“Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”Henry Ford
Your brain is plastic. No, not necessarily made of plastic (though sometimes I wonder about my own…), but it has the same properties. It can stretch and compress throughout your lifetime, which, believe it or not, is a process that has only
That notion about not being able to teach old dogs new tricks? It may be true, but it’s not the brain’s fault.
There are essentially three cognitive multipliers when it comes to learning new material and skills: Having a growth mindset, practicing like an expert, and building memory cues.
We’ll be addressing the last two in other posts, but without the first one, nothing else matters.
The most important thing when learning a skill is having that growth mindset. You simply have to believe you can become better. Without this, you’re going to want to quit at the first sign of failure (or even potential failure). And when you’re learning how to write better fiction, you are going to fail.
It’s just the nature of the beast because writing good fiction is composed of so many different elements that you’re statistically guaranteed to be bad at at least one of them. And while you’re busy zeroing in on one, you’re going to forget ten others.
But that’s okay. After time and practice, all of your individual brushstrokes will coalesce into a beautiful painting.
So, you know you need a growth mindset. You now need to know what exactly that entails.2
First off, it means, oddly enough, not setting only certain types of goals.
Now, I know, we’re all bombarded at the end of every year with grand notions of how important setting goals is. And it’s true. Without them, we’re just sort of floating along, hoping good fortune runs to us instead of us to it.
Goals are important; especially long-term goals. But they shouldn’t just be the usual performance goals–goals that focus on a specific, measurable outcome. You know these types:
- Lose ten pounds in two months.
- Run five marathons by the end of the year.
- Eat an extra-large triple pepperoni pizza in one sitting. (No? Just me?)
The interesting thing about performance goals is they can be bad in different ways. Either we make them so far out of reach or they’re based on something beyond our control, that we then feel an inevitable letdown because we can’t achieve them; or we set the bar so low in order to protect our fragile egos and stay within our comfort zones, that we didn’t really achieve much of anything at all.
I still think performance goals are useful to a certain degree, but only if you’re at a point, mentally, where you’re not easily discouraged and they are connected to your vision of future-you. In fact, I’ve set some for myself this year in regard to the number of books I want to write and publish.
But if you set only one goal this year, make it a learning goal–a goal that focuses on increasing your abilities. Examples of these include:
- Write better openings.
- Write better dialogue.
- Get better at finishing stories.
The idea is to learn more, regardless of the outcome. When you fail, you should spend time analyzing why you failed, recalibrate your learning plan, and get back to it (we’ll be diving into the specifics of this later in the series).
Learning goals also have the added benefit of forcing you to compare current-you to old-you. Don’t try to compare yourself to Stephen King or James Lee Burke. That way madness lies.
Ask yourself honestly: Am I better at performing this particular skill than I was last week? Last month? Last year?
The second principle of a growth mindset means coming to terms with the fact that you’ll need to do lots of things that you won’t want to do. You won’t want to do them, because they’ll hone your focus on where you’re weak which will really sting that fragile ego I mentioned earlier. It will make you uncomfortable, often on a visceral level.
If you’ll remember the 1984 version of The Karate Kid and its key characters, Mr. Miyagi and Daniel LaRusso, you can imagine how much of learning how to write fiction is similar to the way Miyagi taught karate to Daniel. Just as Daniel was tired and sore from fixing up Miyagi’s house, your eyes will hurt, your brain will hurt, and you’ll be left wondering what the point of it all is until you get that sense of validation–obviously not Miyagi walking you through ‘wax the floor’ or ‘paint the fence,’ but whether or not you’re seeing increased sales, winning awards, or finally having your submissions accepted.
Having a growth mindset gives you the confidence to keep on keeping on when things get hard. And, I can’t say it enough, if you’re doing this right, things will get hard.
Hope I haven’t scared you away. 🙂 Honestly, if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already accepted this.
So, please, tell me, readers, how do you approach learning how to write fiction? Are you only setting performance goals or have you already started on the path of creating learning goals?