self-taught writer

Originally published on The Writing Cooperative.

I love to watch virtuosos on YouTube — pianists, violinists, dancers, and singers that seem to have supernatural abilities. They make their performances look effortless, but no one sees what it took for them to reach that level of mastery.

What about the hours of practice, the hundreds of times they got it wrong, and how they pushed forward despite the criticism? We don’t realize everything they sacrificed — family, friends, sleep, and fun — to become what they are. They remind me of the investment I need to make to become the best writer I can be.

Until recently, I’ve been a self-taught writer. I always thought that if I read enough books, followed enough writing blogs, and kept working hard, that I would get better. I did get better, a little bit at a time. Still, I sensed I was missing something.

I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the lackluster sales and rejection letters reaffirmed my suspicion. The feedback from family and friends said everything I did was great. So why was I stuck?

I figured what was needed was more effort. I wouldn’t become better just by wishing, right?

But working harder is not the answer.

As I browsed virtuoso videos, the algorithms directed me to a TEDx Talk, Become a Virtuoso by Mike Rayburn. I wasn’t planning to watch a Ted Talk, but of course I wanted to see if I could find out the secret not to becoming a good writer, but to becoming a writing virtuoso.

Mike Rayburn talked about how most of us coast, learning at a leisurely pace. We don’t actively seek out the most effective and efficient ways to develop our talent, so we hit a plateau and never discover what we’re truly capable of. It’s up to us to make the decision go beyond being competent to becoming the best.

Many of us pride ourselves on being self-taught. I always did. I thought I was making good progress, but what Mr. Rayburn says next was a bitter epiphany.

Here’s the problem about being self-taught: The teacher’s not that good.

Drop the mic right there. Would I presume to teach someone else how to become a virtuoso writer? What makes me think I’m qualified to teach myself how to become one?

The secret is, when you discover the stories of virtuosos, these geniuses didn’t do it alone. They had the best teachers and mentors to give them invaluable feedback and advice. This is what fast-tracked them to mastery, building a foundation on what’s already been done while cultivating the unique style that is each great artist’s signature.

It’s only after taking my first writing class that I’ve realized how much time I’ve wasted “teaching” myself. How would I know how to develop my strengths and work on my weaknesses when relying on feedback from everyday people who don’t even read in my genre? I’ve learned more in the past 2 months than in 7 years of struggling on my own.

My message to self-taught writers is this:

Invest in your dream. Seek out mentors. Budget for writing classes — online or in your local area. Find a tribe of knowledgeable writers in your genre.

You will be amazed at how quickly you improve, how confident you will feel, and how hopeful you’ll be about your future as a successful author.

Don’t waste another minute going it alone. You have no idea what a writing virtuoso you could be.

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