From the Front Lines: How adopting a growth mindset can help you grow as a writer

Why what you believe about yourself may be in your way.

How adopting a growth mindset can help you grow as a writer. This illustration shows a pair of hands cradling a brain drawn so it resembles a growing plant.

For the last few months, I’ve been studying The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, a book by social psychologist Dolly Chugh. It details how to move from believing you are good to actually building a better world. My urge to build better communities is persistent lately, so I’ve been using this book to examine what I always thought I knew about myself and the systems around me. And, further, how those two go together.

Understandably, these observations have played a part in my life as a volunteer in the humanitarian sector, and they’ve also bolstered my resolve to be a better advocate for diversity and accessibility in literature.

But one underpinning observation in Chugh’s book has changed the way I write.

She suggests that we should adopt a growth mindset. In other words, don’t just assume that the way you’ve done one thing all the time is the best way, or the only way. Assume instead there might be something you haven’t tried, probably because you’re not the same writer you were a decade ago, or even last week.

Case in point: When I wrote the first few drafts of my first novel, I proudly called myself a pantser. But I couldn’t get the thing to a satisfying state until I met mystery novelist Elizabeth George, who is a rigorous outliner. Outlines, she said, kept her from getting lost in the weeds. If she forgot what a particular character was doing or where he was supposed to be going, she could fall back on the outline. Outlines allowed her to see how things were going to go. They gave her confidence.

Great, I said. I need that. I gave myself some leeway and became an outliner. But the pantser side of me proved to be too strong, and after a couple of half-hearted tries at outlining my second novel, I slid right back into pantsing, yelling at my main character when she suddenly up and changed jobs, and then, even more inexplicably, up and changed names. Oh well, I told myself cheerfully, guess you’re a pantser after all! Love me or leave me, right?

This renewed pantsing is underscored by nearly everything in my life: I eschew lines in my diaries. I prefer planners that have big blank spots for each day, rather than delineated half-hour slots. Too controlled, I said to myself. I need freedom!

But I recently spent two months freaking out about the other side of book writing, book publicity. You see, I have another book coming out in August 2020, and I was completely at a loss for how to organize all of my many thoughts around how to market it.

Enter my friend Rachael. Rachael is one of those planner enthusiasts. She color-codes her days by activity and wields decorative washi tape like my mother wields those long cooking chopsticks: they both wave their respective tools around, and then bang! Something magical comes out of the end of either tape roll or pointy culinary implement.

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Rachael also keeps notebooks dedicated to each individual WIP. She depends on them to help draft her manuscripts, I have admired them for all the years I have known Rachael. I page through her precise categories, her drawings of her characters, her plot and subplot notes on convenient, movable Post-Its, her word count tallies delineated in neat, colored squares, about twice a year. And every single time, I shake my head and say, “I could never,” and “How do you…” and all kinds of other silly things. I just assume my brain will never be able to handle that kind of organization.

But then it became too much: One day, I was staring at a misaligned slop of Post-Its and nervously clicking my tri-color pen, trying to assign various contacts and their statuses to individual colors, and I panicked. I sent Rachael an email: HELP ME MY BRAIN IS AWASH IN MARKETING I NEED PLANNER BRAIN. (Or something like that.)

Rachael met me at a local coffee shop, where we covered a table with both her supplies and the supplies she asked me to bring, and we went to work.

She asked guiding questions about which components and loose thoughts I needed to corral, and what kinds of categories I needed to access on a regular basis. For instance, I’d dedicate this notebook exclusively to the marketing efforts of this book. According to Rachael’s assessment, I could do one section for the state-by-state or region-by-region book tour I was planning, and my contacts in each of those regions or states. Another section for actual text-related tasks, like sorting out the bios of different lengths my publisher wanted me to craft for myself; a section for notating all the references I’d used; and adding to the ever-important acknowledgments page. A final section for bigger ideas around marketing, like potential partnerships and charity initiatives.

You can’t possibly know where this is going next, because I never saw it coming. It turns out, I like structure. I like lines. I like planners with color coding. I like my dot grid with some washi-tape barriers and plastic tabbed sections.

Guess what else? This style of organization has carried right over to the way I’m looking at my next novel. Now that I’ve had a taste of another way of corralling my thoughts, mere outlining isn’t enough for me. Now what I want is a place to put all my flotsam and jetsam, and all I want to do is plan another notebook with another couple of sections: One for plot maybes and what-ifs. One for character studies and curiosities. One for setting and backdrops.

Chugh writes that the danger of a fixed mindset is that it’s an either/or mindset, one that doesn’t allow for the possibility of change. In a fixed mindset, for instance, someone who claims they’re terrible at drawing will always stay terrible at drawing. And someone who’s wonderful at it will always be wonderful.

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All those years I believed Rachael’s style of thinking was out of my reach – now I lament the time lost, although maybe it was just going to take me this long to wiggle my way out of a fixed mindset.

This is, as we know, patently untrue. Great writers have terrible days. Not everything they produce is going to be publishable. And terrible writers – who are you talking about that way? stop it, right now – can produce good work.

All those years I believed Rachael’s style of thinking was out of my reach – now I lament the time lost, although maybe it was just going to take me this long to wiggle my way out of a fixed mindset.

I’ve been reading another book, one that’s directly related to writing: Lisa Cron’s Story Genius calls out what she refers to as some writing myths. One is the myth of pantsing. Another is the myth of outlining. Another is the myth of the hero’s journey and plot devices like it. Cron says these myths lead us away from the heart of your novel, which is story. They can lock us into believing we’re “doing it wrong” if we don’t fall into one of these categories.

What Cron’s debunking here is the idea that you can follow a prescribed formula or method and somehow birth a saleable, readable novel.

In the class I’m teaching this term at Southern New Hampshire University, my students are reading this book, too. What they said after reading the section on myths was that they felt free. That they were so relieved to see that they didn’t have to fit into any of these writerly tropes. That there was another way.

My students are light-years beyond where I was when I was just starting out, and I think they’re probably experiencing a shade of the chrysalis moment I did when Rachael showed me how to adopt a little bit of her thinking for my own purposes.

“There must be a middle ground,” I finally said to Rachael that day over coffee, “between your style and mine.” I looked at our individual selections of washi tape. Rachael’s was all solid colors; narrow, precise bands. My stash was a mishmash of patterns and widths.

This, I realized, was a good metaphor for our two styles. Somewhere in between is the medium that suits me. “Yes,” Rachael said. “You will find your own signature style, your own way of thinking about this.”*

When it comes to writing, I think that’s the best we can hope for. We can aim, I think, to find what amounts to our own voices.

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*Do you have messy writer’s brain? Do you find yourself screaming I NEED PLANNER BRAIN to no one in particular? Rachael can help you, too, and you can send her a note at rachaelwarecki.com/contact.

 

Yi Shun Lai is the fiction editor and co-owner of Tahoma Literary Review. Read about her writing coaching and editing services; her novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu; and her daily adventures at thegooddirt.org.

Originally Published