3 Insights That Lead to Successful Publishing Careers

3 insights for publishing success
by Jenny Downing / Flickr

When it comes to interviews and profiles of commercially successful writers (or anyone for that matter), there’s always an undercurrent of “What led to their success?”—especially if we dream of following in their footsteps.

We know there’s not a single formula, but we still hope for that shard of insight that will make it clear how we might do even just one thing different—and that will make all the difference to our path.

Such insights do occur from time to time. One such moment for me was when I was editing Jerry B. Jenkins’ Writing for the Soul in the mid-2000s, when the Left Behind series was at the top of the bestseller lists. Jenkins talked about how everyone called him an “overnight success” when the series broke out, but that he’d been publishing a steady stream of articles and books since the 1970s.

It wasn’t until then that I really understood that big successes are almost never accidents or “overnight,” but the result of years of under-the-radar work.

Here are three insights to success that I’ve seen expressed again and again, just in different ways, from all types of creative people.

1. The psychological battle is the biggest.

I call this the Steven Pressfield insight, since I so closely associate it with his excellent book, The War of Art—a must-read for every writer. He shows how many of our behaviors, habits, and thinking are a form of resistance that we continually must overcome. He helps change how you think about and frame your work. Instead of asking, “Did I write anything good today?” ask, “Did I write today?” Which brings me to the next insight. 

Instead of asking, “Did I write anything good today?” instead ask, “Did I write today?”

2. Discipline is more important than talent.

I always get into a lot of trouble when I say that talent doesn’t matter. (I still say it, though.) For those who are really, really concerned about talent, then:

I’d like you to show me your talent. Point to it. Let me see it. What does it look like? I’d like you to measure it and show me, quantifiably, how it’s more, less, or different than someone else’s talent.

Oh, you can’t? Then how do I know if you have talent or not? What if we disagree? 

We can continue with this line of questioning, until such a point the conversation is no longer productive.

Instead, what if we decided to believe that practice develops talent—that what we think is talent is specifically a product of years of hard work? That would mean having the discipline to practice and put in the work would be most important—what this study calls true grit.

If something in you resists believing this, ask yourself why—because when I think of all the talented writers I’ve met over the years, it’s not the most talented who I see going on to a full-time writing career. It’s those who put in the work, while everyone else gives up. Why? Go read Steven Pressfield.

3. Focusing too much on the results can sabotage you.

Elizabeth Gilbert once advised writers, “My suggestion is that you start with the love and then work very hard and try to let go of the results.”

Simone de Beauvoir once wrote: “That’s what I consider true generosity: You give your all, and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing.”

I’ll say it outright: There’s a double-bind here that I’m presenting you with. It’s like telling a child, “You must love your parents,” which demands they purposefully exhibit a spontaneous behavior (which creates phoniness).

However, it remains a good rule of thumb: When you can give your all to a writing project, without an expectation of a result, this approach instills the patience or fortitude required to see results.

Put another way: If you put a timeline on achieving specific results from your creative work, and you allow yourself to get discouraged when those results do not manifest, you may just stop working. You might quit before you win.

The more demands and expectations we have of a process, the more we can subvert it. The more we let go and remain open, the better chance we have at success. Furthermore, an open attitude helps us recognize hidden opportunities, especially when failure (inevitably) strikes.


I hope these insights allow you to see that one little thing you might do differently. And that is actually another, separate insight, one I learned from editing Bill O’Hanlon’s Write Is a Verb. Rather than decide you’ll revolutionize your writing life starting tomorrow, and change everything from top to bottom, instead, change one thing, one small thing you can commit to. After weeks or months have passed, and it’s a habit, then identify one other thing you can commit to. It’s a kinder way of treating yourself, and also a more realistic and reliable method of instituting real, meaningful change over the long term.

What major insights have flipped an important switch for you? Who has changed how you live the writing life?

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About Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She speaks around the world at events such as BookExpo America, Frankfurt Book Fair, and Digital Book World, and has keynoted writing conferences such as The Muse & The Marketplace. She currently teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia. Find out more.

