In this week’s episode, Tim and I talk about professional mindsets and then we transition into how a pro faces rejection. I’m not sure I have the best advice about rejection, but I do think that the more you face, the less power it has over you. That is, the more you challenge yourself and create and share, the less naysayers tend to stop you dead in your tracks.
To listen click the play button below or read the transcript that follows.
[0:00:00.7] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne, he is an editor with over 25 years’ experience. He is the creator of Story Grid and the author of the book Story Grid, and he is walking me through and mentoring me and coaching me on how to write my first novel.
In this episode, we approach two different questions that I think are really important for all writers. The first is, what does it take to become a professional writer? Is it when you’ve written three books, is it when you get your first publishing deal, what does it really take to become a pro? The second one is, how do you face rejection? This question came in from a listener and we felt like it was important to spend some time answering the question and Shawn and I both give our takes on how to overcome rejection.
So this is a really important episode, I think it’s going to mean a lot to you so we’re going to jump in and get started.
[0:01:09.7] TG: So Shawn, I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of what it takes to become a writer but more like how do I know when I’m finally doing it right or I’m doing the things I need to do or when we were discussing it the other day, we were calling it “turning pro”.
[0:01:29.9] SC: Right.
[0:01:31.9] TG: So in your mind, what does it take to go from amateur writer to professional writer?
[0:01:40.1] SC: You know that’s a really important question to answer because there’s so many people talk about being a pro writer and what exactly that means and a lot of people just don’t understand the practical steps that you need to take to turn pro. The thing that we were talking about last week really kind of gave me a clue about this as a good prime answer.
For me, to turn pro means two things. It means, being able to concentrate and work on your craft, which are all very obvious learning educational steps that you are doing now, learning the story grid concepts about genre and obligatory scenes and conventions, learning about the specific target audience that you want to hit, learning how to outline, learning how to sit down and do work every single day, whether that be outlining or physically writing itself.
So that’s one major element of it and the other major element of it is that sort of mystical place that practical people like you and I have a difficult time getting into but it starts to hit us and come to us after we’ve so man handled the practicalities of it. So the mystical thing is being open to almost, this is probably not the right way of saying it, but almost throwing away all of your instincts to just clamp down on the specifics and to let things come to you and see where they lead.
For example like in your story, your first draft you had very much worked through the entire thing, you plotted out your 60 scenes, you figured out where you wanted your major moments in your plot to hit, then you wrote a first draft and it didn’t work. So you were faced at that point of either throwing up your hands and saying, “Oh I learned the craft and the craft let me down, and there’s just no way it’s going to work.” Or you could say, “Okay, well let me see how I can move forward using the craft elements that I know in a different way.”
You tried something different as supposed to doing the same thing again because you could have just said, “Oh that was my first book, it didn’t work, now I’m going to write a whole new book and do the same thing using different plot points.” So I think turning pro is first of all, you have to master your craft and even the best writers never feel that they completely have mastered the craft. There is not going to be any one moment where you’re going to say to yourself, “Oh I’ve got this down, I know everything about the craft.” But just being in the arena each and every time that you’re working and thinking about the craft is the same as eventually mastering it.
[0:04:49.0] TG: Yeah, I just read the essay by George Orwell called Why I Write and I don’t actually do have the quote. Hang on one second, I’m going to grab the quote. I forgot it. I started doing this thing where I read books, process them into note cards and so I have my Why I Write note cards here.
[0:05:12.7] SC: Now that’s a practical step in learning individual books right. You don’t just read a book and say, “Oh I read that book.” Instead you try and summarize it so that you can remember or at least you have a reference point of saying, “Oh you didn’t know that you were going to have this conversation with me but what you did do is you have a series of things that you can refer to that you can bring out when you need them. That is being a pro.
[0:05:42.1] TG: Well I just stole this from Ryan Holiday. So I’ll probably leave this in.
[0:05:48.6] SC: Oh don’t give him any credit.
[0:05:52.0] TG: Well because — so I’m knee deep in two books, right? So the novel we’re working on and then a nonfiction book I’m working on and I realized about a month ago that I’m not good enough to write this nonfiction book yet. Like I’m not a good enough writer and one of the things that Jeff Goins told me was, because I sent him a bunch of stuff I had written and he was like, “This is a fantastic collection of blogposts but this is not a book.” And he’s like, “You can put this together and put it out into the world and whatever, I won’t judge you,” even though he would.
[0:06:27.8] SC: Right.
[0:06:31.2] TG: “Or, you can write a better book,” and I’m like, “Well this is what I got so far,” and he’s like, “What you’re realizing is, you’re reaching the end of your own knowledge and experience and you have to go out and do research and become a better writer.” So that’s kind of what I’ve been on a quest to do the last month is to like I’ve been talking to friends of mine that are good nonfiction writers and getting them to kind of teach me what they do and of course, it’s so funny talking to them because when you first ask, they’re kind of like, “Well, I just kind of write my book.”
