Geetanjali Mukherjee

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Be Good or Getting Better?



I am reading a book by psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson on achieving goals. And surprisingly, it teaches a lot that is useful for a writer. 

In her book “Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals”, Dr. Halvorson talks about having two ways of setting goals - be good or getting better. Be good goals are about proving ourselves, while getting better goals are about improving ourselves. The way we set the goal influences how we approach the goal, and whether we succeed in achieving it. It also influences our level of stress and the journey we take towards making the goal happen.

All of this is very abstract, so I will try to give a concrete example. Let’s say you are working on a book, your first novel. You get an idea, you are very excited. Then as you are writing, you notice that it’s no longer flowing as well, you seem to keep getting stuck. You write a scene and then compare that scene to your favorite books in that genre and fall short. You start to question yourself - what ever made me think I could be a writer? I am just kidding myself. You are stressed out, taut, irritable. Your family is secretly hoping you give up on this dream of being a writer if this is how you will be the whole time. You wonder what you’re doing wrong, and go on forums that talk about writer’s block and read quotes that describe writing as opening a vein. 

What is going on really is that you are approaching your writing of the novel with a be good perspective. You want your book to be good, after all who doesn’t, and you are mentally comparing your performance of writing with that of successful, published authors, and seeing yourself falling short constantly. 

Now let’s see another way to approach this. You sit down to write your first novel, excited, but aware that you probably have a lot to learn. You don’t have an MFA and didn’t take any fiction writing courses in University. So all you have is a story or the beginning of one, and a trusty laptop. You start writing and come to a point where the story breaks down, or it feels like every word you’re typing is the wrong one. You ask yourself what you’re doing wrong. Then you realize - this is your first novel. It couldn’t possibly be that great, or that easy to write. You decide to pause and get some books on craft, and devour them. Maybe you take an online writing course with a good instructor. Now with some knowledge, you get back to your book. And you realize that while it’s still hard, the scenes still seem floppy, at least you know what a scene is. You have a good idea of where this story is going. You can see that already you have improved so much. And you decide that no matter how terrible the writing is, you will power through and finish a draft, even if its very very rough. And you do. The whole time reminding yourself that it is a first novel, your first draft, and allowed to be terrible. You have some sleepless nights wondering if you can get to the end, but by and large you are not too stressed out. You even smile and laugh on occasion. You tell people about this crazy thing you are doing as an experiment, just to see where it will lead. 

At the end of a few months of less than agonizing work, you have a rough draft of your novel. And then you go back to those books on craft, and revise the whole thing. Pulling out scenes ruthlessly, working on the motivations of your characters, agonizing over every word choice. But you can see through the process, that no matter how hard it is, the book is getting better. And you are improving as a writer with every hour you spend. This is how you tackle writing with a getting better perspective. 

Notice some differences? Notice that both writers start with the same overall goal - to write a first novel.  But the first writer wants their work to be instantly good, to be comparable with that of seasoned authors who have honed their craft over millions of words. While it sounds silly when I point it out, I know this isn’t so unusual. In fact, I was doing this just yesterday. I am working on a book of personal essays, and recently started reading a funny memoir by writer Jennifer Weiner - Hungry Heart. I haven’t really read many of her books, but this one is really good. So good that I am unable to get back to working on my own book at present, because I am so deflated by the thought of my own paltry language skills. But I forgot, until I wrote this post, that she has many best-selling books under her belt, and many more years of writing. I should aspire to be a good writer, even a great one. But I shouldn’t let that aspiration for tomorrow stop me from putting down the words today. 

Be good is a great goal for certain situations. If you have practiced for years and are going on stage to perform, by all means have your goal be to be as good as you possibly can. Aim to give a flawless performance. But if you are walking into dance class or acting class or poetry writing class, for the first time, or the fiftieth, but you are going to learn a new routine or try a new form of the skill, then walk in with an attitude of getting better. Aim to learn, to improve, to start wherever you are and build from there. 

If you are a newbie writer, by all means look up to your writing heroes for inspiration. But don’t forget to come back down to earth, and remember that you starting with a different mound of clay than them, and you don’t yet have a potter’s practiced hand. But that is no excuse to fear the clay - work with it, make it your own, put in the time. And maybe one day you will even be sitting right next to one of those heroes, working the clay with the same level of confidence, with the same skill. And your finished pots will be just as beautiful. 
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