One of the unfortunate, perverse, even terrifying aims of some creative writing workshops is to help you become what you are not. We look at your writing in workshop and identify what is not happening, and then try to help you accomplish what is not happening. You’re not making a good image. You’re not writing believable dialogue. You’re rushing the narrative—and so you’re not exploring what the novelist Kent Meyers calls “infinite time.” If you would just do that, if you would just do what you’re not doing, then, well, at least we the reader would be a lot happier. So we say, fix your weaknesses. Focus on what you’re not doing. Write what you are not writing. Become who you are not.
And the stuff that is working? You know, that’s fine. That’s working, we say. Leave that alone, we say. Right?
We can be a little too apathetic, don’t you think, about a writer’s strengths in a workshop and in conferences, especially when we can always be talking about your weaknesses and changing you into what you are not.
And: What do you hear when we tell you what you’re not doing? You hear: I suck! You hear: I’m not any good! You hear: I’m a fraud. Or: You look around the room and you think, Look at her, she’s good at the very thing I’m not good at! I’ll never be that good at that. Never. Did you hear what mentor said about my talent, about what I’m not doing: I suck. I’ve got weaknesses, mentor said, and if I’d just spend more time on my weaknesses, I could turn them into my strengths.
Maybe not. Sure, you can improve a piece of your writing, you can edit, you can revise, you can make another version of the same piece. But insofar as your talents go, you’re never going to turn a weakness into a strength. Never. So face it, there’s a risk that the entire industry of creative writing education is screwing you up.
Now most of the time you’re in good hands, I trust that. Most of the time. But speaking for myself only, I know that I have messed writers up badly by focusing on their weaknesses. I have made writers feel frozen by focusing on their weaknesses. I have left writers feeling like they don’t know what to do to fix the weaknesses or to repair the damage.
I remember saying to one student: Kid, you could stand to work on improving your metaphor making and on interpreting your material better. Banal stuff. But, for emphasis and to disseminate my personality—which, to be honest, is my pedagogical methodology—I then borrowed a damning turn of phrase from T.S. Eliot: You don’t want to have the experience and miss the meaning, do you, kid? Fix your weaknesses, kid. Yeah, that’s it! Do that.
But let’s look at that poor writer. He thinks: “What’s wrong with me. I am terrible at making metaphors. And: Insight is really hard. Dave’s right.” And, now, because I’ve made the writer focus his mind on his obvious weaknesses, the writer does not think clearly about what is also true: He is pretty good at writing via character.
See, I hadn’t pointed that out or I hadn’t made that the focus of the writer’s attention. So now, the rattled writer thinks: “I love writing about characters from the 14th century. With costumes. And accents. In multi-part narratives. I love that kind of writing. But, metaphor? Insight? Dave’s right, I’m screwed! Because…” (self-lacerating writer goes on to think) “…that other guy in the workshop, now that guy can make a metaphor. Did you hear what he wrote last week about Nixon’s voice in those tape recordings? “His voice was like wads of spit.” I could never have thought of that. Did you hear what that woman wrote this week about interpreting bigamy? “The penalty for bigamy is six wives.” I couldn’t have made that up in a bazillion years! Dave’s right, I’m doomed. Maybe instead of writing fiction, I should write poetry. Poets get away with all kinds of shit!
But, c’mon, it’s not my fault for addressing my student’s writing that way, via weakness. This is what we do in the the offices of our working imaginations in America—in our student lives, our professional lives, our domestic lives, and most especially in our inner lives.
In America, we work to improve ourselves. That is America. To do otherwise seems unpatriotic.
In America we devote so much time in our lives to improving our weaknesses. Businesses hire consultants to help their workers improve their time management skills, their accounting skills, and their public speaking skills—whether or not they are ever going to be naturally good at any of those things. In America, we believe that you can do anything you set your mind to. Clearly, this is one of the great American myths. If you just focus on your weakness, you can turn it into your strength. From George Washington to Barack Obama, from Susan B. Anthony to Nancy Pelosi, the message is the same: You can do anything. You’re an American.
This assumption about self-improvement is pervasive even in the quieter arenas of our kitchens and living rooms—perpetuated from generation to generation. Our oldest came home with a midterm report card some time ago: 3 As, a B, a D, and a F. Which grades do you suppose we discussed for an hour? Of course! We talked about how to bring his weak grades up to the strong grades, the A’s. We talked about his need for improvement. We talked about: you can do better if you work harder. We talked about how to make his weakest results equal to his strongest results. We did not talk about the A’s except to say, don’t let them slip.
Our entire focus was on what he was not doing. Now, honestly, that was more like triage than parenting. It was certainly necessary. We were desperate. He needed to have someone in his face! But, honestly, it was not about him, it was about his grades. It was not about his capacities for growth or the growth of his best talents. Instead, it was about his results. In the end his report card was better. 4 A’s, 2 B’s, a C. But, again, to be honest, we more or less had the same conversation all over again. The jump from F to C was a relief. But it was still, in comparison to the others, a weakness. We talked about how to improve the weakness.
And, again, what did we not talk about? The A’s. Why not? Because The A’s appeared to have no room for improvement. The A is the top. You’re good at it—English, Social Studies, Drama. Let’s not worry about those. You’re good at those. You’ve a natural talent for those. They’re your strengths. Nothing to be concerned about. Just don’t let them slip.
Again, I want to say, that’s bull.