Comments

  1. says

    When I first really started writing about ten years ago, I met three ladies in the ACFW who invited me to join their critique group. I never thought their writing was spectacular. For that matter, neither was mine. After a couple years I got tired and gave it up, taking a two year hiatus. Now all three of those ladies are published, two of them multi-published, the other goig the non-fiction and public speaking route. For a while I was dismayed, feeling I’d missed the boat. But now I see them as my encouragement. They busted their tails to gain succcess. I know, I’ve seen first hand how many hours they’d put in. It really is about tenacity. Never giving up. The funny part is, I don’t worry about publication now, I just write what I love. Now I feel like a writer and know “success” will soon follow my refusal to give up.

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  2. says

    You show up. You work. Something happens.

    Repeat.

    Funny you should mention Steven Pressfield, because that’s exactly who got me into the current groove. I battle Resistance formally every day (I give it its due, keep a journal of the things each day that cause me to resist writing, and know that the stronger the Resistance that day, the more likely I’m working on something worth the effort).

    But it was his book Turning Pro that has made the difference: I turned pro last Dec. 12. I stopped waiting for inspiration, and started showing up to work every day at about the same time. I know some days will be hard – but I don’t agonize over it, I just get my brain in the best possible condition, and start writing. Something. Anything.

    And then the next words start flowing.

    I hope I have enough talent. But you are entirely right: the psychological battle is the worst part, but we have weapons, and they consist of sitting in the chair, blocking the internet, and moving the fingers on the keyboard.

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  3. says

    Yes, I so agree. What looks like ‘instant success’ rarely is. Facing and changing our resistances and habit patterns takes ongoing inner and outer psychological work.
    I do think some talent is needed but the main scene is being determined, consistent and persistent hard work.
    To be honest, if I had known how much time, energy, effort and hard work my first book was going to take, I probably wouldn’t have started, never mind finished and published! I’m glad I did.
    I always thought if just one person gained something meaningful from the book, it made it all worthwhile!

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  4. says

    “Focusing too much on the results can sabotage you.” Oh this is so true and who among us hasn’t experienced a creative setback because sales weren’t popping this month or that month. I find it to be a regular little battle NOT to check sales numbers and rankings. I’m slowly letting go of this need but it’s not easy. The more I look away, the better I am at getting back to writing. I find the local scene to be the most encouraging: libraries, local bookshops, and connecting with local writers and readers. Thanks Jane, your advice to change one thing at a time is a really good one.

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  5. says

    Excellent advice, Jane. I couldn’t agree more. I have always told my students and my own children that very little in this life worth having comes without hard work. What makes all the difference between work being an odious chore and a joy is one’s attitude toward the task. If we do something we love, then the hard work becomes almost like play. I love telling stories, which in my mind, is really just a grown up version of my favorite childhood game, let’s pretend. It’s hard work getting the right words on the page, editing, suffering rejection, etc., but setting the imagination free to create is a true joy that makes the effort and end result so sweet.

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  6. says

    Jane–
    “I’d like you to show me your talent. Point to it. Let me see it, quantifiably….”
    To dismiss talent because it can’t be quantified doesn’t seem necessary or useful to me. Show me your charm, your charisma–they can’t be quantified, either, but who denies some have these attributes to a greater degree than others? What I mean is, I don’t think it diminishes the central, obvious importance of hard work to acknowledge the simple fact of talent. But when you say “practice develops talent,” I absolutely agree. Without commitment, hard work, and a willingness to change and learn, natural talent can’t come to much, quantified or otherwise.

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    • says

      Barry, I think you got my main point, which is more important than an argument about the role talent plays. Talent is intangible, subjective, and out of our control. To focus on it is unproductive.

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    • says

      “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.” Emile Zola

      Hard work, daily practice, grit — absolutely. All talents must be developed. And…

      I would not be so quick to dismiss innate talent. I see a fair amount of it, and quite a lot more lack of it.

