Friday, 23 May 2008

Coffee Morning: Turning Pro

"The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death." - Steven Pressfield

I suppose that somewhere there must be writers who are always motivated, always brimming with confidence and optimism. I haven't met many of these, though, and I certainly don't fit that profile. Most writers I know are angst-filled neurotics who question their ability and direction on a daily basis.

Reading Steven Pressfield's The War of Art was an epiphany: the man was writing about me. Pressfield lumps all of the challenges I - and most writers, I believe - face under the umbrella of 'resistance'. He claims that resistance, the enemy of creativity, is devious and ubiquitous, and he gives an exhaustive list of the disguises under which it appears: fear, blocks, procrastination, TV, alcohol, drugs, shopping, food obsessions, self-doubt, self-dramatization, victim acts, dysfunctional relationships - anything, in fact, that keeps us from doing the work we were meant to do.

The more resistance we experience, the more important our undone work is to us: that's the lesson that the enemy teaches. So, how does Pressfield suggest we beat resistance? He sums up his remedy in two words: Turning Pro. By 'turning pro' he means that we stop thinking like amateurs. Turning pro changes everything. A pro:
  • Plays for keeps.
  • Is there seven days a week.
  • Is committed over the long haul.
  • Does his work out of love although he accepts remuneration for his labour.
  • Does not overidentify with his job.
  • Masters the techniques of his job.
  • Has a sense of humour about his job.
  • Receives praise or blame in the real world. (Send out those manuscripts!)
  • Seeks order.
  • Acts in the face of fear.
  • Views the work as craft, not art, thus demystifying the process.
  • Accepts no excuses.
  • Does not show off.
  • Asks for help.
  • Does not take failure (or success) personally.
  • Self-validates.
  • Endures adversity.
There's more, but that's the essence of it. When the writer has mastered these, when he sits down in the face of his fear and does his work, then, and only then, do the mysterious forces of creativity alight on his shoulder, bringing the ideas and insights which he humbly receives.

I'm not there yet. I'm a work-in-progress, striving toward professionalism, striving toward facing down the enemy and doing the work in spite of it all.

Did you ever have one of those light bulb moments like I did when I read The War of Art? Have you discovered special techniques for taking yourself and your writing seriously, and if so, where? Have you, in Pressfield's words, turned pro?


Rowan Coleman said...

Excellent subject, wordtyrst. As I read this I was nodding the whole way through. I agree with everything listed in those bullet points although I think I've come to them more by instinct and trial and error than by design. I haven't had a lightbulb moment exactly on how to be a writer, because I don't think that that qustion is ever fully answered, the self doubt, angst and neurosis never goes away - that's part of the job description, I think. I read somewhere that 'lucky' people are the people who look hard for their opportunities and then strive to make the most of them and I think that's probably right. Life doesn't happen to you, you happen to it - so be brave and make sure you have an impact! (ie get submitting, people)

Debs said...

Excellent post. I agree with Rowan that you make your own luck, or at least can certainly help yourself by making the most of opportunities and working hard.

I think that I 'turned pro' in my mind at least when I insisted on having my own space specifically for writing. Now the whole family know that when I'm in the shed they mustn't (if at all possible) disturb me and to be honest, I think they're only too happy to have the house decluttered from most of my writing paraphernalia.

Being in my own space helps me focus on my writing and as I don't even have the internet connected out there, I have very little to distract me. It all helps.

Flowerpot said...

Good post Wordtryst. I'm not published in fiction yet but I am with journalism and have one word to say. PERSEVERANCE. Oh, and hard work of course but we all know that. Perseverance really does pay off. It's not easy when you're angst ridden and feeling the biggest failure in the world, have PMT or are exhausted. But perseverance really does pay off, as does a willingness to listen and improve.

JJ said...

Excellent subject Wordtryst. I'm going to Amazon right after here to check that book out.

Yes, I recognise all of that neurosis stuff. 'A work in progress' is a bit optimistic for me but a work in ... something. No lightbulb moment for me either, but joining and not abandoning the Novel Racers despite the low times has to count high up in my experience of the last year and a bit. 'Asks for help' has been a big step forward for me: here and with Julia Bell during the Skyros holiday. First time I've let anyone see anything fictional I've written. That led directly to 'Does not take failure personally' when at first I was upset and shocked I came to realise that she was right, I understood what I had to do and I am trying to do it! And mostly, it wasn't personal.

However, I have a long way to go!

Off to Amazon to check that out now.

ChrisH said...

Like Rowan I came to this list by 'feeling' my way to it. I think it's only when you regard yourself as a professional writer - whatever your qualifications - that you develop the mental framework to get on with the job.

Leatherdykeuk said...

Good call. Maybe one day I'll start thinking like a pro.

Flash fic, anyone? Fiver. Ten if you want a twist at the end.

Graeme K Talboys said...

I think one of the big hurdles is getting other people to accept that writing is a serious task and bloody hard work (even that bit where you sit with your feet up and your eyes closed). Taking it seriously yourself goes a long way toward that. Of course, it isn't always easy. I came to most of these slowly over the years (blessed with a family and friends who look on creative work as a sensible means of employment). Some I'm still working toward.