First, the A’s have an immense room not for improvement but for growth. And second, moving from F to C was a very strategic form of growth, or what we might more accurately call management of the weakness, not improvement, and certainly not transforming the weakness into a strength. But a strategic way to be satisfactory.
So I want to talk to you about your talents. I want to share with you some considerations, perhaps a little provocative for the sake of it, perhaps inconclusive but curious and intriguing all the same, about the relationship between the competing dramas of your talents: the relationship between strength and growth, between weakness and management—certainly as it pertains to your writing. But also as it pertains to your sense of yourself as a working writer, and if we get lucky, to your conception of your life, too. But I think I’ll let you extrapolate that on your own. Not my area. I’m going to focus on your writing, but I might as well focus on aspects of your personality as well. They are, without debate, intertwined.
When I speak of strengths and weaknesses, I’m referring primarily to three talent areas of your life as a working writer: 1) your skill sets as a writer, 2) your personality as a writer, which is to say your personality as a human being, and 3) your obsessions as a writer. Your talent base is based on your skills, your personality, and your obsessions all combined. You have strengths and weaknesses in all three areas.
Now I know you can beat yourself up as a writer. One of the joys of being a writer is to complain about your failures. And one of the core facts that you need to accept about being a writer is that failure is not only imminent, it is also generative (the topic in my book Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces. I hope you’ll read that book—not just because that oldest kid is entering college soon and his grades aren’t doing him any favors!—no, he’s a special kid, wonderful—but because it’s related to knowing the strengths of your writing life).
Now, when you focus only on the weaknesses in your writing, I suspect you might find yourself, from time to time, feeling one or more of the following things: You’re reluctant to write. You feel negative toward your writing. You treat even your best writing with disdain. You complain about why you ever took up writing and doubt your dedication. And you have fewer and fewer good writing experiences.
I’m confident every writer has felt one of these feelings as a consequence of considering your weaknesses. I hope that doesn’t make you feel bad.
Let me talk about me. I have to confess to a bad pattern in my life, though one that brings interesting experiences: My trajectory as a writer is that I learn a lesson. I forget it, then I have to relearn it all over again.
My teachers all told me a variation of the same thing about my writing when they first began seriously working with me on my poems in the late 80s and early 90s. They described a feature of my writing whereby I would, as it were, put myself on a large frozen lake on the page, take a couple of quick essential strokes, and then glide through the poem. I would head out into narrative or lyric or a dramatic skate and then swish my way across the lake of the page for miles, moving left and right across the lines, veering for the thrill, veering back to stay on course, all connected, all linked, all spread out, flowing, gathering, accumulating, tallying. Just this glide of interconnection, of flow, of addition. In fact, I LOVED writing like that. That was one thing that drew me to writing, I’m sure. I thrilled when my writing felt to me like a fusion between Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, between John Milton and Dante Aligheri, between the John Keats of the first 100 lines of the Fall of Hyperion and the William Wordsworth in the great passages of the 2 part prelude. Tomas Transtromer in the Baltics meets Yehuda Amichai in Jerusalem, 1967. A place where lyricism mates with meditation and both hum to the tune of a southern hymn.
I liked it when I accelerated. Here’s an example of that sort of glide from my first book, Shattering Air. The poem is called “Country Western.” It opens with a fragment, then a sentence that is divided by a colon: about a quarter of that sentence is to the left of the colon, and about three quarters of the sentence is to the right of the colon—and in that right-side portion of the sentence there’s a m-dash too that concludes some ways down the page with a period. Real Kristi Yamaguchi stuff.
And last month’s bluebonnet slanting over the meadowgrass path no one knows who cut. You could run down the hill fast, almost stumbling, Braes Bayou running sunward, out of sight, and toward the bend that drops into Buffalo Bayou, miles from Galveston Bay, miles from where the gulls, you think, day-trip in autumn: past the gray-wrought long breakers at San Louis Pass and Matagorda, past the first light warning from the lighthouse at Griffin’s Point, past Rio Hondo, past Boca Chica, where they turn above the telephone polls and span their wings and aim their white landing for the dumpsters, almost empty but caked with lice, you figure, and a pom-pom stolen from Friday’s McAllen-Edinburg game–that after one father swings a blade at another that hardly shines under the halogen lamplight refracting across the dumptruck gravel parking lot, and no one thinks anything of it, as no one thinks anything of the pom-pom stolen from a pickup someone named Lloyd drove someone named Carolyn in and parked at the Stop N Go and went in to buy six-pack cans of Lone Star. But to leap the matter of the bayou, six-feet, you had to climb up again, look over the highway traffic, then run down, take the last footstep half over the water’s edge. If someone were watching, you had to learn, right then, to fly. Mind the gull’s black-masked flight, and you find yourself on a wire, head to the left, to the right, monocular, cloud cover. As in you mind a girl’s hand in yours after she’s watched you leap. That’s why you begin to sing what you heard on the radio, driving to Galveston Island, I-45, hot and long, and a flat haze landing in the afternoon dusk, landing right inside you as a twin-jet touches down alongside at Hobby. You’re singing above the reverb: “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will).” It’s not memory now, but the break and break again of a wave you can’t interpret, can’t get inside, or love, or take with you when you’re gone.
“Ok, Dave, Ok, Ok,” is how one of my teachers began a critique of this poem over coffee. “Ok, Dave, here comes the glide.” A gentle pat on the back. And, “You know, You’re a little too handy at that.”
