Why I aspire to be a writing athlete and not a writing expert

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I am a writing workshop junkie. I love the camaraderie, the new tips, “ah ha!” insights about my own work in progress.

But I used to wonder, when should I stop taking workshops? Do I stop taking them after I earn a creative writing MFA? After I publish my first book? When will I be an expert? Will it look bad if I keep taking workshops if I reach the level of supposed expert?

All of these questions haunted me during my writing journey. I believe they are a holdover from a mindset that is now becoming outdated. In schools students are now being encouraged to embrace a ‘growth’ mindset instead of a ‘fixed’ mindset, which says that abilities and talents can grow through persistence, effort and good coaching or teaching.

Historically, and especially in certain professions—there is the belief that once a student reaches a certain threshold of learning and education they become an expert, and are no longer a learner, or require instruction.

At some level I believed this too. Until I discovered a different frame. One that said experts can be lifelong learners too. In fact, the best kinds of experts are constantly seeking to improve, learn, and examine their skillset, knowledge and expertise for weaknesses and holes.

My frame changed quite abruptly while listening to a CBC interview with an experienced surgeon. He didn’t think he had much new to learn, but decided he would hire a former teacher to come and observe one of his surgeries and provide any notes for improvement. Afterwards, and to his complete surprise, his mentor offered pages and pages of detailed notes about how the already accomplished surgeon could elevate his practice. One example was that by simply holding his hand a certain way, the surgeon would be more efficient, and therefore, become less tired and improve his performance.

In the CBC interview, the “static expert” mindset was compared to the “athlete expert” approach. Think about some of the most-decorated athletes in sports history. Wayne Gretzky, “The Great One” holds 61 NHL records. Clara Hughes has won six Olympic medals in cycling and speedskating, in the Summer and Winter games. Soccer player Christine Sinclair’s 167 goals makes her the second all-time scorer of international goals.

These athletes all had coaches throughout their careers, from start to finish. Did they abandon their coaches once they won a medal or a world title or the Stanley Cup? No. Even at the height of their careers, they continued to improve and learn with coaching. And yet, they are undoubtedly experts in their sport.

So, why not writers? Why shouldn’t we aspire to be writer athletes?

The writer athlete works out every day by simply writing. And when we don’t, it’s true, we do feel a little stiff, a bit out of shape. No matter. You get back to it when you can, limber up and try to keep going. Perhaps you need a ‘training partner’ or a critique group of like-minded ‘coaches’ to keep you going. Meet regularly and flex your writing muscles. I do it with my writers’ group. Why not you?

And, as I’ve come to realize, writing workshops and coaches and mentors not only improve my skills and knowledge, the make me a better teacher, too. For bonus points, they’re a lot of fun! You get to be in a room (even if it’s a Zoom room) with other writers who are trying to solve similar problems. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, writing workshops get me jazzed about getting my butt back in the chair to work on my writing once more.

Do you find writing workshops useful? I’d love to hear about it if you do. Leave a note in the comments below or connect with me using another option here.

Rebecca’s Book: My Best Friend is Extinct | More About the Book | Buy the Book

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