Asking for help has always been the most difficult, because until recently there was no one to ask. Hurrah for forums like this!

SpiralSkies said...

Great post.

I fear I shall never be a pro on the grounds that, if/when I'm published, I will be showing off like mad!

I think we all need a sense of humour to keep on writing. It really is hard bloody work and, without the support and advice of others, I'd never have managed to get a first draft completed.

I do love it (and hate it) but yes! show me the money!!

Fiona said...

Great post and I agree with Jen - a sense of humour is pretty vital as most writers don't develop a thick skin. Oh, how I laughed yesterday when ageing laptop got hot and bothered and then crashed. I lost 3K of second draft.

I wish I'd tried submitting short stories before novel writing. It must be an incredible boost if you sell one.

PS. My teenage thug found my draft in temp files.

Kate.Kingsley said...

Thanks for this, Wordtryst: I’ve just bought this book ~ it sounds like JUST what I need to read! Tackling my writing in a more professional way is something I’ve been struggling with for a while ~ but I’ve recently bitten the bullet and started submitting more and more stuff, so I’m headed in the right direction. Not so much a light-bulb, as a flickering candle at the mo, but I’m building my confidence up I just need to find a way to prioritise my writing without feeling like I’m neglecting other stuff, or that it’s just an indulgence or hobby.

Caroline said...

Great post. I'm with Rowan on this one. I realise that attitude and luck all influence outcomes.

As for being a pro? Nah! I'm still finding my feet and taking small (but positive) steps. One day.

Anonymous said...

I think that turning pro can help with a large number of aspects of fiction writing. For non-fiction writing, I suspect that a professional attitude is not only desirable but probably essential. I'm attempting to use professional-like activities and disciplines to my own fiction writing. It is working to a good degree, but that's by no means all there is to it.

I think fiction writing is a (sometimes awkward) blend of art, craft, science and engineering. If you focus too much on one aspect, then you're likely to lose something in one or more of the other areas. You have to approach the whole thing from many angles.

I've not really had a light-bulb moment. It's been more of an evolutionary thing. A steady learning game. I think that adapting and learning to improve as you go is very important. It's not good enough to merely soldier on and use scatter-gun approaches to getting published. You have to find out what you're doing right and improve on it; find out what you're doing wrong and correct it. It's difficult to do this in an environment that provides little or no feedback.

No wonder we sometimes suffer from disillusionment and self-doubt. Yep, me too.
This is why a sense of humour about our work is essential. After all, we do it because it's fun!

I still feel like an amateur, but hopefully I'm slowly turning pro.

Annieye said...

I agree with the Captain about writing being a blend of many talents and skills. The list could apply to any profession and the fact that writers come from all walks of life proves that it's only something that can be 'learned' up to a point. There's definitely something else - a special place in the soul perhaps - that sets people who love writing apart from others, no matter what profession pays the mortgage and puts food on the table.

This is a really interesting post and gives much food for thought.

The light-bulb moment for me was in August last year when I came out of the closet after years of hiding away my scribblings. I've now had a short story accepted and my novel is out there waiting for a kind agent to fall in love with it. (I live in hope and it's nice to dream.)

sheepish said...

What a great post, I shall definitely seek out this book as I need some help with "the take myself seriously" bit along with quite a lot of the other "resistances". My only light bulb moment was when I actually came up with the idea for my wip, now I am going through a mega self- doubt phase but I am trying to work through it.
If there was a prize for the most inventive procrastination I would win hands down whatever JJ may say to the contrary. And the Novel Racers definitely help if only to remind me of why I joined i.e. to finish my wip.
When I do finish my first draft I think the hard work will have just begun but I will feel more like a writer than I do at the moment. Off to Amazon now!!

Clare Sudbery said...

I'm still working on being a pro, despite officially being a full-time writer and having made (a paltry amount of) money from my books.

The things I fall short on are:

Is there seven days a week. (although I'm not convinced this is necessary)

Acts in the face of fear. (sometimes I manage this, sometimes I don't)

Accepts no excuses.

Does not show off. (I doubt I'll ever master this one and am not sure I want to)

Does not take failure (or success) personally. (sometimes I manage this, sometimes I don't - but I do think the whole thing would become rather boring if I couldn't be proud of my successes)

On the whole I think the "Going Pro" argument makes a lot of sense.

Anyway, lightbulb moment for me was when I read a book called "38 Fiction Writing Mistakes" or something like that, by a guy called, um, Jack something (Zinnia lent it to me, she'll know).

He said a lot of useful / sensible things, but the one which really stood out was this (and I've said it here before, but I'll say it again): Your inner critic can be mean and vindictive. It doesn't offer constructive criticism. It says the kind of things which, if a writing friend reported them as having come from someone else in their lives, would have you hopping up and down in anger. "How dare they say that to you! Pay them no attention!" would probably be your response.

What he specifically says is, don't listen to your inner critic at the first draft stage. They will trample on your creativity. Wait until you've written something, and *then* be critical of it. And even then be constructively critical. Don't just say to yourself, "This is so rubbish, I don't deserve to call myself a writer." You shouldn't put up with that kind of crap from anyone, least of all yourself.

