At the suggestion of my buddy Stuart, I’ve started reading several books by Steven Pressfield. The one I just finished yesterday is titled The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. The point of reading such books is to motivate myself to get back to writing creatively. One chapter in The War of Art reminded me about the need to think and act like a professional in my creative work. It’s hard to admit, but I have not done done this, though I learned to do in my day job. Today I’ll talk about thinking and working like a pro.
Professionalism as a Non-Fiction Writer
Maybe there are folks out there who learn things the easy way: they just pick up lessons by osmosis and, SHAZAM! They’re a better human being without a lot of stress or fuss.
I am not one of those people.
I have a thick head and an inflated, but Saran Wrap-thick ego. I often dislike being told what to do, much less being told that I’m doing it incorrectly.
However, over the course of doing my work, I discovered that I liked to eat. That meant I couldn’t afford to be fired. And you know how you can get fired pretty quickly?
- Arguing with the boss every time s/he asks or tells you what to do.
- Taking it personally every time someone offers constructive criticism about the quality of your work.
- Losing your temper if work circumstances are not going your way.
- Providing feedback to others in a rude manner.
- Doing work that is incomplete or substandard.
- Refusing to revise work to others’ standards.
- Working only when you feel like it.
Have I ever been fired for any of those? In truth, I got fired once because my customer did not like my work…or me (the jury is still out) but could not provide specific feedback that would enable me to improve. And when I did act on the feedback, the customer remained dissatisfied. So I don’t consider that situation a result of any of the points above. That said…
I did get plenty of warnings from managers and peers on other jobs. I learned a lot of lessons in my time at Walt Disney World Guest Letters because I was arrogant enough to think I knew what I was doing. This turned out not to be the case all the time. I got a (well-deserved) lecture once for being overly harsh in how I edited another writer’s work. I got asked by my manager, point-blank, to “try looking things up before asking me.” I wrote in a rather windy style that I’d acquired in college, and when I was handing off my duties to another writer, she found it difficult to emulate. Finally, she got fed up and asked, “Could you just write what you mean?” I got taken into the office once because the quality and consistency of my work were dropping off, and I had to admit that, perhaps, I was drinking a bit too much, and it was affecting the instrument of my work: my brain.
When I entered the engineering world, first as a Department of Defense contractor, then as a NASA contractor, I had to learn to accept constructive feedback on the content and quality of my work. It was, perhaps, easier to accept feedback in those environments because honestly I didn’t know what I was writing about much of the time. Among other crucial things, I had to accept that I would be learning all the time, and learning requires some key attributes:
- Accepting that you don’t know everything.
- Being willing to learn.
- Believing that you can learn.
All of those require a certain amount of humility. Fortunately, I did learn them eventually.
On the personal front, I once got dragged into the boss’s office, where I received a pretty serious dressing down for losing my cool in front of my coworkers. I had to have it explained to me that hysteria was contagious, but so was keeping one’s cool.
Applying Lessons Learned from Technical Writing to Creative Writing
I’ve accepted for years that I am a professional technical writer and an amateur fiction writer. Most of that boils down to how I engage with the seven points numbered above. To be a professional, I need to:
- Do what my customer or editor asks me to do (if I’m writing a specific product for pay).
- Take constructive criticism about the quality of my work for what it is: useful feedback to help me get better.
- Maintain my calm if work circumstances are not going my way.
- Provide feedback to others in the spirit of a friend or mentor.
- Do my best work.
- Revise work to comply with the customer’s template, style, or standards.
- Work on improving my craft every day.
I’ve learned all these things through the course of doing the work that pays my bills. Becoming a good creative writer requires the same set of behaviors. And even if I’ve been blessed with a facility for language or higher-level education than others on writing, I cannot afford to be arrogant. Indeed, if I’m to succeed, I will need to learn, continually, for as long as I am able.