I’m like, “Okay, well what do you do?” You have to kind of keep asking the question and then they realize, they don’t even realize that they have this tactics and strategies that they’ve developed to write that they use without even thinking about them. Well, this is also how out of touch I am is like, I was talking to Tod Henry who wrote The Accidental Creative and Die Empty and he said, and I was like, we were talking about where he does his research and I said, “Well, where do you find the books? How do you find books that you use to research?”
He’s like, “Well I go to the library,” and that was the first time that it occurred to me to go to the library to find books and I’m like, “Oh my god, I’m so out of touch with how to do this.” So anyway, I’ve been looking Ryan Holiday has written several books and he has a very systematic way he writes books, which of course appeals to me and he talks about how he processes books that he reads. He basically turns them into note cards that he categorizes so that he can then reference later.
I’ll link to this in the show notes to all the stuff I read and the videos and stuff. That’s what I’ve been working on is like how to quickly increase my knowledge and expertise in a given subject so that I can write a book from that space. It’s a whole new skill set that my first two books that I wrote were basically just based on my own experience, which is all they needed to be but this has to go beyond what’s in my head.
[0:08:48.1] SC: Well yeah, that’s the technique that Malcolm Gladwell has so perfected and Ryan certainly does that too in his work.
[0:08:55.9] TG: Oh my gosh, I just listened to an interview with Malcolm Gladwell and honestly that was the point where I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got to up my game.” I don’t think I’m going to be Malcolm Gladwell but here is how he does this, right? He’ll interview somebody, he’ll talk to him for say four hours, just a long time, he’ll record the whole thing and then he himself transcribes it.
He transcribes the entire thing, then he prints it out and he reads it and he goes through and he basically circles all the interesting parts and cuts out all the uninteresting parts, then he takes that and he types that into its own document. So he’s now distilled the interview and so it takes him a week to process one interview for his book. I’m like, “And that’s why he’s amazing.”
[0:09:52.3] SC: Yes. Yeas and also, it helps him. He’s a journalist so he learned through long hours of work working at the Washington Post and other places and of course the New Yorker. He learned how to document all of his sources because in today’s day and age, it’s not difficult to be caught making a mistake and I always try and think of the benefit of the doubt when a journalist makes a mistake, meaning they don’t cite a source or they reference something and they get the wrong source to it or they make things up.
Some writers have been caught doing this over the past years because it’s not difficult today with the algorithms to find a particular phrase that is repeated. So what Gladwell is doing is he’s not only sort of etching the river inside his own neural pathway in his brain by doing all of that work that we would say, “Oh that’s so stupid. Why would you retype an interview that you did? Just pay somebody to do the transcript.”
One of the reasons why you do that is the actual physical motion of typing and you made a joke about this a long time ago when I was talking about adding up the words and manuscripts and you’re like, “Just get a program to do it,” and one of the reasons why I think it is important to do that under certain circumstances is that it’s like a drop of rain in the ground that slowly etches a neural pathway into your mind. So that I bet Gladwell, once he does that seven days’ worth of work, yes, he’s got the file, he can double check but when he sits down to craft his story, all that stuff, bang, it’s instantly accessible to him because he’s already etched that pathway in his brain.
This is part of turning pro, is doing the blue collar labor necessary to make those things second nature. So he doesn’t even — probably somebody asked him about it and he had to really deeply think about his process because he’s been doing it so long. Same thing with Ryan Holiday, this is somebody who literally taught himself how to write. He’s a self-taught guy. I’ve talked with Ryan a number of times and I’ve given him some hints and you know, very simple help over the years but he takes the tiny little thing that I told him, literally I said to him when he was running the book on Stoicism, what is it?
[0:12:30.4] TG: The Obstacle Is The Way.
[0:12:31.7] SC: Yeah, The Obstacle Is The Way. He sent me the manuscript and said, “Can you give me any thoughts about it?” And I said, “It’s great. The only problem is that you just really need to further delineate the beginning, the middle and the end.” And he’s like, “Oh my gosh, you’re right.” So now, all of his work has very clearly defined beginnings, middles and ends. That was just the something offhand that I said because it was a little something on one part of the book should have been at the beginning, I didn’t even tell him which part, he figured it out himself.
So part of turning pro is being interested in learning the tactics and habits of other people. They may or may not work for you specifically but if you try them and they become kind of a crutch to you, now you’ve got something that when you get stuck, when the inspiration isn’t there, like Malcolm Gladwell, some would say it’s resistance that he’s spending a week typing of transcripts of his interviews and for some people, that might be resistance. But the fact is this guy bangs out hundreds and hundreds of thousands of words a year, a lot of them we never even see.
