How to Grow as a Writer: 5 Logical Steps
Writers are students. Sometimes this is the result of nothing more than sheer necessity: we seek answers for our questions because writing has turned out to be far more difficult than we anticipated. But often, writers are students first and writers second. If this is you, then concentrating on how to grow as a writer isn’t just about improving your writing; it’s part of a personal manifestation of learning and growth.
I fear nothing more than stagnation. Every moment standing still is a moment I’ve wasted by not learning something about this deliciously mad world of ours. (This isn’t to say we can’t learn—a lot—by the physical act of standing still, but if you’re learning, are you really standing still, hmm?) I feel this challenge as a person, and I feel this challenge as a writer. I’ve always said, tongue in cheek, that the moment in which I know everything about being a writer will be the moment I flat-out quit.
But even if you’ve yet to reach the lofty pinnacle of Mt. Know-It-All, it’s still scarily easy to get stuck along the way. Just because you’re writing—just because you’re moving around enough to kick up some dust—isn’t necessarily a sure sign you’re progressing.
Storytelling as an Exploration of the “Shadow”
A few years ago, I wrote a post in which I talked about four levels in our climb up the writing mountain. In it, I talked about how I felt I had reached the stage, in my own journey, where “I knew what I knew.” I wrote the post with a certain amount of satisfaction, of course. But deep in my heart, I also wrote it with more than a little fear and trembling—because what came next? Was writing just going to be easy and fun and a total breeze from that point on? Was it all downhill from there?
Of course not. My storytelling instincts were honed well enough for me to feel the foreshadowing. Hello, False Victory. Hello, Third Plot Point. (And if you know story structure, you know what that means.)
What I found beyond that plateau was a total paradigm shift in my relationship to my creativity. It is still ongoing, and even now I do not yet have a clear view of the next mountain. I have always believed mastery is the unconscious made conscious—to the point where the conscious understanding eventually reintegrates with the unconscious as “knowing instinct.” I now believe that is what lies beyond the stage of “knowing what you know.”
Basically, it feels like unlearning everything you learned. For me, I sense it means moving into a creative process that is less obsessively ordered. (I’m still not sure where I’m going next, so I hesitate to speak of it in concrete terms, but I have this sneaking feeling that I, who have identified all my life as an obsessive outliner, might be headed into the terrifying wilderness of pantsing.) More to the point, this is all bringing home to me more clearly than ever that any growth that occurs in the creative process is not merely about mastering skill, but also, and more pertinently, about our growth as human beings.
In these last few years, it has become less and less of a serendipitous surprise to me to realize that most of my greatest creative insights are arising not from books about writing, but from books about humans. One standout example is a tiny volume I picked up about the psychological theory of the “shadow” (basically, everything we store in the unconscious). The book turned out to be written by (who else?) a poet. In A Little Book on the Human Shadow, poet Robert Bly referenced a quote from medieval philosopher Jakob Böhme, which although speaking about people reading books is, I think, even more aptly put to people writing books:
Böhme has a note before one of his books, in which he asks the reader not to go farther and read the book unless he is willing to make practical changes as a result of the reading. Otherwise, Böhme says, reading the book will be bad for him, dangerous.
This brings me back to my original question. How do we know if we are growing as writers—if we are really growing? I daresay it is far less about how well we are crafting our plot structures and our sentences, and much more about whether what we are writing is true enough and powerful enough to affect our own perceptions of life and our approaches to living it.
The European artists—at least Yeats, Tolstoy, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Rilke—seem to understand better that the shadow has to be lived too, as well as accepted in the work of art. The implication of all their art is that each time a man or woman succeeds in making a line so rich and alive with the senses, as full of darkness as [Wallace Stevens’s]:
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries
he must from then on live differently. A change in his life has to come as a response to the change in his language…. [Rilke] was always ready to change his way of living at a moment’s notice if the art told him to.
Beware Your Own Ruts, Formulae, and “Knowledge”
The willingness to be impacted by our own art will manifest differently for each writer (and for each thing written). Sometimes it will mean enacting tremendous personal paradigm shifts. Sometimes it will require lifestyle changes. Sometimes the changes are smaller: just the willingness to see beauty in details we have previously overlooked. Sometimes the changes are ineffable, more a prayer than a crusade. And sometimes the changes have to do with the art itself.
For me, I’m finding it means I cannot create in the ways I used to. I mean, I can. To a certain degree, I have mastered my art. But I begin to realize that in becoming master, I now risk becoming tyrant. Nineteenth-century French literary critic Charles Sainte-Beuve cautions us:
I don’t wish to outlive my inner poet. But that is what I risk if I am unwilling to learn the lesson my creativity would teach me and to keep growing. I have worked so hard to consciously understand my craft—to mitigate those miserable moments when the story isn’t working and I have no idea why. And yet the next step seems to be putting back on the blindfold, trusting my Muse to take my hand and lead me straight back into the misty realms of unconscious creativity.
If this sounds a little hazy and unformed, it is! None of this discounts all the learning and growth that has come before. The formulae, patterns, techniques, practices, guidelines, and structure of the craft are vital. Consciousness and understanding are important in art as in life. I am not saying writers shouldn’t be learning all this stuff. If you feel you don’t yet understand plot structure, for the love of anyone who will read your story, please learn it. But the moment structuring gets to be a rut, realize it’s time to keep growing.
