drama.  And no matter what she does she can’t get the scene right.

But you know what she does? She shows up anyway.  Distractions happen to all of us, every single one. You can and should do your best to minimize them but they are still going to happen. Keep writing anyway.

Because writing well is the best revenge for every single damn thing in the world.

PS. Keep an eye on this space because my aforementioned client Mitch, is about to publish his first book and he’ll be telling you all about it in a guest post soon.

PPS. Mitch came to me after he had completed a very rough draft and we’ve worked together through the rewriting, the polishing and all the prep work he had to do for publishing.  If you need help with any aspect of your writing, check out my coaching. I’m totally revamping my coaching packages and fees for the new year, so now is a great time to get in at the old prices!

What it Takes to Be a Writer: Part One

asok_project365_mydesk_1059218_hWherein I talk about what it takes to be a writer, in my humble opinion, anyway.  To finish a book project, or even an article or short story.  To get the book out in the world, either into the hands of an agent and editor, or publish it yourself, which is a whole other enterprise. To hit the bestseller list. To rinse and repeat, which you’re going to need to do to build a career as a writer. What it takes to accomplish whatever your dream is.

Fresh off teaching a recent workshop in France, I’ve been pondering this.  Working with writers, listening to their hopes and frustrations opens my eyes over and over again, because their concerns echo mine in my own writing practice.  We are all gloriously different, right? And, at heart, we are also all very much alike.  To that end, here are two arenas in which many frustrations lie:

  1. Mindset
  2. Butt in chair

Let’s look at mindset,  otherwise known as the way you think, first.  It is easy to groan about this, to hold up your hands and say “Don’t tell me I am what I think!” But the cold, hard truth of the matter is that it’s true. If you think you can do it, you will be able to. But if you don’t think you can, you won’t. Sigh. You really do need to master your mindset about your writing.

But here’s a lot of the reason why—because after thinking about it, you need to do it. I know. Duh. But if you’re busy telling yourself that you can’t do it, you won’t. It’ll be too much pressure. You’ll get bored and wander away, take up archery or long-distance swimming or bird-watching.  Thoughts wear grooves in your brain and if you keep thinking you can’t, then your brain will believe you. And you won’t take time to write, because, well, you’re convinced you can’t. Or that you’re a bad writer. Or that the odds are stacked against you.

I follow a young woman named Jennifer Blanchard.  She is always ranting fervently about mindset and how important it is, how one must write down their goals every day, or at least re-read their goals. Etc., etc.  Part of me loves this stuff. Loves it. And part of me—the part that actually has to take the action—rolls my eyes at it.  But the thing is, everything she says about mindset is true.  You gotta get your brain in the right place to be a writer.  And that means doing whatever it takes, be that rereading your goals every day or monitoring those pesky negative thoughts.

Most of all it means you have to believe you can do it. Because if you don’t believe, you won’t make the time for it.  You’ll read knitting blogs (like I do when I get blocked), instead. Or you’ll decide the kitchen floor needs mopping. Or the cat’s nails need trimming. And the thing is—you won’t even realize why you’re indulging in these procrastination activities. You’ll convince yourself that it’s because there’s that spot of dirt, right there on the floor where everyone can see it.  Or that you absolutely must read that blog because you have to figure out where you went wrong on the sweater you’re knitting.  Or that the cat pulled up a thread on your gorgeous slipcover. Like that.

What’s the antidote to this? In truth, a lot of it is in taking action, which I’ll get to in a moment. Because the more you write, the easier it becomes and the easier it becomes, the more you’ll believe you can do it. Yeah, there is definitely an endless loop going on here.  But here are a couple other hints about mindset:

  1. Visualization has scientifically been proven to help. Not visualizing the moment you stand at the podium and accept your Nobel Prize for Literature, but visualizing yourself actually sitting at the computer writing. Thinking about how it feels as the words flow and your fingers range across the page.

Here’s an article that gives a good rundown on how to do it, and here’s one from Psychology Today on its benefits.

  1. Meditation and positive thinking. Activities that go hand in hand with visualization are meditation (you knew I was going there) because it quiets the damn monkeys in the brain enough to allow you to think positive thoughts about your writing, and affirmations. Yeah, I know. Dopey. I get it. But you can use them in the most casual of ways, as in when you’re thinking how you just can’t seem to get the scene right instead of berating yourself for being an idiot who can’t write, turn it around and tell yourself you know the story and you can figure out the scene. Just tell yourself that the rest of the day. C’mon, you’re a storyteller, right? So tell yourself a positive story. That’s all an affirmation is, in truth. You’re going to be telling yourself something all day anyway, it might as well be something positive.

As for meditation, just try it. Really. It is ten or fifteen minutes out of your day, and if it helps you become a better writer, isn’t that time well spent? I highly recommend downloading the Insight Timerfor your phone and using it. You can set interval bells so that the fifteen minutes doesn’t seem to stretch to fifteen hours, and there’s all kinds of cool ambient sounds you can meditate to, as well as a selection of guided meditations to try. Plus, it’s like social media for meditators. You can create a profile and interact with others all over the world.

