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Four Traits of a Master Writer and How You Can Develop Them

By Alon, Flickr's Creative Commons
By Alon, Flickr’s Creative Commons

Our guest today is Karin Gillespie [1], author of the national bestselling Bottom Dollar Girls series, 2016 Georgia Author of the Year, Co-author for Jill Connor Browne’s novel Sweet Potato Queen’s First Big Ass Novel [2]. Her latest novel Love Literary Style [3] was inspired by a New York Times article called “Masters in Chick Lit” that went viral and was shared by literary luminaries like Elizabeth Gilbert and Anne Rice. She’s written for the Washington Post and Writer Magazine and is book columnist and humor columnist for Augusta Chronicle and Augusta Magazine respectively. She received a Georgia Author of the Year Award in 2016.

I teach creative writing on the college level, and I always tell students that they will know they’ve finally reached a level of mastery when they start trusting their own instincts instead of constantly looking for outside advice. This led me to write an article about master writers approach their craft from an inside-out perspective.

Connect with Karin on her blog [4], on Facebook [5], and on Twitter [6].

Four Traits of a Master Writer and How You Can Develop Them

There’s an old saying that if you see the Buddha on the road, you should kill him. I’ll modify that for writers: If you see Strunk and White on the road, mow them over. What does that mean? Writing teachers are important, but there comes a time in every writer’s life when they must fade into the background. In other words, instead of seeking answers and insight from outsiders, writers need to look inward. This signifies the change from apprentice to master.

I’ve been a published novelist for over twelve years now, and it’s only recently that I’ve begun to feel remotely in control of my craft. While I don’t claim to be a master, I’ve identified a few traits I’ve observed in seasoned writers. All of these traits involve looking within for answers.

Masters Go With the Flow

Most writers have experienced the glorious feeling of having words effortlessly flow from their mind onto the page. Master writers regularly experience this state, which is sometimes called wu-wei and is literally translated as “not-trying.” Edward Slingerland, the author of Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity, describes it as ,the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. People in wu-wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art

unnamedMasters Court Wu-Wei

Masters don’t wait for the whims of Wu-Wei to pay a visit, they actively cultivate it. The first step is to leave all expectations for a piece of work (fame, fortune, cozy friendship with Oprah) outside the writing room. Instead, sit down at your desk, thinking not of what the creative work will do for you, but how it may serve others, e.g., to entertain, edify or empower. This concept is called karma yoga. To remind yourself, it might even pay to keep a picture of your “average reader” near your computer.

Approaching creative work with a spirit of generosity allows you to get out of your head. Good work is incompatible with an endless inner dialogue of self-criticism. Instead a master approaches his manuscript with a calm, playful spirit. As Brenda Ureland, author of If You Want To Write, says, “I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten,—happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.”

Masters Never Sweat Writer’s Block

Most master writers actually welcome writers’ block because it’s a signal to writers that they’ve gone off course and need to make an adjustment. It’s helpful to think of writer’s block as the voice of a GPS saying, “Recalculating.” Master writers have written so many novels they understand that each work has an intelligence of its own, and when the writer misinterprets that intelligence, the flow of the piece comes to a halt. Sometimes all you to have to do is go back a few sentences to identify the problem. Other times the issue’s thornier, and you need to leave your chair and fold some laundry or engage in some other mindless task.

Occasionally if you’re truly stuck, then it’s helpful to simply write, “I have no idea” and work on another part of the piece. An admission of “not knowing” clears a space in your mind for the right answer to come about. It’s a brief return to shoshin, more commonly known as beginner’s mind. Instead of panicking or attempting to force a false solution with a flurry of thoughts, you’re willing to put aside all of your expertise and be an apprentice again.

Masters Prepare Their Mind for Creative Work

Professional athletes scrupulously prepare their bodies for competition, and likewise master writers train their minds. How can you get your mind into buff, writing-shape? A regular meditation practice helps to quiet an endlessly chattering mind, which drowns out creative ideas. Meditation time can also be used to visualize the end results of your efforts such as a contented reader, furiously flipping the pages of your new novel. Or you might consider taking a long, solo walk. According to a recent Stanford study, creative thinking improves while a person is walking and shortly thereafter. As Ueland says, “the imagination needs moodling—long, inefficient happy idling, dawdling and puttering.”

Master writers also know the value of giving their subconscious mind suggestions, which are especially effective when the mind and body are relaxed. Before retiring you might say, “Please work on that troubling scene while I’m sleeping.” Your first thought upon waking might be, “You’ll write two thousand words today.”

Research has repeatedly shown that deliberate suggestions can influence how people perform on future tasks and are attributable to something called response expectancies. The way we anticipate our response to a situation influences how we will actually respond. In other words, if you go into your writing room with expectations of a high word count, you’re much more likely to achieve it.

Masters Only Compete With Themselves

Have you ever turned a deep shape of green after seeing someone surpass you in terms of getting “the call” or making a bestsellers list? Once you become a master, envy of other writers lessens substantially. As actress Marlo Thomas said, “Thoroughbreds run their own races.”

Master writers tend to view success among their peers as strong evidence that their recognition will also come. They’re aware that their gifts are wholly unique, thus making it difficult to imagine that another person’s success will take away anything from their own eventual wins. They have also developed the patience to wait until their gifts find recognition.

When successes come to them, they’re more capable of enjoying them, instead of become unnerved. You can enjoy your triumphs more if you develop what psychologist Carolyn Dwek calls a “growth mind-set,” where you attribute your successes to your efforts instead of how much talent you think you have or the vagaries of fate. When you develop a growth mind-set, you see success as a challenge to best yourself. When you meet with failure, instead of beating yourself up, you say, “not yet,” meaning you’re anticipating the success that will eventually arrive.

Do any of these practices resonate with you? If not, don’t worry. As you grow into a master writer, you’ll develop your own deeply held beliefs about the creative process. When that happens, if you see me on the road, feel free to aim your car in my direction.

What are your deeply held beliefs about the creative process? We’d love to hear!