      An impromptu attempt at defining writing talent:

      * an ear for language; grace and ease in the medium

      * ability to observe, to notice what goes right past most people

      * depth of personal character and understanding of human nature; empathy; universality

      * ability to tell the truth as one sees it, not skate the surface, not sugar-coat, not b.s.

      The work is to take all that and capture it in words.

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      • says

        Dear Mary,

        Thank your for exploring what it means to have innate writing talent—an excellent list.

        One question to consider: Do these qualities/characteristics change and develop over time, or are they immutable? Does anything foster and nurture these qualities, or you’re either born with them or you’re not?

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        • says

          It’s a chicken/egg question, isn’t it? When I hatched, was I a tabula rasa, a blank slate, with an equal ability to become a Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, or Raymond Chandler of my era… if only? Is it just experience that creates and molds the mind and temperament? Dunno, but I suspect it’s both nature and nurture. Of course even immensely gifted writers must develop into their genius. Read the early work of Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin — good, but not great, as they later became. But they all started with a certain *something.* And I call that talent. Perhaps it’s merely intelligence and heart, curiosity and desire. Wouldn’t that be nice.

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  7. says

    I absolutely believe that any success I’ve enjoyed – or ever will enjoy – as a writer is primarily due to hard work and discipline. There are plenty of people out there with greater creativity, skills, and talent, but at bottom I think having a solid work ethic is what makes it possible to pursue a difficult career.

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  8. says

    Short, sweet and to the point. Very nicely stated, Jane, thank you.

    I definitely see Barry’s point, above, but it definitely still stands: work hard at your craft. Talent helps, talent can give you a leg up, but it comes down to putting that talent to work. To work.

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  9. says

    This was exactly what I needed to hear today.

    I actually was able to announce my debut book deal on Friday.

    Yay! Confetti!

    By yesterday, when life had gotten in the way of me working on my WIP for the past five days and I read how many of my publishers’ authors put out 4-5 books in a year, something I’m pretty sure I can’t accomplish, I told my husband I didn’t think I was cut out for this.

    But, I love writing books. Even if it’s at a slower pace than more prolific and successful writers. So, as you say, I should focus less on the result and just write.

    Thank you. Really.

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  10. says

    Really needed this today, Jane. Ok, maybe the last few days, weeks? :-)

    But seriously, periodically, though I’ve come to deeply believe all three ideas as essential to even just being creative (and esp your last notations re being kind to oneself), I’ve particularly needed this post today.

    I’ve come off a serious near-health scare that’s not fully resolved, and when, after recovering a bit, I reviewed my sales progress, I took it harder than my usual “who cares!” response.

    I love to create, I have to create.

    And these insights are right on target. They’re what I’ve found I had to do to continue.

    But good gosh, don’t I need outside reminders once in a while.

    Thank you so much for that :-)

    This below esp sums it up for me :

    “When you can give your all to a writing project, without an expectation of a result, this approach instills the patience or fortitude required to see results.”

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  11. says

    The major insight for me is that done is not done. I must thank one person, even though I have never met him: Donald Maass. (Thank you Mr. Maass!)

    I have been disciplined for several years now to sit down and write, but I always felt like results were too slow and perhaps I was wasting my time. I have written several manuscripts, but put each one through the rounds of rejections before putting them away in boxes. (A section of my closet is jokingly named “Death Alley”.) Well, I had my latest together one year ago and was on the hunt for agents. It was done, ready to go – I’ve improved, right? Time to see if this one will make it!

    The DMLA was on my list, but I decided this time to do my research, and so in clicking around the website I took a side-trip, deciding to read Mr. Maass’ books first. After all, something hadn’t worked before and I wanted to find out what.

    One thing led to another (and still has – I’m now addicted to craft books), but needless to say I’m very glad I took that avenue instead of quickly collecting details to stamp my cookie cutter on another meaningless query letter. That one step brought me to a new level of understanding what it means to be a writer and the message behind the scenes that many aspiring writers fail to hear:
    write a damn good book, and that means your book isn’t done just because you have a finished manuscript that can be read (painfully) front to back.

