Fear plagues the craft.
We fear we won’t finish. We fear we won’t win the grand awards. We fear what others may say of our labor of love —the critics who rightly and wrongly deface it. We fear we are incapable, talentless fools who cower in the shadows of the alleged greats (they are no strangers to fear). We fear the ever-falling sand of time — when we are young and when we are old. We fear the craft itself, thinking it is too complex, or that we are missing “something,” “some magical piece” that makes us incomplete. If only I read one more book and that book and that book and learn the craft by so-and-so and so-and-so, one more class, just one more class, just one more diploma, then I shall overcome, then I too will be a master.
Classes and education are helpful, immensely helpful, especially at high-quality/model organizations like Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Colorado. You must learn technique/form before you embark. But at some point, you also got to roll up the sleeves and shovel dirt (i.e., words and with that some shit through revision) until the sun falls and you’re sweaty and ugly and tired and then do it again the following day (after class perhaps).
At one time, I feared all of those things, even rolling up the sleeves and digging into the mire. I let all those fictive notions infect and plague my entire being, thus my writing — and other fears and half-baked notions I’ll keep to myself. We are our own worst enemy, especially when we let fear wreak havoc within and shred any chance we’d have of actually achieving greatness on the page. But the fear, the false notions, slowly began to vanish like fog dissipating beneath a burning sun when I began to focus on one simple concept — and not the finish line, not the awards, or the successes of my colleagues, not the critics, not my “capabilities,” and certainly no longer time.
I began to focus on The Process. Not fear, not nerves, not internal or external pressures, not time, not any of the illusions and delusions fabricated in my head (or by others).
Just The Process, in essence, the nuts-and-bolts, and treating writing as a craft, a game of incessant practice, improvement, and constant execution. No external/internal pressures, no critics, no awards, no fear — just making progress, consistent progress, pushing the pen forward nearly every day, going back and correcting “errors” during revision (folly is part of the process and a damn fine thing to achieve because it means you practiced), and challenging yourself (just you, yourself, and the page) by experimenting with different techniques, voices, et cetera.
In sports, this is obviously called Practice – swinging the bat, missing the ball, understanding why you missed, swinging again, assessing why that was a better swing, as well as training, lifting weights/conditioning, getting sleep, then heading back to the field as soon as the sun rises. That’s how the body and mind becomes stronger in athletics and similarly how the body and mind becomes stronger in writing. It’s really that simple.
But in writing and really all arts for that matter from music to photography, we’ve intellectualized it to such a perversely absurd degree that we are blinded by foolish notions. But really….writing….is just a craft that, like all crafts, requires practice, requires focusing on the process, the nuts-and-bolts, pushing the pen forward (swinging the bat), making mistakes (missing the ball), aka training and conditioning, making the mind and body stronger over time.
But writers/artists, especially, are highly susceptible to believing in foolish, self-deceptive notions, some of which are quite mystical and equally mystifying i.e., “I’m just not feeling it,” or worse, “My muse, if only if she’d sing to me today.” These, like crippling fear, are just fictive rationalizations when instead we just need to focus on The Process, nothing more, nothing less — which includes defining a goal and how we can achieve or overcome that goal/obstacle.
That’s it: no magic, no muse, no fear, no doubt, no belief, no emotions (i.e., lack of confidence; the dreaded I have a missing piece feeling), no desire for external rewards. Imagine if a classical pianist believed in the muse, magic, and “feeling it.” Quite simply, there would be no classical pianist. They practice the same piece tirelessly, even after they become a renowned concert pianist. No muse, no feeling it.
The Goal & Only the Goal
Focus on your goal and your plan to achieve that goal — writing a poem, a novel, a short story. Also develop process-based goals such as improving your voice/technique, expanding your vocabulary, learning the techniques of plot and characterization (from a good class or book or teacher), then turning around immediately and trying your best to write a compelling plot and character (knowledge exercised through practice, always and forever).