Now I understood my teacher to say, You’re good at that. I heard the words. And his meaning was only mildly pejorative, more like teasing. It was like saying, Oh, Jeez, there goes Walt Whitman cranking up his megaphone of multitudes again!” (As an aside, that can be tiresome in Whitman, but it is what makes Walt Whitman Walt Whitman, isn’t it? No one can imitate it. It’s entirely his and entirely his strength.)
But what I took from that characterization of my work as a glide-aholic is this: David, Stop doing that! Because by doing that, you’re not working on the things you’re not good at! Your weaknesses. Pacing. Intimacy. Space. Silence. Hesitation. Formal argument.
And so I have to tell you, I spent the next dozen years and more focused on my weaknesses. I made the assumption—as I used to tell my students to make—that the best of my talents, my strengths, were not worth worrying about. I would always be able to pull the switch and, you know, make the poem glide. I knew how to do that. Because that was my strength. Why worry about it? It would always be there. It would always want to come into my writing. Naturally. So, it was OK to resist it. To focus elsewhere.
Now it turns out I don’t have just one strength. Thankfully. The glide was a skill strength. And it turns out that I used other strengths over the next dozen years or so—via my personality and my obsessions. But I’ll get to that in a second when I talk about how to negotiate your strengths and weaknesses.
As some of you know, I coached elite diving for many years. I would spend months at a time with my divers working mainly on their weaknesses—even during the championship season—trying to turn their weaknesses into strengths. That was how you won competitions, I figured. They could spin great front, back, reverse, and inward. But their twisting was pathetic. Everything was wrong. They looked like a corkscrew with all the pieces flying off, a cross between Jack LaLanne and Evel Knievel. The fault was mine, no doubt, teaching twisting was not my strength.
As far as their skill strengths went: Those 4 other groups: front, back, reverse, and inward—I’d just try manage those. I figured they were already good at that. Let’s just, you know, keep that in place, not lose anything. And try to fix the fricking twisting dives.
In fact, working on the twisting dives was taking up all of our practice time. The result: They got sullen. They got unmotivated. They grew resistant. They fell back. And then, worst of all, other divers began to beat them.
Ok, bad coaching. Now, I don’t like to lose. So I soon figured out what I was doing wrong there in my coaching, and I changed my approach—and I’ll explain what I did in a second.
Let me talk about your talents as they pertain to your strengths and weaknesses.
But let me do something first and ask you to write down just four things. I want to ask you to consider your talents as a writer, honestly, without self-deprecation or self-hatred. But with clear assessment. In a moment I want you to scribble down two of your strengths as a writer and two of your weaknesses.
Now, just hang onto those.
Let me read to you some of the Introduction of a piece of writing by Tom Rath that is designed primarily to help business managers improve not just their own work experiences but, equally important, that of their employees. I read Tom Rath when I was unnerved by where all my time was going—I felt pulled in too many directions—I felt inefficient, and that I was doing parts of my jobs that were not suited to my strengths and by spending so much time on things I wasn’t suited for, I felt I wasn’t getting anything done.
Tom Rath is a researcher for the Gallup organization, the polling firm that has been doing research into employee attitudes and aptitudes for decades. In fact, Gallup makes very little money on the polling business. The real money is in how they use what they discover in their polling to work with business, education, and government leaders on worker productivity. Their discoveries fly in the face of our American ideal of self-improvement.
We Americans believe that we can improve anything about ourselves. Gallup discovered 1) No you can’t and 2) don’t bother and 3) you have a greater capacity to grow in your strengths than you will ever have to improve a weakness and finally 4) you can’t turn a weakness into a strength. So 5) focus on your strengths. For one thing, you’ll work more productively. For another, you will be happier. Which will make you more productive, then happier, then more productive, and on.
It’s not following your bliss, as the wise Joseph Campbell has put it. Instead, it’s identifying what you’re good at, your skill sets, your natural personality strengths, your fluid range of obsessions, and working to become an expert in that, in those elements, and in relying on those skills, personality, and obsession strengths to lead the way for your writing, in growing your strengths. To turn what you’re good at into what Rath calls near perfect achievement nearly all the time.
Wouldn’t that be a splendid place to exist as a writer–near perfect achievement nearly all the time? And even if it’s an impossibility, wouldn’t that be an ideal goal for a writer? That in the areas that you thrive, the areas that you identify as your strengths can enable you—if you focus there, invest your time there, gain more and more and more knowledge and experience and insight there—that you would be able to work at near perfect achievement nearly all the time. Here’s Tom Rath:
In 1998, I began working with a team of Gallup scientists…on Gallup’s 40-year study of human strengths…[and creating] a language of the 34 most common talents…[and developing an] assessment to help people discover and describe those talents…
Over the past decade, Gallup has surveyed more than 10 million people worldwide on the topic of employee engagement [and]… only one-third [of those 10 million people] “strongly agree” with the following statement: AT WORK, I HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO WHAT I DO BEST EVERY DAY.
And for those who do not get to focus on what they do best—their strengths—the costs are staggering. In a recent poll of more than 1,000 people, among those who “strongly disagreed” or “disagreed” with this WHAT I DO BEST statement, not one single person [among the 1,000] was emotionally engaged on the job.
