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Instant Mastery

Writers are an odd bunch.  It takes a lot of ego to create a story, write it out, and expect total strangers to plunk down their hard-earned cash for the privilege of reading it.

At the same time we are often crippled by self-doubt, requiring massive affirmation from our agents, our editors, our families and our fans, constantly assuring us that we don’t completely suck.  The highs and lows of this continuous cycle of doubt and ego are part of the reason why we have a reputation for being unsettled.

Beginning writers have an even stranger affliction, and it’s one I’ve seen a hundred times in my writing group (and also in my mirror).  I call it, “Expecting Instant Mastery.”

So here’s what happens.

We write something.  A story, a novel, a screenplay, whatever.  We tinker with it a bit, “editing” as best we can.

And it’s perfect.

We ask for feedback, and if we’re very lucky, we get some honest critique.

And we learn it isn’t perfect.

This is hard to hear.  Like someone telling you that your adorable pink infant, whom you spent nine months incubating inside your skin on top of your squished bladder, actually looks like Winston Churchill.  Because they do…all babies look like him.  It’s just a fact.  Go ahead.  Find a picture of him.  I’ll wait.

Yep.  Churchill.

Anyway, we’re shocked by the news that this story, this novel, this first attempt at putting words on a page isn’t ready for the New York Times list.

We expected our first effort to be perfect.

Why do we do this?  If we were taking up any other avocation…golf or bowling, or learning to speak Spanish, we would expect to spend months or years being terrible at it before we got good.  If you go to Paint Nite, where you drink wine and follow a teacher in the front of the room, trying to replicate his painting on your canvas, you don’t honestly think your “Silhouette of Tree in the Sunset” is going to hang on a museum wall.  You know it’s going to look like it was painted by a monkey on a trampoline, and that’s okay.  You’re not a trained painter.

But with writing?  Nope.  That first novel, that first story…they’re flawless.  Every single word a glittering gem.

Look, here’s a really nice painting.  Maybe you’ve seen it before.

Yeah, that one.

Do you think this was his first one?  Do you really think that this masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel, was the first time Michelangelo picked up a brush?

Of course not.  We’ve never seen his first attempt with a paintbrush.  He must have painted countless versions of “Silhouette of Tree in the Sunset” over and over, painting over each one until they got less and less suck, and eventually started to be decent.

He practiced. He learned his craft.

But not us.  No, not us writers.

It’s because we’re readers, and good writers make it look so easy.  All we see on the bookstore shelves are the final, rewritten, edited versions of their work.  We read these stories, these novels and we say, “Well of course I can do that.”

And we can.  Just not very well at first.

But we read, so we think we can write.  Which is akin to saying, “Well, I’ve been eating food my whole life. So I’m sure I’m a master chef.  Just hand me that knife.  Now which is the sharp side?”

Or, “I’ve always lived in a house.  I work in a building.  I know what walls and floors and stuff are all about.  So hand me those blueprints and a hammer, because I will certainly be a master builder this first time I grab a nail.”

Ridiculous, of course, but it’s what we do as writers.

There probably are a few out there, writers whose first attempts really were excellent.  And if you’re an newer writer, you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, and I’m one of them.”

Maybe you are.

I wasn’t.

But I learned.

I’m still learning.

I’ve surrounded myself with the best support team I can find to help me get better, and I think I’m improving, one word at a time.

So all you new writers out there banging away at your first novel, your first story, take heart.  It might not turn out to be the flawless, sparkling jewel you imagine.  But it will be a start.  A first attempt, which can lead to a second, and a third.  And maybe, eventually, to something that belongs on the ceiling of a chapel, adored by millions.

Meanwhile, hand me that pair of scissors.  I’ve had hair almost my whole life.  How hard can it be?

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