Process=practice; practice=engaging and bettering ourselves in the craft; the craft=focusing on the nuts-and-bolts and moving on to more advanced techniques (and in the process creating beautiful works of art). I begin with chopsticks and I end with Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. All great writers began at Zero, Point A, The Beginning. The foundation of genius is practice — and making 100,000 mistakes before the masterpiece is finally penned (and even the masterpiece likely contains 1,000 mistakes; I hope I made mistakes here.)
Our Internal Scorecard
Within that tightly focused process (in which we pay attention to nothing else but that process, purely moving the pen forward), we must also develop, and only being mindful of, our internal scorecard: our own private score in which we assess how we are doing, where we can improve, how many words we wrote, what we can do better or different, what the next challenge (goal/obstacle) should be. And we care only about today and tomorrow and moving forward, never are we to brood upon yesterday’s failures. The assessment is made — and on we move.
Always focus on the internal scorecard; never focus on the external scorecard (the awards, the acclaim, the end product, the finish line, the desire for critical acclaim, your published friends, or your yearning for a pat on the back). We care solely about that internal scorecard because we know that our own personal gains/improvements will eventually translate into external awards/rewards (extrinsic and intrinsic) without us even knowing that the translation occurred. By overcoming our own obstacles in the craft, we improve, we succeed and we hopefully publish or we go back to the drawing board (aka the practice field, aka the lab) and take a few more swings and assess the misses until we finally hit our target farther than we have ever hit it before.
We don’t care about anything else; in fact, the fears, the critics, the awards, the pats on the back, are frivolous. We don’t need external gratification. The gratification is within — the gratification we are endowed with through higher, improving marks on our internal scorecard, far greater in strength and power than we would have ever received outside ourselves, actual self-actualization, actualization of our talent through our own merit by way of our practice; by developing our talent (and eventually genius); through our absolute unshakable commitment to the craft; and especially through our discipline to consistently maintain our practice and ceaseless forward momentum.
No muse, no fear, no feeling it. Just us, our own voice, our own experiment, our own journey in which through that practice, through that perseverance, through that discipline, through that stamina, through that focus on process, we become more confident because our talents, our powers of expression, our abilities, are strengthened, enhanced, and elevated. Our writing thus becomes elevated and stronger — and externally (though we don’t care about this) we are validated, admired, and envied by hewing to our internal objectives.
Not overnight, not next week, not next month, maybe not even years from now, but slowly, incrementally, inch-by-inch gained through strife, through challenge, through sweat, through sacrifice, through that war waged within. And when the smoke clears and the dust settles and the blood and the sweat of the symbolic battle is smeared on our faces, it will be just us alone, on the battlefield — holding our trophy, our finished work. And in our minds resides the everlasting satisfaction of knowing we are indeed much better than when we began this fraught journey.
Tomorrow, another battle, another round of practice, but better, sweet and simply better than yesterday. The determination of a master. But I admit, it’s not always easy to focus on the process and push onward — without fear, without failures, and certainly without pain. In my next essay, I’ll talk about the struggle — and how we must be humbled by that struggle to achieve our goals, as well as to realize the humanity (for better or worse) of the process.
Stephen J. McConnell is an award-winning writer, former investigative news reporter, founder of Denver, Colorado-based content development/online marketing company Guiding Type, and director of marketing and content for Golden, Colorado-based Conundrum Press. His more than 2,000 articles, stories, blogs and other writings have appeared in numerous publications throughout the U.S. and internationally.
He earned an M.S. from New York University in Writing in 2016 and a B.S. from Radford University in English in 2005. In 2016, he published an eBook on creative writing, In Search of You. Creative Writing: Journey, Style, Method, finished his first novel, screenplay, and poetry collection, and also published a study on Twitter rhetoric pertaining to the U.S. 2016 presidential campaign. He has also developed numerous social marketing, digital marketing and content strategies for businesses and organizations to increase their revenue and project their brands to a local and global audience.