In stark contrast, our studies indicate that people who do have the opportunity to focus on their strengths are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general.[In fact, Rath goes on to illustrate], if your manager primarily ignores you, the chances of your being actively disengaged are 40%. If your manager primarily focuses on your weaknesses, the chances of your being actively disengaged are 22%. And if your manager primarily focuses on your strengths, the chances of your being actively disengaged are 1%.
Think of those percentages as they relate to your writing! Consider “manager” to be, say, you or the workshop or your mentor. Consider, if you feel ignored, if you feel like there’s nothing or no one paying attention to your writing, if you’re working more or less in isolation, then the chances—and just for the sake of argument, we’ll use the same statistics–the chances of your being actively disengaged in your writing are 40%. That’s fatal! If you or your workshop or whatever focus on your weaknesses only, the chances of your being actively disengaged in your writing are 22%. And if you or your workshop and mentor primarily focus on your strengths as a writer, the chances of your being actively disengaged in your writing are 1%. That is, if you focus on your strengths and write in a community that focuses on your strengths, the chances of your being actively engaged in your writing are 99%. I’m not talking about praise. I’m talking about growing in your strengths—your skills, your personality, and your obsessions.
Rath goes on:
The reality is that a person who has always struggled with numbers is unlikely to be a great accountant or statistician. And the person without much natural empathy will never be able to comfort an agitated customer in the warm and sincere way that the great empathizers can. Even the legendary Michael Jordan, who embodied the power of raw talent on a basketball court, could not become the “Michael Jordan” of golf or baseball, no matter how hard he tried.
It’s clear from Gallup’s research that each person has greater potential for success in specific areas, and the key to human development is building on who you already are.
Or, let me say it this way: It’s clear that each writer has a greater potential for success in specific areas, and the key to your development as a writer and an artist is building on who you already are.
So a revision to the YOU CAN BE ANYTHING YOU WANT TO BE maxim might be more accurate: You cannot be anything you want to be—but you can be a lot more of who you already are.
So, how do you do that, as a writer. The formula is quite simple. But just as hard as you may have worked in the past to fix your weaknesses—becoming a more engaged researcher, say, or practicing your metaphors like five-fingered exercises, you’re going to want to work equally as hard—no, harder, smarter, more joyfully—in growing your talents or strengths, in expanding your greater level of interest in your natural abilities and strengths—in your skills, your personality, and your obsessions. In fact, what Rath makes clear is this: As far as your talents go, you have a greater capacity to improve a strength than you will ever have to turn a weakness into a strength. The more you focus on your strengths, the more strengths you have to develop.
The formula: Talent + Investment (time practicing, developing your skills, and building your knowledge and confidence base) = Strength (the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance nearly every time).
Now you’re probably asking, what are Gallup’s personality terms. They’re things like: Adaptability, Analytical, Strategic, Achiever, Arranger, Connector, Relator, Harmony maker, Inputer, Intellection, Responsibility, and so on. You can take the test yourself online! $17 bucks.
Now you believe you want to write. You think of that writing life in a macro context. You say: I’m a writer.
But writers, like other artists, like everyone in life, have strengths and weaknesses. And so do you. Be honest about your talents: You are better at some things than other things in your writing. Look at your little list: Probably a lot better. You may be good at dialogue, but not plot. Yo may be able to yarn a tale, but you can’t finish anything. You remember every detail of your life, but struggle to decide what is essential in the aesthetic literary narrative. You only recall the essentials, and struggle to remember the time of year in which that thing your father said to you that still hurts was said.
You’ve got strengths and you’ve got weaknesses. What I want to say to you is, follow the strengths and manage the weaknesses. Better yet, get assistance with your weaknesses, but for your strengths…make that the study of your life.
For example, you’re not good at dialogue. Be like the shoemaker who is great at making shoes but not great at marketing or collecting bills. He hires a salesman, a marketing person. You should “hire” a dialogue guy. Better yet, befriend one! Show him your piece and say, “don’t worry about the plot or the imagery. I’m good at that already.” Just read for dialogue. Help me manage that. Help me fix that. So I can invest more of my time developing my talent for plot and description (which I love doing and enjoy more!)—and less time focused on a weakness that, in the end, risks making me feel bad about my writing, and perhaps not writing at all.
Hear me out: If you do this consistently, if you focus on your strengths and manage your weaknesses—not ignore them or neglect them, but manage them with precision, what do you achieve? Well, that’s what we call style. That’s what we call voice. That’s what we call insight. I read you and I think, wow, that writer is terrible at dialogue, but holy hell can she create a sensory world that is transformative, true, accurate, lush. No one writes with that kind of imagery skills. Dialogue, eh. Raymond Carver, could that guy distill a story to its essentials or what? Lush description. Not so much. And though it’s controversial, his editor, Gordon Lish, knew that. And so he brought more distillation into relief into Carver’s work. Lish was his Precision Guy.
I have a friend who is a prima ballerina, Gavin Larson. Just retired as a principal dancer for the Oregon Ballet when she was 35 years old. She says she’s very good at theatricality in her dancing. That’s true. Very good at long movements and stride. Her turns? For 25 years she’s struggled with her turns. She’s performed all over the world. But there are times when she looks across the dance floor, and dancer after dancer—whether they are merely promising, or less professionally successful than her, or they are her peers—she looks at them and sees how good their turns are, and then she begins to think she’s not a good dancer. She sees her weakness in other’s strengths. (In the realm of personality, it’s akin to judging your inner life by how you see other people’s external life.)