So I’m glad you brought up that process because a lot of people think, “Oh I’m such an idiot, I’m wasting all my time doing this transcripts.” Steve Pressfield did that too when he wrote The Lion’s Gate. Now everybody talks about Steve — Steve entered a field that he had never engaged in before. He was trying for the very first time, narrative nonfiction, which he had never written before. He was scared shitless when he did it. I know, I was alongside him the entire process.
So when he went under that very, very scary new thing, what he did was rely upon blue collar hard work. He knew, “I’m going to call my best friends who are journalists and I’m going to say, what recording device should I buy? Then I’m going to buy that recording device,” and he took it all the way back to this. I’m going to ask them, “Do you turn the tape on before you get in to the room or after you’ve already had your pleasantries?”
So he came up with this system when he went to do his interviews and The Lions Gate is a book about the six day war and he needed to go and get the confidence of hundreds of veterans from this really crucial war in 1968, Israel was attacked by seven million Arab army and they were in deep trouble. So he had to get the confidence of all this guys who lost some of their best friends during this war. He came to understanding that, “I would really tape it, turn on the tape recorder before I actually reach out my hand to shake the hand of the person and then I’ll ask them if it’s okay to tape and if it’s not okay to tape, I’ll turn it off.”
But why lose something in a communication, the formality of, “Oh hi, my name is Steve. Oh, I’m Itzak.” Just hearing that back story, when our guard is down, before we’re being interviewed, a lot of people are very candid. So when we start our show Tim, we do a couple of minutes of just banter where some days I’ll say, “Ah Tim, I have no idea what I’m going to talk about today.” And you go, “Yeah, me neither, let’s just do it.” That’s when the gold starts to flow. So this is all about turning pro and so anyway…
[0:16:18.1] TG: Well actually, before we move on, I want to back up and kind of point something out here that I think is really important and gets lost just with, I know with the authors I work with, the people I work with, this piece gets lost and I think it’s really important so I try to talk about it whenever I can. It’s about how to find the right mentors because what I have seen is — so I try to read a lot, read a lot of advice, read a lot of books, learn as much as I can. But nothing quite replaces getting one person that knows what they’re talking about to teach you something in particular.
If I look at my different careers or whatever, the point where I’ve done that is where I’ve seen the biggest leap forward and whatever I’m trying to do. But there’s a really particular way you have to go about doing this. The first one is to be humble and the second is when you ask advice, make sure you ask something particular and then here’s my rule. When I ask somebody that’s really smart for advice, I’m not allowed to argue. The only questions I’m allowed to ask are clarifying questions if I don’t fully understand what they’re telling me to do.
Otherwise I take it as if god himself just stepped down and told me to do something and I just do it and then I report back. What I’ve found is, people love to help other people that are actually willing to help themselves and I’ve dealt with this too and people asked me advice. They’ll ask me advice, I tell them what they should do then they start arguing about why they think I’m wrong and then they ignore my advice.
[0:18:01.8] SC: Yes.
[0:18:04.4] TG: So what I’ve found is, people are super helpful if you just do what they say and treat them with the respect that they deserve. So just hearing you talk about the fact that that’s what Steve did when he was walking into the space that he didn’t know. He reached out to people and I bet he didn’t say, “Well are you sure that’s the right recorder?” He just said, “Okay, that’s the one I’m going to buy,” and then he’d ask a question and whatever they said, it’s gospel, I’m just going to do it and I found that if you approach people that way, honestly that’s how I got this podcast was approaching you that way.
[0:18:41.7] SC: Yeah.
[0:18:42.1] TG: So I think it’s really important because a lot of people feel like they’re on their own, they don’t know how to get help and if you kind of approach it this way where you’re super humble, you ask specific questions, don’t ask what should I do with my life, ask specific questions and then just do whatever they say without any argument. Even if it doesn’t work, they’ll still respect you and want to keep helping you.
Actually, if it doesn’t work, they may want to help you even more because they’ll feel bad. I found like that is the kind of thing that, or we’ll just call it what we’re calling it. That’s what pros do. They don’t just flounder in their ignorance, they go out and find somebody that can help them and then they just do whatever they’re told.
[0:19:27.6] SC: Well I’m just going to add one small element to that and it’s kind of obvious but I just read this really fun book called Chaos Monkeys. I don’t know the name of the man who wrote it off the top of my head but we’ll get in the notes somehow. He talks about, it’s a story about his career in Silicon Valley and at one point, he was going in for these interviews, this full day, intensive interview process at Facebook.
So he said, “Of course, the very first thing I did was I did a deep search on every single interviewer that was going to interview me so that I knew exactly their background, what they knew, how much our lives intersected, all of that stuff. He said, “It took me all night, the night before to put together the list of all the stuff that I needed to know about this people before I interviewed with them. So what he did when he went in for the interviews is he knew the world view, the point of view of the interviewer before he sat with them.
