Tuesday, March 17, 2009


One of the most bewildering things about "becoming a professional writer" is figuring out what a writer is.

What exactly is it that you want to "become."

In what way would achieving that goal make you different than you are now?

What is the difference between yourself and professionals who sell and get paid (two totally different things, as you will discover when you learn the business of writing.)

Creating that mental model of what this profession is all about is hard because our society as a whole considers it unskilled labor. Writing is something you can do it only if you have "talent" and that is innate and not anything to your credit. So when you're writing, you're essentially playing around.

People who are spending years writing and not getting chosen by publishers are generally considered a little cracked or lazy -- "get a real job" -- and are required by moral and ethical rules laid down by society to drop whatever they're writing at a moment's notice and drive carpool, pick up the dry cleaning, dash to school to get the sick kid the parent (a neighbor) can't leave work to pick up -- because YOU aren't "working."

In other words, what you're doing isn't critical, important, lucrative, or bound by discipline -- you have nothing better to do, so do my work for me.

It's an attitude, even selling writers have to deal with. "You can write anytime. Just cut the grass before my boss's family gets here for the picnic."
"What picnic?" you ask, bewildered.

"I told you last week! You never listen to me when you're at that computer!"

Then comes the citing of a dozen studies proving how unhealthy it is to sit at a computer all day. It makes you violent, and you just proved it by screaming inarticulately at a perfectly reasonable request.

What's really going on here? What is the gulf between the writer and the non-writer? Does this have anything to do with the paradigm shift I was talking about in this previous post?


I've been discussing the state of the modern education system on Facebook, and thinking about the learning process.

What can be learned in writing -- and what has to be innate, a Talent?

Most beginners present their earliest efforts with the hopes of a professional reading it and saying, "You're very talented."

Frankly, that's the last thing a beginner should want to hear. You can't tell if someone is "talented" by reading the end product of their work.

Talent doesn't mean you can think of things nobody has thought of yet.

Anyone can do that, and it isn't an inborn trait but a learned one.

Talent means not that you can do something nobody else (or few others) can do, but rather that it is EASY for you to do a thing that is HARD for others.

The thing is, what others think is easy for you, you may find hard for you.

I am not convinced there is "a talent" for "writing." Writing consists of so many different sorts of activities, some of which are crucial to commercial success and some of which are irrelevant to success but necessary to storycrafting, that I don't think there can be a talent for it.

There can be a talent for verbalizing or learning verbal skills. Note the commentary by Suzzette Hadin Elgin in the previous post here, discussing the fallacy of the universal translator. There can be a talent for languages, but it avails nothing if the infant and young child aren't exposed to many languages -- to "acquire" them rather than "learn" them.

There can be a talent for research, for sleuthing out odd facts and forming them into a pattern that could make a story.

There can be a talent for Business -- for discerning what could be popular and knowing when and where to market it, again based on a talent for sleuthing out facts and forming them into a pattern.

There can be a talent for ART.

Any of these talents, and dozens of others, can be applied to fiction writing and take you far. Other talents may work better in non-fiction writing.

None of these talents will make you a writer, or anything else. Talent is meaningless. It's cheap. Everyone has a few. Talent won't take you anywhere unless it's trained, educated, fed, nurtured, and developed.

And the truth is, many very successful people are successful at things they have no innate talent for -- but only a passion for.

You don't necessarily like the activities you have a talent for, and some people actually have an aversion to their own talents. "It's too easy. I could do that if I wanted to, but I don't."

So what it comes down to in life is pursuing your passions -- because only a focused and disciplined passion can get you up that verticle learning curve in education, training, and experience. The quitters don't make it up there, talent or no.

That's true of life in general, but also of The Arts.

I chose the mottos of the Worldcrafter's Guild with care. "Writing is a Performing Art" was the first bit of wisdom taught to me by Alma Hill, a professional writer who ran the writing workshop of the N3F, the National Fantasy Fan Federation, back when I decided I wanted to be a writer. It was my first clue about what it was that I wanted to do with myself and why I wanted to do it. I wanted to PERFORM, but what I wanted to perform was my own novels.

And later, Robert Heinlein borrowed the adage for one of his books, "Sounding spontaneous is a matter of careful preparation." To me, that ever so accurately portrays the difference between a civilian and a writer.

This last week, Rick Schefern whose newsletter introduced me to Google Reader which led me to using Feeddemon has nailed something very important in explaining how people learn to do something. STAGES OF LEARNING.