This is a formula for self-destruction. And I guarantee that there’s not a single person reading this who hasn’t committed that sin. You look at someone else’s writing—and while you may be inspired by it—you also may think, I’m screwed. That is not my strength. Therefore I must be bad. At everything. In my writing. And probably my personal life, too. And you begin to feel so crummy about your weaknesses that it obliterates your self-knowledge and confidence in your strengths.
Once Gavin Larson realized that she would never turn as well as what she knew the best turning to be, she understood that what she needed to do was learn to manage her weakness of turning, on the one hand, and simply to learn to turn as well as was needed. But also, on the other hand, she understood that she must invest more time, attention, practice, imitation, obsession, study, care, and joyful enthusiasm into her strengths of theatricality and all the rest.
The goal is not to bring your weaknesses and strengths closer together. The goal is to separate your strengths from your weaknesses in such a way that your strengths become obviously dominant–and in such way, too, that your weaknesses are neither obscured nor ignorable. Why? Because you can manage your weaknesses to become satisfactory or ordinary. So long as you are making your strengths…extra-ordinary. And only by focusing on your strengths will you get the opportunity to attempt that.
Jump cut back to diving. As a coach who was not doing a great job with my team because I was focusing on what they didn’t do well, what I learned instead was to be more strategic, to focus on my diver’s weaknesses only during the off-season. We’d come back from Nationals at the end of the summer, I’d say, “Let’s look at your list of dives, let’s analyze where the holes are, let’s focus on improvement there—while there’s no pressure.” Not neglecting the weakness, but managing it, breaking it down into its component parts and helping them learn to make their weaknesses non-detrimental. As for their strengths, we’d rest those, simply manage them during the off season—or spend time developing and prepping their strengths into more complex or difficult dives to be learned later. We’d improve the weaknesses incrementally, take what we could get, so that during the championship season, in terms of working on strengths and weaknesses, we’d reverse our approach. We’d focus almost exclusively on the strengths. Trying to increase the pleasure of diving, increase the performances, increase the confidence, and increase the consistency. And the weakness: the twisting? We’d maintain that at a manageable level so it wasn’t pulling down the strengths. In fact, if the strengths were good enough, they would obscure the weaknesses.
And here’s the deal as it connects to your writing—if the strengths are good enough—if you’re always on the hunt for ways to broaden your knowledge regarding your strengths and seek out near-perfect achievement nearly all the time with your strengths, sometimes even the confidence gained in working on the strength lead to greater success in the weakness? Why? The constant capacity for growth in the strength area is infectious! It leads you to greater confidence and that confidence leads to greater risk taking in all of your talent areas (even ones you know to be weaknesses)—because as you know, when you’re faced with a weakness in your writing, your writing gets timid. So, be bold with your strengths—that’s how you begin to create a style and clarify your voice and develop better insights, not by babying your weaknesses but by dramatically focusing on and growing your strengths.
Let me just pause parenthetically here. What do I mean by style? What do I mean by voice? What do I mean by insight? Style is the best of your skills operating at their best and most vital and muscular energy. It’s the thumbprint of your storytelling or lyricism. Voice is the most eccentric and unique flavor of your personality at its most eccentric and unique. And insight is the clarity you make out of your materials—the very components that obsess you and with which you are obsessed by. The strongest of your talents operating at full capacity, with the throttle yanked wide open—your skills, personality, and obsessions—that is how you create style and voice and insight.
If you play to your strengths—in your skill set, your personality, and your obsessions—readers will become confident in what you are good at. Plus, you learn that you actually can take a chance with some of your weaknesses because your strengths will cover for you! You’ve got room for a weakness to be satisfactory, or as I would say to my divers in the heat of the championship season about a dive that was always a struggle and weak, I would say: “That’ll work for now.”
Focus on your strengths and there’s a good chance that that attention and dedication can bleed over into your weaknesses, as well. In a similar way, consider one-on-one competitive athletics, say, tennis. What does player A do to player B? She tries to expose the weaknesses. I’ve got an almost decent backhand but a particularly poor forehand. I love it when my opponent feeds me a backhand. But what should my opponent do? hit the ball to my forehand. What should I do…make my backhand even stronger so the other player can’t get to my forehand! But I digress.
So, now I want to transition and ask a couple of focusing questions: 1. What happened to me with that glide? 2. What’s possible for you? 3. How do you handle this strengths focus in the workshop? 4. How do you take this approach as a writer?
My answer? Follow your strengths, manage your weaknesses, and don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys (now I don’t know what that last one’s about with the cowboys, but I loved the rhythm of it (the dactyls—DON’T let your BAbies grow UP to be COWboys) and making rhythms is one of my strengths! And now that I followed my strength of rhythm-making, put it in the title of this talk because it made me smile, the rhythm did, and I’ve thought about it—I now think I know what it means and it’s influenced what I want to say here, and I’ll get to that in a second.)
So: What happened to me with the glide?
I focused on writing poems that resisted the glide. I worked on forms. I worked on lyricism. I worked on invention. I worked on engaging the art as a provocateur within my own writing-ness. I worked on sentences and lines. I invented for my own purposes an American version of the Sonnet. I created a method whereby I built poems based on accident and juxtaposition and mixing tones and textures in language—anything to upset the glide.
