Saturday, September 11, 2010

Unconscious Competence

In my Madeline Island retreat on book-writing this past July, we were joined by a man who summered on the island.  He was retired from a very successful sales career and as he was a last-minute addition to the group and hadn't taken my book-writing workshops before, I wondered how he would do.

One sunny morning midweek, the class was struggling with the learning curve of three-act structure.  Suddenly Pete raised his hand with something to share.

There are four levels of learning, he told us, and they are used in sales training.  Salespeople have to face a lot of learning curve, plenty of rejection, and still have enough detachment and confidence to make the next day's calls.  Pete told us about these four stages and how we were struggling because we were moving from one to the next.

These stages are the brainchild of Abraham Maslow, the renowned American psychologist who was the first to study human potential.  I'd studied the stages before but never applied them to the book-writing journey, but they describe it perfectly.  They help me every day:  recognizing where I am in my learning stage lets me feel less of a failure, less at the mercy of my Inner Critic.

The four stages are: (1) unconscious incompetence, (2) conscious incompetence, (3) conscious competence, and (4) unconscious competence.

Unconscious Incompetence
In the first, unconscious incompetence, the writer doesn't really know how she's doing.  Often she's at the very beginning stages of writing and may experience a huge flow of words.  To her, they may feel amazing as they emerge, but really she's writing them down to hear herself, to begin to recognize her own creative voice.  They are not yet a conversation with a reader, but more the writer talking with herself.  This is an oh-so-important stage, because unless we can communicate with our own inner worlds and our own thoughts, we can never communicate with others effectively--our writing will never be authentic.

When I first began writing fiction, for example, the ideas just flowed out.  I had plenty, they were easy to access, I wrote like a mad person.  This is the realm of the freewrite, the wild writing that is also called stream of consciousness.  We have no idea if the writing is good or bad.  It doesn't actually enter this stage's equation.

We don't really care; we're just creating and it's beautiful to us.

As I said, unconscious incompetence is a very worthwhile and necessary stage of learning to write.  But some never progress beyond it.  The key is whether the writer has a nudge inside to begin to include the reader in the conversation.  Maybe there's a sense that the writing could serve another, interest or educate or inspire.  That's the first step on the bridge to stage two.  But it often requires asking for feedback.

Conscious Incompetence
As we ask for feedback on our writing, we enter the second stage of learning,  Feedback tells us what's working, yes, but it also shows us what's not quite as wonderful as we imagined.

There's a sinking feeling:  We are now conscious of our incompetence.

A writer's ability to cope with this stage, her ability to not get down on herself because she's in it, determine whether she'll go on to the third stage.  The trick is in how she deals with the Inner Critic.

In this second stage, the Inner Critic reigns.  Oh, does it have a field day.  We know we are terrible writers, we know we don't have what it takes to get published, and on and on.  Are you listening to this maladjusted voice, this proponent of self-criticism?  If you can acknowledge its purpose--it's only trying to make sure you don't get fatally embarrassed, shamed, or hurt for your efforts--and go forward anyway, you begin to learn.

This is often when book writers sign up for classes.  How often have I heard "I have all these pages and I have no idea what to do with them"?  That's conscious incompetence--the writer is saying, "I know that I don't know, but I want to know."  Good.  That's a very teachable place to be.

The learning is steep between stages two and three, I find.  There's so much that we don't know, so much to absorb about writing.  It doesn't seem fair--we speak the language, we majored in English, why can't we manifest a publishable book?  Conscious incompetence says, It's OK, I can learn, I'm willing to learn, I'm willing to be a beginner again.

Conscious Competence
It's exciting to reach the third stage.  You know what to do to make that chapter sing.  You have your checklist and you work it:  checking the storyboard, three-act structure, the characters and dialogue, the plot, the main points.  It's hard work, all this checking and rechecking, and the checklist is so long!  The writing is harder now, because it feels like real work.  You long for that first stage, perhaps, when you could freewrite all the time and not worry about whether it was good or not.  Now you know it wasn't that great, and your awareness is the burden you carry.

This isn't a fun stage, even though it turns out better writing than any of the other stages so far.  It's what my MFA teachers used to call the "slog."  We slog through the writing now, not really lifted up by it, not really energized.  But, at the end, we have something pretty darn good.

And if we do it enough, it begins to get slightly easier.  Maybe the second rewrite goes a bit more smoothly than the first.  Maybe, if we're lucky, there's a sense of flow again.  That's the sign that we've moved into the fourth stage, unconscious competence.

Unconscious Competence
I love this stage.  I crave it, it's what makes me slog through stage three, it's the light at the end of the tunnel, the dessert at the end of the meal.  Writing is truly fun again.

Usually, in my book-writing journeys, I reach this stage in final revision.  Theme begins to appear organically, I begin to notice the book is speaking with its own voice which is not exactly mine (a thrilling moment), and I find I've added some beauty in places I didn't even remember working on.  This is where you put your manuscript down for a few days and when you come back, it's as if someone else wrote it--someone who writes really well!

But it was you.  A glorious feeling.  Why we writers write.

Where are you, in these four stages?  Can you recognize yourself in the stories above?  You may be perfectly content with where you are in your writing journey.  Some writers enjoy all four stages.  But most of us suffer, thinking we're not quite where we should be.  It's only when we realize that everyone is on the learning journey that we can relax and accept our place, move forward from it.

In the Madeline Island workshop, Pete helped us all move forward.  His simple reminder that they are stages of learning, that they are necessary pathways in the journey toward success--in any arena, not just book-writing--made me grateful for Pete's presence in the class.  His lift of hand to share his wisdom that day, gave all of us the lift to a higher perspective.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Think about where you are, right now, with your book project.  Which stage are you in?

2.  Take 20 minutes this week to write about what you need to do to move to the next stage.  Maybe it's an internal step--of accepting the stage you're currently in, letting it reside in you and teach you.  Maybe it's an external step, an outer action, such as finding a mentor to help you move ahead with a stalled project.

3.  Plan one action step--internal or external--and try it.


  1. I LOVE this post - I'm going to put a post up on my blog linking to it, I hope that's okay. It's just so relevant :) I'm in the last two stages and consequently the last stage of reviewing :)

  2. Thanks, Nicole! So glad it was helpful. Of course, feel free to forward, copy, post, share, whatever.

  3. Very timely and on target for me.
    I completed the first draft of my first novel and initiated revision with a read-through and some beta input. It felt, at times, like the passing of a kidney stone.
    I find myself in the valley of stage 2 - painfully conscious incompetence. A dark and hollow place indeed.

    Dealing with the inner critic's boot on my neck is easier to take knowing many have been there before and survived to write on. Your post has given me a toe hold on the bully and has raised my spirits. Thanks

  4. The four stages were really eye-opening. I could completely relate. I think I may be at the fourth one, with a book I've now completely revised for the third time. What you said about the organic appearance of themes struck a chord. But now...I am still the next step seems much more about promoting my writing and less about doing it!

  5. Yes, there should be a fifth stage, where you're not actually writing but starting over again and learning something entirely new--promoting! Or at least it's new for most writers. We just write, now we have to promote too?? Seems a cruel joke.

    Thanks for visiting, Sarah. Glad the post is useful to you!

  6. Your article is an excellent example of going through the learning cycle. I appreciate your personal examples. May you always be in the "Flow."