So he was doing a lot of work knowing the kind of answer, because there’s no correct in an interview. It all depends on the world view of the interviewer over the interviewee. So when you are asking a mentor and you want a mentor, at least know the track record of the mentor. If you go to an astronaut and you say, “Oh will you teach me about how to be an astronaut,” and you know nothing about the Apollo landings or anything, they’re going to say, “Get away from me, you have no right to ask me anything yet.” So if you want expertise from somebody, at least know what they’re an expert in.
[0:21:21.3] TG: Yeah, that’s a really great point because you don’t want to ask a question they’ve already answered online or in their books. It’s funny because that’s exactly what I’m doing because I’m talking to Ryan in a couple of weeks and I just went back through and reread everything I could find online bout how he writes his processes. Like I said, I’ve started doing the types of things that he recommends, which has been interesting too because I read this book on war strategy and it’s like the 13 war strategies and it goes all the way back to BC and he gives all this examples.
And so I went through and I read it, I made notes and I put those little tabs at each spot where I wanted to come back to do a note card and then I read the whole book and I did that and then I came back and I made note cards for each individual thing, and I put them in my little note card holder and then I went back and reread my note cards and I’m like, “Oh now I know what this book is saying.” I couldn’t see it until I had rehashed it three times. That’s when I was thinking about the whole Malcolm Gladwell thing of like, it is, it’s that kind of work that goes into this things.
[0:22:39.9] SC: Yes, absolutely. So what was that quote from George Orwell?
[0:22:44.0] TG: Yeah, okay, because you were talking about how writers, they never feel like they perfect anything and this is what he said in his essay, I think it’s Why I Write. He said, “In any case I find, that by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it.” So I guess that’s my question to a couple of weeks ago where I asked if it ever gets any easier.
[0:23:09.0] SC: Well look at Orwell, I mean there’s a guy who was a journalist who wrote a memoir Down and Out in Paris and London I think, which is a hilarious book about just being so broke that you’ll do anything for Franc beyond selling your soul. Then he wrote that amazing Animal Farm, right? That incredible allegorical tail that he needed to write about communism and socialism but he also knew, “Oh jeez, if I use people in this thing, they might throw me in the Gulag.”
So he used Animals to demonstrate — that’s one of the great novels of all time. It’s just this anthropomorphized beings, pigs and sheep and animals that explain the rise of Stalinism, Leninism, Trotskyism, all that stuff in this very hilarious and spine tingling allegory. So there’s Orwell who is trained as a journalist, he wrote memoirs, he wrote incredible novels and then as you said, each time he probably perfected a certain kind of writing, he realized, “You know what? This isn’t going to work. If I use journalism to write a book about Stalinism, they’re going to kill me. So what I need to do is write a novel about Stalinism using animals as my protagonist. Then people will think it’s this silly little book when actually it’s about the rise of Fascism.”
That’s genius, that’s — and it’s not something that he was born with, it was something that his curiosity and his instincts, this goes back to what we started about at the very beginning of this conversation, his craft came up against a wall. He could have said to himself, “You know what? I’m just going to keep relying on my craft because it’s gotten me this far.” No, instead, he said, “You know what? I’ve got to be open to different forms and if those forms are too difficult for me, I need to spread out and master those forms in a different way and challenge myself to do different work.
So that’s what turning pro is about being. It’s about learning your craft to know when you’ve hit the wall and also, it’s looking for other people in your arena like the Ryan Holiday’s the Tod Henry’s the Steve Pressfield’s, the Jeff Goins, myself, you, I mean it’s no small thing. Every time you bring up a name Tim, it’s funny because I’ve talked to these people, I know who you’re talking about, and that’s not a coincidence. These are all people who were working to get better writing. They’re looking for the next step of their iteration to make the message inside of themselves more clear to the rest of the world.
I mean, that’s one of the things I really admire about Ryan is that he has a clear path that he is pursuing and he’s doing it with a vengeance. He just absorbs and does everything possible to read as much as he can, he has great reading lists, he’s always recommending great books, he’s summarizing things, he’s always stretching himself and so that’s a great guy to get to know, that’s a great guy to have a 10 minute phone call with. So that is what pros do.
Anyway, what are some other tactics do you think that work for getting better without self-sabotage?
[0:26:58.1] TG: Well I think it melds with one of the questions we’ve gotten about how do you deal with rejection because I’ve gotten so many emails from listeners that are basically, they all kind of say the same thing which is like, “I can’t believe you’re doing this.” Like, “I would never be this brave, there’s no way I could ever do this.” I know I’ve been systematically putting more and more of myself out there over the last decade and what I found is inoculating myself to rejection when I’m in control is extremely powerful for putting other things out into the world when I’m not in control.