Here’s an example from Wild Civility, a poem called “Xerxes”:
I found the grunge and their overstuffed pulks, and the magic cups sculpted and sold by privateers. Their travailsPent up inside me and tormented my sleep. I could’ve splurged on the marginal. A tap behind the yes was a meltdown.Dog by dog we bullied on. My thrill was the white-faced whistler at my side. He kept my spirits up.And the women hiding behind their infants, we left them to their razed wits. It was stellar, I tell you,A dulcet of little fixes, a footing with dignity, the dimpled, tough we, inheritors, bezonians.I loved the izars of women, I loved the shock and luck of the women, even when they nulled me–I was voracious with rape and the whip.No parliament could repatriate. There was no leniency. The gestation of it, the base hate of it, the tut-tuttingI heard in my mother’s voice, What limit? she said, What limit? So I’d call the whistler to soothe me,To mitigate the stall, then the dogs would howl, and we’d soldier on with the lovely war.
The result? The glide forced itself into my writing anyway—in similar and other ways. My lines, which previously had hued close to pentameter, a ten syllable experience, doubled and tripled in size. The glide became my line length, my multilayering of sounds and diction, my means of adding varying registers of language. So I didn’t entirely eradicate the strength—because it was natural to my writing.
Now, in my newest poems, I’m fully confident that what I’m doing is embracing the glide with abandon. For example, a few months back I was giving a reading at an alma mater. I read from The Book of Men and Women. Then I read some new epistolary poems, poems which, I have no doubt, are importantly different from the poems of my last two books. The letter form is a glide form. One of my teachers was in the audience. I read the new poems. They were received well. It was fine. Whatever. I sat down next to my friend and mentor, and he turned to me and whispered, “David, I thought you’d never get back to writing like that. I’ve always thought that that kind of writing to be your best talent.”
Now that’s a story that makes me look good. It’s an illustration of my learning.
Now, of course, I have very specific weaknesses in my skills as a writer. I’m not that good at making images. I know it. I’ve always known it. And it’s not just images in and of themselves. It’s images that fashion a metaphoric conceit. I can describe things, you know—though there are days when I feel like I can’t even describe the color of a dog. But images are not my strengths. I spent a lot of time trying to be a more imagistic writer. In fact, I wrote an entire manuscript between my first and second books in which my entire methodology was to make imagery the dominant mode in the book. Those poems are in a box in the back of a closet in my office, somewhere.
But, even if you can’t turn a weakness into a strength, no matter how hard you try—and I believe it’s not worth the time trying because you can gain so much more capacity, and maybe joy, too, by actually growing your strengths—you can locate elements in your weaknesses that so interest you—that you’re so obsessed with, say, or as Judith so powerfully illustrated, that come to you and from inside of you simultaneously (what’s the difference!), you can achieve something that’s actually quite essential in your writing.
I’m not good at description, at writing images. But I’m good at working with a couple kinds of images. Light. Wind. Sky. Horizon. Water. It shouldn’t surprise you if I tell you, I’m from the Great State of Texas. Let me say those again: Light, wind, sky, horizon, water…that is Texas in 5 words. In so much of Texas, especially the East Texas of my childhood, the landscape is more like skyscape, lightscape, horizonscape. Those particular images connect to my personality as an expatriate Texan. I like describing those things. No, those things mean something essential to my imagination…I have no choice. So here’s how it works: My obsession strength trumped my skill weakness—indulging my obsession in those particular images was a means to manage my weakness of not being so great at making images generally. And if you were ever to read my work and analyze my images, you might be inclined to think, that dude is obsessed with light, wind, sky, horizon, and water.
But, look, I’m not the message. I do what I do. You don’t need to do that.
Let’s talk about you.
It can be difficult to define your own talents and strengths as a writer, I know that. And you can learn yourself into your strengths, this is true. You may not know right now entirely what your strengths are—And you can experiment to discover what your strengths are. You don’t have to know right now what your strengths are, regarding your skills as a writer. Your personality strengths, your obsessions—these may be a little more fixed. If you’re fastidious in life, you’re probably fastidious in your writing. If you’re deliberative in life, you’re probably deliberative in your writing. If you’re competitive in your life, you’re probably competitive in your writing. And so on.
It would be helpful to have your mentor or a peer list what they believe are four or five of your strengths as a writer. And to be certain you’re getting a decent assessment, require four or five of your weaknesses. And it can be true that one way to determine your strengths is to try writing differently. If you’ve never written in the voice of a dog, then try it, and if it comes naturally—don’t stop. Try a different animal, an armadillo, a butterfly, a pig named Wilbur. Also, be sure to listen closely in workshop to what others are actually saying. I know of workshops in which the only thing the group was asked to focus on was where the very best energy was in the poem. By focusing on the best, on the strengths, the lines of possibilities in the poem became more clear—and the enthusiasm to make a meaningful poem based on the best of it likely became more inspiring. The means to revise the poem was designed to maximize the poet’s strengths. I often say to students, identify the best writing in your poem, and get the language in the rest of the poem to compete with that.
But let me say this too: I do believe that your strengths exist already. They’re part of your personality as a writer, part of your personality as a person, as I say—and the Gallup test might be very helpful in that regard. I think that there is a primitive element at play, too: That which might have driven you to write in the first place is likely, possibly, at least, at the heart of one of your strengths even today. Go back and consider that impulse. See if that’s helpful.
Two examples: Two years ago I was assigned to teach at a university a course in English Composition 101. First time I’d taught the course since I was a graduate assistant. The Department handed me the required textbook. I took it home. I skimmed through it. I felt like a Martian watching surfing—what the hell is going on in those rhetoric books!