    I’m a patient man and I love my writing time. Every day, the story takes me for a new adventure. I aim to love my story like it’s someone I’m getting to know. What an exciting prospect, to be encouraged to get to know my story long after I’m “done” writing. I’m entering new writing territory – scary, exciting new territory – and don’t know if I’ll come out alive or not. The end is nowhere in sight (how the heck can I know if it is, having never reached it before?), but needless to say I think when it’s time to write a query letter again, I will retire the cookie cutter.

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  12. says

    A really great post. Looking for immediate results is one of the things that can make you feel so destroyed because too often the results aren’t immediate. Publishing a book is a long process in itself and so many of the “overnight” successes only became successes after publishing several books. The good news is that if you have many books out, and one book turns into a sensation, you have lots of other books for new fans to discover other work.

    Great advice.

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  13. says

    “My suggestion is that you start with the love and then work very hard and try to let go of the results.”

    This! Yes. Thank you Jane. This article clearly states the heart change my writing and self image have gone through. The expectations and self imposed deadlines, though helpful, were strangling my true writing self. I had to return to the shore. Only then did I realize I was missing the love.

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  14. says

    Thanks for the sage advice, Jane. I read all the craft books I can get my hands on, but Pressfield’s really was an epiphany for me. What really helped me more than anything was the daily habit. As Woody Allen once said (paraphrasing here), 80 percent of success in life is just showing up. Open up your laptop every day and write.

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  15. says

    Another way of putting it: You need to work AND be able to let go. You need to have a goal AND not let the goal blind you to what is really required.

    Failure can throw you off track, but so can success. As an arts writer my byline was ubiquitous at one time, but the hard work and writing itself didn’t lead to the career I wanted. I also had to play a political game at the newspaper that published me and I was too dumb and satisfied with my obvious talent to do it.

    I switched to writing in a corporate environment. (Just for two years, I promised myself; then I’d get back to creative stuff.) But I found rewards and recognition there which kept me for more than 10. The problem was, the company rewarded me by giving me more power and responsibility in the organization until I had a department to lead and people to nurture. I started a novel then but was working crazy hours just to do my job.

    I was barely writing any more, so I left to go off on my own to do corporate writing. Again, my little shop grew and before long I was a business owner. I sold out to my employees, and with one diversion, eventually turned to fiction full time.

    Hard work is necessary and talent distinguishes you from the other hard workers. But make sure you are doing the thing you love, and not just what the universe hands you for your hard work.

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  16. says

    I approach each writing session wearing a different hat. In my ghostwriter/writing coach hat I focus on drawing out the best work for someone else. In my journaling hat I excavate to reveal my soul. In my copywriter hat I endeavor to lure other souls into action. It’s all professional work and it’s all satisfying. So I don’t have to think about how I’m going to “get there” someday, but my goal has not been to publish a major book yet. That’s another hat entirely.

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  17. says

    Jane-

    “The more we let go and remain open, the better chance we have at success. ”

    If only. The rush for validation plays out over and over again in submissions to my agency. Nowadays it’s common for us to get manuscripts accompanied by ultimatums like, “If I do not receive an offer of representation or publication by next Tuesday, I will self-publish this.”

    I’m not making that up. Published authors have their own way of clinging to expectations. “This will be my fifth book and, dammit, my publisher should be paying me a year’s living.” “I should be in hardcover by now.” And so on. Forgetting that publishers don’t pay or elevate authors, book consumers do.

    But back to writing. In my own practice, I try to take my own advice (cited by John Robin above, thank you John) and remember that “done” is not done.

    Another ah-ha moment for me was the task of condensing my book Writing the Breakout Novel for inclusion in a compilation volume called The Breakout Novelist. Cutting it down was easy, and humiliating. All I needed was cut the original words that weren’t necessary.

    There were a lot of them.

    The more I write the fewer words I need. And the more story.

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  18. says

    That Pressfield guy gets around, doesn’t he? I am using him as my flagstone in a post tomorrow. I have dithered over the ending of a long short story (hmm, that’s an example of jumbo shrimp) for two weeks now, and I still don’t have it figured out in my mind.