Putting my first scene that you ripped apart way back in the fall, I did it in this kind of controlled way where I’m like, “I’m putting something out there I know is bad.” So when it’s bad, it’s okay, and it kind of builds my resistance up so that when I get a one star review on my book on Amazon, I’m okay with that. I have found that one is, rejection’s always a part of it. There’s always going to be people that don’t like something you did. So that’s one thing. The other is, I only take rejection seriously if it’s from somebody that lose me that’s looking out for my best. People that are just being mean just for the sake of being mean, I just don’t care what they have to say.
I’m kind of rambling here but you know, I have found that constantly putting myself in a position where I’m doing something scary and I’m doing something where I might get rejected and doing a little bit at a time, builds up your resistance to it, a good kind of resistance. That’s why — and I’ve been doing that systematically for years, so that’s why I’m able to do something like this podcast and while it’s still scary and I still have angst about it, I’m able to do it because I’ve been systematically putting myself out there for years now and I realize like somebody rejecting me is not, I’m still Tim and I can still do my work.
[0:29:26.0] SC: Right, right. I think there’s something, as you were talking, I was just thinking about it in terms of the stuff that I do and I had to admit that I struggle with rejection at a level that is not good in that I have a very difficult time and I think everybody does and this is probably why we both get a lot of emails, I got an email form some very nice person who said, “You should really do an episode about rejection.”
And in the back of my mind I said to myself, “I really don’t want to talk about rejection.” Because it deeply, even if it’s just somebody being mean, what it does to me is it sends and this might have something to do with just my personality but it sends me into a vortex of just believing that the universe is indifferent and just completely ridiculous because usually the people who articulate how your work or what you are doing is worthless and that you should just go away.
They’re usually quite good at it, you know? It’s always those ones who can pick out that sentence that you wrote that at the time you thought, “Hey, this is a pretty good sentence,” and then you read it out of context and you say to yourself, “Holy cow is that a lousy piece of work.” But the reason why I’m sort of dwelling on this element is that, as you say, I just really don’t believe that you can ever inoculate yourself from rejection.
It’s a thing that hits you deep in your solar plexus that you have to sort of, you have to shiver through it and as you say, you have to just keep moving forward. As Ryan’s book, The Obstacle Is The Way, sort of talks about is that the stoic philosophy is that those things that hit you the deepest and rejection is one of them, that is in some ways, it’s the way to get better, it’s the direction to attack. Steve Presfield writes about resistance in that way too. Those things that you are most resistant to doing are the things that your soul is crying out for you to do.
So when you get rejected and I know what you mean, there are some trolls out there just being mean who say, “Oh I hate the type face, one star,” or, “Amazon didn’t get this to me on time. One star.” Yeah, you just completely blow those off. The other thing, just Malcolm Gladwell the other day, I read somewhere, I think it was on a podcast on long form. Somebody said, “Oh it must be so great for you since you’re so rich and you have millions and millions of fans,” and he said, which I thought was very funny, that, “The larger base of fans that you have is the larger base of people who can’t stand you. If you have a million fans, you’re going to have at least 200,000 people who hate your guts.”
So I think his sort of boiling it down into a mathematical equation can be helpful too. There’s just something about humanity that can’t stand other people moving forward and those sort of negative voices and negative tension are those things that are just part of life. So you can see I’m struggling for a rationalization to figure out a way to handle rejection better but I think the bottom line about rejection is, you might just not be good enough in that moment.
Coming to the decision, “You know what? Maybe they have a point and maybe I need to do some more work.” I think that is a healthy way of dealing with rejection instead of saying, “Oh they just don’t understand me, things aren’t — if they could only know all of the things that I’ve been through in my life, they would understand what a great triumph this book for me, it was for me to write.”
[0:33:54.2] TG: See, I think because yeah, I guess you can’t inoculate yourself against it because I actually a few weeks ago just hired somebody to process my email for me and I said, “If somebody’s pissed at me, I don’t want to know about it.” I was like, “Unless there’s like something in particular they’re asking for, just archive the email and I don’t want to know anything about it.” It is that kind of thing where I try to keep it out as much as I can because what I try to do, here’s what I do, is I open myself up to criticism from people I trust.
This podcast, friends like Jeff Goins, I put myself in a position where people that I trust that they care about me and I trust that they actually know what they’re talking about and I let them in to criticize me. I take their critical take on it extremely seriously and pretty much any other critical take on stuff I ignore because the random person that criticizes my book on amazon, maybe they have something real, but more often than not and more likely than not, they don’t know what they’re talking about.
[0:35:10.4] SC: Right.
[0:35:11.7] TG: So that’s kind of how I process rejection is I guess I am thinking about almost like a shot. What are the shots you get so you don’t get sick?
[0:35:25.0] SC: Vaccine.
[0:35:25.9] TG: Yeah, the vaccines because it’s like I’m putting a little bit — I’m on purpose putting criticism in my life. So I’m not cutting it out completely, but I’m doing it in a way where I can trust where it’s coming from so I can open up my heart like I can be vulnerable to it is the word I’m looking for, thinking through somebody like Brené Brown’s writing. Put myself in a position where I can be vulnerable and I can be safe with people’s criticism.