This is, I'm sure, not original with him, but he's presenting it in a spotlight as a clue that can unravel the mysteries of the world for you. And I believe it may be a vital clue to many writers.

In his NL of 3/10/09 Rick says (you could look up the whole NL online and maybe subscribe (free) -- here's the top of his website
http://www.strategicprofits.com/ ) that there are 4 easily identifyable stages of learning. (all his NL's pitch some product at you claiming to make you rich but he gives away an interesting tip now and again).

Stage (1) - Unconscious Incompetence - you don't know what you don't know
Stage (2) - Conscious Incompetence - you now know what you don't know
Stage (3) - Conscious Competence - you now know it, but you have to
concentrate to use what you know
Stage (4) - Unconscious Competence - you know it, and you can do it without
thinking about it

This sequence is something I've mentioned several times in the posts on writing craft.

My posts point your conscious mind at the internal mechanism of various craft techniques -- the learnable things, the repeating drills and disciplines necessary to bring a Talent online, or to forge ahead in writing without talent.

Rick Schefern lays out the stages any writer goes through during the mastery of any of the techniques I've pinpointed for you.

In other words, you don't go through these Competence stages ONCE and "become" a writer. You go through them again and again and again -- until the day you die. In everything you learn. And if you're wise, you will adjust yourself to this fact and learn to enjoy displaying your Unconscious Incompetence as step number one to mastery.

So how is it that some people are recognized as BRILLIANT?

Very often, a writer (new or seasoned) will produce something and jump up and down for glee at having finally done something totally BRILLIANT!!! Only to have it sneered at and tossed in the trash.

Why is that? Why is an artist not competent to judge their own brilliance? It works that way in other performing arts than writing, too.


When you FEEL BRILLIANT, it's stage 3 working -- you are conscious of out-performing your previous best.

When you actually ARE brilliant -- it's stage 4 and you aren't aware of it.

So what is brilliance? Is it something that's acquired only after slaving away for decades gaining craftsmanship mastery?

No. It was there all along. You're born with it. Or it's gifted to you from Above when you least expect it.

The inner brilliance of your artistic vision is what first ignites your passion to "become" a writer or other performing artist.

It's the fire that fuels all that unrewarded and denigrated effort through the lonely years.

It's not talent, though. Talent is something that's always an innate part of yourself (it even has a signature in your astrological chart - the Quincunx aspects between some outer planets and some inner is one part of that pattern).

Brilliance comes and goes in sparks and cascades. Brilliance happens to people just as it happens to diamonds.

First you, as a personality and character, have to be cut -- the lumpy, muddy rock carved away, the milky, irregular lump inside revealed, then cracked into pieces (emotional pain matures). Then after all that hard work (the attaining of Stage 4 Competence in a variety of skills), you must be placed in the right position in the world (on black velvet) and then AN EXTERNAL LIGHT has to shine upon you.

If the cutting and polishing stage of acquiring competence has been done well, WHEN that external spotlight hits, you will SHINE BRILLIANTLY. You will simply funtion at stage 4 competence without knowing you're doing anything -- and you will do this simultaneously in more than half the skill areas you've acquired stage 4 competence in.

You, as a human being, have no control over when that light will shine on you, no way to predict it or dictate what color that light will be.

It will happen many times in a lifetime -- your only contribution is to be ready when it happens. To be at stage 4 competence in a wide variety of skills, and to be positioned as best you can in the world.

When you shine brilliantly, you may (or may not) be chosen -- i.e. your novel may be bought, or passed over.

When the recognition comes, though, you will be dubbed AN ARTIST -- and in writing, that means a PERFORMING ARTIST.

So the upside of recognition is that people admire the brilliance of the words you've produced (but you look at them and don't see anything special, don't know that you achieved anything wonderful).

The downside of recognition is that everyone expects you to do it again. (look at any number of really wonderful series that get pushed beyond the natural end for commercial reasons.)

But since you didn't do "it" to begin with -- you can't do it again. The light will shine when it shines - and then you will be brilliant because you have mastered Stage 4 competence.

So what does the brilliance of their elders look like to the young people I discussed in the PARADIGM SHIFT - the shift in expectations of what you have to do in order to get what you want?

How will the current crop of 16 year olds go about displaying their brilliance?

Now read this little essay over again and think about how you can apply this Competence Stage concept to a set of fictional characters in a novel of your own.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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