Friday, October 17, 2014

Learning versus Performing Mode: How Each Influences Your Writing Right Now

As a writing teacher, I deal with discouragement every day.  Not about my teaching, although that can certainly arise.  I face the discouragement of my students, as they learn new skills.

Most challenging of the skill-building classes I teach is the advanced-level online book class.  Twenty writers from all over the world gather to learn the art of revision.  

Revision is truly the long-distance drive of writing a book.  You've got the draft, you're enthused (astonished!) to have actually completed it, and now you want to make it sing.  But revision skills are totally different than drafting skills.  Even if the person is a good writer, they might not be able to revise.  And it can lead to deep discouragement.


As usual the third week of class (typically when rubber meets road),  I got three separate emails from discouraged students who wanted to give up.  They are all good writers.  They have good books-in-the-making.  But they don't have revision skills yet.  So, not really knowing what they didn't know about revision, these writers entered this advanced class keenly desiring to hear what's good about their writing.  Consciously or unconsciously, they craved encouragement and validation.  (Most of us secretly hope our book manuscript is already a beautiful symphony, even at draft stage.  From God's mouth to our pen, and all that.  And I go there often, so I am not making fun!) 

But usually, it's not music yet.  Not quite even a catchy tune.  There are clunky sections and whole chapters that are not really needed (but the writer loved too much to assess well).  There's work to be done, next steps to travel.  


It takes excellent readers to show you where you might go next. 

And the readers in this class are good!   Since they are also working on their manuscripts, they develop a keen eye to what's working and what's not.  Within a small work group of 4-5 writers in similar genre/skill level, they read and give feedback each week on chapters and ideas.  I add my feedback, I moderate the groups, and I get the private emails of discouragement and respond.

Keep going, I say.  You have a ways to go.  It may not be easy but it'll be worth it.

So say the writers who have gone on to publish, after taking this class.  I remind them they can do this too.

But why do writers get discouraged in the first place?  Ira Glass talks about this in his wonderful video on the creative process.  He says there's often a gap between our taste and our skill level.  We love good writing, and when we read ours, we see how far we have to go.  In our instant-results culture, the idea of 10,000 hours put into your craft is still foreign.  It takes time to refine.

This week, I got another clue to why writers get discouraged. 

I've been enjoying the newest book by science writer, Daniel Pink.  It's called Drive, and it's about the surprising new research on what motivates us.   Pink talks about the two modes of work:  I'll rephrase them to learning mode and performance mode.  These exist in every arena of life.  But this new research shows that people who approach creative work from a "got to do it right, right now" mode (perform well) may do great for a short run but fail in the long.

Those who approach their project (say, writing a book) from a learning mode will stick it out, get better, and succeed way beyond the performers.

I ask my discouraged students:  which mode are you in, right now?  Are you competing with yourself, with others, with the dream of publishing?  Is your  own refined taste blocking you from being a humble beginner and allowing yourself time to really develop your skills?

The mode you choose determines whether you'll find enjoyment and actually succeed.