Seven characteristics of successful writers cannot be taught—but they can be learned and developed until they become the habits that are the bedrock of a successful artist practice in any field.
- The successful writer is a keen observer of everything around him. Writers notice things: the way a closet smells of cedar, mothballs, and the unique stench of crumbling old photographs. They see the gilt hairs on a centipede, the gleam of a lost marble in the grass. They feel the chill of dried sweat on the inside of a parka—and everything, simply everything, is something that might be useful for story.
- The successful writer is dangerously curious. Curiosity is a quality that cannot be faked or taught—but it can be cultivated. Curiosity drives the questioning mind to relentlessly ask: what if? Why? How does this work? Seeking answers is the stuff of story, legend, art and invention—and while not every question may be of interest, an inquiring mind can be nurtured (particularly in children. But that’s a topic for another day.)
- The successful writer has talent plus passion. Talent cannot be faked. Some people just have an innate adeptness with words, with paint, with a musical instrument—they perform in their area of passion easily, gracefully, naturally. But those who succeed don’t just have talent—they can’t NOT do their art. Oh, the stories I could tell on this one. My early ambition to be a writer was actually crushed by the careless comment of an adult I respected at a party before I left for college. “What? You want to be a writer? You’ll never make a living doing that.” I was forty before I began to really put that all-to-common sound bite behind me, and for a while I grieved for all the time lost. Eventually, though, I could see all the ways that I was writing all of my life, and none of it was wasted. Even when a creative’s sublimating, their passion oozes out in that church newsletter, that nursery mural, that ditty on the trash can at the bus stop. They must, and they will, come what may—and eventually the universe shapes itself to support that unyielding passion.
- The successful writer learns from criticism (but never gives up.) Rejection is inherent to any creative enterprise. As my editor Kristin Weber said, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.” Creative fields are also filled with what Julia Cameron, in her groundbreaking The Artist’s Way, calls “shadow artists.” These are blocked creatives, who, instead of doing their own art, have instead become the tastemakers, the critics, the professors and teachers, the reviewers. That’s not to say everyone in these roles is a shadow artist—no, far from it! But you’ll know the shadow artist by the brutality and cruelty of their attack, the mean-spirited belittlement of their judginess. They cannot hide their bitter jealousy, and its toxic venom burns the tender young artist. Put on your armor, take your hits—and be humble. Learn from the criticism, do that next edit, go the extra mile to perfect the work with grace and thanks—but never let anyone’s bad review make you give up.
- The successful writer is not afraid to be alone. Art is, and writing particularly, a solitary pursuit. Even co-writing, which I’m doing now, is still me on my side of the world writing my words alone, and my co-author on hers writing her words, both of us dumping them into a shared story (alone) and then trying to make it all hang together (which can definitely be harder than working alone!) A taste for one’s own company is very much a characteristic of the successful writer. You can learn to do this by taking small retreats and learning to sit with the silence, learning to build an inner self sufficiency—and the writing or other art will deepen as a result.
- The successful writer focuses and finishes. It’s not enough to flit through life, beginning novels, getting forty pages in, and abandoning them out of boredom (as I did.) It takes commitment to focus, persist, follow the rabbit-trail of an idea, capture and nurture it, weed, water and feed it, trim, groom, and harvest the fruit of it—even if that particular novel ends up in a drawer, becoming fertilizer for the next one. Focusing and finishing are important habits that separate the wannabes from the doing-its. Learn to focus and finish, even if it doesn’t come naturally—there are apps, books, techniques available. (Look up Pomodoro Method, and the book
Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon, for ideas.)
- The successful writer is persistent. The single greatest characteristic needed for success in any creative field is persistence. It can make up for a multitude of sins, including lack of talent, having no ideas, being a sellout, an idiot, a messed-up neurotic with a mental health disorder, a drunk or a dilettante. If you refuse to give up, and just keep coming to the page day after day after day, you will improve. You will succeed in becoming the best writer you can be.
I am still on vacation in the wilds of British Columbia, a location I chose because of its optimal writing opportunities and with which my family cooperated because they love nature too, and fishing, and trees and eagles and the sound of the tide turning. But today I am happily alone, delighted with the idea of a long stretch of uninterrupted writing before me, and amazed that its my writing paying for it all. I wish I’d known thirty years ago what I know now, and share with you freely. But only you can believe in yourself and your passion enough to make room for it to flourish. I hope you will.