It’s Monday. I just got back from visiting a friend in her country house 2 1/2 hours from New York city. Our sons are best friends, and after two weeks of grueling NY state tests, my son begged for an extended playdate. So she invited us up for the weekend.
Although my friend is a journalist for a financial paper and does not enjoy creative writing, we shared our thoughts on the craft of writing over coffee. (The boys may have played video games past their allotted time, but hey, we needed to relax and talk too.) At one point she said, “The more you write, the better you get at it.” So simple, but it hit me then – I don’t practice writing enough. In the two days that I spent away, I produced two solid drawings, but no writing. And in the past few months, I sit down to write a story, stern-faced and serious that I will get it right on the first try. But how can I only show up for game days if I don’t practice too? And coming up with pithy FB posts or tweets really doesn’t count. The 140 character or less muscle is well-exercised, and useless in building a story arc.
In contrast, I sketch a lot these days. I sharpen my pencil, and put it on the paper, lightly coaxing out a shape. Then I decide what that shape is, or needs to do. Starting with a loose ellipse, I ended up with a bear wearing goggles steering a bicycle while the cheetah he’s stepping on peddles. That comes from practice, and confidence to let my mind wander and explore ideas. My sketches don’t feel precious. I post them, but I often just leave them for another day. My writing is precious. Everything I write needs to become something – which I now realize is the problem. I need to sketch write – allow my mind to wander. See where the story is going as I set fingers to keyboard.
One of the best books I have listened too in awhile (I listen while I paint) is “Mindset” by Carol Dweck. In many ways this book illustrates how our mindset (fixed versus growth) affects our work, and by extension, our success. If we believe people are born talented or not, we categorize ourselves that way based on outside reactions. If someone says our work is terrific, we put ourselves in the talent box. And if we are in that box, we want to stay there. So we don’t take risks or challenge ourselves in the event we prove the first success was a fluke. So we practice less. However, in the growth mindset, just about anyone can work hard enough, train, and practice their way to success. In this mindset, setbacks, rejections or failures are seen as part of the process, and allows the person to continue practicing. And it allows the person to acknowledge when they need additional training to achieve their goals.
So now I realize I have a growth mindset about painting, and a fixed mindset about writing. And this I think is the real stumbling block in my writing career. Although I was selected to attend the Breadloaf New England Young Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College when I was a junior in high school, I have no other accolades in the field. When people discover I love to write too, they seem to dismiss that information, and concentrate on the visual art. And I have let that reaction define how I see myself. The high school recognition, to my fixed mindset, seems like a fluke.
But after this weekend, with the realization that I need more training and practice, I embrace the growth mindset for my writing too. I’m afraid the training will delay the current projects that I am working on -but without those skills, I will continue battling the same problems. And with enough rejection, I may lose my confidence completely. So more training is really going to be helpful.
That, and Jane Yolen’s famous recipe for writing success: “BUTT IN CHAIR.”