What It Takes to Be the Best (Of daemons, drive, and dedication)

I saw this quote and it made me think of you:

“Amateurs practice until they get it right.  Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.” — Unknown

We all start as amateurs, regardless of the task at hand, for by its definition “amateur” means “a person who is not an expert” (Merriam-Webster).  One does not become an expert on the first try.  Furthermore it is safe to say that we creative types first got into the arts not with the goal of becoming “professional” but more likely as an outlet for our imaginations.  Webster further defines the amateur as “a person who engages in a pursuit for pleasure and not as a profession.”  A show of hands from those who remember a time, past or present, when you engaged in creative pursuits for pleasure, with no delusions that you could do this for a living.  If you’re like me you certainly had this experience as a child.

I wrote my first story as soon as I could form letters.  It was called “Wagon Train,” and I wrote it for my dad who loves Westerns.  The story was one page long, written on thin paper that smelled like wood and was the color of a coffee stain.  The words were written in pencil, the letters over sized and cryptic in my scrawling, child’s penmanship.  More than a story, it was a gift.  I don’t know how old I was.  Seven, maybe.  I had no aspirations of being a professional anything, I just wanted to write my dad a story.  He kept that piece of paper for many years.  I have no idea where it is now.  Story heaven, I imagine.

In seventh grade my friend Kenny Reed and I each decided to write our own crime novels.  It was Ken’s idea first.  For more than half of the school year we wrote almost daily.  I think I had up to seven chapters before somewhere along the way I lost some pages, lost the story, lost momentum.  I’m not sure I knew at that point I wanted to be a writer. In any case the idea of doing this for a living was not much of a real consideration.  I lived in a pretty economically depressed state, and higher education and high aspirations were reserved for “rich” kids who had the means to go to college “up north.”  The desire to write never left me, but without a clear understanding of what it took to actually be good at something I floundered for years waiting for brilliance to strike.

Thirty years later I sit at my computer for who-knows-how-many-days-in-a-row and I write.  I write this blog entry.  I revise my novel for the fourth time.  I play with lines in a poem.  I add notes to the outline of a play.  I ruminate on the short story idea I have for an upcoming contest.  When I leave this desk I pick up books.  Books about writing, about revision, about the writing life.  I read plays and novels and short stories and poems.  Memoirs, sometimes.  I listen to music, not for the beat and rhythm so much as for the lyrics.  I imagine capturing the emotion, the essence of these songs in my own stories.  Metallica, Coco Rosie, Jason Molina, Daniel Johnston, Nirvana, Nick Cave.  I read the free pages of sneak-peek novels on Amazon – those novels similar to mine and those that are different.  Away from all of that I listen to my friends: the ways they speak, what they say, how they use language and tone and profanity and their inadvertent motifs.  I watch the ways they hold their drinks, how they dress, the ways they stand and sit and turn their shoulders and flip their hair.  When everything is quiet I return to my own stories, think about what my characters have done, what they could do differently and still be themselves.  I edit the pages even when they aren’t in front of me.  I almost can’t be bothered to answer the phone, to answer the door or go to a meeting or chat on Facebook.  There are too many things to think about.  Ideas abound.  I am consumed by the daemon of creativity and it drives me to incessant contemplation of my writing life.

When I was a desk jockey for fourteen years I pretty much despised my cubicle (later, a corner office with a view) for what it represented of my day.  I wanted to be writing.  Not composing memos and meeting minutes and reports, like I was doing, but stories and poems and plays.  Sometimes I did those things even in my office.  Otherwise I worked smart, refusing for the most part to work the 60-80 hour weeks of my colleagues.  I was committed enough to be on time, to work hard, and to stay until my scheduled hour was up.  Many times I did stay longer.  Working not until five PM, or seven PM, but sometimes until nine PM.  But I didn’t do it as a rule and sometimes I made up for it by coming in later the next morning or leaving early at the end of the week.  I was not a bad employee, but I was not driven to be the best in that field.

Today, most of the time, I work seven days a week.  I work day and night.  I talk about work in ways that are both concrete and abstract.  I talk about writing and the writing life and character and plot in ways that, to my associates, sound like I’m talking about their interests, their lives.

This is what it takes to be the best.  An amateur will spend some time doing something and hope, one day, to get it done right.  It’s an inconsistent practice, though with a little dedication the amateur might find success once or twice.  But the professional – the professional is blessed with what the average person considers an illness.  The professional is obsessed with being the best they can be, operating at such a high level that every end result is right, so that nothing goes out into the world that isn’t ready.  This is the mentality of the serious artist.  In all things make good art (says Neil Gaiman).  In joy and ecstasy as well as tragedy and pain – make good art.  Do this because you have to.  Be encouraged when others doubt your sanity for being so driven.  If your intention is to live the writer’s life then be prepared to live it all the time.  The goal is to practice until you can’t get it wrong (you still can, and you will, but the professional knows what they can salvage and what they cannot).

My attitude about writing is very strict.  I have this attitude because for years I was an amateur believing that the pleasure of writing was enough to satisfy me.  It wasn’t, and I wasted a lot of time doing other things that never really amounted to much.  Now, every day I wake up and I am ready to do everything I can to learn, to practice, and to do it until I cannot get it wrong.  This is not the same as being perfect.  I’m striving only to satisfy my drive to write, to write well, to be what I am supposed to be.  A professional.

3 comments on “What It Takes to Be the Best (Of daemons, drive, and dedication)

  1. Alan says:

    All about commitment.

  2. I never thought I would be a writer. I loved reading from about the age of 4, but I didn’t start writing until I was 34, well after the birth of my second child. I finally realized that I had to start writing down the essays that were composing themselves in my head before either I went insane or I lost a lot of friends haranguing them with these ideas that were consuming me.

    I used to think they were lectures that someday I would give in a classroom, but instead they became blogposts. It was the structure of blogging and the feedback from a community of bloggers that helped me develop the craft of writing. Now my writing (non-fiction, religious mostly) has appeared in magazines and anthologies, but the core of it is still connected to my blog.

    Several years ago, I wrote a post about the quandaries of identity as a writer vs. other roles in my life. http://robinmsf.blogspot.com/2006/10/runner-writer-quaker.html I spent three years after that focusing on writing as my professional activity, until my family needed me to get paid for more of my time. At this point, my writing is subservient to a larger ministry, but it’s still a craving in my mind, and I’m a lot better at it because of the years I spent focusing on it.

    I really appreciate your description of being driven by the daemon of creativity to excellence in your profession. And I appreciate that you connect it in the last post to the need for play, and in this post to the practice of being with other people, even as you observe their every move as food for your daemon.

    It’s been a long time since we had a chance to talk in person, and I’m sure we didn’t talk enough then about these kinds of things, but I’m really glad to read your writing now.

    • emperort says:

      Nice comments, Robin. Thank you for sharing. I’m sure we didn’t discuss writing much back in “the day.” Despite taking two English classes each year of the last two years in high school I did very little real work – hahaha. Writing was always (at least one) passion for me, and I certainly focused on it for all seven years of college. But there are several factors that make writing possible: time, energy, solitude. For most people these factors are luxuries for the most productive times of our lives, and only by making a few sacrifices can we find the room to focus solely on our craft. But it can be done, and it appears you and I are both just a couple of examples of that fact.

      Thank you for reading and sharing your observations. I’m going to hop over and see what’s going on for you at blogpsot.


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