Every single day at the page should be a gut-check. But don’t worry. If you don’t check in, your gut will eventually tell you what’s going on anyway. As literary agent Donald Maass shares in the closing of The Fire in Fiction:
How do the events of your story make your point? Do you even have a point? I believe that you do. How do I know? Because I know that you are not a person lacking principles and void of passion. That isn’t possible. You are, after all, writing fiction. That is not an activity taken up by those without a heart.
If you start to feel you are writing the same story over and over, it’s likely because you didn’t allow the story you just finished to change you. Maass goes on with the challenge:
Some bemoan the decline of reading and lament the sad state of contemporary fiction. Are they right? Sometimes I wonder…. [A trend of contemporary novels] is to make characters of Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, and Arthur Conan Doyle or to borrow their creations. What has happened to us? Have we lost confidence in our own imaginations? Are we afraid of portraying grand characters and big events? Do we identify only with victims? Is the story of our age no more than a tale of survival?
Perhaps. Contemporary fiction reflects who we are. And who are you? How do you see our human condition? Where have you been that the rest of us should go? … Having something to say, or something you wish us to experience, is what gives your novel power. Identify it. Make it loud. Do not be afraid of what’s in your burning heart. When it comes through on the page, you will be a true storyteller.
No one enjoys being rejected. Writers, who are often a touch more sensitive than the average bear, may feel the sting even more acutely. Which is unfortunate, as the daily work of the writer involves rejection on an almost continuous basis.
There’s the bland “Nos” you get from publishers and agents. The standard email declines from competitions and lit mags. The implicit slow-burn rejection of a Submittable submission that hasn’t changed status for months or even years.
And then of course if you do get a chance of being published, there are other setbacks to endure. The edits come back and seem at odds with your idea of what the book is about. Ditto the cover design. Or someone writes a review on Good Reads or Amazon that seems to enjoy unusual prominence, even though to you it’s doubtful if the person even finished the book.
All these knocks are part and parcel of the writing life, which is why it’s useful for our personal development (and sanity!) to look at ways to grow a tougher skin and learn to roll with the punches. Here, based on my own bittersweet experiences and those of some writer friends, are a few practical pointers…
Find ways to celebrate rejections
Rejections show that you are working hard to achieve your goals. The more you submit, the more you’ll be rejected – but equally, the more likely you are to get another acceptance! So rejections are, in a way, just milestones on the way to your next win.
One way to celebrate them is to give yourself a little reward each time you get one: a dime in a jar that you will spend on something nice when you hit a target amount. Some people defuse the sting by sharing their stats or even aiming for 100 rejections per year! The poet Brett Elizabeth Jenkins set herself this goal and found that as a result she’d “grown as a writer, met some kickass writers, sprouted relationships with a few editors, developed a thicker skin, and learned to take rejection like a champ.” In time, of course, some of those rejections turned into acceptances too.
“I’m not one to brag,” as a writer pal of mine said in a recent tweet, “but you’ll struggle to find a lit mag that hasn’t rejected me.” Remember: the more rejections and disappointments, the sweeter the feeling will be when you hit your goals!
Practice dealing with disappointment
Resilient writers aren’t people who get rejected less; they’re just writers who have learned to cope better with and learn from the experience. One tip here that’s advocated by corporate resilience trainers is to practice people saying No in low-stake situations that don’t really matter, to help you build up your coping skills.
Go to a fast-food outlet and ask them to gift-wrap your burger. Go to a bar and ask the staff if you can have a go at pouring the drinks. Ask your train driver if you can ride up front in the cab with her. These are silly requests, and they will almost certainly get turned down (and if they don’t you might come away with some interesting material!) But there is something exhilarating about daring to ask for unlikely things, and just enjoying your ability to suck up the baffled responses.
Study the nuances of rejection
In the miserable miasma of reading a fresh rejection, it can be easy to miss the nuggets of positivity and constructive feedback that are often contained in the message too. Some messages are form rejections, but it’s well-known that many venues have form messages that vary according to their take on the writer. A writer a venue wishes to encourage, for example, may get a standard message that’s quite different from the standard message that’s sent to a writer that for whatever reason they are never likely to publish.
So once the initial disappointment has subsided, make a point of going back to the message and seeing what you can learn from it for your next project or submission. Sometimes there is a valuable nugget in there (e.g. Try to use fewer adverbs or We felt we wanted to know more about what was happening from the protagonist’s perspective.) These are valuable insights that you can work with.
However disappointing the message, always send an acknowledgment – stay polite and professional. And if a venue says you should submit again, then do so, once or twice more at least. They didn’t have to say that, after all.
Be honest with yourself
Some rejections are frankly quite well deserved. If you’ve submitted the same story or chapters and they’ve been turned down 45 times, it’s probably time (and has been for a while) to look again at what you’re submitting, do some significant rework or even move on.
Remember editors are often aspiring writers themselves, so they know all about rejection and are keen for you to succeed. But at the same time, they have an editorial vision and quality standards to uphold, and they are not easily fooled. A friend of mine received the feedback, “This feels part of a bigger piece.” And it was, of course.