Clare Sudbery said...

The book was "38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)" by Jack M. Bickham.

Link here.

Lane said...

Good post wordtyrst!

My 'turning pro' is a work in progress. Although I agree with most of Steven Pressfield's points, you can self-validate until the cows come home but outside validation changes everything.
When I sold my first painting many years ago, not only was the feeling euphoric, it changed completely how I felt about my 'art'. Yes, there's still angst and I expect there always will be but validation gives confidence and a justification for sitting around staring into space:-)

KeVin K. said...

Go pro?
Why didn't I think of that?

My lightbulb moment was about seven, maybe eight, years ago. Id have thought the moment would be etched in my mind, but I can't recall the exact date. But it was a definite "aha" moment in which my world view shifted and I transitioned from "artist" to "craftsman."
My lightbulb week was in 2003 when I attended my first Oregon Coast Professional Writers' Workshop -- a program I can not recommend highly enough -- and spent a week with people who write for a living. That's where I learned my mantra: "Write, mail, repeat."

The hardest thing for me is asking for help. Not that I don't ask for technical advice or directions to a research resource. But I have never shown a WIP to anyone. In fact, the best indicator to the outside world that I'm having trouble with a project is my silence on the subject. (Not that I chatter all that much when things are going well.) From what I've read and heard, that might be a habit I need to break -- or a skill I need to cultivate -- but so far my personality isn't ready to make the change.

In the end, though, I think that what a writer needs to succeed, more than anything else, is the trait my mother used to call sticktoitiveness. Everything else is proceeds from that.

Anonymous said...

I think I am a long way off turning pro at this stage but I will keep trying. I get days when I am totally inspired, have got to get my ideas and words on paper and feel optimistic that one day I will be signing copies of my book for a line of excited readers. I hope to be a "work completed" one day, like you, I will strive towards that goal.

Nice coffee morning topic.
CJ xx

B said...

With me it was a slow realisation, like switching on a dimmer switch light really, really slowly :)

I've written since I was a child, on and off. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I've told myself it's stupid and something I should stop doing and I've told myself it's something I love that is in my blood and that I can't ever stop.

But as a result of getting my parents to buy me a subscription to Mslexia, I saw the ad for the 'Start Writing Fiction' Open Uni course, and then my dad asked whether I had any interest in doing an OU course as his work had a deal on to get them cheaper for employees and family members, I realised I wanted to do that course. And as a result of doing that course, I came to the realisation that I *AM* a writer. None of the rest of it matters. I write, therefore I am.

I carry my notebooks everywhere. I write something every day, no matter how small. Next steps will be to see if I can carve out a day off a week from my job without loosing too much pay and find space to not get distracted by things when I am working.

I'm not quite pro yet, but I'm working towards it.

Helen Shearer said...

Hi, all,

Sorry I am late yet again. I couldn't find five minutes at work to read this week's topic so here I am, at three o'clock in the morning (don't ask) reading everyone's responses.

I'm not sure if I've gone pro yet. I get the self-validation, perseverance part but I've never sought order. Let me rephrase that. I've sought it. I've just never found it. My desk looks like a hurricane hit it most of the time. And if by 'acts in the face of fear' Pressfield means 'curls up in fetal position and babbles incoherently until that stubborn, bitchy muse returns' then yes, I have gone pro. I write virtually every day, I have a sense of humour about it, I'm committed over the long haul, I view writing as primarily a craft, albeit an artistic one, although I'm still completely mystified by it. I do take it very seriously though and I get downright snotty when people refer to it as my hobby. It's not something I do merely for the enjoyment of it or to pass the time. I do it because it's part of me, always has been, always will be, whether or not Random House offers me a six-figure advance, although I'm thinking it will be a bigger part of me if they do.

My first lightbulb moment came several years ago when an English professor wrote, on one of my papers, that she thought I might have the talent to write for a living. Before that I thought only the greats could make a living at this, but she made me think that maybe I have a chance. I keep that note on a bulletin board above my desk and when I doubt myself I read it.

I had another minor epiphany a while back when someone brilliant (could have been Oprah Winfrey but I'm not certain) said that she reminds herself that Ghandi, Einstein and every great figure who has ever lived did what they did with the same twenty four hours in their day that we have. Whenever I wonder why the effing novel from hell is taking so long, I remember that and it motivates me to put my arse in the chair and make the most of my day.

Great topic this week!

Flowerpot said...

PS - am I allowed 2 comments?! My favourite writing book is Escaping into the Open by Elizabeth Berg. That always helps me 'see' things clearly.

DK Leather said...

well as always I'm meandering in late; the weekend was eaten by visiting hoardes. Much fun was had though, so not feeling to sorry I'm afraid!

I think I can say that I'm still learning this lesson, since as exhibited by my previous paragraph, procrastination is my worst enemy, especially when my life is a living mayhem.

I think perhaps I shall have to take this 'coffee morning' to heart, perhaps I shall set aside some specific 'writing time' each day. Hey, one day I might get as dedicated as Rachel, you never know!

DK x