    But I am going to write it today, whether it’s good or not, and not focus on the results. (Well, at least not immediately.) Thanks Jane!

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  19. says

    If you can forgive a bit of a geek-out, because I love psychology, I’m about to dig into Dr. Carol S. Dweck’s MINDSET–about the results of her research, proving the thrust of your article. She describes two patterns seen in learners–the fixed and growth mindsets–and how to cultivate the latter in our children and ourselves. Suspect you’d enjoy it. I love it when science backs up what feels true from a spiritual perspective.

    I suspect the “talent wins” story will persist, though, because of biology. If we appear to achieve success with little to no effort, we look like we have winning genes and become inherently more attractive to others. In other words, there’s a reproductive advantage to appearing gifted. (Though on second thought, I’m not sure that always works out for writers.)

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  20. Denise Willson says

    Yes, Jane! This is what I mean when I say “build it and they will come.”

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  21. says

    I love The War of Art – I sent it to all of my writer friends. I tend to get caught up in the results too often, and I have to bring myself back to what matters most: writing. I love to write and do it for me. Whenever I catch myself avoiding writing and worrying about the future or other people, it’s usually because I’ve stopped taking care of myself.

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  22. says

    I love this! And I don’t feel it costs me much outside of energy and money for a while, because I love it so much I have to do it anyway. But the psychological battle, whooee. Yeah. Glad to have made it through the battles so far. Starting to feel like I’ve got my sea legs. :)

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  23. Poeticus says

    Early days of my writing development, some of the writing epiphanies came after I’d intuitively started applying a principle of interest and realized I was doing it, picked up from reading, or another skill manifested from another discipline — art or science or life. Further development of the skill made it second nature after awhile.

    Some of the epiphanies came from studying poetics begun haphazardly after stubborn resistance to reading any poetics text. Assigned reading of lackluster and inaccessible and pointless poetics contributed to my resistance. The assigners set high expectations for and from their favorite poetics titles, that was akin to expecting an infant to argue, solve, and prove emphatically the meaning of life.

    No single starting point is in itself a practical starting point. Double bind. One text leads on to another, ad infinitum. Each makes the others accessible, requiring circling back around for another pass, and close reading again and again narratives that illustrate a principle’s points. Missing in the mix are as yet undiscovered mysteries and principles awaiting revelation.

    Another chokepoint common to most poetics — poetics composers know what they mean, rarely say what they intend and don’t often mean what they do say. Much imitation and emulation given from examples: show; not an adequate enough, thorough summary and explanation: tell, of any given topic.

    Poetics composition topical detours and clumsy organization complexities miss the point intended and meant, “begging the question” — petitio principii: circular logic that includes the proof in the major or minor premises of the syllogism, an informal fallacy. I think. Critical thinking makes me feel alive; therefore, I am. That too was an epiphany, that my duty was to interpret, a double bind reconciled. Not to mention, no standard lexicon is used by any given poeticist, nor across a writing consensus: dozens of different, sometimes mutually exclusive terms and definitions for any one discrete writing principle. Again, my duty to interpret.

    The epiphanies reached a threshold tipping point, came fast and lively, after inertia was overcome. The joys of seeing into the dark abyss, seeing beyond the “elephant.” Glorious. Many tears and joys, too, from personal growth accomplished alongside writing study. The more profound and sublime epiphanies came from hard, blunt force efforts. They came abrupt and bright, lively, once I’d crossed the resistance Rubicon.

    I’ve nearly consumated my studies. Today, I understand. Tomorrow is another day.

    The secret to expression fulfillment: The hard way is the easy way. The easy-way shortcut is a wanderjarhe through a confused miasma of the mind and overwrought labryinthine maze spotted with misdirected and infinite pathway blazes laid out beforehand.

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  24. says

    This was great. I especially agreed with #2. I’ve heard lots of people say that writers who are successful are just lucky. I’ve found that the harder I work, the luckier I get.

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  25. says

    I think you saved my sanity with this one, Jane!