It’s like things you said to me, things Jeff said to me, things other friends say to me like I don’t like them, they do hurt but they don’t go as deep because I know it’s like a parent looking out for the good of their kid. So that’s how I try to do rejection is anything that comes in that’s not requested or not really, like I haven’t allowed it, any criticism that comes in, I just kind of steal myself against it.
Because I actually wrote a book or wrote an article one time about criticism and it was funny because what spurred me to write it was in the space of five minutes, I had somebody email me and say that my writing was next to biblical epistles in their life. Within five minutes later, I got an email that said I sucked and I needed to stop writing because all I was doing was hurting people. It’s like, when you’re getting those kind of competing things, it is funny but it’s also, that’s hard to process.
[0:37:05.3] SC: Yes.
[0:37:06.1] TG: So I’ve just decided like if it doesn’t come in from a place that I already trust, I’m just going to ignore it and just trust that I’m putting myself underneath the tutelage of people that will tell me the truth and tell me things like, “You’re writing a book that’s a collection of blog post and it’s not good enough,” and trust their advice and not open myself up to the world, which is extremely unsafe. Especially in today’s world where anybody can anonymously attack you.
[0:37:38.0] SC: That’s right. I find that despicable that Amazon allows people to write without giving their name.
[0:37:45.0] TG: Yeah, I don’t…
[0:37:46.5] SC: Not that I would email them back a defense or anything but I think the anonymity of writing a review that can affect a buying decision by somebody is a disservice, and Amazon always talks about “it’s all about the consumer”. I think that’s a disservice to the consumer because nobody with the guts to put their name under a review that they’ve written about somebody who’s spent their life’s work trying to create something is — they’re cowards and I think your point that you shouldn’t listen to the cowards anyway is a very good one.
But the only other thing that I would say that does get a little dicey is how you choose those people that you put your trust in. So the mentors, how you choose your mentors is an important decision on your part too. A lot of people think, “If I could only get somebody to tell me their secrets and help me work through my particular profession, everything would be great.” But you have to remember that every single person has their own psychological difficulties and boundaries and there are some people who present themselves as mentors who just sort of enjoy tormenting people too.
I think of Brian Wilson, the amazing song writer in the Beach Boys and how he was susceptible to sort of a mentor psychologist who dominated his life for years. I forget the man’s name but it’s just a tragedy that sometimes there are negative mentors. I’m not saying that we should all beware and if somebody lends a hand and gives you information that you should be paranoid about it but I do think you need to have a pure sense of what you want, what you need, and what the other person’s delivering.
For example, when you came to me and you said, “I would like help learning the craft of storytelling for fiction,” and that first scene that you sent me, I didn’t come down with 4,000 tons of pain on you. I systematically chose the most important concepts that you should learn first before I said, “Oh and that third sentence is abominable. Who taught you how to write dialogue?” I didn’t say anything like that.
[0:40:30.8] TG: Well you’re saying it now.
[0:40:31.4] SC: No. Well I’m saying now because you’re beyond that stage, right?
[0:40:37.6] TG: Right, right. No I get you.
[0:40:39.6] SC: You can laugh about it now but if I had said that to you before, you would have canceled the podcast and you would have been, no matter how much you can steal yourself from rejection, somebody that you admire who is a mentor figure disappoints you and throws 4,000 tons of pain on you within the first couple of sessions of working with them, I suggest you move away from that person because they’re dealing with something and they’re trying to hurt you for sport. There is a sadomasochistic level that’s at play there that you need to get away from.
You need to find people and there are, as you say Tim and I think it’s a really good point, everybody always thinks that it’s difficult to find a mentor. Well it really isn’t because innately in each and every one of us, we like to help other people. It gives us a sense of purpose and meaning in our life. If we can pass on some little trick that we’ve learned that made our lives better to somebody else, I think it’s in our DNA, we all get great satisfaction out of that. Far more satisfaction, believe it or not, and I think Daniel Pick wrote a great book about this called Drive, which is what actually motivates people to spend 18 hours at work and it’s not a paycheck.
It’s really a deeper sense of satisfying work and bringing something, your inner genius inside of yourself that you don’t have any clue of how it’s going to come out, that feeds that feeling. So mentors are not difficult to find and I’m not putting myself up for any more mentorships by the way when I say that. There are plenty of people like me out in the world who know as much about story too. So I’m not saying that I’m the only one who can mentor but I think it’s important to be rational and as professional as you are with your craft when you are finding a mentor too. There are reasons why we talk to our friends and there’s a reason why I know you and I know Jeff and I know Ryan and I know Steve.
It’s because this sort of community, this tribal — and Seth Godin who is sort of the godfather of all of us. He’s all about freeing the inner genius in each and every person that he can possibly reach. His influence on so many people who have never even met him or talked to him is so large because his work is so easy to digest and understand or he has those blog posts every day. There’s not a week that goes by that at least three of them go, “Oh man. Oh jeez, that really felt good today.”