So I “forgot” to put in my book order.
First day of class, I arrived, I swear, with no real conception of what I would say after I walked into the door beyond, hey, how’s it going. And Wendy Willis can verify this. As I was walking over to the class I was talking to her on the phone—and she asked what are you going to do, and I said, I haven’t figured that out yet.
I entered the room. 27 kids. I said, hey, how’s it going. Everything was going according to plan! 27 kids. English 101. You do the math. Me, professor—sans syllabus, sans methodology, sans experience (sort of—certainly not composition teaching experience), sans, sans, sans. In that moment, I was a walking embodiment of weaknesses. I did not know how to teach English 101. I did not want to know how to teach English 101.
“What are we going to write in here,” one student offered.
“How many assignments,” from another.
“How many pages per paper,” another.
“Do you grade grammar?”
You know, I write poems, a little prose that seems to always get me into a controversy, I write a column for the newspaper on any poem or poet I want, I comment on political events in a major American publication…all at my leisure. One of my strengths as a writer is I don’t lack for drive to write. But in that room, I didn’t have answers to those questions. They are not questions that interested me as a writer or as a teacher of writers.
So I went to my strengths. “What are you interested in?” I asked. Collective, what? “What do you care about,” I asked. Group stare. “You, what can I expect that you’re going to write about in this class?” “You, what do you plan to say in this class in your writing?” “You, what will you be turning in?” “You, what’s on your mind?” “You, what one subject do you want to focus on for the semester, so you can write about that? What are you passionate about? What do you care about? What drives you? What’s going to inspire you to write? What do you want to change in the world? One subject, one semester, what’s it going to be? What are you going to write? Tell me on Thursday. We’ll get started then.” See what I did there? I played to my strength—I’m not a composition teacher. So I turned my composition class into a creative writing workshop. I’m not good at one, I’m better at that other, I’ve spent decades working on being better at the other, and in the end I gave my students my strengths as a teacher.
It was a great semester. Once each student decided what they most cared about, the subjects for writing just spilled out. The forms that the writing most required became necessary and not optional, certainly not assigned. The audience to whom they addressed the writing became obvious.
They too followed their strengths. And their weakness as students, as writers—waiting to be assigned, waiting to learn how to please the professor, timidness in their own agency—disappeared. They wrote about what they cared about, and they cared about how that writing worked. Why? Because they were writing about something important to them, let’s call it their obsession, and that was connected to particular strengths in their personalities—and all of that stimulated, inspired, and focused their skill sets as writers.
2nd Example: Recently I had the pleasure to work with a young writer who discovered that two of her strengths as a writer are an interest in character and an interest in puzzles, complexity, and formal intricacy. What did she do to grow her strengths? She wrote a long sequence in the voice of a contemporary princess—really the princess is a fascinating contemporary metaphor. And she took on a focused, deep study of poetic forms. If you’ve seen her writing recently, you would see that her writing is often dramatic monologues in meter and rhyme.
And now that she has learned that, for instance, puzzles and formal complications are a genuine interest of hers—and that she has a strength for them—she’s set herself on a course in her writing life that is all about exploring puzzles, in writing, in the world, in relationships. She’s the puzzle poet!
Now, her interest in puzzles can also make her poems seem to have not enough space, not enough silence. She knows this. She knew it without me telling her. We all easily recognize our own weaknesses. And, speaking for myself, no one is harder on my own weaknesses than I am. And this student recognized hers, no problem. But not handling space well and not handling silence well in he poems, she would agree, was a weakness a year ago too. And probably a year before that. And probably after next year too and beyond next year.
Find the people in your literary life, in your actual life, to help you manage your weakness so that you can devote more time to building capacity upon capacity in your strengths.
Now, was my diversion for a dozen years into everything non-glide an escapade? Maybe. I took the Gallup test—now, ok, it’s a personality test. And one of my strengths, according to the test, is achiever. My achiever theme, according to Tom Rath, helps explain my drive. Quote: “Achiever describes a constant need for achievement. You feel as if every day starts at zero. By the end of the day you must achieve something tangible in order to feel good about yourself…You have an internal fire burning inside of you. It pushes you to do more…After each accomplishment…the fire dwindles for a moment (sadly, the key phrase here is for a moment!), but very soon it rekindles itself. Your relentless need for achievement might not be logical. It might not even be focused. But it will always be with you…It is the power supply that defines the levels of productivity” in your work.
There’s an argument to be made, I suppose, that while I might have taken this very advice that I’m speaking of today earlier in my career and stayed focus on the glide, another theme of mine, achiever, made me interested and, really, driven to pursue other writerly skills. I didn’t hear my teachers correctly because I needed to do other things also. That’s just me. And now that I’ve spent fifteen years in the wandering phase of my writing, I have a good vision of what I most ought to be doing as a writer. What strengths most push me forward, drive me, and set me up anew on the glide path. And, by focusing on what I believe I’m good at—lyrical gliding—I know I’m going to skate myself into new discoveries that stir up and reflect my obsessions, and that lead me to keep skating to reach the goal of near-perfect achievement nearly all the time—even though, I know, that’s just an ideal. I can fail at all of that a lot of the time, too. But: Better to have large ambitions than petty ones if you want to be a writer, is what I say. If you’re going to miss, miss big. No one likes a writer with petty ambitions.
