My mom, a journalist, was talking with a friend. She beamed at my brother. “Charlie, he’s the writer of the family. And Annie? She’s…” Here, I felt my mom hesitate. Then, “Annie’s the athlete.”
My brother excelled in everything involving words—from composing song lyrics and essays to dominating Scrabble games and inserting witty comments into conversations at just the right moment. I played softball and ran track. And I rode my yellow Schwinn ten-speed down country roads stretching between corn and soybean fields, past herds of Black Angus cattle and silos filled with grain. The labels fit, though deep down, secretly, I wanted to be a writer, too.
Three years after Charlie graduated high school, I sat in Miss Flint’s Senior English class. Miss Flint told us we would keep a journal chronicling our senior year, creating at least five entries per week…She held up three examples of some of the best she’d ever seen—journals from past students whose work she adored.
One was Charlie’s. I recognized it immediately, having gazed at it many times while he worked on it during his senior year. She passed them around for students to flip through. When Charlie’s came to me, I opened it, noting his handwriting—a combination of big printed letters and rounded cursive. The content mingled light humor and occasional sarcasm with spot-on descriptions of people and situations. For one page, he cut letters from newspapers to compose an amusing ransom note.
I studied the pages, wishing I could copy his techniques. Then I passed it to the person behind me.
At the end of my senior year, Miss Flint didn’t ask to keep my journal.
Stuck in a Fixed Mindset
You can read the rest of my story in a two-part series, but I share this excerpt to illustrate how I grew up with a fixed mindset. I was labeled the athlete, not the writer. The natural ability—the gift—of writing was bestowed on others in my family, not me. Therefore, with a fixed mindset, I concluded I could not become a writer.
But I was hungry to learn and grow in as many ways as possible in life, even if I never wrote.
A natural autodidact, I loved the library, filled as it was with mentors, coaches, and teachers available to me for free, in the form of books. I scoured the place in search of satisfying my curiosity, gravitating to the nonfiction selection a bit more than fiction—even though I loved stories—because I wanted to learn.
I’d check out stacks of books, gleaning what I could in two or three weeks’ time, getting answers to my questions, then returning those books a couple of weeks later to pile on another stack of information to take home and devour.
I’d follow my interests and whims, pursuing a wide-ranging knowledge base, much of it practical. I wanted to learn to bake bread, crochet, tie friendship bracelets, build a kite, draw cartoons, catch wild rabbits, make yogurt (which I never did, but I learned the basics from books). I was interested in macrame and running and photography and sewing and, secretly, writing…even though it was fixed in my mind that I wasn’t a writer.
A Natural Growth Mindset
Despite the fixed, unchangeable reality that I would never write, I seemed to exhibit a growth mindset in just about every other way, seeing no limits to the kinds of skills I might acquire or experiments I might attempt.
I didn’t care if my coil pots turned out lopsided or my drawing of Snoopy needed more rounded ears or even if a few crickets escaped from the cricket habitat I set up in my bedroom.
Plants in my terrarium died. A duck egg I found, never hatched. I didn’t understand all the vocabulary in a book about volcanoes or the space shuttle, both of which captured my interest for a season, along with a hundred other things, but that was okay because I learned enough about them to answer my basic questions. As for the uneven stitches in the scarf I knitted, that was fine by me, because I was a little more skilled and confident than the day before, when I didn’t even know how to cast-on.
I was a poster child for the growth mindset in every area but writing, where I continued to cling to the fixed mindset I grew up with. Well, and math. I firmly believed I could not do math.
Gain Freedom with the Growth Mindset
More tragic than my fixed mindset toward math is, for me, my belief I couldn’t become a writer. I believed my brother was born with that gift, and I was not. I believed there was no use trying.
Good thing my commitment to personal growth overcame my fixed mindset. I ended up taking poetry classes at the university, and after graduation, I attended a couple of writing conferences and workshops, then determined to dive into freelance writing of various kinds, from magazine articles to company brochures and web content for corporations. I eventually wrote books and began blogging, editing, and coaching.
I took the risk of rejection, of taking on bigger projects than I could handle, of attempting genres that were not a good fit at first because I was a novice.
But I was the girl who knew how to make lopsided clay pots in hopes of making better pots, straighter and more useful and more attractive pots. I had a history of learning as I went along, growing from mistakes or failures that merely revealed how not to do something.
I may or may not have been born with a natural gift of writing, but it doesn’t matter because I eventually tapped into my natural gift of a growth mindset to become a fully functional writer.
You can, too.
You Can Become a Writer
The fixed mindset causes us to slam shut a door that was actually standing wide open to us. “Oh, that’s not for me. I can’t do that.”
The growth mindset says, “Hey, I’ll try it without worrying about what others think or what the final outcome ends up looking like. I’ll try. I’ll work hard. I’ll get better.”
You can work to develop writing skills. And you can improve them over time even when you think you’ve plateaued.
If you’ve been told writers are either born with the gift or they aren’t, that’s a fixed mindset. Those voices from the past are holding you back.
Improve Your Writing with a Growth Mindset
I know that some people, like me, and maybe you, find writing requires more effort and practice than it does for people like my brother, for whom writing seems effortless. But we can all learn to write better. We can all grow as writers.
Believe that, and get started.
Work to develop writing skills. Over time, you’ll see improvement and feel more confident, which helps you take more risks and learn more skills. A growth mindset begets more growth. You’ll become a stronger writer with every class you take, every book you read, every author you study, every word you put down on the screen or on paper, every idea you develop, every story you tell.
You may have to fight to squelch the voices of the past trying to press a fixed mindset into you; you may have to reinforce the growth mindset by actually doing the work, but it’s not too late. No matter where you’ve been or who you are—no matter what others have told you—you can work hard today to become a writer. And every day, with effort, you’ll write a little better.
Take a new and freeing view of yourself and of life. With a growth mindset, you can become many things. For that matter, you can become capable and confident with math, although I don’t know why you’d want to bother with it.
Most importantly, with a growth mindset, you can become a writer.
What are you waiting for?
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If you’re interested in learning more about the fixed mindset and growth mindset, I first learned about it in the book Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath, who pointed back to the book Mindset, by Carol Dweck.
- My Writing Life: Beginnings, Pt 1
- My Writing Life: Beginnings, Pt 2
- One, Lone Duck Egg: Memoir
- Ep 107: Learn from the Best: Copywork for Grownups
- Ep 106: Learn from the Best: Imitate but Don’t Plagiarize
- Ep 102: Grow as a Writer – Surround Yourself with Excellence
- Ep 104: Learn from the Best – The Book Is Yours When You Write in Its Margins
- Ep 56: To Learn How to Write, You Have to Write
- Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath (affiliate link to Kindle ebook)
- Mindset, by Carol Dweck