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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Lesson 5. Getting on the Mastery Path

To get on the Mastery Path is simple. First, you need to give up the talent myth, thereby freeing yourself from the endless worry of wondering whether you’re any good or not. Second, you need to give up the idea that writing is easy.

Once you’ve abandoned the talent myth, then it’s possible to see how experts in any field become great: they aren’t born with their skills—they learn them. We can do that, too: after all, the human brain is designed for learning.

And once we’ve given up the idea that writing is easy (“Just let it flow”), then we can apply ourselves to the work of learning skills. Then, instead of the cheap, transitory pleasure of getting words on paper, we’ll acquire the intense and lasting satisfaction of knowing that we have skills we can use any time we want to.

To achieve excellence in writing, as in any other field, requires lots and lots of hard work. Some writers won’t be interested in this kind of effort; these are usually the ones who are doing what I call “private writing,” produced for their own eyes. There’s nothing wrong with such writing; it can be immensely therapeutic. But it doesn’t require any skills. When you write for other people, though, then you need all the skills you can learn. If you are one of those writers who truly wants to get better so you can be read, then the Mastery Path is for you.

The Mastery Path is very simple: it’s the road we walk as we learn and develop our skills. A writer and aikido teacher named George Leonard wrote a whole book about the mastery path. In it he defines mastery as “the mysterious process during which what was at first difficult becomes progressively easier and more pleasurable through practice.” The Mastery Path, he says, is available to everyone, regardless of age or experience. “Mastery isn’t reserved for the supertalented or even for those who are fortunate enough to have gotten an early start. It’s available to anyone who is willing to get on the path and stay on it.”

So, as you take your first steps onto the Mastery Path, keep in mind that you are embarking on a journey of learning.

You may also need to remind yourself of the difference between the kind of learning that results in knowledge and the kind of learning that results in know-how.

Most of our school years are devoted to the acquisition of knowledge: we learn about various subjects. But writing is a practical craft, like cooking or fixing a car; and when we learn in this field, we want to acquire, not knowledge about it, but actual know-how. Just as an aspiring baseball player isn’t content with being able to talk about home runs—he wants to hit them—we writers don’t want to learn how to talk about good writing; we want to produce it.

With that goal in mind, we must make use, not of abstract thinking and intellectual discussion, but of a learning tool that is not much valued in the academic world. When we look elsewhere, though, to fields where people are focused on learning and developing skills, we find that this learning tool is always at the center of any journey towards mastery.

And what is this powerful learning tool?

Practice.

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