So, look, in the same way that writing a line of poetry, a sentence, a paragraph, a scene is a journey of discovery in the micro universe of your writing, so too is the journey of self-discovery as a writer. An honest assessment of what you enjoy, what you’re good at, what you’re interested in, what your personality engenders for you as an artist, your skills and obsessions–all of it is available to you if you would focus there, on your strengths. If you would work especially well and hard on improving what you’re already good at and only managing those areas that you are not naturally inclined toward, your non-strengths. Your goal must be—must be—not to become something you are not, but to be more of what you already are!
Follow your strengths, manage your weaknesses…now what about those cowboys?
I’m going to be tough on you here. In a writing workshop, the Side B of all of this is true, as well. If you’re great at dialogue but a weakness is plot, don’t take the lead in the workshop in trying to school your fellow writer in how to improve their plot. You don’t know what you’re talking about—and you know it! How often I’ve heard, “Well, I’m not very good at rhyme, I never rhyme in my poems, and I don’t like to read poetry in rhyme, but I think the rhyme is not working well here.” Well, that’s helpful! And besides, how would you know if it’s working well or not working? Don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys that start shooting up other writers’ stories or poems about things you know are not your strengths.
Instead, give your fellow writers the benefit of your strengths, the best of your talents. If, for example, you’re an expressionistic poet and someone brings in a representational poem, don’t try to show them how to turn the representational poem into an expressionistic one—and vice versa—if you’re a representative poet and someone brings in a surrealistic poem, don’t try to strip of its eccentricities because you’re unhinged when there isn’t a plot. If, for example, you’re good at dialogue, leave it all out on the field with dialogue in the workshop. Help them there. But, let plot go by. Leave plot to the plot person. Not good at plot? Can’t frame a scene? Get a scene guy. So that you can invest more of your time in what you’re good at, be more productive in what you’re good at, and make that better and better and better. Because if you don’t, you may never get the chance. If you dwell in the weaknesses, you’re going to struggle and wind up headed in the wrong direction. Your strengths will go untapped.
Here’s Tom Rath again:
Our natural talents and passions—the things we truly love to do—last for a lifetime…Mark Twain once described a man who died and met St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. Knowing that St. Peter was very wise, the man asked a question that he wondered about throughout his life.
He said, “St. Peter, I have been interested in military history for many years. Who was the greatest general of all time?”
St. Peter quickly responded, “Oh, that’s a simple question. It’s that man right over there.”
“You must be mistaken,” responded the man, now very perplexed. “I knew that man on earth, and he was just a common laborer.”
“That’s right, my friend,” assured St. Peter. “He would have been the greatest general of all time, if he had been a general.”
So, you see, following your strengths is not just plain advice, it might actually be essential to the trajectory of your destiny.
This story is a good illustration of what can plague you as a writer, too. You could spend many years focused on the wrong set of skills, headed in the wrong direction. Or, you could take the risk and locate what you are most interested in, in what your best strengths are as a writer, as a story-teller. Interested in character, it’s ok to write in the voice of an imaginary princess. This is why it’s so important to focus your time here and elsewhere on developing your strengths as a writer—as early as possible in your writing career—and to help others around you build on theirs, too. Focusing on your strengths will start to change the writing you do, and because you’re so focused on your strengths, chances are good that you’ll write better, with more urgency, and more success. And your weaknesses will turn out ok, perhaps better. But don’t expect too much more. Don’t waste the time, anyway.
That success, ultimately, is intrinsic, something truly internalized. And yet, you come into writing with some externalized ambitions. You work at becoming a writer and it’s natural to wonder what’s on the next horizon when you’re done—what will your writing be like, what can you accomplish, what can you improve, how can you get published, what is on the next horizon and the next and the next.
There are no horizons. And even if you arrive at one, believe me, there’s another mountain beyond that. It’s like Lewis and Clark in the Rockies…there’s just another ridge beyond that one. And then, you realize, there is no secret passageway either. You’ve got to paddle the whole Columbia River yourself and your canoes keep breaking. And like Lewis and Clark, no one has to die on the journey of discovery, and hopefully, nothing in you has to die either. (And I know, I know, I told you I’m not that great with images and conceits—Lewis & Clark, sorry!—Lewis & Clark is grand Northwest cliché! Don’t blame me, I’m from Texas.)
Anyway: There are no horizons—not externally. But there are many internally, intrinsically. You have horizon upon horizon upon horizon inside of you—and the route to discover those is through your talents as an artist, through improving not your weaknesses but your strengths: through using your strengths in your skills, in your personality, and your obsessions to grow in the right directions as a writer, in the natural directions, in your best directions.
Writing, as with other arts, is a great human adventure of hope and dream and connection and life. If you step back for a second, consider what you’re good at, and then…do that, again and again and again and again. You’re going to place yourself in a zone of creating where you make things—you make things that never existed before, ever, in the literary world. You’re going to make things that you didn’t think were possible for you to make. You’re going to exceed beyond what you ever dreamed was possible as a writer because you’re getting better and better at what you’re already good at. You’re going to create a style that only you can create, in a voice that is wholly your voice, with insight that is honestly authentic—because you’re working on expanding the best and most productive of your skills, and personality, and obsessions.
We need that! We need you to write like that! And when you do that, we will be able to say that’s really…strong writing. So, please, I’m asking you. Do that. Do that. Do that for all of us.
An earlier version of this essay was delivered as a lecture at the Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, Washington.