    I am an idea addict … never a shortage of truly creative and entrepreneurial ideas. Getting them going and finished is the challenge and I’ve been really beating myself up over it. This was so very helpful! Thank you!

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  26. says

    Although, you can have talent AND put in the hard work and still end up not where you wish to be. It’s just how it goes sometimes. I think there’s a double message here – – put in the hard work message and the message of Gilbert about doing what you love first – – that’s a double message with often-times opposite results and meanings. Sometimes doing what you love means giving up success (doing meaning: what you write; what kinds of things you write). So, can you really have it all? Write what you love AND success? Not always – sometimes, not always. It’s just the business of it all.

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  27. says

    Ah, I might get in trouble for this as well, Jane, but dammit! It’s the doing that counts. The letting it go, like children, into the world to improve it, or not.
    The best writer who lived and never wrote anything really didn’t make a difference, to the world or his talent.
    I have hundreds of craft books and hundreds of half-finished manuscripts. Yes, life got in the way far too often and now I face crippling RA/lupus and a broken back. But I’m still writing. Each word is painful; for my joints and sometimes, I suspect often, for those who read them. But I still get up to do the damn thing every day. It’s what I have lived for, live for and will die doing. Hopefully, I’ll get the courage to let more than three read the results.
    Tips of the hat to Jan (neurology major here), Mr. Maass (you poor man. We all love you, ya’ know), and to Jane, who has taught me more than a million craft books through the years.

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  28. CK Wallis says

    Love this post, Jane! And, thanks for the intro to Steven Pressfield; it sounds like we might think alike.

    As for a switch-flipping insight, the one that got me writing again began about twenty years ago when I decided to try painting. I was home with a monster cold, and after two days couldn’t face another day in bed. After my son left for school, I was at the kitchen table staring at the watercolors and sketch book he had been using for a school project the night before. The next thing I knew I was thinking, “What the hell?” As a child, I’d always loved coloring, painting, and drawing, so why not now? And the very next thing I knew, the kitchen was getting cold and dark and it was after four o’clock.

    While I was chilly, hungry, and needed to use the bathroom, what truly startled me was the realization that, for the first time in years, I was completely relaxed. I had been so absorbed in the painting that it seemed my mind had slipped into some entirely new realm; it had shut off every other thought and disconnected the clock, and for a while I had existed as a different person in some new place (the same place I exist when I’m writing).

    In school I had struggled to earn “Cs” in the required art classes, and by high school had heard every version of “art just isn’t your gift,” so was convinced that in spite of how much I enjoyed swirling colors around or designing clothes and houses for my paper dolls, had no talent for art. But with my new “what the hell” attitude, whether or not I had “talent” became insignificant–what mattered was how happy those hours with a paint brush had been. I started buying art supplies and how-to books, and a few years later I was surprising myself with all I had taught my hands to do.

    Although I’ve been in love with stories and writing since childhood, I, like so many others, have been waiting for retirement to begin “serious” writing. When I began this much anticipated phase of my life last fall, I knew I was as far from creating a good story as I had been from creating a painting twenty years ago. However, I also knew I could learn; I knew that with how-to books, workshops, classes, and lots of practice, the writing would get better every day. More importantly, I knew I would enjoy the learning.

    Now, I see talent not so much as a genetic trait or inborn gift, but as a result of loving something so much you gladly do the work necessary to master a skill or craft. Why someone loves writing while someone else loves skiing, and someone else loves cooking, I don’t know. But, I do know, or believe, that with enough love to do the work necessary, they will become a talented writer, or skier, or cook. Love creates the talent.

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  29. says

    Great thoughts, right on! What’s helped me most is to stop straining to see the finish line, take the self-imposed completion date or page per day pressure off and to stop getting frustrated when I hit a wall writing a book. Patience and time allows your imagination to find a way over the wall or sometimes around it. In any case, if I relax, I eventually find the wall behind me as I move on.

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  30. says

    So encouraging! Especially the part about letting go of results. That’s something I need to work on, since I put too much pressure on myself and start to get stressed.

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