Earlier this month I had the privilege of seeing the Dave Matthews Band at Shoreline in Mountain View, California. The concert was as amazing as I’d anticipated it would be, but for a very specific reason: Dave Matthews surrounds himself with masters. He clearly knows and loves good music, and the solos he chooses to showcase are nothing short of spectacular. I’d never heard the sax, the electrical guitar, or the violin played in the way that Leroi Moore, Tim Reynolds, and Boyd Tinsley played those instruments that night. I sat there in awe, hairs standing up on the back of my neck at times, and guess what? My thoughts kept gravitating toward writing.
Yes, I eat, breathe, and dream writing. I read all day—hundreds and thousands of words every day. Because of this, mediocre writing is fine. It’s something I encounter and deal with because it’s part of my job. Good writing is a treat. It’s something I appreciate and enjoy. Masterful writing, however, is something that gives me chills.
Not all writers can be masterful writers, but all writers can aspire to hone their craft and learn to be better writers. I spend a lot of time working with writers who strive to be better. I work with writers who want to figure out what they need to do better in order to get published. It’s not only masterful writers who get published, of course, nor do I believe this should be the case. Mastery is rare, and it touches us for good reason—because it’s not easy to attain.
Sometimes, as I’ve written about before, masterful writing gets rejected because an author doesn’t have a platform strong enough to merit a publisher taking a risk on them. And sometimes, of course, what one person considers masterful another might consider esoteric or overwritten or crap. We see this all the time in art, when something being hailed as genius might just look like splotches on a canvas. Writing is perhaps a little easier to critique, but no one writer can move everyone. And commercial writing is successful despite clearly falling short of being masterful. Commercially popular books, I would argue, are mostly written by good writers, not masterful writers. And yet writers like Jodi Picoult or Nora Roberts, for instance, might be considered to be masterful at their particular brand of storytelling.
The point of all of this is to say that I have little sympathy for those writers who don’t want to try to become better writers, and who prefer to stick their fingers in their ears than to be open to the work it takes to become a great writer. I encountered these people more often at Seal Press than I do in my work as a coach, because writers who want to work with me are choosing to put their money where their mouth is. You might have some of these knee-jerk reactions without even realizing it. Like, upon getting a critique or a rejection, you assume that the problem lies with the other person. Or you believe without hesitation the feedback you get from friends and family relations that your writing is brilliant. Or you take the truism that good writing is subjective too far, and therefore work under the assumption that your people are out there—and anyone who doesn’t like your writing simply doesn’t share your taste. Then there are those writers who don’t read. If you are an aspiring novelist or memoirist, you must read others in your genre. The idea that you might be tainted or otherwise influenced by your published brothers and sisters is a way of keeping yourself isolated.
As much as true and raw talent exists among writers and artists of all kinds, true masters work their asses off. They are disciples of their craft. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours to master a craft. That’s 416 twenty-four-hour days. At this point, I think the only thing I can claim mastery of based on this number is reading!
It’s evidenced by their jaw-dropping awesomeness that the members of the Dave Matthews Band have spent hours upon hours and years upon years perfecting their instruments and becoming the musicians they are today. And they’re having fun doing what they do. I wish for all the writers I’ll ever work with, and all the other writers I’ll never encounter, the same spirit of hard work and joy in aspiring to greatness and achieving it.
Until next month,