Okay, so, alas, one cannot sit in one’s recliner and meditate and visualize and think positive thoughts all day and become a writer.  Would that we could. So I’ll discuss part two of the topic of what it takes in a blog post slated for Wednesday.

Until then, happy mind-setting. Or meditating. Or whatever.

And do tell what you think it takes to be a writer.

Writing Tip: The Process Mindset

Years ago, I attended a creativity camp in Taos, New Mexico put on by Julia Cameron of The Artist's Way fame.  (Yes, it was as cool as it sounds.  To say something is life changing is a cliche, but in this case, it truly was.  Fromt that point on, I took myself seriously as a creative person. I also met friends with whom I'm still close.)  

Process

My Taos Creativity Camp pillow.

Every morning in camp, we listened to Julia talk and did exercises from the Artist's Way and her other books.  Then, after lunch, we were free to wander the grounds of the San Geronimo Lodge, wend our way into town, or engage in creative classes, like fabric painting, doll making, drumming and others I've forgotten.

Having always been a textile person, one day I chose to do the fabric painting.  The deal was we'd paint a pillow and at the end of the week it would be sewn and stuffed and ready for us to take home.  I was filled with excitement about what I was learning on the creative process and I painted my pillow with two phrases that had resonated with me at the camp: 

Do the work, don't judge it.

Process is everything, product happens.

I have beleived fervently in these ever since.  And I have instituted them in my life with varying degrees of success, sometimes totally into the concepts, others, not so much.

For whatever reason (the position of the planets? the stretching exercises I'm doing? the yogurt I'm eating for breakfast?) I am currently in a huge process mindset phase.

And let me just tell you, it is glorious. 

The process mindset is about putting words on the page.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Put words on the page and don't worry about how good they are, what they sound like, if you should add more here or subtract some there.  

And when you approach the work with this mindset, a funny thing happens.  You start to put your true self on the page and later, when you read back over the words, you realize that they are kinda good.  But it really doesn't even matter, because you know that soon enough you'll be in a revision mindset phase and then you can go over the words and make them really good.

The best way I know to get myself into a process mindset is to tell myself that, it's just writing practice. As I wrote in this post, writing practice is any writing that is not related to your WIP.  And that takes the pressure right off, and if your experience is anything like mine, away you will go, writing like crazy. What's really cool is that writing practice can function as either a warm-up–write 300-500 words and then switch over to your WIP, or it can segue right into the WIP, as happens with me more and more.

But the key is the process mindset.  If you're loose and easy and tell yourself all that matters is that you get words on the page, it makes all the difference in the world.

(I wrote specifics about how to do a daily writing practice in the above-mentioned post.)

Do you have a writing practice that helps you get words on the page?

A First Look at Eric Maisel’s Making Your Creative Mark

Eric Maisel is practically a one-man industry.  Well, he invented an industry–that of creativity coaching.  In his own creativity coaching practice, he’s worked with MacArthur fellows, best-selling authors, Academy Award winners, painters, musicians, all kinds of creators.  And not only that, he’s written books–tons of ’em, several of which I have read and enjoyed.

So when his publicist at New World Library offered me his latest book, Making Your Creative Mark: Nine Keys to Achieving Your Artistic Goals to review, I enthusiastically said yes.

But I have a confession to make.  I’ve not gotten past the first few pages of the first chapter, which is titled, The Mind Key.

And this is not because the book is bad and boring.  It’s quite the opposite, in fact.  He’s got a list of nine tips for mastering your mind I found so helpful that I go back and re-read them every time I pick up the book.  Which is why I’m still on chapter one.

Why is mind mastery so important?  I’ll let Maisel tell you:

“Creating depends on having a mind quiet enough to allow ideas to bubble up.  Living a successful, healthy life as an artist requires that your self-talk align with  your goals and your aspirations.  Your job is to quiet your mind and extinguish negative self-talk.  These are your two most important tasks if you want a shot at your best life in the arts.”  (emphasis mine)

How about that, huh?  Huh?  Wouldn’t you agree with him?  I would.  Here are a couple of the tips he shares:

–Recognize you are the only one who can get a grip on your mind

–Listen to what you say to yourself

–Decide if what you are telling yourself serves you

–When you decide that a thought doesn’t serve you, dispute it and dismiss it

And so on (each tip is followed with more information on it that I didn’t include here).

I love this stuff.  I love reading about mastering the mind and mindset because it is at the basis of everything we do and create.  But too often, the only recommendation people give is to try positive thinking, which doesn’t work when it’s just covering up negative thinking. The reason I keep going back to Maisel’s tips are because they are specific and actionable (I know, I sort like a productivity expert).

So, anyway, I thought I’d go ahead and give you a heads up about the book in case you want to check it out.  I am planning to write more about the rest of the book, once I can manage to pull myself out of chapter one.

What are your thoughts on mindset?  How do you train your mind for the work you need to do?

New World Library sent me a review copy of the book, but the thoughts expressed are mine.