So mentorship, what I’m saying is that people want to help. It’s being a professional about approaching them, and as you say, listening to them. They do not want people to argue with them. They have better things to do than to argue and say, “Well, you know, it’s 25 years of experience. Go with God, do it your way and never come back to me again because you’re just bull headed and you don’t want to change your world view.”
[0:44:05.3] TG: I’ll link, because I actually wrote a how to on how to connect with authors and mentors too and I’ll put that in the show notes. But yeah, it’s really interesting to me, when you’re talking about making sure you find the right people. I think my kind of barometer on this is do I feel good about myself after working with them? It’s like sure, there’s times where they kind of like call you on stuff and you don’t feel good about yourself but it’s even the way they do that which is encouraging and if you go more than two or three times in a row of talking to somebody and you just feel bad, find somebody else.
It’s funny because I remember when I first called you before the podcast and everything, it was the call that turned into “let’s do a podcast”. I was like, I had a list of five questions and I’m like, “I’m going to have him off the phone in 20 minutes. I’m just going to ask my questions, get them done and then totally respect his time, get his answers.” I asked you one question. You never answered it and you just started talking about the theory of story and trying to teach me how to write and I was like, I just want him to kind of say, “Okay, here’s the books you should read, here’s the people you should pay attention to.” Because I’m like, “There’s no way he’s going to want to spend an hour talking to me about how to write.”
You just kept on talking and I would ask some questions and we never even got to my questions and then it turned into like, “Well why don’t we just record this and put it up as a podcast?” It was just this fun — and that’s when I’m like, “Oh, this is who I need to work with because he’s way more interested in teaching me than he is just kind of like pointing me in the right direction.”
[0:45:59.3] SC: Well the only thing I was going to say is that, the thing about that phone call is that people who care about what they’re doing, they realize that if they can work with somebody who doesn’t know, they discover things that they had never figured out before. I have discovered so many thing by doing the podcast with you that I hadn’t really considered before.
So that is a good way of whether or not — if they want to talk about it and they want to sort of give you their two hour philosophy, like Steve Pressfield and I have this joke about sort of being stuck on an airplane with somebody for two hours and if you could suck the life out of Steve for two hours, what would you say? That’s kind of the challenge I gave him. So we were kind of toying around with this world view, TED Talk thing that someday we may or may not do.
But if that’s what happens when you start to reach out for somebody, you can tell that they’re going to want to do something with you because they’re going to learn too. If they’re hesitant to do anything, a lot of times they’re not interested in changing their playbook, if you know what I mean? A lot of people have a play book and they don’t want to divert from the play book and they don’t want to change something that they’ve been holding close to themselves for 10 years.
If they have a stock answer for everything and they don’t really want to get into the details and pick at it, that could be their golden ticket that they use to make a living and that’s a different kind of mentor than somebody who is really trying to punch the envelope for what they really hold dear and know.
[0:47:49.2] TG: Well and I think this brings us back to the original question, which is what does it take to be a pro? Because I was talking to somebody the other day and they were reading this author, they follow this author on Twitter and this author put out, “You’re not a real writer until you’ve published three books.” And I was like, “That’s such an asinine thing to say. Like that doesn’t make any sense. So journalists aren’t writers? They’ve only written one book or no book.”
It’s so obviously false but what I see is that there’s not kind of outward marker. You can’t — because the problem is and I’ve seen this in my own life, is if you set a kind of goal of “once I reach here, I’m good enough”. Once you get close to that goal, you’ll just find somebody else that’s better and move the goal further away. So you’ll always be in this perpetual state of “I’m not quite good enough yet”.
So how I see this pro thing is more like “I’m taking it seriously”. That’s what I’ve realized, it’s been just over the past month for me, like I mentioned earlier, of realizing I have to make a decision whether or not I’m going to be pro at this. I can keep kind of doing my thing and writing my blog post and being that kind of writer and that would be one direction. But if I want to legitimately become a good writer, I have to do the work. I have to decide this is what I’m going to do and devote myself to it and start working through he giant pile of shit that it takes to become good at something.
Elizabeth Gilbert talks about, in Big Magic, how every creative pursuit comes with its own shit sandwiches and you just have to decide what kind of shit sandwiches you’re willing to eat. She tells this awesome story about this friend of hers that was this wonderful writer but he just couldn’t get through the shit sandwiches and she’s like, “So here I am, I finished up my shit sandwiches and I’m eying his like wondering, hey, are you going to eat that? Because I just want to be a better writer.”
Just realizing like learning this craft, becoming humble and actually reaching out to good friends of mine and saying, “I don’t know how to do this,” and then they say, “Well go to the library,” and I’m like, “Okay, I hadn’t thought of that yet.” Willing to do that kind of stuff is just part of what it takes.
[0:50:30.5] SC: Yeah, it definitely is and understanding that you’re always going to be a pilgrim in pursuit of your craft. George Orwell didn’t quit after he wrote Down and Out in Paris and London. He wouldn’t even consider doing that. Steve Pressfield, that guy writes every single day, he’s still pursuing, he’s still trying new things.
Same with Seth Godin, and they would never ever say to you, “Oh yeah, I’m coasting now,” and even Philip Roth, even though he retired, that guy was just at the end, he was just each and every book was just one gold nugget after another until he probably just said to himself, “You know? I think I’ve had enough. I’ve eaten enough shit and now I just want to go on walks and go fishing.” And some people can do that and some people can’t.
The pro writers are just interested and it’s like, when I’m at a dinner party or friends are over and they start asking me specific questions, I go crazy, I start talking about stuff to a degree that their eyes start to glaze over and I literally have to get a physical clue from them that I should shut up.
[0:51:52.6] TG: Yeah, I found myself now just the other night we’re at some friend’s house and I’m telling them all of this crazy war stories I’ve been reading. At one point I’m like, “I got to stop, they don’t care about this,” you know? But I’m just so fascinated by all this stuff and they ask me one question and I’m like, “You’ve opened the door now.”
[0:52:13.4] SC: Right exactly. I think it goes all the way back for writers and we’ve talked about this so many times but it’s always worth repeating. To be a writer is to be a reader. If you were not secretly stealing time away from everybody else in the world so that you can get back to your book, you should be reading more because you’re going to reach a point and I truly believe that it’s not something that you’re necessarily born with. It’s something that grows on you. The more things you read and the more things that engage your mind and you start thinking and fantasizing about them and coming up with alternative thoughts based upon what you’ve read, the more you want to read more.
So I think I’ve said this before, I didn’t even consider being an editor or story person when I was a child. Even in college, I was going to go to medical school. But deep down, I just always, every now and then I’d steal a way to read some fun book like Jaws or something and I would have so much fun doing it that it eventually led me into the career I’m in now. Now, all I’m always thinking about is, “Okay, if I finish cleaning the porch 15 minutes early, it’s going to give me another 15 minutes before I go to bed and I can read that book that,” — I’m reading this great Arthur Miller’s autobiography Timebends, which is just an incredible book and it’s one of those great 900 pagers right?
It’s each time you’re thinking about reading and discovering new things, that’s what’s going to be a turning point and a pro point for you as a writer. The more you read in the genres that you love and directing your reading is a great way of getting better and better as a writer. What you’re doing now Tim is, I don’t know what you’re writing in nonfiction but it seems to me somebody recommended, “You know, you really need to know military strategy and here are 15 books that you should really dip in to so that you understand the evolution of military strategy from Sun Tzu to Shock and Awe. So you were like, “Oh I don’t know if I really want to read that but I’m going to try it.” The more you got into it, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this Klaustwoods is amazing.” That’s what…
[0:54:47.7] TG: That’s exactly what happened. I got the stack of books from Amazon, I’m looking, I’m like, “That looks like a giant stack of boredom.” Then I start reading and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, Alexander the great almost died in his first battle? We wouldn’t have Alexander the Great if that had happened,” you know? I’ll stop there.
[0:55:07.2] SC: No, but being a pro means if you’re a professional writer, you’re a genius reader. You’re reading all the time and if you want to become a pro, the first step is to really read more. Skip the marathon of house of cards on Netflix and read War and Peace, or not even War and Peace, it can be anything that suits your interest, that will get you to read the next book. So that reading and language, as Malcolm Gladwell as you talked about before, they etch rivers into your neural pathways in ways that you have no understanding of how rich a vein those pathways will become.
So that as you, the more you read, the better a writer you will become because you will learn to turn phrases and to use words that you’d never heard of like weltanschauung, which is one of my favorite words right now which means worldview. It’s a German word that means far more than worldview, it’s the sum total of a human being’s experience, all the thoughts, all the emotions and I think, you can’t change your weltanschauung unless you constantly push the edge of your knowledge and that begins with reading and once you read, the better writer you’ll become.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:56:36.1] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. As always, for everything Story Grid related, you can find that at Storygrid.com. Make sure you sign up for the email list, make sure you pick up a copy of the book, you won’t regret it. Now, this episode had all kinds of people and links that we referred to and so you will not want to miss any of that and you can get all of that at Storygrid.com/podcast. All the show notes are there, all the past episodes are there, that’s where you can point people to, when you’re sharing the podcast.
Thanks as always for continuing to listen to the show, we really enjoyed recording these and putting them out into the world. It’s been a lot of fun for me and Shawn and we keep seeing those stats tick up, which means you guys keep listening which means the most to us. So I really appreciate you guys continuing to listen and share the show, and we will see you next week.